Friday, November 29, 2013

The Roman Ruins of Tarragona

Back on the Iberian peninsula after a couple of nights on the beautiful island of Mallorca.  And back in our rental van ready for the next destination.  Barcelona to Valencia for a 350 km (217.5 miles) drive, but first a stop 100 km away in Tarragona.

Along the coastal drive, Tarragona holds one of the most significant Roman sites in the country.  The description in guidebooks say this it the stop to make to take in history.  The seaside facing amphitheatre is a bit underwhelming as it's located next to a primary school as though it's not a big deal.  But on a sunny say with blue skies, you can picture history with the Romans coming in by boat.  It is amazing to think about how this was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, B.C.

Before getting back in the car for the last of the drive, about 2.5 hours to go, we took a break for merienda, or an afternoon snack.  We're in Spain, that means to have to have a mid-day break and eat.  We stopped at Spain's most known department store, El Corte Inglés.  Every El Corte throughout the country has a grocery in the basement and at least one restaurant on its top floors, which is perfect for a meal or snack.  The Tarragona El Corte restaurant served one of the best churros con chocolate of the trip - who would have thought it was going to be here in the department store of this town.

Roman ruins in Tarragona

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sugar rush of ensaimadas in Palma de Mallorca

2 days and 2 nights in Mallorca - that's just enough time to get a little sample of the island's specialties.  Mallorca is known for their almonds, oranges, and ensaimadas.

Ensaimadas were eventually brought to the Philippines (known as ensaymadas) by Mallorcan soldiers centuries ago longing for their region's specialty.  Mallorcan ensaimadas come in varying sizes and even topped or filled with sweets and savories.

During our two short days, we were able to squeeze in three of the more known ensaimadas stores.  Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo is a famous milk bar serving ice creams, horchatas, hot chocolates, and sweets varying from the varieties of ensaimadas to almond cakes.  Forn d'es Reco is a cute little bakery that we happen to stumble upon.  It's unassuming with plenty of sweets and savories made with love over the generations.  Their ensaimada has a unique taste of almonds in the fluffy bites.  Forn Fondo is one of the more known bake shops even promoted by Jose Andres.  I actually found this to be the least tasty compared to the other two.  There are a few more ensaimadas stores I'd love to try out, but we just couldn't handle that much sweetness in the short amount of time - a great excuse for another trip to the island.

To balance the sweetness, there are a number of restaurants and cafes scattered throughout the city, many of which are of varying European cuisines catering to the groups of tourists visiting the island.

In a tiny alley off of Central Palma, La Bodeguilla is a great stop for tapas and wine.  They serve dinner choices, but I would stick with the tapas in the wine bar area which has a fun atmosphere.  Plus, with tapas you don't get overly stuffed in one restaurant and that allows you to really get a taste of a number of places during the course of one meal.

A town like Palma is all about walking around the city, getting lost, and discovering gems like Forn d'es Reco and La Bodeguilla.

Ca'n Joan de S'Aigo

Mallorca's milk bar, dating back to 1700

Sampling the specialties: Almond milk, hot chocolate, and ensaimadas

Monday, November 25, 2013

A vacation away from the vacation in Palma de Mallorca

Time for a vacation away from the vacation.  In Spain, there's no better place for this than in the Balearic Islands.  Less than an hour away from Barcelona by plane, Palma de Mallorca has it all - beaches, mountains, shopping, culture, history, and amazing food and wine.  It's literally a breathe of fresh air coming from the hoards of tourists in Barcelona.

Mallorca is especially exciting for our family of food lovers because of the island's creation of ensaimada.  But more on Mallorcan food and our eats in my next post...

For now, a little glimpse into our 3 days and 2 nights on the island.  From walking around, and especially in driving around, you can immediately tell this is Europe's playground - just take a look at Puerto Portals, Mallorca's port with hundreds and hundreds of yachts of huge proportions.

Flying into Palma de Mallorca

Panorama of the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma

Friday, November 22, 2013

Showtime at Albert Adrià's Tickets

Ferran Adrià is the world's most celebrated chef today thanks to his legacy at El Bulli and his contributions to the modern age of gastronomy.  Just one year after Ferran began his career at El Bulli at the age of 22, his younger brother joined the staff at the age of 15.

"Without Albert, El Bulli as we know it now would never have existed," claimed Ferran.  Albert Adrià eventually became the restaurant's creative director.  Any mention of Albert always brings his brother's name into the conversation.  Albert is beyond worthy of his own name.  Jose Andres worked with both brothers in El Bulli said, "Ferran may be an incredible chef, but there is no better cook in the world than Albert."

Albert Adrià is genius in his own right.  He currently has 4 restaurants in Barcelona, with 2 more opening next year.  As soon as we planned our dates, I jumped online to book a table at Tickets.  You have to reserve 60 days in advanced online.  And the availability goes out as fast as a Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake concert (or The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney if you want to be technical about fast selling tickets).  After 3 attempts on 3 different nights (and having to wake up in the middle of the night as soon as the next day's schedule gets online), I finally scored a lunch reservation for 4!  It felt like winning the lottery.  Now I just had to wait 60 days..

The wait is so worth it.  When you enter Tickets, you know you're going to have fun, like you just got a ticket to the coolest food carnival.

I originally reserved for 4, but our party increased to 6.. well, 6 1/2 including my nephew.  Without hesitation, but with pure friendliness the hostess immediately accommodated our increase of seats.  Eating in many high end restaurants in the U.S. and Europe, I have grown weary of arrogance among the wait-staff.  There was absolutely none of that in Spain's best restaurants.  They all welcome you like you're great friends - Tickets is no exception, in fact it's incredibly kid friendly.

The menu is an extensive list of tapas.  I'm here for one meal, so it was hard to narrow down what to order.  Our waiter offered to provide us a taste of the best - either according to our budget or until our stomachs could take no more.  No pretension nor snobbery if we had a particular budget.

We chose the stomach option, and I think I could have gone for days.  Hands down, the best celebrity chef experience.  The best food experience in the world.  And the bill came out to be waay cheaper than any other tasting menu I've encountered.

I've seen all that I want to in Barcelona (the first time was all about sightseeing, and this time was all about the food).  I'm partial to Madrid and San Sebastian where there's more of an old world culture while retaining a cleanliness.  But, my love for food will most definitely bring me back to Barcelona to experience more of Albert Adrià.  Plus, he's an incredibly sweet guy who happily obliged a photo with my family.  Stand up guy, amazing cook - there's no better combination.

Albert Adrià talking to his team

Fan girl photo with Albert Adrià!

The Setting
With these tweezers as your utensils.  Kinda works like chopsticks.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

La Boqueria in Barcelona

Back in Barcelona.  Last time, we were classic tourists walking through all of Gaudi's masterpieces throughout the city.  The city was quieter just ten years ago.  Now the city is crammed with tourists from all over the world.

For any food lover, La Boqueria is a standard.  It's one of the world's most known food markets and is definitely impressive.  It overflows with fresh produce, meats, fishes, and foods to eat on the spot.  All the products are high quality and worthy of this world class market.

Go early, you'll walk among locals and those in the food industry.  Go later in the morning and early afternoon, you'll walk among hoards of tourists.  My advice is to go early and plan on eating your way around the market as you feast your eyes on all the goods.

Bombarded with fresh produce, local goods, and colors

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Catholic Pilgrimage to Zaragoza

After a short night in Logroño full of delicious La Rioja wines, cañas of beer, and plates pintxos and tapas, it was time to get back on the road and head for the next destination: Barcelona.

But first, a brief stop along the 4 hour drive in Zaragoza.  About halfway between the two cities, Zaragoza is the 5th largest city in Spain.  After reading about the city and possible sights to check out, Zaragoza became the only city in my itinerary that did not have a food-purpose.  Instead, it was a city on our list for a Catholic pilgrimage.

Prior trips to Europe always included cathedrals, churches, etc.  All were amazing, humongous, and inspiring.  And yet after seeing five or so in a few days, they became too many and the Gothic architecture started to all look the same.  While our trip now was completely food-focused, this Catholic pilgrimage in Zaragoza was a requirement for us as a family of practicing Catholics.

Zaragoza is home to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar - the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.  In January 2, 40AD, St. James (Santiago as he is locally known) saw the Virgin Mary descend atop a marble pillar here in Zaragoza.  This was the only reported apparition of Mary before her Assumption.  On the sight of the pillar, a chapel was built by St. James a year later, followed by the surrounding churches years and centuries later which eventually became what is the Basilica today.  It the first church in history to be dedicated to Blessed Mary.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Friday, November 15, 2013

A taste of Marques de Riscal in La Rioja

We drove into La Rioja hours later than anticipated all because of our horrible afternoon in Pamplona.  Instead leisurely touring three wineries, we could only choose one.  I opted for the most iconic in the La Rioja region - Marques de Riscal.

Just a short 25 minute drive from Logroño, El Ciego proudly holds one of the oldest and most traditional wineries in the La Rioja wine country.  The winery dates back to 1860 and carries its tradition, while representing the future.  After the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Marques de Riscal contracted Frank Gehry to lend his vision in the design of their hotel.  The hotel's outer design is Gehry's interpretation of a red wine bottle - brilliant.

If you can't splurge with a stay at the hotel, a tour of the vineyard is a must.  The property is gorgeous and the facilities are world class.  It only costs 10.25 Euro ($13.80 USD) per person for the 1.5 hour tour which includes 2 tastings.  It's an amazing value for a memorable tour.

View of the vineyard and hotel

Grapes almost ready to be harvested 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Eating in Spain's wine country

When I was last in Spain, I was just 19 and starting my discovery of wines.  Years and bottles later, I now have a huge desire to explore the different wine countries around the world.  If I'm traveling near a known and delicious vineyard - I have to stop by for a taste.

Reds from La Rioja in Spain are my favorites - they are so drinkable and pair perfectly with many kinds of foods.  Just 2 hours south from San Sebastian is La Rioja, with Logroño as the capital of the region.  Logroño is a small town with amazing pintxos, which are mostly located around 2 streets.  Just 2 streets with so many options and possibilities to eat, and, of course, to continue drinking the night away.

The beauty of pintxos crawls is that you taste a variety of specialty foods while sipping on small glasses of beer or wine in every bar.  The night is as epic as you can last.

Early start to pintxos crawling

Monday, November 11, 2013

Towed away in Pamplona

Pamplona, synonymous for the running with the bulls.  A city that's famous for their 8 day festival in July full of complete madness, bulls, crowds, and tomatoes.

What happens in the city outside of those 8 days?  Not much, at all.

So how does the city earn?  Well, let me tell you...

My itinerary for the day was a drive from San Sebastian to Logroño, via Pamplona.  Pamplona is so hyped about because of the bulls and all that tomato throwing.  Since it was along the drive, it seemed like an interesting stop.  Driving through the city and into the fortressed walls, we approached narrow streets and a policeman.  We asked the policeman in black and neon yellow where we could park to walk around the old town.  "Just outside those walls."  So that's exactly where we parked.

After an hour of strolling through the town and into the Catedral's museum, we grabbed some food for the road - fresh bread and chips to eat with our jamón purchased in San Sebastian.  Walking past the gated entrance, my heart stopped.  Our van was gone!  My first thought, "Our van was stolen with all our luggages!"  Horrified, I observed the vicinity and noticed tiny towing signs and a sticker on the ground where our van was parked.  We were towed!!

On the bright side, our car wasn't stolen.  But still, we were in a foreign country and our car was towed!  What happened to parking tickets?!  A Spanish couple told us it's a permit only area - something the policeman did not mention at all.  We called the towing company who refused to speak to my brother in English, so my mom had to speak to them.  Our only option was to find our own way to the police station.

With God on our side, a cab showed up and took us to the police station 20 minutes away.  This city and town are pretty old and you can see Spain's struggling economy in these empty streets.  There's no struggle at all at the police station.  It's modern and way too nice - with its own towing entrance.

After paying a ridiculous 130 Euro fine ($173.75 USD), we found ourselves surrounded by dozens and dozens of other towed cars - I feel their pain.  We tried to ask for why we were towed so quickly, and if there's any way we can pay a lesser amount.  "City package".  WTF.  Clearly this is how they make their money outside of the 8 days in July.  And to make matters worse, the office was filled with policemen dressed like the one who told us where to park.  Truly, it's a city package.

Gated entrances

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Mugaritz Experience

We're not stopping with just one dining experience.  No way.  This trip was designed to be epic.  The schedule for the following day: Continuing my mom's birthday with dinner at Mugaritz.

The morning of this meal, we actually called the restaurant to request moving our dining time to lunch.  We had toured San Sebastian as extensively as we intended, so we were ready to drive out to the countryside and eat another highly anticipated meal.  Fortunately, they easily accommodated our request.

If you're driving, lunch is actually a better option because of the dark roads at night.  Plus, you can enjoy the outdoor setting that surrounds the restaurant while letting the wear off the alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

Mugaritz is a true dining experience in every way.  Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz has more than earned its spot in the world's top lists.  The food showcases nature's ingredients and its seasonality with every bite full of emotion, ingenuity, and execution.  The service is phenomenal, too - Spaniards have such charm.  There's absolutely no stiffness.  You enjoy fine dining, and yet you feel like a VIP at home.  The Mugaritz experience is all about the journey that brings the food towards exceptional and perfection.

Mugaritz Tasting Menu
20+ course tasting menu.  You have a choice whether you want to keep the menu closed and have a surprise for every course, or you want to read the courses and anticipate its arrival based on the title and description.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Arzak Experience

If you make the effort to visit San Sebastian, one of the culinary meccas in the world, you have to make the effort to eat in at least one of their Michelin rated restaurants (San Sebastian holds 14 Michelin stars with a population of just 183,000).  And if you're passionate about food, you have to try to score reservations at the world's top restaurants.

And that is exactly how I formed this trip.  Every city we visited had a food destination.  Spain has specialty foods originating from certain cities or towns.  This country birthed some of the greatest chefs in the world.

Enter, Juan Mari Arzak.  What better way to start our trip than with a dining experience from the godfather of all contemporary Spanish chefs, and, perhaps, of most western chefs today.  And what better way to celebrate my mom's birthday.  Seriously, there is no better way.

Arzak is located just outside of the central parts of San Sebastian.  You enter welcomed by a formal wait staff in traditional garments.  The restaurant is classic, simple, modern, and refined.  The staff and service have that unique Spanish hospitality that graciously makes you feel at home.

We ordered the tasting menu instead of a la carte selections because we assumed this may be our only chance eating here, our once in a lifetime experience.  After eating course after course with some "whoa - that's amazing!" bites, I have a feeling this wasn't our last time.  I could go back and eat the cromlech course and lamb course all over again.  Plus, the a la carte menu had offerings now offered in the tasting menu.  And of course, the menu constantly changes according to season and availability.

The icing to the meal and the whole dining experience was meeting Elena Arzak, Juan Mari's daughter.  She walks around the restaurant unassuming and readily welcomes guests who are eager to meet her, like at our table.  What an amazing night.

Our Tasting Menu
Printed out at the end of our meal.  Complete with our course selections, special requests, and wines for the evening.

Monday, November 04, 2013

San Sebastian - Is this heaven?

If you love food.. love to eat, love to cook.. you have to go to San Sebastian, a true culinary mecca.  All that hype you read and watch about this place, it's all true.  In fact, it's beyond true.

San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, is a coastal city in northern Spain just about 20km south of the French border.  With endlesss blue waters along clean beaches, mixed with lush greenery covering this culture-rich city, this is truly one of the finest destinations Spain has to offer.

Centro and Parte Vieja are the heart of the city filled with shops, cafes, mercados, and endless back to back pintxos bars and restaurants.  The mercados, or markets, are indoors and incredibly clean.  All these fresh fishes and meats make you dream of having an apartment to cook everything offered there.  The pintxos bars just don't stop, and it's amazing.  There's a mix of traditional and modern, with specialty dishes in each of them.  Pace is the trick.  Take it easy on the eating and drinking in each spot, so you can seriously have the whole afternoon and/or evening of nibbling and sipping everything your heart desires.  I think San Sebastian could be heaven.

Non-stop eating, and drinking, starts now.

San Sebastian coastline

Friday, November 01, 2013

Now Entering the Basque Country

The Basque Country - there's no better start to a culinary roadtrip in the Iberian peninsula.  Located in the north of Spain by the French border, this region is filled with history, culture, and amazing eating.

After 17 hours of flying from Manila to Madrid via Bangkok, we arrived shortly before sunrise in Madrid.  (Sunrise happens after 8am.)  Straight from immigration and customs, we loaded our rental van and headed 389 km, or 241 miles, north to Bilbao.  The 3.5 hour drive passes smoothly and quickly thanks to the efficiency of Spanish roads and the gorgeous lush scenery - from golden lands, through vineyards, along rocky mountains, and into green forests.

Bilbao is a city to be desired.  It retains its history and culture, while maintaining clean roads and alleys.  The city is full of pride displaying its love and attention to the arts.  Frank Gehry's Guggenheim certainly brought popularity to the city, and Bilbao has flourished since then.

Aside from the arts, the city houses the largest covered market in Europe, the Mercado de la Ribera.  The market is full of fresh fish, meats, and produce.  It is such a clean market, too!  This was the best introduction into the quality of Spanish food and cooking.  If there markets are this clean, then I knew I'd have no worries about questioning the quality of ingredients during the next 3 weeks of restaurant eating.  What a great taste of what's to come on this epic trip!

Driving from Madrid to Bilbao
Immediately boarded the rental car after exiting the airport.  389km/242miles in 3.5 hours.  The roads and the ride was smooth and gorgeous.  Spain has beautiful countrysides, making it ideal for an early fall roadtrip.