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Spain Trip Report: Toledo, Avila, Segovia, more


faine
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I returned recently from a fairly long trip to Europe, and thought I'd post some photos and descriptions of what I ate in Spain.

I came into my Spanish experience with little knowledge of Spanish food, other then a vague recollection that they enjoyed tapas, ate extremely late, and had a real thing for mysterious seafood. I did do a bit of research before I arrived (including Etxebarri reservations) but otherwise wandered around and went off the advice of locals.

Information on good eats in Avila and Toledo is surprisingly hard to find. There is essentially nothing on Lekeitio, a little fishing village we stayed at for a few days on the Viscayan coast, in Euskadi (Basque country). I feel I did run across some good stuff on a trial and error basis.

I ended up falling in love with Spanish food, which I felt a more personal connection with then other European cuisines. Seafood is what I live for, and Spanish seafood is up there with Cantonese preparations for me now - both Chinese and Spanish traditions venerate super-fresh fish and interesting, flavorful preparations. I fully intend to return to Spain and eat myself into a gambas-induced haze.

For information on European sights that do not involve food, my travel blog is over here: Faine Devours Europe

So, here's what I found. I'll be adding to this thread over the next few days. If I get any information wrong on Spanish cuisine, terms, or otherwise, please let me know!

Edited by faine (log)
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The entry-way.

Asador Etxebarri has received an incredible amount of recognition in the food community of late, inspiring rapturous prose from food writers and food professionals. It's reputation stems, at least in part, from how unusual it is: at Etxebarri, everything is grilled,using a complex and unique grill system chef Victor Arguinzoniz has himself engineered. With his wife, Patricia, Arguinzoniz renovated the 18th century stone cottage and turned it into the culinary powerhouse it is today.

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The lovely little village of Axpe around the restaurant.

Victor is self-taught and has created his unique all-grilled cuisine himself, developing his own techniques and tools to create flavors found nowhere else. The charcoal used in these unique grills is entirely produced at the restaurant: a variety of woods are harvested from the area, calibrated to perfectly complement the meat or fish that's being prepared. The in-house concept extends to the food: the kitchen produces its own salami, butter, cheese, black pudding, ice creams, and smoked salmon, among other treats. Local cows are selected for their beef and milk, and fresh seafood comes from the Basque coastline, where the kitchen has commissioned a fishing boat.

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The old farmhouse that houses the restaurant.

Just getting to Etxebarri is an adventure. Roughly 20 minutes outside of Bilbao, the drive winds through mountainous passes and through cobble-stoned and elderly Basque villages, finally ending at Axpe, the tiny village Etxebarri calls home. Located beneath a picturesque foothill peak, the asador sits on an attractive square. It's a good place to sit before the restaurant's official opening.

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The dining room.

It's rumored that the Michelin organization hasn't given Extabarri any recognition because of its rustic locale and unusual philosophy, but "rustic" isn't the first word that comes to mind in the attractive and contemporary dining room, affording excellent views of the peaks. We were seated at the best table in the house, right next to the window, and quickly introduced to the Australian sous chef. We had decided to abscond with the ala-carte menu and pursue a tasting, and he discussed what we loved and what we did not with us in order to tailor-make our experience. (Crabs are in and well, pretty much nothing is out. We're not exactly a tough crowd).

During this discussion, my mom commented on how much the Spanish enjoy eating baby animals, recalling the little piglets in Segovia and the head-on lambs that are served throughout Castile and Leon. Lennox shrugged. "Here in Spain, they like to eat their babies." This is perhaps an element of the national psyche that has not been entirely explored.

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Our first course was a few simple rounds of local salami. This was pleasantly smoky with a good, robust flavor, although not more special then other salamis I've tasted.

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This is smoked butter with calcified salt. It's one of the asador's signature yet incredibly simple dishes - just butter smoked and served with excellent, chewy local bread. The flavor seems almost embarrassingly simple at first pass but becomes sublime when added to bread, a smoky, rich, and fatty experience unlike anything I've had before. I believe they could make a killing by packaging this stuff in tubs and selling it to Costco. You know, just an idea.

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These are crabs imported from the nearby coast, kept alive in Hong-Kong esque tanks in the restaurants kitchen. The fire-engine red crustaceans were carefully grilled and served up in the Spanish tradition. In other words, essentially as-is.

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These were excellent with plenty of ultra-sweet and tender meat, full of yellow and delectable fat. I got somewhat misty eyed and effusive about my affection for crabs when describing my preferences to Lennox. Which meant I got a whole entire crab.

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A seemingly simple grilled gamba, but oh my sweet Jesus. The best prawns I've ever had, these magnificent little beasts were simply perfect: when the head was cracked off the body, a sumptuous rush of juices and fat came out of the shrimp's head cavity, right into my mouth. According to one of the sous chefs, these succulent prawns are fished at deep depths off the Basque coast.

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When the gambas are raised to the surface, they turn from their usual grey shade to a brilliant pink upon contact with the air. Further, their brains explode. Which is one of the reasons why, the sous chef explained, that they taste like everything good and virtuous in the universe. Indeed, Gastronomy is a curious mistress, dependent on biology and zoology and human creativity in about equal measures. I wanted to be a zoologist and study hyenas on the African Serengeti when I was small, now I write about food. How much has changed and how much has stayed the same?

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I devoured the whole gamba. All that was left when I was through was a tiny and pathetic little spindle of a leg. The chef's wife was serving us, and she smiled at me with evident pride as she took away the plate. Adios, little prawn you have made my life happier.

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This is a sea cucumber. When Lennox mentioned sea cucumber to us, we were instantly suspicious. "Don't bring the sea cucumber," my mom said. "They taste horrible."

"One squirted me in the eye," I offered.

Lennox scoffed. "These are different sea cucumbers. You've had the preserved ones at Korean restaurants, right? These are much better."

Still deeply incredulous, we agreed to give them a try. It was the right choice.

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Fresh sea cucumber tastes like a marvelous combination of lobster, squid, and oyster. The flavor is most similar to a really good, firm bit of lobster, but the texture is what sets it apart . Sea cuke is squidgy and slightly stringy in the mouth, while remaining appealingly juicy, a truly worthy denizen of the ocean. The sea cucumber had a nice charred flavor on top of its natural sweetness, and was served with an almost ethereal preparation of cooked and delightfully chewy seaweed. Marvelous.

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These are the ugliest things I have ever eaten. The little horrors are percebes or goose barnacles, one of Spain's more estoericc treats. Commonly harvested off wave-battered rocks in Galicia, these dinosaur-foot esque beasts develop a marvelous flavor by virtue of their dogged attachment to ocean rocks: their battle to stay attached despite the onslaught of the waves makes their foot muscles way more succulent. It almost makes you feel sorry for them. But you won't when you taste them.

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Here's a closeup of the little alien creature.

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Note the vibrant orange juice.

Beware: eating barnacles requires some finesse. They must be twisted apart in a specific fashion for the little orange meaty bit to be accessible for eating. The flavor? Like the best mussel you've ever had, tender, juicy, and (as with all things at Etxebarri) ever so slightly smoky.

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This is a simple grilled oyster served with a tiny bit of kelp (?) and some subtle, oceanic "sea foam." We Northern California natives are accustomed to grilled oysters in the shell, but these slimy little delights took the concept much further. I doubt very much that they are cooked in the shell at Etxebarri like they are at home. I suspect the delicate little bodies are instead applied directly to the flame, in one of the chef's various grilling contraptions, grates, and boxes. The unusual technique produces an all-around smoked and charred flavor, which, when combined with the always sexy and musky flavor of oyster was a real success.

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These are chipirones, tiny and delicate little baby squid. The chipirones tasted as if they had ever so delicately been exposed to the flame, leaving their firm yet tender little tentacles and heads lusciously oily. These were served with one of Etxebarri's few sauces: just a whisper of garlic and a tiny bit of spinach.

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This is pulpo, coastal Spain's mainstay of tiny baby octopi. They were grilled and served with a delicately grilled shallot confit, alongside a flavorful yet light reduction of a sauce. Octopi have a slightly more delicate consistency then squid and a richer, more exuberant flavor. Like many Spanish specialties, they were both delicious and incredibly cute. Sentiment should be checked at the door and forgotten when embarking on a Spanish dining adventure.

The stacking up of the squid and octopus courses proved to be the only misstep of the meal: they were two very similar dishes, with very similar flavors. As both were excellent, it was a pretty minor complaint (they could have served us a live and aggressive octopus, they could have told us we had to kill the squid ourselves, things definitely could have escalated).

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As we working our way up to a steak course, a nibble of grilled tuna was an entirely natural progression. These fine slabs of tuna were seared just a little bit, then seasoned with some excellent and high quality salt. This was a nice course but did not possess the star-quality of the rest of the meal. Admittedly, I'm pretty jaded by seared tuna by now (considering it is now required to be on the menu everywhere on the planet. You can now purchase it at the Milan train station. Really).

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Closeup.

One of Etxebarri's strengths is it's perfect hand with salt. Not too much and not too little is applied, providing a little savory crunch. The combination of meaty tuna, sweet grilled tomato, and crisp bits of salt was a good one.

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And now onward to the steak course, which Etxebarri is justly very proud of indeed. The signature steak is an extremely large slab of cow, a substantial serving that fills the diner with a tiny bit of trepidation when it appears at the table. After all: you have already conquered a number of courses, and then you realize you will now be expected to do justice to a steak. And not just any steak, but a veritable princess among steaks: an aristocrat of cooked cow: all ruby-red and luscious in the interior, charred with an artist's hand on the outside. You have to tuck in or you will indisputably commit a spiritual crime. So I did.

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The, well, money shot.

This was the best steak I'd ever had. Simply char-grilled to perfection, the smoky and perfectly salty crust gave way to a rich, super-rare, and decadently beef fat infused interior. Served with a simple salad with vinegar and fine olive oil, it was an incredible treat. The beef comes from local cattle and is aged for the restaurant: the result is about the epitome of what a good steak is. Eat your heart out, Ruth Chris.

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A luscious slice of meat.

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Our savories were finally spent, and now it was time for dessert. In true Etxebarri style, the grill played an integral role in the sweet courses as well. This was a truly unique smoked ice cream, prepared by carefully smoking local milk and hand churning it in house. The perfectly smooth vanilla ice cream had a bizarre and excellent flavor, totally unexpected when it hit my palate and therefore extremely appealing.

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This is a flan, again prepared with smoked milk. This was magnificent, with a slightly cheesy, smoky flavor, almost like a combination between a classic Spanish flan and a beautiful cheesecake. I find the texture of flan rather unpleasant, and this dessert bridged the gap, with a texture more akin to a cream then a firm flan. I am not very fond of super-sweet desserts and found the addition of smoky flavor - usually associated with meat - to be truly interesting in a dessert context, but this was a definite exception to my rule. The pink liquid around the edge tasted of acidic citrus, which was a nice counterpoint to the sweet and smoky flavor of the flan.

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With the bill came these tiny little muffins - a nice caramelized tasting exterior and a sweet interior. These were the only thing we consumed, insofar as I am aware, that was NOT grilled, unless they've managed to grill muffins TOO in which case I just don't know anymore.

We were finished of our lives after three straight hours of eating some of the best food of our lives. Despite the quantity of the meal, we didn't feel over-full. The food was clean and utterly simple, and didn't leave us with the queasy feeling a butter-rich French or American meal can.

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The grill.

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The individual bars of the grate come out for easy cleaning.

After the meal, we asked to go see the kitchen, and they kindly assented. One of the young sous chefs was still there (it was getting on after 5:00,) and he answered our questions and showed us the grilling equipment, the seafood tanks, and the stacks of wood that are used to produce the charcoal.

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This is the woodpile. Different kinds of wood are used for different foods - grape vine, for example, is considered excellent for red meat and steak.

The profusion<of racks, grates, and equipment Victor Arguinzoniz has created or sourced allows him to grill just about anything, including caviar and angulas, Basque country's beloved and exceedingly expensive baby river eels. Delicate sea-creatures, dairy products, and hearty meats are all subjected to the grilling treatment, and the magic of Etxebarri is that it all works so astonishingly well.

Unlike other restaurants of its caliber, the service style and the general ambiance at Etxebarri was very laid back and friendly. Families with small and well behaved kids were eating around us - one child had brought along a few naked Barbie dolls. Our server, who I believe was the chef's wife, was also very sweet. She was even kind enough to demonstrate proper barnacle consumption procedures to us when we were butchering the little beasties.

Etxebarri truly lived up to its formidable reputation for me. The combination of innovative grilling techniques, magnificent ingredients, and a truly pleasant dining room produced probably the best meal of my (admittedly short) life. I'm certain I'll be looking back on this meal and my time in Euskadi for a long time.

Edited by faine (log)
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Tapas in Toledo

Located in an extremely atmospheric old brick and wood building, La Abadia is a characterful bar and restaurant. Tapas, booze, and snacks are served in the congenial upstairs area, which only begins rocking around 10:30 (in typical Spanish fashion). New Spanish cuisine is served downstairs in the rocky and atmospherically lit dining room. This being a tapas crawl, we stayed upstairs, watched the Michael Jackson funeral, and had some eats.

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One of Toledo's typical dishes is carcamusas a flavorful stew of pork chunks, tomato, and spices. It's reminiscent of Spanish carnitas and is an excellent and meaty accompaniment to drinks. The Spanish are also besotted with fried potatoes, which appear in various guises all over the peninsula. In Castile and Leon/Toledo, free snacks, often quite substantial, appear with every drink. If you're not very hungry, this could be a great way to eat cheap.

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A tapas serving of various grilled meats. At 7 euros, this was a substantial serving and quite a deal. It was all good, but the morcilla, Spanish blood sausage, was particularly interesting. Morcilla may sound pungent, but there's no discernible "blood" flavor, but rather a complex, meaty, and smoky flavor profile. The chicken was also tender and good, notable as it is real easy to botch a plain old grilled chicken breast.

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This is a layered dish of cream cheese, smoked salmon, and caramelized apple, with a balsamic vinegar drizzle. Rich as hell but very delicious, and the crispy and candy-like apples provided a unique and interesting touch.

Our next stop was Alfileritos 24 (Calle Alfileritos) is a contemporary and evidently hip tapas bar within easy stumbling distance of La Abadia. The tapas menu hits all the classics and is served in a bodega-like interior space- it's a nice place to hang out. The upstairs features a more formal contemporary-Spanish menu, and I think it would be well worth a look.

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The Spanish dearly love fried snacks. These were good specimens of the genre: shrimp rollitos crispy and soft on the inside, and croquettes - fried dough balls with shrimpy delights inside. We didn't actually order these but the server brought them anyway. Since they were good, we did not particularly mind.

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Tuna belly with red pepper pistou. I thought Italian tuna was good but Spanish tuna is better. It's fully flavored and addictive, and will probably give me Iodine poisoning due to over-consumption. The sweet pepper pistou was a great accompaniment to the fish. This combination would make an excellent sandwich.

We also tried the gambas al ajillo (prawns with garlic and olive oil) - very nice here, plump prawns in garlic and olive oil sauce. It's a Spanish classic and you are pretty much required by Spanish law to order it if you come, just so you know.

For dinner the SECOND day in Toledo, we also decided to do tapas. Since lunch is often the main meal in Spain, tapas are usually an attractive and economical option once dinner rolls around.

Bar Ludena was supposed to have the best carcamusas in town but they were closed, the dogs, the disreputable jerks (or perhaps they were taking advantage of Europe's incredibly humane vacation customs). We shrugged and decided to visit another tapas bar, the name of which I cannot recall at this time, but was strikingly decorated with paper-machie replicas of hams.

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We ordered a smoked fish platter. Smoked fish is divine in Spain, as are most fish products if you get right down to it, and this was no exception. It struck me as sort of a sashimi platter diluted through the Iberian peninsula. Great with plenty of dill, especially the salmon, always I love the salmon.

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These are carcamusas, Toledo's typical pork-tomato-spices stew, and my is it good. Tender falling apart bits of pork in a piquant and resolutely Spanish sauce - gotta learn how to make this stuff. Order this a lot if you go to Toledo and you will be happy.

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We shrugged and went to La Abadia one last time. As we weren't too hungry, and were gifted a free tortilla with our drinks, we only ordered one thing. We went for the tabla of ham and cheese, a seemingly simple choice that, in Spain, proves to be an involved and attractive affair. Iberian ham is butch, the flavor will knock you on your ass, it is not for everyone, but I happen to find it very appealing indeed, especially when served with the quince and saffron jelly that appears everywhere in Spain. Good manchego also can be a revelation (although so much crap manchego exists). When combined with marcona almonds, pig, and dried meat, it can be truly divine The tabla also had goat cheese with a crunchy caramelized crust and an uber rich sort of cheese soup- excellent bar snacks.

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Toledo isn't a bad looking place.

La Abadia for Lunch

La Abadia

Plaza San Nicolas, 3, Toledo 45001, Spain

Yes, we loved this place. The combination of good prices, excellent food, and interesting ambiance proved fairly irresistible. The best restaurant in the town is reputed to be Adolfo, which looked very fine indeed from the menu - but we simply weren't in the mood for a truly Fine Dining Experience during our stay in Toledo.

Since lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain, we opted to eat downstairs in the wine-cellar like interior room. In the powerful heat of a Toledo afternoon, it was an excellent place to escape and enjoy some good wine and some excellent food. And good food it was. Even small restaurants in small communities (like this one) often feature extremely sophisticated food and plating choices here, in conjunction with superb ingredients. Further, everything in Spain is a hell of a lot cheaper then it is in Italy.

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We started with the Degustación de Ensaladas (8.50). The first salad was a Caesar with goat cheese and green tomato, which proved to be delicious with a sharp garlic and anchovy flavor. I liked the chewy strip of cheese on top as well. The second was of octopus with mango, pomegranate, and citrus dressing, which was a nice and fresh example of Spain's long-term love affair with the humble pulpo. Last was a combination of pulled chicken with sweet tomato confit over a bed of greens. Sweet but not cloying, it was fresh and good.

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My main course was the Lomo de Bacalo ($14.50), with aa confit of peppers and some corn mash. Bacalo (cod) is Spain's fish of choice, consumed all over the Peninsula and cooked in a truly dizzying variety of ways. Many Americans regard cod with suspicion, as it is the favorite choice of nightmarish school canteens and fish stick vendors. Spain will prove an excellent antidote to any past prejudices: here cod is venerated and given the treatment it so richly deserves. The firm fish was cooked perfectly, and I particularly liked the tangle of blackened onions on top. The red pepper pistou was tasty as well, though I would have preferred more of it. The corn mush was entirely non-descript.

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My dad chose the the merluza (hake) al horno with clams (13.50), in a distinctive green onion sauce. A visually arresting dish, the flavor was also excellent, sharply infused with onion and pleasantly marine at the same time. Indeed, the combination of firm white fish, perfectly cooked little clams, and dense green onions was pretty inspired. A dish this adamantly green might be initially off-putting but the powerful onion flavor immediately justified (and made pleasing) its appearance.

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My mom had a seafood skewer with squid and prawns (11.50), accompanied by a scatter of house-made potato chips. This was a delicious treatment of good seafood. Excellent Spanish prawns (the Spanish do a <em>fiine</em> prawn) was combined with cleverly cooked squid, which had been handled so deftly that its characteristic chewiness was all but eliminated. The seafood sauce was a nice and subtle accompaniment to the aquatic beasties as well. The house made chips were excellent: Kettle Chips, watch your asses.

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Avila is one of Spain's most famous historical monuments, boasting the best preserved medieval walls in the country. It's also a charming small town on the plains of Castile and Leon, and a great place to base out of when exploring the nearby cities of Salamanca and Segovia. I highly recommend a visit. There is also, incidentally, an excellent restaurant in town.

For dinner, we decided to visit what many call Avila's best restaurant, El Almacén. Located across the river from the city with an excellent view of the old walls, El Almacén specializes in high end Spanish cuisine in a refined setting. We loved it: I can't recommend it enough for a high-end and delicious dining experience in Avila.

Our charming Romanian server bantered with us throughout dinner, and was kind enough to walk us through the menu and provide translation for Spanish terms we were not familiar with - yeah, I know, my menu Spanish could use a little improvement. He was a real pleasure to be served by, and I wish him the best - he deserves it. (Even when he told us he was from the "home of Dracula". Every Romanian I have ever met will bring this up within five seconds of initiating a conversation. It's probably a rule).

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We began with an amuse bouche, which was a kind of chilled and creamy fish soup. Simple fish soup can be divine when done well, and this was right on the mark, with a rich flavor and a delightful olive-oil finish.

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The menu is extensive and features almost all of Castile and Leon's culinary hits: think red meat with earthy preparations, wild game and fowl, and lots of pork products. I settled on the guiso picantito de chipirones y mejillones, a spicy stew with squid and mussels. A slightly chilled red pepper cream was studded with sweet, perfectly cooked squid and tender, briney mussels. I also liked the ever-so-slightly crunchy rice in the center. Intentionally al dente rice can be a revelation.

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My dad went for the salad with foie escabache. I was not too clear on this because my Spanish is distinctly mediocre, but I THINK it's a kind of foie or pate made out of pig belly - one of Northern Spain's very favorite ingredients. The pate was deliciously rich and melted on the tongue, and the salad was also very tasty indeed. If anyone knows more about this specialty, I'd love some more information.

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For my main course, I selected the merluza al horno con confitura of tomate y creme verde, or hake with tomato confit and green cream. I adore hake, a fish that's little known in the USA and totally ubiquitous in Spain. A white fish, hake has a fatty and slightly decadent flavor that (if you ask me) blows halibut entirely out of the water. This hake was cooked in the oven and served with a sweet and delicious tomato confit and a green herb-infused cream. It was a simple dish with excellent, natural flavors, and thus representative of what's good about central Spanish cooking. No bullshit, good ingredients, good eats.

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My dad had the lomo de ciervo con frutos secos confitadas (Venison loin with dried fruit). Castile and Leon is renowned for its wild game, and my dad took our servers advice on this one. He was glad he did. The super-flavorful venison was slightly caramelized, sweet, and foresty, and the incredibly rich reduction combined with dried fruits was a perfect combination of sweet and savory. This preparation would also be excellent with wild boar or any other kind of down n' dirty meat. A superb dish. Something about the food of Castile and Leon strikes me as distinctly medieval, and this was no exception.

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My mom had the solomillo al queso Valdeón, or beef sirloin with Valdeón cheese sauce. Talk about decadent! This was almost akin to the Spanish version of a country fried steak, and it was, as most gravy covered steaks are, incredibly delicious. Featuring super rare and high quality steak combined with an uber rich stinky cheese sauce, this was so bad and so good at the exact same time. In less experienced hands, this could have been dangerously over the top, but El Almacén produced the perfect indulgence. Stock up on your Zocor first.

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For dessert, we went with the dessert sampler, which proved to be an excellent idea. The flan had a good, loose texture - I'm not big on the thicker, chunkier flans and this fit the bill. There was also a sort of cheese mousse (yum), a caramel parfait, and rich chocolate ice cream with raspberry sauce. Just the ticket after a very rich meal.

Edited by faine (log)
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Meson Candido

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Meson Candido, located conveniently right next door to Segovia's gigantic Roman aqueduct!

This is Meson Candido, the most venerable and elderly of Segovia's famous temples to cochinillo, or Castilian roast suckling pig. A true institution, open since 1905 and chugging along with grit and style ever since, Meson Candido operates like a gigantic and hectic machine, turning out plate after plate of succulent and crisp roast suckling pig to a ravenous audience. The decor, meanwhile is true old-school Spanish, all soulful wood salons stuffed to the gills with wall-eyed animal heads and retro relics from the restaurant's very long life (Rock Hudson liked it!). Indeed quite a few of the occasionally doddering waitstaff seem to have been around during the building of the zillion-year old aqueduct itself. Celebrities, heads of state, and other dignitaries have all devoured the tender flesh of innocent baby animals here, and the tourists and accolades just keep coming, seemingly unfazed by the passing of decades, the financial crisis, or the pitiful wails of animal rights activists. We had to pay a visit.

Reservations are highly recommended at this temple of baby animal consumption, but of course I wasn't bright enough to make any. We simply ambled up right in the middle of Spain's 3:00 lunch rush and asked real nice for a spot. The waiter looked pained, took my name down, and said it might be a, well, indeterminate wait. But we'd driven all the way from Avila just for this shining moment, just for this slab of porcine bliss, and by God we were getting it. All told, it took the staff about twenty minutes to get us seated, as the restaurant operates on a profoundly confusing quadrant system - we went up one narrow flight of stairs, down another, through some doors, back through some doors, and finally ended up parking ourselves on the middle floor, hoping our pathetic and starving visages would help us, somehow. They did. We got a table. Once seated, a tablecloth, place settings, and utensils were thowcked onto the table at mind blowing speed, menus were passed out, and we were compelled to order soon. Don't worry: it's all part of the game at Meson Candido.

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We started with a simple mixed tortilla, Spain's beloved egg and potato omelet. This was acceptably tasty, though I've never really understand the vast appeal of eggy substances - perhaps I was menaced by an poorly concieved poached egg during the tender years fo my youth. There were plenty of vegetables in here, and a nicey creamy center.

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In the interest of nutrition, we tried a grilled tuna salad escabeche (vinegar) style with red bell peppers beneath. This was a pretty good rendition of one of Spain's most ubiquitous and delicious dishes, featuring big chunks of meaty and nicely salted grilled tuna rather then the usual canned n' olive oil stuff. Both are good when treated with love and tenderness. I liked the tangy vinegar flavor of the escabeche combined with the peppers, a pleasant hit of sweet and tangy working in tandem. This escabeche wasn't a knockout dish, but it was a great counterpoint to the main attraction - the cochinillo.

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The cochinillo </strong>(roasted suckling pig) was divine, crazy good, the pinnacle of what all good little baby pigs should aspire to be. Roasted en masse in tremendous ovens here, the Candido family is known for cutting the pig "with the side of a plate" to prove how succulent and tender it is. We didn't see this ritual, but after tasting those salty and fatty pork juices, that crispy, crackling skin, that tender, ultra soft meat, hell, I want to believe. My dad proclaimed it the best piece of pork he's ever put in his mouth and as a North Carolina native, he knows that of which he speaks. We got a middle piece composed mainly of teeny-tiny ribs and ultra-rich belly meat, but some luckier diners had a dainty little trotter thrown in the mix. We made a mistake by ordering a single-person person - we should have ordered the quarter pig for two and been done with it. Don't do it. Don't ruin your lives. I suspect it is possible to order an entire pig here, if you feel like committing cardiac suicide in the most unspeakably divine way possible.

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We also had some salt roasted prawns, Spain's variant on China's dearly beloved salt and pepper shrimps. These were quite tasty, although as we would soon have transcendent prawns in Basque country, they suffer a bit in the recollection. Indeed, Spain seems to be some sort of curious epicenter for delicious-ass prawns, perhaps attracted here by mysterious underwater vibrations - secret military technology, I bet. The tail meat is always nice and tender and sweet, that is a given, but I prefer sucking the heads off these beasties much more. There's all that delicious bright red goo inside, the fat that lingers and grows sweet and decadent inside the central bits of the prawn. You can't pass it up.

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Dessert was Segovia punch cake, a cakey pastry dearly beloved in this region of Spain, which seem to have a tremendous, dentist-supporting sweet tooth. Composed of sponge cake bathed in marzipan with a cream center, the punch had a nice creamy, pillowy texture, a slightly nutty, not overpowering flavor, and a pleasant and vaguely salty caramel sauce drizzled all over the top. Not to mention this is a visually striking dessert with its criss-cross top - these are displayed with great and justified pride in the dining rooms of many of Castile's restaurants.

We saw the man himself, Senor A. Candido, as we walked out the door, supported on the arm of his equally redoubtable wife. He's pushing 80 or so but he was directing the restaurant all afternoon long, hustling up the stairs and ordering around his staff with what can only be described as unparalled skill. Here's to many years more.

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Faine, thanks SO much for your postings. I'm an armchair traveler, that's all I'll ever be, but your posts and vibrant pictures just float me away to where ever you were. Brilliant!

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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So happy to hear you're enjoying reading this stuff! I love writing it. Spain is an amazing place, especially for the food-inclined, and I hope to return soon.

Spain experts: does anyone know where the heck this restaurant was? Typically, I can't remember the name. Anyone remember a big cheesy roadside hotel and restaurant on the road to Madrid just past the turn off to Ananda de Duero? (I know, I know, I was anticipating crap food and didn't bring my notebook and was very pleasantly surprised...)

Anyhow...

Around 2:00 lunch time, we found ourselves in one of the many small (but at one point terrifically important) towns out in the dusty desert. This area of Castile and Leon is renowned for its roast lamb, another in a long line of Spanish towns with a curious and slightly distressing affinity for eating babies. Ananda de Duero is especially renowned for its roast lamb, but as it was about a 20 minute detour from the freeway and we wanted to get to Madrid, we wrote it off.

As we blew up the highway past Ananda de Duero, we saw a heavily advertised restaurant next to a hotel and decided to stop there. Upon getting inside, we found ourselves in a restaurant that appeared to have been lifted out of 1965 Arizona (on the tourist trail) and dropped directly into the dusty not-much of Spain. Wood beams, animal heads, and a tan and orange color scheme figured. I was immediately rather charmed.

They had a full service and rather large restaurant, and we decided to go with that option, mostly because dad was totally down for lamb. As we sat down and perused the menu, we noticed everyone around us was chowing down with gusto upon cave-man sized portions of roast lamb, little lamb legs poking up out of their bowls. Paydirt or profoundly disturbing, depending on how you see it. (I reiterate my public service announcement that vegans should avoid the Iberian peninsula at all costs).

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For starters, we had a tremendous Spanish style salad with the usual tuna, asparagus, tomato, and sardine. A green salad in Spain inevitably entails a tremendous amount of delicious oil packed tuna and some white asparagus (green asparagus appears to be outlawed). I will definitely die of iodine poisoning in Spain.

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My main course was artichoke hearts with clams, a simple and surprisingly delicious dish. It reminded me almost of a Chinese dish with its delicately flavored wine sauce. The clams were perfectly cooked, and the tender asparagus hearts provided a perfect complement that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm going to have to learn how to make this.

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My mom had Castilian soup, a traditional dish on these dry plains. It even comes in it's own distinctive bowl! As she discovered, it's not exactly a *light* dish - this appeared to be bean and bread soup with an incredible quantity of miscellaneous pig parts in it, some unidentifiable. The flavor was porky, fatty, and rich. It's soul food for the pig obsessed Castilian. I derived great pleasure from watching Mom carefully examine her spoonful in an attempt to ID what, exactly, that thing was.

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My dad had the cordero, or roasted lamb. A giant portion of lamb came in a bowl (catching the gamey and delicious juice,) a plaintive little leg sticking out the top. This is the kind of food Castilian kings probably ate around their tremendous dining tables, grunting and scratching themselves and throwing bones to the dogs. It was needless to say very tasty indeed, with tender, uber-rich meat and crispy, delicious skin.

After lunch, I explored the large and incredibly kitschy gift shop attached to the restaurant, which featured every Spanish themed piece o 'crap imaginable to man. Stuffed bulls, curious gummy candy, baked goods from every inch of Castile, pickled pork feet, you name it they got it along with obscene Basque t-shirts.

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They also had a healthy sized specimen of Castile and Leon's punch cake - a marzipan sponge cake filled with cream. It is delicious.

Edited by faine (log)
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During this discussion, my mom commented on how much the Spanish enjoy eating baby animals, recalling the little piglets in Segovia and the head-on lambs that are served throughout Castile and Leon. Lennox shrugged. "Here in Spain, they like to eat their babies." This is perhaps an element of the national psyche that has not been entirely explored.

This concept is illustrated by the fascination with one of Spain's most famous artworks located in the Prado in Madrid, Francisco Goya's "Saturn Eating his Son." Many cultures eat baby animals, but none, in my experience, as well as the Spanish.

I am thoroughly enjoying your report, Faine. You have captured much of the magic of my favorite culinary destination and this without even having touched upon its ultra-creative cuisine (with the exception of Etxebarri). BTW, yours is one of the most compelling accounts of Etxebarri that I have read.

I also loved your description of Meson Candido. The restaurant is actually run at present by Candido Lopez Cuerdo, son of the scion you mentioned and yes, he does cut his cochinillo with a plate!

I'm looking forward to more!

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Thanks for the kind words! I should have insisted on witnessing the plate-cutting ritual...ah well, when I return.

Wish we had done more super-creative cuisine. I was traveling with my parents, who are definite foodies but not as down for a constant diet of Epic Meals as I am. Guess I'll have to come back and do an exhaustive survey of San Sebastian. Poor me.

You know, the Goya comparison didn't even occur to me, and I just read a book on Goya (whoops). That's an excellent metaphor. And a very disturbing painting.

Speaking of Spanish food in confluence with Spanish art, I did a little research today on the Bodegon genre of painting. Bodegon is a distinctive type of Spanish food still life, emphasizing the detail and nature of the food with considerable love and attention. I spotted a host of spectacular food paintings when walking around the Prado and just had to look them up. The paintings are characterized by their austere and back-to-ingredients nature in juxtaposition to Flemish still lives of the period...sounds familiar when considering Spanish cuisine!

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One of my favorite finds in Madrid was the Mercado de San Miguel, an absolutely alluring old market retrofitted into a modern farmer's market and eatery. Built along the same lines as the San Francisco Ferry Building, it's an excellent place to suck down some good sangria and sample the best of what Spain has to offer. Fish mongers, bakeries, meat shops, tapas joints, canned fish specialists, beer geeks, and wine sellers all have set up shop here, providing an excellent array of treats in one convenient location. I can imagine no better place to get blitzed and eat pinxtos in the area. I hung out there for a bit and took some photos. Namely of fish.

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Some large flat fishes.

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The horrifyingly frightening specter of the monkfish.

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More terrifying monkfish, or "rape negro".

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Some adorable little red fishes.

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Sardines of many varietals. Lovely little quick creatures.

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Dear lord, the aliens have come to roost.

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Clams of various varieties.

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You may guess I'm a bit taken with these monkfish mugs.

For dinner, we decided to do a tapas crawl, going off some tips I recieved on the ever-useful Chowhound and Egullet. The Calle de Cava Baja proved to be a great place to cruise for tapas and booze, well favored by locals and not entirely jacked up by dorky tourists like ourselves. Warning: if you're even vaguely bothered by smoke, avoid doing a Madrid tapas crawl, you are not going to be able to survive for long. Spain is one of Europe's last hold-outs when it comes to frenzied indoors smoking. I suggest you just work through the pain and eat tapas until your face hurts, but to each his own. Getting to Cava Baja is easy: just walk out the bottom of the plaza from the Calle Mayor, and keep going down the Calle Toledo. Make a right on Calle San Bruno and you'll be there.

Our first stop was Tempranillo on Calle Cava Baja. Most tapas joints are dual affairs: one part is stand up and the other is a more formal sit-down. We decided to stand up and order beer and house white wine. Most tapas around here are served on pieces of bread.

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These two are duck with mushrooms and four cheese. Pretty tasty insofar as stuff on bread can go, but nothing particularly exciting.

Our second destination was the Taberna Juana La Loca, which can be reached by walking to the end of Calle de Cava Baja then walking into the Plaza Puerta de Moros. It's a super popular and atmospheric place, full of the young and hip of Madrid, who chain-smoke, gossip, and listen to darkly indie music over plates of excellent food. You can order pre-made food from behind the counter, which will be zapped and served quickly, or you can order off the more elaborate menu.

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High quality Spanish anchovies served with pita points and a kind of rich red pepper hummus dip. This was a tasty combination that hadn't occurred to me before, and would be nice to recreate at home.

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A simple serving of boneless pork chop, cheese, and Spanish pepper. This was tender and tasty, a bit like a stripped down version of a Philly cheesesteak.

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A delicious tortilla, or Spanish potato omlette. This was gigantic and filled with deliciously flavorful caramelized onions - a real treat in the tortilla category.

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A sort of duck ravioli wrapped in cheese and topped with bacon - how could this not be delicious? Juicy and flavorful in the interior. Nice stuff.

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For dessert, we headed back over to the Mercado de San Miguel, where we perused the considerable gelato and sorbet selection. My mom chose a passion fruit and pineapple flavor. Which came with a parrot stuck in it. (It now lives in our potted plant).

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leiseawallboats.jpg

The Basque fishing town of Lekeitio.

We decided to eat at our hotel, the </em>Princess Aisia Lekeitio. The restaurant was supposed to be quite good, and had a big white dining room with a view of the water. Our waiter resembled nothing more then a brusque, if friendly, Basque Hank Azaria. We all decided to go for the set menu.

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My mom and I had some simple sauteed mushrooms for our first course. Pretty good, if unremarkable: if you put a mushroom in front of me, I'm going to eat it unless it is poisonous, and even then I probably won't stop to <em>check.</em> I should probably avoid foraging in forests.

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My dad had white asparagus with crabmeat. The Spanish love canned white asparagus, are crazy for the stuff, but I've never liked it. It reminds me of what normal healthy asparagus turn into when they are undead. Dad thought it was fine. Apparently he enjoys consuming zombie vegetables.

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My dad and I both had the sea bream, which was really quite good - as expected for a Basque fishing town. This was sauteed in quite a bit of butter, a simple and always successful preparation. The flavor of the fish was flaky, tender, and mild, reminding me somewhat of a Biscayan sand dab (one of Northern California's finest aquatic treats). Very tasty.

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My mom had what I believe was a kind of sole. The flavor and preparation were about the same as we had - in other words, good - although mom did not enjoy negotiating the bones. I happily relieved her of the fish head. Insofar as I can tell, the Basque have the same delightfully freewheeling attitude towards seafood consumption as the Chinese do. In simpler terms: eating fish heads is awwright here.

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My Sicilian grandfather's favorite part of the fish was the eyes. I never have gotten into them, though. I eat a lot of offal, but that is where I draw the line. I don't know why. :blink:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Aw, come on! My dad and I regularly fight over the eyes and the cheeks. We get extremely disappointed if we're served whole fish without eyes...

Goat eyes...now, that's where my line is drawn. I saw a Lonely Planet special on Mongolia and goat eyes were served up with great pomp and circumstance to the host. Who ate them. (I swear I could see the Mongolians snickering, but you never know..)

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Aw, come on! My dad and I regularly fight over the eyes and the cheeks. We get extremely disappointed if we're served whole fish without eyes...

Goat eyes...now, that's where my line is drawn. I saw a Lonely Planet special on Mongolia and goat eyes were served up with great pomp and circumstance to the host. Who ate them. (I swear I could see the Mongolians snickering, but you never know..)

Cheeks, yes, please. you can have the eyes from my fish :smile:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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An absolutely dazzling thread. I think I have to change my travel plans.

Jmahl

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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Everyone's gotta go to Spain! What epic, epic food.

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The cliffs around Lekeitio.

Lekeitio is not a restaurant mecca, and I only spotted a few actual restaurants during my wanderings around town that day. Most Basques here seem to subsist on pinxtos, the bar snacks that have been elevated to impressive gastronomic heights in this part of the world. Unlike tapas, pinxtos are set out on the bar as a sort of casual buffet for drinkers, and almost always are served on top of a piece of bread. Pinxtos often are uber-refined gastronomic delights in places like San Sebastian and Bilbao, but Lekeitio's pinxtos were definitely working class: fried egg, mayonnaise, sausage, and ham seemed to feature in almost all of them. Needless to say they taste very good. Since these snacks are free in unlimited quantity with the purchase of a drink, many Basques take the economical route for their evening meal.

I fell in love with Basque sparkling wine, or Txakoli, during my time here. It's got just a little bit of sparkle and a dry texture - I think it's great with seafood and anything delightfully briny. Trust the Basques to come up with a good wine to accompany sea creatures.

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Fishing boats in town. A large fishing boat comes in most mornings and sells luridly colored and delicious-looking beasts to crowds of tough-looking abuelas.

We ate supper again at our hotel restaurant. I had walked by a couple of places with Michelin stars earlier in the day but was unable to find them again in the rabbit-warren of Lekeitio's back alleys. Thankfully, the restaurant at the Princess Aisia Lekeitio was pretty darn excellent.

For dinner, we decided to head back to the hotel restaurant, which had pleased us the night before.

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We started with the lobster salad, which was very attractive and nicely composed. One thing I like about Spain is how dishes are often prepared with a lot of care to appearance and composition, even in restaurants that are off the beaten track a bit. The flavor was also spot-on here: tender lobster, fish roe, and a Crab Louie-like mayonnaise sauce dressing. There is not enough lobster in my life.

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My dad had a rustic lentil soup. Lentil soups seem to be ubiquitous across cultures, and this was a good, meaty example of the genre. It's the perfect dish for a cold, cold night. As it was raining that evening and the temperature was rather chilly, it was apropo.

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I had monkfish with crab, which was excellent - pan sauteed with some butter and herbs. I have gained true respect for the monkfish during my time in Spain. The monkfish is the most hideously ugly fish in the world, the kind of beast you would expect to lurk in the shallows and lop off the legs of innocent women in bikinis, the kind of hideous monster you would expect to emerge from primordial slime when the moon is high. Despite its appearance, it tastes delicious if properly prepared, with a unique texture and a delicate flavor - indeed, it's often called the "poor man's lobster". I also enjoyed the crab claws that came with it. The kitchen cracked them ahead of time. You would not believe how many times I have ordered a dish like this with uncracked crab claws, forcing me to engage in disgusting and antisocial behaviors to get at the delicious meat because I sure as hell am not wasting it. Have a heart, chefs. Crack the damn crab legs.

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My dad had a mixed seafood grill, which was about the same as the pan-sauteed seafood we'd had the night before, if in a bit more variety. Tasty and simple pan fried fish with plenty of butter and garlic - a true classic, if not particularly flashy.

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My mom ordered prawns a la plancha, a classic Spanish preparation. Reminiscent of China's beloved salt and pepper shrimps, the little beasties are grilled and salted, leaving the shells cracker-crisp and delicious and the insides sweet like butter. Basque prawns are the best I have ever had. I ended up eating all of her left over heads and tails. I don't care if I am disgusting. I have no shame, I have no remorse, when it comes to suckin' on shrimp heads. I am not repentent.

Edited by faine (log)
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Hi Faine,

I've been enjoying your posts a lot, and would like to add a few comments:

leiday2crabs.jpg

I had monkfish with crab, which was excellent - pan sauteed with some butter and herbs. I have gained true respect for the monkfish during my time in Spain. The monkfish is the most hideously ugly fish in the world, the kind of beast you would expect to lurk in the shallows and lop off the legs of innocent women in bikinis, the kind of hideous monster you would expect to emerge from primordial slime when the moon is high. Despite its appearance, it tastes delicious if properly prepared, with a unique texture and a delicate flavor - indeed, it's often called the "poor man's lobster". I also enjoyed the crab claws that came with it. The kitchen cracked them ahead of time. You would not believe how many times I have ordered a dish like this with uncracked crab claws, forcing me to engage in disgusting and antisocial behaviors to get at the delicious meat because I sure as hell am not wasting it. Have a heart, chefs. Crack the damn crab legs.

These are not crab claws but langoustine (cigala) claws.

And also have noticed that you mention the use of butter for a lot of pan fried fish dishes. I don't know about the dishes that you have had, but the use of butter in Spain is very rare, specially for pan fried fishes and I would say that almost all of them uses olive oil.

keep posting!

Edited by Rogelio (log)
Rogelio Enríquez aka "Rogelio"
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There is essentially nothing on Lekeitio,

Well, you have rectified that now.

Probably a bit late for faine, but for anybody else going to Lekeito, there is one great fish restaurant and it can be found on the quay just to the left of the white boat in the photo in faine's posting of 15 August. It's called Kaia and friends from Bilbao will travel out to eat there regularly.

It's been a few years since we have eaten there but these notes and photos are calling us back.

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