August 29, 2007

to Boycott or not to Boycott, why do we love to eat out?

I have been mulling over a tough question the past couple of decades that I hope to address here with frequency, what makes a good restaurant? Or, what makes a restaurant good? The obvious answer and the only one that makes any sense is that it is a combination of factors: food, ambiance, service and of course price. The tricky thing however is figuring out the correct combination of these things, given that there are so so many ways that they can meld together harmoniously. Some of my favorite restaurants are beautiful, and some are dives. Some have delicious wonderfully elaborate food and others I crave for the simplest of dishes. Sometimes, nothing but a greasy hamburger can fill that whole. I love a bargain, but I don't mind spending the money once in a while for a truly fabulous meal. I sometimes relish the surly old school Spanish waiters that grump and groan at you and I hate being fawned over. Other times, I can diatribe for hours on how it doesn't take an effort to be friendly, or at least polite. So what is the magical blend and how do we read the signs to discover if we should become a regular or become a boycotter (I am not a vindictive person, I swear)? I plan on using this space and the RESTAURANT entries/reviews that I write in this blog to analyze this, to find out, and to undoubtedly make myself hungry along the way.

August 24, 2007

Adrià, the Reluctant Traveler?

I do honestly and sincerely believe that Ferran Adrià, renowned chef of El Bulli, is an artist. His creations are so otherworldly, creative and ethereal at times that it is hard to remember that they are also deliciously edible and not just sculptural feats of greatness. That being said, I just cannot get over his "contribution" to the documenta contemporary art exhibition which, in a word, I think is lame.
To quote the El Bulli press release, "When (the curator of the documenta) Roger Buergel invited Ferran Adrià, he became the first cook in the history of haute cuisine to participate in Documenta..."
This is significant. It is a move to expand the world of art past what we traditionally think of as art (photography, sculpture, painting) and to accept that artistic design can flourish in different formats. I was excited. I thought, "this is it, cooking as an art form recognized on the scale of world class contemporary art", and I booked my tickets to Germany to attend this exposition that only takes place every five years.
Ferran Adriá however, must have forgotten to book his tickets because he wasn´t there!
Nor was there any sign of him apart from a little corner on the exposition map designating the different pavilion locations that read, El Bulli, Tarragona, Spain. (But, I just came from Spain!)Rather than coming to the documenta and presenting something, anything - he stayed in El Bulli and declared that his contribution to the event would consist of inviting two guests a day for the duration of the exposition to dine in his restaurant.
Fabulous, so sign me up! Where do I put my raffle ticket? Then I read that it was for two guests a day that would be hand chosen by director Buergal himself, and I heard a rumor that they had to pay for it, not to mention travelling to Spain for it.
So where exactly is the part where ordinary people that have made their hotel, train, plane and automobile reservations and paid their 30 euros entrance fee, get to experience food as art? Or even the possibility of food as art? A mere whiff, a pamphlet poster, photo, catalog, a copy of a menu? I did read today that Adrià made a special menu inspired in the documenta. Too bad you didn´t even HEAR about it at the actual exposition. The article, from the newspaper La Razón (23 Aug.), ends with the line. "Everything in El Bulli is a mystery". They got that right.

August 21, 2007

Adrià´s Chemistry 101

Always a master of selling, something, renowned chef Ferran (and Albert) Adrià has come up with a kit that does things to food - although I´m still not sure what. The name of the kit translates more or less to "Basic Spherification" and contains four different cylindrical containers that hold the secret to creating different textures in food, something that Adrià has mastered to perfection. From what I can understand both from his own web page and an article from today´s El País, is that it gives users the ability to "gel" liquids into the form of different spheres by submerging them in different substances. The resulting spheres might be the size of caviar, eggs, or raviolis. The gels can then be manipulated into different forms, creating your own Bulli-esque creations, as well as modified by other substances from the kit that can be used to correct the amount of acidity, for example. In addition, there is another line called "Surprises" which contains options such as "Fizzy" (used to create effervescence), and "Crumiel", which creates crunch. The price of the kit is 55 euros and I must confess that I am dying to try it.
Considering both how fascinating, complicated, and artistic this all sounds, my suggestion would have been for Ferran Adrià to use his space at this year´s Documenta (contemporary art exposition in Kassel, Germany that takes place every 5 years), to demonstrate these techniques, instead of disillusioning thousands of people with his promised participation in the festival, which in the end only consisted of putting his restaurant El Bulli on the exposition map, thus gaining free publicity with zero effort. Put that in your liquid and gel it.

Trans Fat , Transformation?

(photo thanks to)

Good news! According to the latest trans fat update published in the New York Times, trans fat has been struck yet another debilitating blow in the form of banishment from the Illinois State Fair.
Yes, that´s right, this is good news for those of us who have been worried that deep fried Snickers, Ho-Ho´s, or Peanut Butter Cups might be too fattening, or dare I say, unhealthy? The measure has been greeted with mixed feelings by the Fair fry-folk, some of whom complain that the new trans fat free oil has to be changed more frequently (frequently then what? I ask, afraid of the answer), while others have noted that this change might have dire consequences, making people believe that these foods are actually healthy now and that they can eat more of them.
ve been told that this is the first banishment to follow the 1967 ruling that outlawed fruits and vegetables anywhere within a four mile radius of a Ferris wheel.

August 14, 2007

There´s more to Cuenca than Morteruelo, thank goodness!

Cuenca is nothing if not dramatic. Perched on a rocky outcropping with deep river gorges falling off on both sides and spanned by a beautiful steel and wood pedestrian bridge. Houses hanging precariously over the great expanse, the nexus of Spanish abstract art, immensly tall cyprus trees that seem to lap up the deep blue sky, massive stone sculptures, naturally sculpted to look like fists being brandished in the sky, and morteruelo, the most traditional dish in the coquense cuisine.
Oh yes, they love the drama here. As far as I´m concerned, morteruelo (see photo above) is about as dramatic a dish as you can get. Basically, you take some rabbits, partridges, chicken, ham, liver, pork etc. and cook it for a really long time with bread, broth and a whole bunch of spices such as oregano and paprika, until it has the consistency of mushy gruel. Other names for it are great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts, I´m only kidding, but as a special regional dish it´s not the easiest one to learn to love, and especially not when served hot with even more bread in the dead heat of August, in Spain. But yet, here in Cuenca you see it everywhere. Menus hanging outside of restaurants, beckoning people to come in and try their fare, seem to mock you with morteruelo, as if challenging your stomach to a digestive feat, saying "come on, let´s see how AUTHENTIC a tourist you really are".
I was that authentic of a tourist here, once, but this time around I was hoping that Cuenca could introduce me to some new gastronomic experiences, and I was not disappointed.
The name of the restaurant was Recreo Peral, its existence weasled out of our hotel manager when we insisted that we wanted to go to a non-touristy restaurant (the touristy ones all have the gorgeous views of the gorge below). What I really wanted to ask him was to recommend a restaurant that does not serve morteruelo, but I figured it would be better not to push my luck.
The restaurant can be reached by a lovely road that goes through the historic center of Cuenca, descending down off the plateau and passing by beautiful houses and a convent that have been sculpted out of the rock and bathed in ivy and flowers. At times, the urban walkway takes you under natural stone arches and outcroppings before it descends down to the level of Cuenca´s other river, the Júcar. The restaurant almost looks like one of those slatted farmhouses where you would find an old waterwheel, with two outdoor terraces on either side and a glassed in dining room, all facing the river.
After little cañas (beers) on the outdoor terrace, we moved inside for dinner which began with complementary glasses of cava rosado. A nice touch, and not at all typical in my experience in Spain. The indoor space is quite pleasant, like a glassed in porch filled with Saturday night diners. The only incongruous details were the very modern mismatched plates that the first course was served on and then the too large somewhat old-fashioned plates that came with the main course. The modern and clean lines mingled together with outdated tablecloths printed with the name of the restaurant and current bull fighting posters on the wall. In addition to good and attentive service, the setting and the tiny embellishments (like the glasses of cava) that the restaurant tacked on to the meal gave the whole experience that comfortable feel of quality without pretention - a back woods country club perhaps.
We ordered a salad with slim green asparagus, nuts, citrus fruit, endives and marinated cod. I have to admit I was expecting the oily smoked cod that you normally get on salads - straight out of the packet and onto the plate - but I was delighted to discover that it was fresh cod, and a lot of it, sliced from the loin in thick cool slabs. Next, they brought us some lemon sorbet and then for the main course solomillo or beef tenderloin, simply prepared with rock salt and as grilled to a tender and flavorful perfection. The food was as simple as it was well prepared, and even more importantly with fresh ingredients and attention to detail.
I was tempted to try a local wine from the ample selection and was thrilled when the waiter suggested a 2003 crianza called Casa de Illana (Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Cauvignon) that was half the price (only 13 euros) of the wine that I was originally going to order. Neither incredibly aromatic nor incredibly full bodied, it was nonetheless fantastic on the palate: velvety, smooth, spicey and balanced wafting notes of clove and tart cherry jam.
Had the food and wine of Recreo Peral chased the drama away? Feeling peacefully satisfied and tranquil, we made our way back through the town towards our hotel. I tripped over nothing, fell in the street and sprained my ankle, narrowly avoiding getting hit by an oncoming car. Dramatic dramatic dramatic.

Restaurante Recreo Peral
Carretera Cuenca-Tragacete, Km 1
16002 Cuenca
Tel: 969 22 46 43
Average price for a dinner for two with wine around 75 euros

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