Tuesday, March 5, 2013

U.S. Tour '13, Part 1: Barcelona to Bigos

The train from Montpellier wasn't full, but in my car the only people speaking French were the conductors. There was an older Swedish couple, reading a .PDF of the Sunday paper on their laptops, two guys behind me speaking a language I couldn't identify who looked East Asian, and who were on a tour whose guide outlined the day's activities to them in English, and then, as I walked back to the bar car to get something to make up for the breakfast I'd missed by getting up at 6 to catch the train, row after row of silent Japanese girls, their faces half-obscured by surgical masks, eyes following me with what looked like fear.

I checked into my hotel (once I found it; something about Barcelona confuses me) and decided to go out for some lunch and some art, probably at the Contemporary Art Museum, which was nearby. For lunch, I first found a tapas bar that's excellent, but was closed. Then I walked up Paseig de Gracia looking down side-streets for Tapas 24, where I'd been in September. When that failed, I settled for a place that looked pretty good called Tapa Tapa. They have a nice gimmick: each of their over 60 tapas offerings is pictured in a small photo with a number, price, and name in Catalán on the place-mat. The diner is then presented with a book with translations of the dishes in a dozen languages.

The tapas are uniformly excellent, too: fat anchovies lying on a bed of finely diced dred onion and tomato, perfect ham croquettes, the usual suspects. If it hadn't taken nearly two hours for the waiter to serve them, one by one, forgetting the last one, I'd go back, but this was a classic case of a place you don't leave a tip: the service gets a zero. Ridiculous.

That night, though, I had dinner with a young couple who'd moved back to Barcelona from Berlin, where they'd been for five years. They seemed happy enough, and shared with me one of their favorite restaurants, in which I realized that there was a new gastronomic sensation in Barcelona: Slow Food. I ate in my first Slow Food restaurant in Italy over 20 years ago and merely thought it a clever name, but the movement has swept Europe, and they've caused some tremendous things to happen. I'd passed another Slow Food place near my hotel, but this one is tucked away on an obscure corner in the Raval district.

Mam i Teca has three tables and a short bar, and the menu shows how far from that corner the food was obtained, hence several "km 0" markings. It has small plates which aren't exactly tapas, and what I think is probably stone Catalán food. Cod and tuna played a large part in what we ordered, a cold tuna dish with white beans, dressed in an aromatic olive oil, the above not-quite-salad of cod, frisée, and romesco sauce, and a kissin' cousin of the garlic with shrimp in garlic sauce and garlic I had in Valencia a couple of years ago, only this was cod, the garlic wasn't quite as pronouned, and that last slam to the senses was provided by a nice amount of paprika instead. I wished we'd had some bread to soak it up with, and maybe we would have if it hadn't been Sunday, when I assume bakeries don't open.

We finished it off with tiny glasses of a yellowish-green licor des hierbas that hit the spot. An infintesimal amount of English is spoken by the nice lady who runs the joint, and her partner is a Los Lobos fan and was playing them on the sound system. What a great evening. Oh, and served with it was the last thing you'd expect.

A handcrafted, light brown, nicely hopped local beer. Went perfect with the meal, too.

Taverna Mam i Teca, Carrer de La Lluna 4, 08001 Barcelona. Phone 93 441 33 35. Reservations are, I would think, mandatory. Open daily for dinner. 

* * * 

So what could possibly be a better way to slide back into the US than by getting a hotel room in Brooklyn in what appears to be an old factory or warehouse in Greenpoint? Remote as it may seem, I have a stunning view of the Chrysler Building from my room, and a kind of gentle gentrification appears to be happening in this historically Polish district of what was once New York's second-largest city. Beat as I am from flying all day today (and getting plenty of exercise, although the doctor pronounced me healed enough to travel), I still had to have dinner, despite the fact that this place has a fully-equipped kitchen. I couldn't risk cooking with all this jet-lag, so I headed for what sounded like a good deal, a restaurant named Karczma on Greenpoint Avenue. 

When I got there and saw it was next to the Polonaise Terrace (just dig that website and its blaring music!) my heart sang. It doesn't get more old school than that, and if it's hokey to have the waitresses in traditional peasant skirts and blouses, so be it. Mine was authentically Polish, and I noticed all the banter between the waitresses was in Polish, too. It's heartening: for reasons I don't know, Polish culture still seems to be vital here, and that's not something (with whatever culture) that's happening in a lot of the United States. 

The food was delightful: I started with a mixed plate of six pierogis (fried): two each potato, cheese, and meat, with a truly insignificant amount of apple preserve in the center of the plate. I ordered a beer, and of course they had the right kind. On draft:

Yes, it does say Zywiec, and the waitress helped me pronounce it right. If we wind up in Poland together, I'll teach you and you can buy us a couple of beers. I'd been jonesing for a dish called bigos, but it didn't seem to be there, which is very weird indeed: instead it turned out to be hiding on the menu under the name "Hunter's stew," which, considering what it is, is almost a Polish joke: the brave hunter shot a pig, captured some fierce sauerkraut, ripped a few bay leaves off of a tree and stole some allspice berries and cooked it all up with paprika and garnished it with some nicely hot pickled peppers. It's perfect cold night food (and it's cold here, no denying that), packed as it is with vitamin C, of which sauerkraut is a major source, believe it or not. 

Why hunting rifles for Polish people should remain legal. 

Outside the wind is howling, and in my head it's three in the morning, so I'm going to proofread this and go to bed. More culinary delights loom before I leave New York on Friday, so stay tuned. 


  1. Why the detour through Barcelona to fly to the US??

  2. Much cheaper. And, since you still have to overnight, cheaper than overnighting in Paris. Flying out of Montpellier's also a non-starter because the plane leaves incredibly early, there's no public transportation to the airport, so you're forced to spend €30 for a cab at 5am.

  3. Impressive Polishness, Ed!

    Bigos is always a translation problem, same over here. I think "hunter's stew" gives an expectation of too much meat though so it must piss a few people off. Since when did people go hunting for cabbages?

  4. To be fair to the great Polish nation, it's sauerkraut in bigos, so one is hunting the dread fermented, acidulated cabbage.


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