And, as promised yesterday, a few words about food.
Because of the last-minute nature of booking this trip, it turned out that the cheapest round-trip to San Francisco was via Barcelona, whose train ticket cost about the same as the one to Paris, and, because I'd have to have a hotel overnight to catch the early-morning flight in either city, a decent hotel would be half the price or less.
Like I need an excuse to go to Barcelona right now.
At any rate, when I got there, one thing I definitely did need was lunch, and, it being after 2pm, that meant a bar. I wandered the streets of the Grácia district near my hotel, passing on the Mexican places (one of which seemed to be serving deep-fried insects; must check that out sometime when I'm not headed to a place with Mexican food), and eventually coming upon the Bar Canigó, which had outdoor tables (still useful at this time of year) and a long menu. Started out with a so-so chicken salad (or salad with chicken), and went on to patatas bravas (indifferent) and a "toast" that was just about perfect: grilled eggplant, grilled red peppers, and fat, mild anchovies. Take a look:
A bit too much, but I really liked this place, and I'll go back. It was founded in the 1920s and I think some of the regulars have been there ever since. It also advertises, as I discovered a lot of bars in Barcelona do, that it makes its own vermouth. That could be interesting.
Bar Canigó, c. Verdi 2, (Grácia), Metro Fontana, outdoor dining in the unremarkable Placa de la Revolució de Setembre de 1888.
Dinner crept up on me, and I whipped out the guide from the Guardian that Jeff had sent me for top-notch tapas bars. Its big defect is that it's lacking in transit info, so unless you know the city or have time to pore over maps, it's hard to tell if you're close to something that sounds good. What sounded good to me was Morrysom, where the article implied they did individual paellas. Well, if they did I never found out about it: I was handed a tapas menu in English. Not that I'm complaining at all. The spread was full of seafood this time, and extremely good.
Like clams marinero:
which were in a garlicky tomato sauce, and nutty and delicious, and mussels with aioli:
which were somewhat less garlicky, but that was fine. There was the obligatory pamb e tomat, which had no discernable flavor at all:
and padrón peppers, which I can't stop ordering...
and what was supposed to be spicy chorizo, but wasn't, really. I must learn the subtleties of this, since I've had some that was pleasingly fiery. Not this, but it was fine as part of this meal.
Price in all was around €25, I think (can't find the receipt), with two excellent Spanish beers.
Bar Morrysom, Carrer de Girona 162, Metro Diagonal or Verdaguer. Open til 1am.
San Francisco was another thing entirely. Being south of Market Street meant threading your way through lowlifes and crazy people to get anywhere, but they were mostly harmless during the day. My first morning I was jet-lagged so that I couldn't wait to go to a place called Show Dogs that had been recommended to me, so I set off in time to get there at 8, when its website said it opened. The sign on the door, however, said 9, and I couldn't wait that long. Just as I was wondering what to do next, I heard someone call my name: it was a person from the Well who knew I was headed out to the place and would find it closed. She lived nearby and hopped on her bike to rescue me. One thing and another and we wound up at Brenda's French Soul Food, where I had that iconic San Francisco breakfast dish, a hangtown fry. There's some dispute as to where, exactly, "Hangtown" was during the Gold Rush days, but it was near enough the ocean so that you could cut bacon into squares, fry it crisp, dredge oysters in cornmeal and fry them in the bacon fat until browned, and throw scrambled eggs into the mix and sell it for breakfast. Brenda's was nearly perfect, although I kind of like my biscuits better than hers on a good day. Her jambalaya, delivered to the next table from ours, seemed suspect, but I say that about all jambalaya not in Louisiana places. Anyway, thanks for the rescue, Lolly: Show Dogs the next morning was very disappointing, with tiny portions and hefty prices -- almost $20 for half the amount of food we got at Brenda's for less. The place I wished I'd known about was a block away from my hotel: Dottie's True Blue Café, a famous breakfast joint for over 20 years, apparently. My breakfast there was wonderful, and there was a line out the door when I left.
One evening, I found myself with no dining companion, and someone recommended Farmer Brown, a Southern-style restaurant I'd seen as I walked along Market Street. Their fried chicken, I was told, was magnificent. And so it proved to be. The rest of the meal, though, was mostly very weird. I started with a cup of gumbo, always up for testing others' takes on this. And here's what I got:
It's in Blur-O-Vision, but you can easily see that there's a huge glob of rice sitting there to disguise the fact that there isn't much soup. It was tasty, but the convention is to serve the rice separately so the diner can determine how much rice should be in the gumbo. The waitress was mildly offended when I told her this, and said next time I should indicate rice on the side. Hm. There were a couple of cornbread muffins served with butter that had a lot of honey in it, too. The chicken came with greens and macaroni and cheese, which I was really eager to try, since I can't seem to make it well at home.
The chicken was, as advertised, remarkable, and now that I hear Mozelle's Famous Fried Chicken is no more, it may be the best in San Francisco. The greens were deep: long-cooked, rich, flavorful, complex. They have a winner there. But the mac'n'cheese, served in a tiny cast-iron skillet, was awful. It was bitter, not an adjective I'd ever considered using with this dish. The cheese was tasteless, or else it was drowned out by this other flavor, which the waitress said was from sour cream. Sour cream? Gack. I dunno; I'd go back to Farmer Brown for the chicken and greens, but I wonder what the rest of their take on Southern cuisine is. Given the other options in the Bay Area I may never find out.
Other Bay Area meals included two lunches at Viks Chaat in Berkeley, which is destination dining for me: scrupulously authentic Indian light snackish food. I had two keema samosas, filled with ground lamb spiced just right and served with a chutney that seemed to be spinach-based, and a dahi papdi chaat, a cold dish of spiced yogurt and chick peas and potatoes with wafers of lentil flour. Wow. The next day I had chicken with fenugreek leaves, another classic. I was tempted to buy groceries in the accompanying market, but restrained myself, as I had to do this entire trip, sad to say. Another highlight was a dim sum brunch at Saigon Seafood Harbor in Richmond. There were all manner of wonderful things here, including excellent fried calamari and more clams in a brownish sauce that were a highlight. One of my dining companions made sure we ordered from the carts that were headed out of the kitchen instead of their way back: good thinking! From what I saw on other tables, I'm ready to go back here and check out the regular menu. And for those of you in the Bay Area, it's right near the legendary 99 Ranch market, an Asian supermarket I carefully avoided going into. That old temptation again. And, finally, I was surprised to get a good Texas-style Mexican meal (as opposed to the California-style one I'd have gotten in the Mission District) at El Toreador, at 50 West Portal, which is a bit out of the way, but if you're in the 'hood, well worth checking out. I was unable, due to crushing jetlag, to avail myself of their impressive beer menu, but was, in fact, impressed by it. The chipotle salsa with the chips was a pleasant surprise, as was the chicken tamale, the first tamale I've had in a long time.
And finally, I headed back to Barcelona, to a different hotel in a neighborhood I didn't know at all. I was too whacked to do any research, so I asked the young woman at the hotel desk if she had a recommendation, and she handed me a card for a place down the street which she said was pretty good. She did not lie: I had one of the best meals I've had this year. Casa Martelo has a pretty impressively large menu, but there was also the menu of the week. The server, Sergio (who speaks very good English) informed me that there was something not on the menu: girgolas, which he said were "Catalonian mushrooms." Well, not exactly: they're oyster mushrooms, which I hate. Or, actually, hated until this past Wednesday night. They were cooked a la plancha, on a griddle, and then drenched in garlic-infused olive oil with parsley in it, and a dusting of fleur de sel. The real secret to this kind of cooking is to get just a tiny bit of char onto the food without burning it entirely, as well as not drowning it in the oil. Good padrón peppers are cooked this way, and this particular technique really brought out the intensity of the mushrooms' flavor, which I can only describe as intensely brown.
The main course, however, knocked me out solid. The English-language menu described it as Sebastian hake with clams and shrimp, while my tab says cogote de merluza. I have no idea what a Sebastian hake is, but I discovered the next day at lunch that the translator there is maybe not so reliable, since they offered clams marinero as "clams sailor's blouse." At any rate, the "with clams and shrimp" bit was misleading as there were exactly two of each at a diagonal to each other, separated on the plate by a huge hunk of fish. The fish was very bony, but also richly flavored, and it, too, was covered with the garlic oil, and then sprinkled with thick slices of garlic, fried until golden, and with a wonderful mild garlic flavor and the texture of fried potatoes. It was so good that I was very happy to flip the fish over and discover a bit more meat on the underside of the piece that I could liberate and swish around in the oil. I read later that Spain is one of the top markets for hake in the world, and if this is an example of what they do to it, I can't wait for my second helping. Wish I'd taken pix of both dishes, but I forgot my phone back in the room.
This was my first experience with an actual restaurant in Barcelona, as opposed to a tapas bar, and the next day, which was a holiday, I went back there for tapas, which were okay, but I probably didn't order as intelligently as I'd have liked to due to walking-around exhaustion and my impending train trip back here. But I'm going to hit this place next time I'm in town, because it rocks heavily. It's real easy to find, too: take the Metro to Barcelona Sants, the railroad station, and take the Numancia exit, the one nobody else it taking because they're headed to the trains. Then simply exit and you're at the end of Numancia. Walk up the right-hand side of the street and it's at number 12.
And the punch-line to all of this: I wasn't up for any complex cooking last night for my birthday, but figured I should celebrate anyway with a bottle of decent wine, so I treated myself to a €12.90 bottle of Mas de la Serranne's Clos d'Immortelles, a favorite.
The bottle, the first one I've gotten in almost four years of living here, was mildly corked, that rich and wonderful flavor mocking me from behind the musty overtaste. Dammit.
9 months ago