Monday, September 28, 2009

The Internet Has Failed Me

Or at least my shaky knowledge of HTML is. If you're on, the look of this site may appear to be a bit different. The real deal is still here. I'm trying to get the two to talk, but I ain't no peacebroker.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Salaryman's Guide: the Flaming Lips (Inaugural Edition)

About two or three summers ago, we had bought two tickets to see the Flaming Lips which, for a variety of reasons, we couldn't use. Instead of letting the tickets go to waste, I asked around the office to see if anyone could use them. I sent one email out to various co-workers that were around the same age; I sent another email out to the entire office. No one had heard of the Flaming Lips.

This blew my mind.

Granted, it's not like the Flaming Lips are the biggest band in the world: my parents would acknowledge that they've at least heard of U2, but I would never expect them to have heard of the Flaming Lips. Conversely, however, it's not like the Flaming Lips are a little garage band playing open stage hours at the pub: the show was at the Malkin Bowl, in Stanley Park (this summer, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and Cat Power played the same venue). How does that large a phenomena in popular culture go unnoticed in an office of over a hundred, wherein the majority of people are in the 20 to 40 age bracket?

Over the past few years where I've gone from carefree student to indifferent workerman, I've noticed this happen on multiple occasions, be it with bands, movies, restaurants or some other trend or fad. It'd be easy to laugh at this in some sort of self-righteous, holier-than-thou kind of way, but it's not like these folks were some sort of backwater hicks or Stepford Wife suburbanites. Many, if not most, were simply people that spent a good chunk of their youth working extremely hard to make a career for themselves, found themselves with families to support and just plain didn't have enough time to spend surfing the web or reading magazines. (And, of course, a handful were just plain lost.)

If and when they did find time to seek out new things, I've inevitably fielded questions on all sorts of things. What's that crazy band you're listening to in your office? What's a new restaurant to go to? What movie should I take my wife to? I've always loved answering these questions, and I've found much more earnest and sincere music/movie/food/etc fans than I'd ever met in all the various circles I've been in that have purportedly been bound and formed by mutual interest.

And so, I thought I'd start this: the Salaryman Guide. A user-friendly service that will hopefully skim over the surface of the grand iceberg known as popular culture. It seemed obvious to have the Flaming Lips as the inaugural post.

The Flaming Lips
Who is This, and Why Should I Know About Them? Well, as college/art rock bands go, weird doesn't get more accessible than the Flaming Lips. Anyone that remotely listened and liked the Beach Boys beyond "Help Me Rhonda" or heard half of any prog rock album should be able to connect the dots.

When Would I Have Missed This? In 93, the Flaming Lips had a modest hit in "She Don't Use Jelly." It's one of those songs with diminishing returns; it just gets less and less amusing the more you listen to it... and, in 93, you had to listen to it ALOT.

Shortly thereafter, the Flaming Lips generated buzz with a handful of odd experiments. With their Boombox Experiments, the Flaming Lips would arrange up to 40 friends play boomboxes loaded with music that they had composed, each playing the tape, adjusting the volume, messing with the tape speed, etc. at varying times. With Zaireeka, they released an album spread over 4 CDs that were meant to be played simultaneously. So: weird for the sake of being weird. But in a delightful sense.

In 99, though, the Flaming Lips released The Soft Bulletin, which took them from weirdo art band to mainstream success (as in graduating from Conan to Leno). This saw the Flaming Lips end up in countless tv shows, movies, commercials, etc. This continued on in 2002 with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and, to a lesser extent, with War With the Mystics in 2006.

Where Should I Start? Just skip past the mid 90s output and start with Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi.
Both are honest to God albums, as in need to be listened to start-to-finish, odd for our current times where the single reigns supreme. Plus, these are the ones that Justin Timberlake latched onto, and who's to argue with that guy?

"Race for the Prize" from The Soft Bulletin

The Flaming Lips - Race For The Prize from Phil Bebbington on Vimeo.

Uh.... If this ain't your cup of tea, don't worry. I'm not sure the Lips have that much traction with the kids nowaday, either: 3 years is a long time to go when the collective attention span grows shorter and shorter, and there's been a lot of Animal Collective albums that have come out since then. But they do have a new album, Embryonic, that comes out this month, which will hopefully change that.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 3 - Chorizo Cornbread

After a week off from the cornbread trials, we got back into the swing of things full force this weekend. We had poured through old issues of Gourmet, and came across an obligatory Thanksgiving issue that featured a chorizo/cornbread stuffing. We didn't really have any use for stuffing, but thought it might not be a bad idea to have a chorizo stuffed cornbread as a standalone side in itself.

I assumed this would be pretty straightforward - iterations of bread stuffed with meat feature high in all cultures, and figured the chorizo/cornbread combo would be pretty big in Southern fare. The stuffing seemed popular enough as it is, so it's not a huge revelation to flip it up the way we wanted. It was surprising, then, that there was a pretty limited array of recipes online for this, and we finally opted to make it up as we went along.

After looking at a few cornbread recipes now, it isn't hard to figure out the main ingredients: cornmeal, all purpose flour, milk, eggs, baking powder, and some sort of fat, be it butter or oil. It's really just about the proportions (we'll get to Michael Ruhlman's magic ratios eventually), or the extra bells and whistles: in this case, chorizo.

We bought some pork chorizo and took the meat out of its casing for a closer look, and figured the fat from the sausage in itself would probably negate having to use much butter, and found that other recipes didn't use butter at all. Instead, then, we opted for canola oil, which keeps the cornbread moist without imparting too much of its own flavour. In the end, our concoction went something like this:

dry ingredients: 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 tbsp baking powder, 2 tbsp sugar;
wet ingredients: 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, 1/4 cup canola oil
chorizo: 2 links, which ended being about a 1/2lb. Brown it first, obviously.

Mix the dry ingredients together, and mix the wet ingredients together separately. Combine the two, mix it until it gets to that cornmeal/grits look to it, and then mix in the chorizo so that it's evenly distributed.

It might seem odd to add that much sugar at first, but, depending on the spice of your chorizo, it takes some of the bite out and balances it out. A 1/4 cup of canola oil might seem like a lot too - we probably used a bit less - but, again, it depends on the chorizo: the sausage we got didn't really have too much fat (thanks Whole Foods!), and, because you'll have to refrigerate any leftover cornbread because of the meat, you'll need just a tad bit more than you'd think in order to keep it from drying out in the cold.

12 more days to go! Here's the accompanying song for this trial:
Calypso King & the Soul Investigators (the same Soul Investigators that back up Nicole Willis) - "Greasy Pork"

Here's a Mos Def related track as well to recap the week. Truly one of the best hip hop shows I've seen. The guy's an ENTERTAINER.

Fela Kuti - "Fear Not For Man"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 2 - Food & Wine

After this, my sophomore foray into the world of cornbread, I felt a general buzz of confidence. I've messed up my fair share of pies, pastries, etc., so a 2 & 0 for edible product might have gone to my head. That, of course, didn't last long.

The day after I made this second cornbread, from a recipe in Food & Wine's February 2008 issue, a co-worker of mine showed up with a gigantic loaf of red pepper/cayenne cornbread that pretty much made me weep. Moist, spicy, light...sigh. It's just more proof that these cornbread trials may have a ways to go.

Here's the Food & Wine details:

Toasted Cornmeal Corn Bread
2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
1.5 cups whole milk
2/3 cup honey, warmed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350. Oil a 9x13 inch pan. In a medium skillet, toast the cornmeal overly moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk with the honey and eggs. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and whisk until moistened. Add the butter and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 30 minutes until golden.

The opening blurb to the recipe reads: "Toasting the cornmeal first gives the corn bread a heartier flavour." Well, if it did, I didn't notice, 'cause a 2/3 cup of honey IS A LOT OF HONEY. Well, at least for a cornbread.

For the most part, the sweetness caught us a bit off guard, and this cornbread really ended up being alot more like a loaf than anything you would have as a side. It would go well with a spicy main, but probably too filling to be a side in most meals. Unless, of course, you can pack that shizz away (hot dog eating champ, I'm lookin' at you). I'd either cut the honey by a half next time, or use the recipe for cornmeal muffins.

The coarseness of the cornmeal does take abit of getting used to. I gave my co-worker a sample, and the bite-i-ness of it took her aback. It does make the cornbread more dense and substantial, so changing to a fine grain might be another way to make this cornbread a bit less of a grandstand on the table.

One note: the butter. Oh, man: the butter. There's just no understatement of how far a bit (or a lot) of butter can take any type of baking, and we really noticed the difference with this cornbread. It was just perfectly moist, but after hearing that my co-worker puts sour cream in her cornbread, I'm curious to see how much further I can take this.

Anyway, here's what I was listening to when I made this:
Ballin' Jack - "Found a Child" (specifically, that break at 2:11, which I could put on repeat all day)

As an endnote, it's funny to compare issues of Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Gourmet through the past two years. Has anyone else noticed how skimpy these magazines have gotten? Eat Me Daily has. Ad pages were down in the latter two magazines by 40% and 51.9%, respectively. That's a huge drop, and not a good sign for an industry that's been at a crossroads. But why the heck is Conde Nast running two competing magazines, anyway? Just sayin'. 'Course, if Bon Appetit continues to run awesome pieces like this David Chang (Momofuku) comic, I'd be really disappointed to see it go.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 1 - Saveur's Texas Issue

My sister's in the midst of planning a full-tilt barbecue for my nephew's first birthday. A barbecue is not something we take lightly, having been indoctrinated in the world of all-things-smoky during our parent's tenure in Texas. When she asked me to be in charge of the cornbread, I took this task to heart: I've got a little less than a month to produce the perfect product.

I love me some cornbread. It's not quite the same as having a dinner roll or baguette to accompany a meal. Cornbread is a feature unto its own. It's got its own heartbeat, enough to straddle the line between main and side, and not to be treated as an afterthought. Anyone that's had it warm, either fried in bacon grease or with a pat of butter will attest to that.

The first version we tested was from Saveur's July 2009 Texas issue:

Jalapeno Cornbread
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups flour
1.5 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp and 1 tsp baking powder
2.5 tsp salt
2 cups milk
0.5 cup corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
0.75 cup fresh/frozen corn kernels
0.75 cup sliced pickled jalapenos
2 tbsp butter

Heat oven to 425. Whisk cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt in a large bowl. Whisk in milk, corn oil, and eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in corn and jalapenos. Heat a 12" cast-iron skillet; grease with butter. Pour in batter, bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.

I made a few variations to the ingredients. First off, I'm not a huge fan of overly sweet cornbread, and prefer mine to be on the savory side. 1.5 tbsp of sugar seemed like an awful lot to me, so I reduced it to 1 tbsp, particularly as I wasn't sure how sweet the corn would be. For the corn, I picked up a few fresh ears of 2 colour corn grown locally, which didn't end up being nearly as sweet as I thought it would (an ear of peaches and cream corn or yellow corn probably would've been sweeter). One medium-sized cob turns out to yield roughly 0.75 cup.

Pickled jalapenos also ain't the easiest to fine, or, moreover, I was way too lazy to look for it on a Saturday afternoon and thought fresh jalapenos would work out just fine. My brother-in-law also has a heightened sensitivity to spice, so I cut that amount down to 2 jalapenos, which I assume would be about a third of a cup, tops.

If you've never made cornbread before, it bakes quick. 35 minutes is probably a bit on the high side; mine was probably done around the 25 to 30 minute mark. I didn't have a 12" cast-iron skillet - those bitches can be mad expensive - so I just used our standard 9" square baking pan.

Going over the recipe, you'll notice one thing: there's little to no butter involved. In fact, the only butter that is used is really just to grease the pan. This cornbread relies mostly on the milk and corn oil for its moistness, which is why you'll want to opt for milk with a higher fat content than usual (I went with 2% as we mostly drink skim; bachelors/husbands with tolerant wives will want to opt for homo).

We bought a little cornbread from Whole Foods just to have a frame of reference (it's the little round one in the picture above). Their's was definitely more in the sweet variety, and had little niblets of corn. For a cornbread that's probably been sitting on the shelf for at least a day, Whole Foods does a good job of keeping it moist.

Overall, ours ended up alright, though I'd probably add in that missing 0.5tbsp of sugar that I skimped out on, particularly next to the Whole Foods one. It might not be the most health-conscious decision, but I'd probably also add in a little butter for that added umph, but the fact that it didn't really have any certainly kept the missus happy. I'm also a bit curious to see what the skillet adds to the whole thing, so I'm off to go get one today...maybe.

Here's a Gaturs track to accompany: "Gator Bait"

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Madrid Eats: Dassa Bassa

For our last night in Madrid - and Spain - we really wanted to go all out and go nuts, and where better than in the land where molecular gastronomy has entered the household vernacular? We searched online for some quality nouveau Spanish cuisine, and Dassa Bassa seemed to be a popular choice.

Dassa Bassa is the home of Dario Barrio, whom NY Times calls one of Madrid's "five disciples of the haute cuisine guru Ferran Adria," which only emphasizes what an enormous impact Adria has had on an entire culture. It's hard to over-exaggerate just how famous Adria is in his native land, and even harder to think of any one chef that has so much impact on any one culture save for, perhaps, Escoffier. In any case, Barrio is a young, rising star in Madrid, and host of Todos Contra El Chef, a Spanish version of UK's Britain versus Chef, where spectators challenge Barrio to a duel. It doesn't hurt matters much that Barrio's one handsome dude:

We found Dassa Bassa on the outskirts of the Salamanca district, which is where the posh and glamorous reside in Madrid. If you've ever wondered where the beautiful people roam in Spain, this is it. We visited the restaurant the day before to ensure we could get reservations (note to the wise: just ask for a reservation at 9:30. It's late for us N.American folks, but too early for the locals to entertain). It's not the easiest place to find, and it looks like a tiny lounge from the street level. However, the actual restaurant is below the street level, in a maze of old cellar rooms that have been completely modernized and redone. The manager, proud of just how gorgeous the space is, wanted to give us a tour of the restaurant that afternoon, and who were we not to oblige?

It's always somewhat unnerving when you arrive at a place close to 10pm and the only other table in sight are seniors, but that's Madrid for you. We sat to an serving of olives and yucca chips, which turned out to be the first course of the tasting menu without us having even ordered it (we did). The place slowly filled up, mostly with other tourists in the know, with locals following close behind.

Once we had ordered, the next item really set the stage: the gin fizz. I've never had a tasting menu where a cocktail is one of the courses, but I can't say I'm opposed. The shot glass was filled with seltzer water, with the gin encapsulated in this bubble sphere floating at the top. Meant to be downed in one gulp, the orb of gin bursts in the mouth with the rush of seltzer water to mix.

A little espresso cup of a chilled ginger and leak soup followed. Soup in shot glasses isn't exactly a new thing, but this one was more like a foamy drink than a pedestrian chilled soup, and refreshing after a day in the summer sun.

After four starters, the actual courses commenced with a gazpacho. Instead of the usual tomato soup that college kids serve at their first few grown-up dinner parties, this gazpacho had a healthy base of strawberry thrown into the mix, which made it much more of an interesting flavour combination than expected.

I've only ever known bonito as those little dried flakes that adorn so many Japanese dishes, but here we were served an actual piece of bonito, which is similar to a tuna. Bonito is a dry, firm fish, and it would be pretty easy to overcook. This bonito, though, was well-prepared, and served with a citrus sorbet of sorts, and a bed of peppers. This gave a great dose of sweetness to the dish that would have otherwise been on the meat-y, protein-y side.

To keep the dry fish theme going, the next course was hake, which, of course, was also perfectly prepared. I remember this as being served in a bonito broth, which had the right amount of saltiness that the traditional dried and salted hake has.

I cannot and will not cease in extolling the virtues of suckling pig. Every culture has some version of the suckling pig, and for good reason: there's very few dishes that are more perfect. Dassa Bassa's version had layers of suckling pork sitting atop a cornmeal type base, which in itself was in a slightly sweet sauce. On top, the most crucial element: the crackling (oh, GOD, the crackling!), with another citrus-y glob that was reminiscent of that atop the bonito, but at room temperature. Simply perfect.

I don't remember much about dessert number one - it has been almost two months - but I do remember a good dose of gin, tying it to the gin fizz served at the beginning, a layer of sweet ice, and feeling like I needed to take a picture of all the layers involved. There you go. A good palate cleanser to transition.

I do remember slightly more about dessert number two, a chocolate fudge. It doesn't look like much from the picture, but underneath the surface of chocolate fudge pudding was an array of nuts, chocolate, cake-y goodness underneath.

Things ended off with a selection of petite fours, which I feel should really end all dinners around the world, everywhere. These included a selection of truffles, passionfruit marshmallows, and cookies.

After dinner, we headed upstairs and chatted with the manager, who had remembered us from the day before. It's great meeting someone that is so obviously proud of his establishment, and he took his time in asking us for our opinion of the meal. We signed the guestbook, and found ourselves checking onto our flight home a few hours later, knowing full well that it'll be a long, long time before we find another place that matches all of the culinary treats we found in Spain.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Madrid Eats: Estado Puro

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for style over substance. I'll be much more forgiving of a mediocre meal if I'm eating it in an impeccable environment, 'cause let's face it: a great dining experience ain't just about the food.

For example, when we sat down for a quick snack at the Rene Sofia addition, it really wasn't about the food, but about the incredible Jean Nouvel-designed room that we sat in.

Of course, it helps when you order something as brilliant as a lomo sandwich. It's pretty hard to fuck up a grilled pork chop sandwich, and I really haven't had a bad one yet. Eating it in that room just elevated it to a higher level than it probably otherwise would've been at.

When it came to Estado Puro, however, style wasn't all that there ever was. The restaurant is one gorgeous place, tucked in one of the NH Hotels a block away from the Rene Sofia, and designed by local architects James and Mau - it's a pretty fun and stunning room. But more importantly, Estado Puro is the brainchild of Paco Roncero, one of the upper echalon of Spanish chefs.

Roncero was one of Ferran Adria's El Bulli proteges from the late 90s, and probably one of the more famed non-Adria chef to come out of the renowned restaurant. Since then, Roncero has made a name for himself in Madrid, chiefly with the Casino de Madrid and NH Hotels. Estado Puro is Roncero's stab at re-thinking traditional tapas.

We sat down outside in the sidewalk patio during an intense summer afternoon, watched British tourists cut the line and steal our table and one of our adjacent tables lose a purse to a petty thief. After the drama settled, we went with the "Meat Bombs": a take on the traditional meat and potato croquettes. These weren't so brilliantly conceptualized so much as they were brilliantly executed (and plated), with there being a great balance of meat and a delicate, crispy potato exterior, miles away from mere average croquettes that end up being a mash potato nightmare.

Throughout our visit, we noticed that Russian salads were a ubiquitous option on every menu, which didn't seem overly obvious to us. As far as I can gather, the Russian salad is really all about the mayonnaise, with the rest of the contents being a toss up of egg, meats/seafood and the quality dependent on freshness and balance. I can't remember much about this version, but probably mostly because I'm not sure what the attraction of the Russian salad is to begin with.

We also got the Cantabrian anchovies with tomato and basil. Cantabrian anchovies are highly sought-after, and probably a bit politically incorrect to order as their numbers are now quite low (we didn't know until, um, today), and are cured longer, giving them a bit of a firmer, drier taste than the typical oil soaked fillet one sees in grocery store tins this side of the Atlantic. Roncero is apparently also known for his mastery of olive oil, and these simple two/three bite anchovies saw amazing compliment in the olive oil, basil and tomato that they sat on. Probably the best anchovies I've ever had.

The true star, though, was this dish: pig trotters with cuttlefish "noodles." The pig trotters were, quite simply, one of the most memorable items I have ever eaten. The meat, fat and skin of the trotters simply melted in the mouth, into an incredible mix of all-things-pork that dwelled in the outermost points of extravagance. The cuttlefish 'noodles' might seem unnecessary, but they gave a good contrasting balance to the richness of the trotters, despite being resolutely rich in themselves. This was a dish that exuded pure substance, and rendered the surrounding stylishness a non-thought.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Madrid Eats: Mercado de San Miguel

Quite often the simplest thing can be the hardest to write about. Despite the fact that we tend to visit markets wherever we end up in the world, I tend not to write about them, so as not to reduce an awesome experience into a shopping list. I would be remiss, though, if I didn't tell you about the Mercado de San Miguel.

My shitty internet research reveals that the Mercado is housed in a late 1800s/early 1900s building, which probably is true, but the powers that be have updated the place into a modern miracle. Nestled on the outer boundary between La Latina and Los Austrias, just a few minutes away from Plaza Mayor, the Mercado isn't the largest market, or the most exotic of markets, but simply one of the best conceptualized market I've seen in awhile.

I love me some Granville Island, but imagine if they got rid of everything extraneous, and concentrated all the great parts of the market into one medium-sized venue that (drumroll) SERVES BOOZE. I'm no lush, but Lord knows I hate all the restrictions the Man has placed between alcohol and my consumption of it. To add that extra proverbial cherry on top, the place is open late, which works out gangbusters for everyone.

The market generally works much like a cafeteria. There's a stall that serves fine wines of all sorts, another for tapas and other cooked items, one for cheeses, a vermouth bar, etcetera, etcetera, and one simply collects whatever they feel like for dinner/post drinks grub/whatev.

Most of the stalls stay open through the night, but there's a few that close up. There's not a lot of people looking to eat dried bacalao right at the market, but there's always an audience for little sausages in every corner of the world.

One of the more popular stalls was the oyster one, which was serving an array of oysters on the cheap: it was something like 2 euros for 6.

Another was a dessert stall, with fresh macaroons, gelato, chocolate, name it.

What was it about the Mercado that makes it work? It's not the design, and, despite how awesome each stall was, it's not any particular item that they sell. Instead, it's a market planned around a different idea: the market as a communal space or a venue, rather than simply one of commerce. Contrasted with a more traditional market, each stall was more geared towards selling items one could enjoy right then and there, as opposed to produce, meats or other groceries. The net result, and one that works, is a place where people gather and stay, rather than a place where people just shop.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Madrid Eats: Mom n' Pop Stylee on Calle de la Cava Baja and at El Mollete

Our hotel was just a bit north of the La Latina district of Madrid, which apparently is a more culturally-mixed area (read: more immigrants). This, of course, means that there's a ton of food to be had, and the area is known for its plentitude of restaurants, both tapas/pinxtos and full out ones (word to the wise: if you order a drink without ordering food right away, most places will give you a free tapas dish to nosh on until you order). On our walk there, we passed by a confectionary with basically a huge window box full of potato chips they were making on site - always a good sign of the destination ahead.

One major street for eats is Calle de la Cava Baja, which is lined with restaurant after restaurant for a good stretch. Of course, it being Spain, most of these restaurants were closed during our mid-afternoon stroll: as much as some may say that the siesta is disappearing as a norm, there's more than enough places that observe it to prove them wrong. There were way more places closed for siesta in Madrid than in Barcelona, but given the much hotter temperatures in Madrid, it's not hard to understand.

For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the place we went to and didn't write it down, probably a result of sunstroke and sheer forgetfulness. But we did find a cute little place next to La Camarilla, one of the well-known tapas places in Madrid (we didn't go sheerly because we didn't know). This was a small little wine bar, with the owners busy watering the plants in the restaurant as we walked in. A little cupboard shrine had odd memorabilia that we figured were family keepsakes. It was kinda more like eating in someone's living room, which was fine by us.

As with most places, the daily menu on the chalkboard featured just as many (if not more) choices than the permanent menu, and we chose a few raciones - basically appetizer dishes for 2 or 3. Given our immense love of all things starch and cheese, we got this cheese toast with grapes. It should be no surprise that it came, of course, with olive oil drizzled on top, y'know, cause it needed it.

You can't be in Spain and not eat at least one sausage, and I ain't saying that in a euphemism-sense. This was an amazing chorizo or similar type sausage, drowned in oil, and served with enough bread to sop all of the goodness up.

I was also super curious about squid served in its own ink. As common as it is, I'd never had it before, and had kinda built it up in my head. This didn't quite live up to it, mostly because the sauce was thickened to the point of being a syrup, and kinda had this sweet/starch thing going that just seemed bland. With that said, it came with rice cooked in milk, which was by some of the best rice I've ever had (and, trust me: I've had a lot of rice in my life), so much so that I had to take a picture of it.

To be honest, I didn't think of the place as being much other than a good afternoon break out of the sun. I could probably characterize the majority of the places we went to in Madrid like that. Apart from a few highlights, I'll probably remember the city more of its museums and the posh Salamanca district than for its eats.

El Mollete, though, was one of these highlights. The place was only two streets over from our hotel, and yet the concierge hadn't heard of it. The ol' World Wide Web, however, had: it had made the NY Times' "36 Hours in Madrid" list as one of the places to go to:

"Don’t head to El Mollete without a reservation. The restaurant, set in an old charcoal cellar, has space only for 26 diners and is always full (Calle de la Bola, 4; 34-91-547-7820). Put yourself in the hands of the owner, Tom├ís Blanco, and hope he will serve you mollete (fried bread in oil), Gorgonzola croquettes, artichokes and scallops, and, of course, huevos rotos. No credit cards."

Other reviews I'd read basically agreed that the place lived up to the hype. It is a tiny, tiny restaurant, and the earliest dinner reservation (they're open for breakfast too) one can get is 9pm...not that anyone actually eats dinner that early in Madrid. With the after-opera crowd, it is next to impossible to get in unless you show up way later or have the patience to line up. There's a few larger tables on the top floor, maybe two small ones on the bottom, but basically you're sitting on stools or its standing room only.

We didn't order the mollete as they either ran out or only serve it during breakfast - not that I didn't pout about it for a split sec. We never went for breakfast either - our hotel had free breakfast - but apparently El Mollete is known across the city for having one of the best tortillas around. We couldn't read the menu or the daily chalkboard, but did as the NY Times suggested and let the owner/manager pick for us. The dude is as charming and down to earth as it comes: the staff is basically just him serving tables, a bartender, and (I'm assuming) one lady we saw come out of the kitchen. One picture of Francis Ford Coppola adorns the wall, and that's it. There's no fuss or muss here: it's about the food.

The crappy thing, then, is that our photos just don't do it justice. The place is dimly lit and small, and we didn't want our camera flash to annoy everyone. Don't hold our crappy pictures make your mind up for you. Particularly when it comes to this Galician octopus dish, which is quite simply one of the two best octopus dishes I have ever had (the other being at Cibo in Vancouver). The octopus sits in a lake of olive oil with potatoes, paprika sprinkled on top. The octopus was cooked to perfection, tender, juicy and brilliantly flavored with just enough saltiness to contrast the natural sweetness of the potato. The immense quantity of olive oil might put some off, but when you're using olive oil of this quality, you can learn to love it.

El Mollete is apparently known for eggs, so we had the huevos rotos too. Huevos rotos is kind of a broken egg (scrambled isn't quite right, but it's in that vein), cooked with potato. It might just sound like your standard eggs/hashbrowns breakfast combo, but there's something that just differentiates it. It's either the paprika or immense quantity of olive oil (a constant theme), but it's just different. And great. I love breakfast enough to think that eggs should appear on the menu at all times of the day, and the people in Madrid tend to agree. It's hard not to when it tastes as good as this.

The last dish we had was a grilled pork chop. I had picked up the Spanish word "lomo" earlier in the day, mostly because of my fondness for a Spanish pork chop sandwich. I'm not even 100% sure that "lomo" translates to "grilled pork" in Spanish, but heck, people understand. I'm also not sure what it is about every other country and their relative expertise with pork, but we have a pretty steep learning curve ahead of us here in Canada/US (I'd say North America, but a carnitas or el pastor taco are evidence that the Mexicans get it). Anyway, this was perfectly grilled, nice and salty, and a perfect end to the meal.

I really loved El Mollete, which was certainly the best mom and pop/traditional place we went to in Spain. I'd almost advise people to go there first, and work your way down to La Latinas if necessary. There's just alot of labour and love that goes into El Mollete, and it shows, both in the service and in the food.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Madrid Eats: Casa Ciriaco

After the awesome-ness known as Bilbao, we flew down to Madrid for a few days. By this point, we were getting pretty tired of early morning flights, and weren't ready for the 35-plus weather in Madrid either. All of Madrid appears to be under construction as well, while the city prepares itself for an Olympic bid. For the most part, it's true what they say about Madrid: compared to Barcelona, the pace is more hectic, and the people more abrupt. Not necessarily in a rude way, but Madrid definitely seems to thrive more on chaos, and the people reflect it. So - I'm ashamed to admit it - we actually tried to rest a bit in Madrid, even if only to get out of the intense heat.

With that said, I had half decided that I wanted to go traditional in Madrid, and had a craving for the roast porks, bulls tail, and other meats that I had heard so much about. Our hotel was right outside the Opera House, which faces the Palace, and surrounded by restaurants that have been around for the past century.

One of these places is Casa Ciriaco, which has been around long enough to witness an attempted assassination of King Alfonso XIII in 1906, and forms part of the setting for Valle-Inclan's novel Luces de Bohemia. We figured its longevity must have been well founded, and had read that it tended to be the least touristy of the grand dames of the old restaurant scene, being a bit further from Plaza Mayor and the Huertas district, both tourist centres. The place looks its age, an old neighbourhood restaurant that's been in need of an upgrade for awhile, long enough so that it would be a shame to do so now. Pictures of famed bullfighters, the royal mum, and other celebs from yesteryear decorate the walls, with the servers having probably worked there longer than I've been alive.

I'd read a few reviews, and the consensus was to try the Castellian soup, try the roast pork, try the bull's tail. As luck would have it, none of these things were available that day, so we tried a few other dishes that I'd read about.

One was an egg drop soup with bits of bread in it, which had an interesting mix of salty and a hint of sour to it, seasoned with healthy amounts of oil to make the medicine go down. It was good, but definitely far too much for one person to be able to finish it in one sitting.

The other dish was artichokes, which were cooked, tossed in olive oil, and topped with bits of jamon. Again, a good dish, but something one would have to share lest you get sick of it.

Without a digital SLR or good lighting, most of our food pictures are underlit and kinda look yellow. These pictures, though, pretty much capture what the dishes looked like. We both ordered chicken (in hindsight, I should've ordered the tripe): one roast, one stewed. I can remember the roast chicken being cooked perfectly, and the stewed chicken in one of the thickest gravies I've ever ingested. Beyond that, there wasn't too much more to make it memorable, but one can definitely see how the restaurant would be a Sunday family dinner fave.

We ended with a traditional Spanish flan or creme caramel. I don't think I've ever had a bad creme caramel, but this one seemed extra good, rich and caramel-y.

Overall, I can understand the nostalgia that would sustain a place like Casa Ciriaco, but honestly, I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless you were traveling older folk.