October 6, 2009

"Con Dos Fogones" Worst of Madrid Dining

It would seem that there are very few places to eat in Madrid by virtue of the fact that there are more than a few establishments that continue to exist, or even thrive, despite unacceptably mediocre or even bad food. However, anyone who has ever been here knows that the opposite is true. Madrid abounds with restaurants and bars - all the more reason to be confounded by a couple of my recent dining experiences.
I spent last Sunday lunch at the restaurant, "Con Dos Fogones", located in San Bernadino 9 . It was my second visit, my first being about three years ago at which time I swore I would never go back. Unfortunately, being a firm believer in second chances, I did.
The only thing I remember about my first visit was that the food was mediocre at best, and overpriced at worst. The most significant point of reference was the fact that we were seated in the back room and there were at least three sticks of incense burning within four feet of the table on either side. At the time, the smell was so overwhelming and nauseating that the food was the least of my worries. I also remember the service being somewhat surly, but given that the restaurant web page specifically states "we like to have an intimate and friendly relationship with our customers", I thought that maybe I had just caught them on an off day. I was wrong.
The service last Saturday was not only surly, but actually outright rude and unpleasant - and interestingly enough we recognized a couple of the faces from the earlier visit. With the exception of one moderately polite waiter (who unfortunately was not ours), we were treated with disdain and outright nastiness by the other two or three other members of the staff. When the shared starter arrived, a 9 euro quesadilla with avocado and cheddar, I came to conclusion that the hostilities of the waitstaff were intended to distract us from the fact that the cheese was rotten, or at least to scare us into submission. While I may not have a Michelin star, I was a professional chef long enough to be able to recognize the stench of rotten cheddar - and most of my 5 companions smelled it immediately as well. I also know from personal experience that things can happen, no kitchen is perfect, and that things can sometimes get away from us. No problem, right. Apparently pointing out discreetly and kindly that the cheese was passed its prime was a problem, both for the waitress and the chef who sent us back the message that we were completely wrong, that we had no idea what we were talking about and that the cheese was fresh as can be.
The next tip off should have been the fact that curry played such a heavy (and often surprise) role in all of the dishes that followed. The 10 euro hamburger (which came without a bun - also a surprise) was infused with curry (surprise) and the meat, which was purportedly beef, was pale gray in color, although the flavor wasn't bad, providing you like curry. The chicken and avocado crepe with bechamel sauce was not only curry laden (surprise!), but also suspiciously rubbery and mystery saucy. I ordered the solomillo and asked the waitress if the shitake sauce had onions, given that I am allergic. She told me no, but luckily it came on the side as I later discovered that it was full of huge onion pieces. The 18 euro meat was fine, cooked to my specifications if not a bit tasteless, but the tempura of red and green peppers was as greasy and heavy as something deep fried in heavy batter two days before and then microwaved to order, while the sweet potato-pumpkin puree was lackluster and tasteless as can be.
Truthfully, if I seem to be relating this experience at all gleefully or with an eye to vengence, I'm not. I would rather think that restaurants that continue to exist in Madrid do so because the food is decent, the ambiance pleasant and the people who work there somewhat agreeable. "Con Dos Fogones" failed these three modest requests by all accounts - and most particularly with regards to the downright angry treatment by the staff.
The fact that it ended up at an offensive almost 30 euros a head (for 2 shared starters, 1 entree each, and a couple of rounds of beers) doesn't even bother me. I could not be induced to return to this restaurant for any price at all.

August 19, 2009

Restaurant La Passarelle, Marseille - and the best lettuce of my life

When walking through Marseille in late July wheeling suitcases and toting guide book laden shoulder bags in 90% humidity, it may seem that the city is larger and more labyrinthine then you imagined when first mapping out the location of your hotel at home that very morning. It also seems to be incredibly steep and hilly on some sides, that is, until a few days later when you repeat the same drill in Genova. Marseille is a large city, to be sure, but one that is so easily explored and magnificently arrayed around the old port and the more winding streets that rise up behind it, that its charms transform with every few steps unveiling a host of new surprises; the greatest of these being Restaurant "La Passarelle".
Sandwiched rather ingeniously between the Radisson Hotel and the Vieux Port, the first thing that is impossible not to notice (and be envious of) is the fact that there is a massive vegetable garden in the middle of the city center. Tucked next-to and under a long and modern staircase connecting two parallel streets of very different elevations, the garden seems sprawling, thriving, and completely and wonderfully utilitarian. It is easy to see the tomato plants, zucchinis, peas, dill, cucumbers, carrots, strawberry plants, etc. through the fence around this corner lot, as well as the thing that almost makes my heart stop, an elevated wooden terrace covered in tables - a restaurant!
This has always been my dream restaurant, a simple place with its own garden serving just a couple of dishes that change on a daily basis depending on what's in season. The menu is posted on the wall of the actual restaurant, located in a building just across the street. It is handwritten, with just three starters, three entrees and a couple of desserts. I start to get so excited that I begin calculating how many times we can eat here before we have to leave the city. I start planning our next trip to Marseille. Enrique reminds me that we havn't eaten here yet. We make a reservation for dinner that night on the terrace in the garden, although it is worth mentioning that the inside of the restaurant is very charming and inviting as well.
I tend to live in a world of food expectations. I have been known to ruin restaurants for myself just by virtue of the fact that I get so excited, my expectations so high; although I would also argue that I am not picky in the least. I don't demand a fancy setting or incredible service, or even "fancy" food, only good ingredients cooked well for a reasonable price (with regards to what you are getting).That being said, I can comfortably say that even if you were to take away the beautiful garden and candle-lit terrace that greeted us at La Passarelle when we arrived that evening, I would still remember this meal as one of the most delicious that I have ever had - although I can't even remember exactly what we ate. The first dish was a choice between an onion tart with thyme, a cold melon soup and a mixed salad plate, which is what we ordered. It was very simple. Baby carrots and green beans, a bit of hummus, maybe some kind of marinated eggplant and olives, hummus, and baby salad greens dressed with only sea salt, lemon juice a touch of oil. The lettuce was unbelievably good, as were the carrots and the beans, and everything else for that matter... I have been trying to replicate it at home ever since. The waitress told us that while the garden didn't produce enough vegetables to cover the needs of the restaurant, everything they use is from a local organic farmer, as is the meat, fish etc. Our entrees came as a slight surprise as one was a deliciously herbed pork (expected) and the other a seared lamb's liver with almonds (unexpected). In our excitement, hunger and not-perfect French, we had pieced together the foods on the menu (charmingly handwritten everyday in a agenda-like book which makes it fun to go back and look at what dishes were being served when), and had seen foie and agneau - oh, we love both foie and lamb - but had not realized that it was actually foie OF agneau. Disappointed for about 10 seconds when the plate arrived to the table, I don't usually like the texture or gamey flavor of meaty livers and neither does Enrique, we soon realized that it was as delicious as everything else on the table and once again exemplified what I have come to think of as French cooking - fresh ingredients, prepared perfectly in such a way as to accent and bring out their very best qualities. I am so jealous.
We finished with a dessert of nutty baked apricot and, after coming to the end of our Côtes de Provence rosé, were invited by the charming waitress to a locally made brandy.
The evening's soundtrack provided by a splashing fountain and the quiet murmurings of the other diners (strangely and wonderfully quiet compared to Spain). As we were savoring our brandies, the bartender from the nice looking bar down the street ran into the garden with a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut some more mint for his mojitos, bringing to life the heart-warming concept of a community garden and rounding off one of the most delightful and perfect meals that I have ever enjoyed.

Restaurant La Passarelle
- Chez Phillippe et Patricia
52, rue du Plan Fourmiguier (au cul de la Criée)
13007 Marseille, France
tel- (+33) 0668627787 - 0610965810

(by the way, Marseille is a wonderful city and a great place to visit)

March 26, 2009

Crisis, what crisis?

While I know that the whole world is in crisis mode, economic crisis this and economic crisis that, I have to admit that it is tough to think that we may have to brace up to hear this kind of talk for a long time to come. I am not being glib, in fact I am more or less out of work at the time, and am personally feeling some of the effects of the economic downturn either directly or indirectly. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s all I want to talk or read about. Drawing a rather obtuse connection to this statement, I might say that I was either a.disgruntledly amused b.annoyed or c.bored by Frank Bruni’s latest NYTimes article entitled: Comrades at Arms: Two Food Writers in a Kitchen Smackdown , about a challenge between two of the culinary staffers to create the best possible meal for 6 people on a 50$ budget. I guess I’m mainly just surprised that this appears to be such a challenge to these folks, and perhaps not the best example to set during these tough times. While I myself am definitely of the “spend all my (former) paycheck on delicious ingredients at the market” persuasion, 50$ is plenty of money for a delicious meal for 6, and more than what most people spend in general for a daily meal. I think that a truly fun and challenging thing would maybe have been to set the bar a bit lower, maybe 20 dollars, 10? I’m also supposing that this 50$ limit would not have included drinks for example, maybe requiring that enough wine for everyone be included in the budget could really spice things up. It is tremendously rewarding to find a delicious 2 euro bottle of young wine from Navarra or La Mancha for example – although maybe this is one of the advantages of living in Spain. In any case, I also don’t agree with the fact that “the best way to disguise a limit and leave guests feeling pampered was to present a long sequence of treats”, as stated in the article. At times there is nothing more rewarding than a delicious plato unico as they say in Spain, a hearty dish reminiscent of those many dishes that in fact originated or were staples during tough economic times: polenta, migas, paella, etc., and there’s no reason that this cannot be gourmet on a tight budget. In any case, taking a line from an aspiring small town politician, I’ll give it some thought and get back to ya.

January 21, 2009

Gimme Dimi

There is very little that I can say about this new Japanese-Korean restaurant without interspersing it with comments such as "I would go every day if I could, twice" and "I want the chefs to live with me and will sell my furniture to make space for them"!
Ah, glee. It has been so long since I have been able to recommend a restaurant 100% without a single reservation. I almost don´t want to share it with anyone.
Actually, I think I won´t. Well, ok.

C/Rodriguéz San Pedro, 67

January 18, 2009

Restaurant Reviewing

Let us all bow our heads and laud the coming of a society where food and drink are so highly praised, where every self-respecting newspaper and magazine has a culinary writer, and where you can’t sneeze without finding locally made grass-fed chorizo.
Welcome to Madrid, a place where you can still get absolutely stellar material prima. There are great fruits and vegetables, a fantastic variety of meats, and some of the freshest fish you can find anywhere in Spain; and the best part is that most of the products that you buy at your local market ARE, in fact, organic, although not labeled as such due to the its yet perceived unimportance. There is also new species of gourmet specialty shops opening here: chocolate, cheese, oil, etc., and of course an invasion of new restaurants, one a block, one a minute, and each more modern than the last. Let us praise the fact that in Madrid the culinary craze has hit just as hard. The only problem is that this evolution has, in many ways, made dining out in Madrid a nightmare.
The problem could perhaps be best described by the age old Mom-ism, “well if all your friends want to jump off a cliff would you want to jump of a cliff too?” In the Madrid restaurant scene the answer is a resounding just tell me when and where to jump. Now don’t misunderstand me, there are excellent restaurants in Madrid, both old and new, but the problem seems to boil down to a pervasive lack of criteria that has suddenly given the green light to either creating an incredible atmosphere of design and style and adding the food as an afterthought, or more recently, throwing a coat of paint on an old restaurant, giving it a new name or look, and charging ridiculously exorbitant prices for food that is pretty much same ole same ole. The even bigger problem as far as I can tell is that there is no one thorough and more importantly, independent restaurant review network here. The closest that I have found is the Metropoli guide published by El Mundo newspaper, which is actually a very complete guide to restaurants in Madrid. The problem is that Metropoli calls you up, tells you they’re coming by, and as far as I know and in my own experience, has their food chosen and paid for by the establishment. Therefore, I propose to create anonymous (to the restaurant) forum for restaurant reviews, not with the intention of weeding out the bad, but also with the objective of piling praise on the good. While the rating system might take a while to sort out, sometimes I think it best just to get the ball rolling.
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