April 11, 2009

a tale of two tapas experiences

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things I was most excited about for this trip to Spain was the idea of going on a tapas crawl to sample the best offerings of the myriad tapas bars here. Historically, these taverns were frequented by the lower classes for glasses of simple jug wine, served with a slice of bread (the "tapas," or "covers") to keep the flies away and help prevent spillage. The oldest taverns in Madrid evolved into gathering places for intellectuals, political activists and authors who would engage in lively debates over their drinks and tapas. If Madrid is the political and intellectual center of Spain, then immersing yourself into the local culture would seemingly require a head-first dive into the tapas scene.

Based on a good amount of research, there seem to be three main areas for tapas: between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana, the area around La Latina, and Chueca/Malasana/Salamanca. Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana were the closest to our hotel, so the four of us set out for our adventure.

Museo del Jamon: First thought--How can you not go to a place named "Museum of Ham"? Second thought--generally not a bad stop for a small plate of jamon (serrano, for us), but the place is has all the charm of a chain restaurant which it is), with a utilitarian, fluorescent light atmosphere.

Alhambra: In contrast to the museo, this tavern has a fantastic vibe, with tasty little montaditos of grilled bread and chorizo. The bocquerones (which I loved in Barcelona) were only okay here.

Bar La Abuella: A crowd of locals watching an exhibition soccer match on TV. We ordered patatas bravas and gambas a la plancha, both of which I hoped would be spectacular, but which ended up being just pretty good.

Vinoteca Barbechera: Having made our way down to Plaza Santa Ana, I was in the mood for some wine. A much younger crowd, lots of smoke, and a slightly pricier selectoin of tapas. The croquetas de bacalao had a nice, crunchy exterior, but were otherwise somewhat bland. A tapa of roasted pork tenderloin and caramelized onions was tasty, if not a bit ordinary.

Taberna Maceiras: Looking for a final place to close out our crawl, we grabbed the last small table at Maceiras, which was packed. We ordered some sangria, steamed cockles (berberechos), a layered tomato dish, and a flaming drink... all solid and tasty, nothing earth-shattering.

What was going on? I mean, everything we ate that night was tasty, but nothing was flat out delicious... and certainly not life-changing. Were my expectations set too high? Was the euphoria of my first tapas experience in Barcelona a trick of a sleep-deprived mind? I was particularly disappointed because I had wanted to plan the most epic tapas crawl to end all crawls for our last dinner with S+K, and to experience the best of Madrid as a group. We still had a great time, but I think the most memorable aspect of this crawl was the company of friends and the energy of the different taverns rather than the food itself. Not what I expected at all...

The next day, a totally different experience.

L and I said our goodbyes to S+K, having spent a terrific first 4 1/2 days of our trip with these great friends. After a full day of experiencing the splendor of Granada (including the crazy cathedral, the even crazier Alhambra, an awesome street performance of flamenco-inspired guitar and tasty fried fish at El Ladrillo--fried octopus should be a bar snack in the U.S.--and the uber-intense good friday processional) we were aiming for tapas at Vinoteca Salinas II by the Plaza Nueva. The crowds, however, made it nearly impossible to cross over to the other side of the plaza, so we instead dragged our tired legs to Ermita Centro, immediately adjacent to the cathedral.

Ermita is a beautifully sleek but understated modern tavern, part of a collection of restaurants. Crowded with locals by the time we were into our first tapa, the service and atmosphere were ideal--vibrant, but controlled and well-executed. But above all else, the food sparkled. Here's what we had:

Croquetas Bacalao: Wonderfully creamy and rich, with outstanding cod flavor and nice accents of white pepper.

"Secreta" Iberico: Jamon Iberico served on top of a grilled steak medallion and fries. The glistening Jamon Iberico was outrageously good, its flavor and musky/earthy/meatiness amplified by being warmed through the residual heat of the steak. Crispy, medium-cut fries, just the way I like them.

Carpaccio of ox: Hands down the most delicate carpaccio I can remember having. Unbelievable tenderness, it nearly disintegrated under its own weight, melting effortlessly on the palate. Nice, crunchy flakes of sea salt and beautifully perfumed olive oil. A real surprise and eye-opener.

Ensalada Ermita: A salad of bacalao, avocado, roasted red pepper and caviar, with a broken egg dressing. A nice combination contrasting sweet and creamy with saltiness.

Sopa de Picadillo: A smple soup with strips of jamon, a boiled egg, and shredded slow-braised pork. Comfort food to its core.

Higado de Pate: A nicely seared lobe of duck fois on toast with a light pear compote. Closed my eyes to savor each bite...

Bacalao a Pil Pil: a filet of cod served with pil pil sauce--an emulsion of the natural oils of the cod. Creamy, rich, decadant... maybe just a bit too salty.

This dinner at Ermita was invigorating... exciting... deeply satisfying. The irony here is that the heavily researched tapas excursion in Madrid was somewhat underwhelming while the unplanned tapas stop in Grenada (not in our guide book or any of our resources) absolutely killed.

I suppose you can only plan so far when traveling... with some of the best moments happening by sheer chance.

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