Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Best Laid Ice Cream Plans

Felipe (the boy from the Pringles post) and I laid out what seemed like a perfect summer plan the other day. We decided that, over what was left of the summer, we were going to very seriously put our energies toward trying all of the ice cream flavours at La Campana (until recently my favourite ice cream spot in Barcelona). Because La Campana has at least forty ice cream flavours and because we both felt that daily visits were incompatible with swimsuit season, we laid out a considered, if slightly complex, scheme on our way to make the first purchase under the auspices of the 'plan'.

We agreed as follows: We would go to La Campana whenever we were in the Old Town. We would ask to try a sample of three flavours each time. Out of those three, we would choose a favourite on which to focus our attentions in the form of an ice cream cone. We would proceed systematically, starting from one end of the case and moving through the flavours sequentially. If we were ever confronted with a situation in which none of the three flavours tried that day appealed to us, we could purchase a cone from a previous selection that we hadn't had a chance to try. The last was a hotly negotiated point: Felipe originally thought that it would be more efficient to move on to the next three flavours at that point, while I wanted to extend the anticipation of the next experience. We hammered out the final accord hurriedly as we were nearing the shop, having decided that we'd stop in before seeing the excellent Las Meninas exhibit at the Picasso Museum (on until September).

When we arrived, we leaned in immediately to inspect the fruity case on the right, having purchased from the creamy case on the left last time we were there. With the sparkle of all the world's hope and anticipation in our eyes, we asked the laconic server for samples of the mango, cheesecase and black berry ice creams.

ONLY ONE TRY, she yelled, contorting her lips in what I can only imagine was an attempt to evoke a constipated coyote.

Oh, we can't try all of them?

ONE! (screeching baboon)

Oh, o.k., but what if we don't like the one we try?

ONE! (hyena still bloody from half eaten carrion)

One each?

ONE! (rattler...if there had been an S in "one", she would have hissed)

So much bitterness in an ice cream shop didn't bode well so, with fallen hearts, we left without a sample and without a purchase. We had been backed into an impossible corner--not because the server's position was inherently unreasonable (although it was), but because of the server's unchecked display of total contempt, which quite frankly would have robbed Homer Simpson of his appetite.

Perhaps we should have asked (quoting Lisa Simpson's conversation with the cafeteria lady) if the server remembers when she lost her love for the job. We didn't. But we did console ourselves with a delicately flavoured mango sorbet from Tomo II on c/ Argentera in the Born. Tomo II has a small selection of artisanal ices in a rotating case with minutely controlled temperature settings. It was very good, but could hardly make up for all of our melted ice cream hopes.

We are still in search of a suitable location to conduct our summer experiment.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Terrace Days

Summer in Barcelona cries out for late dinners on candlelit terraces, with the murmur of city life subdued by crumbling church walls and leafy trellises. Just you and a boy you know (or maybe don't know) gazing soulfully into each other's eyes over some terribly well roasted lamb or a succulent lobster claw while a gentle breeze ruffles your hair. Maybe you're sipping a rioja or maybe a chilled verdejo because it's hot and you can't possibly imagine it getting any hotter. Maybe you order a golden crema catalana to share and feed each other as a prelude to the not-quite-direct walk home and whatever comes next.

Oh, if only it could be so. The unfortunate reality of Barcelona terrace dining is a little less romantic. Most neighbourhood restaurants do with a few tables on the nearest street corner where one battles both street noise and fumes and many of the restaurants in Barcelona's prettiest squares merit little more than a scornful saunter by or, on a truly beautiful day, an overpriced cocktail.

There are a handful of gems, however. This is my short list:

Agua (Passeig Maritim 30 (Barceloneta), 93 225 1272) - By far my favourite, Agua's beachside terrace is romanticly lit, prettily turned out, well (if not quite cheaply) priced and complemented by a very competently prepared menu with a focus on seafood, as the name suggests. I urge you to reserve ahead--at least a few days beforehand for a decent time (i.e. 10pm or later).

Merendero de la Mari (Plaza Pau Vila 1 (Old Port), 93 221 3141) - It's by far the best of the tourist filled seafood restaurants lining the Palau de Mar, I say without having tried any of the others. I base my assertion wholly on the fact that the clientele during most of the year is Catalan in high numbers, with entire families often enjoying Sunday lunch port-side. Because of the enormous size of the terrace (a corner of which is pictured above), you can usually get a spot even if you don't have a reservation, particularly if you're prepared to wait a little. Get the parillada (mixed seafood grill) and the squid ink paella to share.

La Candela (Plaza de Sant Pere (Born), 93 310 6242) - La Candela has a pretty good "market" menu that leans to the modern, but the best reason to go are the candle lit tables in Plaza de Sant Pere, overlooked by the Sant Pere Church and a series of charming Born walk ups. [P.S. See update in Losses post.]

Café de l'Academia (Plaza Sant Just (Gotico), 93 319 8253) - L'Academia is an old Barrio Gotico stalwart, serving traditional Catalan cuisine to well heeled Catalans and tourists alike. There are a few umbrella shaded tables in the atmospheric Plaza Sant Just, just outside.

La Cafeteria (Plaza Virreina 2 (Gracia), 93 416 0457) - La Cafeteria has an enviable location on the leafy Plaza Virreina--once described to me as the most adult of Gracia's plazas, presumably due to the absence of hordes of drunk revellers sitting on the ground in the middle of the square as is wont to happen in the Plaza del Sol and Plaza Rius y Taulet. La Cafeteria serves minimal food, but its sandwiches are first rate. Try the warm pork loin with goat cheese and green pepper. (The same sandwiches are served in an equally pleasant ambience and less daytime sun at Tierra on the other side of the square.)

Cafe Salambó (C/ Torrijos 51 (Gracia), 93 218 6966) - On the pedestrian Calle Torrijos, just a stone's throw away from Plaza Virreina and next door to the indie Verdi Cinema, Cafe Salambo serves good salads, a varied selection of well prepared mains and yummy desserts. While the few tables that hug its wall may not make the grandest of terraces, they are a fantastic vantage point on Gracia's parade of life.

El Jardí (C/ Hospital 56 (Raval), 93 329 1550) - In the dusty courtyard of the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, El Jardi is a charming escape from the bustle of the Raval. It has a small menu, but the salads are outstanding and the pastas and desserts are yum-a-licious. They also make a mean sangria. Stay away from boring basics like patatas bravas and tortilla here and you won't go wrong. (What makes me love it more is that in the fall and winter months they bring out blankets that you can snuggle into to withstand the cold. And, yes, I know that this doesn't concern you now.)

Ra (Plaza Gardunya 3 (Raval), 93 301 4163) - I have yet to try one of Ra's famous breakfasts (of the American variety, a rarity in Barcelona), but I can attest to a pretty decent and well priced (prix fixe) menu for lunch. While the rear of the Boqueria overlooking a parking location may not give Ra the most picturesque view of Barcelona, the happy decor, relaxed crowd and tasty selection of "international" food make up for it.

A few on Rambla Catalunya (Eixample) - Rambla Catalunya is a long leafy oasis of cafes of varying quality and price. My favourite time to go is at 5pm during the school year when the terraces fill with parents and grandparents, kids in tow, taking a break on the way home. I also love 6pm on weekends, when the clientele appears to be exclusively made up of well coifed Catalan ladies and gentlemen, most of them 70 and up, sipping orxata or tonic water. In terms of food, Ciudad Condal (Rambla Catalunya 18, 93 318 1997) and Taller de Tapas (Rambla Catalunya 49-51; also try the location at Plaza Sant Josep Oriol 8 (Gotico); offer the best quality; both serve tapas. Forn de Sant Jaume (Rambla Catalunya 50) has excellent Catalan pastry treats: try the cocas, buñuelos or chuchos with coffee or thick hot chocolate.

And some on Calle Enric Granados (Eixample) - The partly pedestrianized Calle Enric Granados, a few blocks over from Rambla Catalunya, also deserves honourable mention. There, Embat, Origens, Habaluc and El Trobador provide decent food on subdued, comfortable terraces. If you're early, pause in the pretty, gated university garden at the bottom of the street--be warned, though; neighbourhood cats tend to see its gravel paths more as litter boxes than walkways.

A postscript (August 26, 2008): In recent days, I've been enjoying the outdoor tables at Bar Lobo in the Plaza de los Gatos (c/ Pintor Fortuny 3, 93 481 5346) in the Raval. I don't actually think the plaza is called Plaza de los Gatos, everyone just refers to it as such because of the large cat mural on the wall of one of the buildings abutting the plaza. Bar Lobo has pretty wooden tables under a long canopy, with fresh white table cloths and pots of rosemary and thyme for adornment. For some reason, it makes me think of Provence. The food, if a bit on the pricey side for tapas, is very good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Obsession with Octopus Continues

Despite a summer bout of procrastination that has been making my head spin, I recently managed to write about something that really matters: my love affair with the octopus, torrid and tempestuous as always and very much alive in the lazy days of summer. Here is a link to Calidoscopio (an on-line Spanish cultural review that has been kind enough to let me write in English and wise enough not to bother with a translation into Spanish):

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dipping into White Beans

I have always loved dips: guacamole, hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki, taramasolata, raita, olive tapenade, black bean, artichoke, roasted red pepper, spinach (my mother's). A veritable pageant of freshly melding colour and flavour.

I have taken many a dip from stumbling beginnings to pinnacles of perfection...if only to later use it wantonly in antipasto platters.

The one that has always eluded me, however, is the white bean. I kept trying to coax it out of its shell for years, with little success. I persisted because I could see its potential. But, despite Herculean efforts, things always turned out deathly dull with the same ineluctable end: awkward efforts to eat through as much of the bowl as possible after everything else has disappeared and the resigned scraping of the remains into the garbage after all the guests have left.

But something happened in Barcelona. Maybe I changed. Maybe he did. Maybe both. It doesn't really matter. What's important is that we finally, finally, finally connected. The white bean has landed, it has blossomed and it is living the prime of its beany life. Both of us are smitten.

Here is what I can tell you about the how:

1 cup of canned white beans (rinsed)
1-2 tablespoons of minced fresh dill (or basil)
1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest
half a medium clove of garlic, finely grated or crushed
1 tablespoon of olive oil
a splash of cold water to loosen a little if necessary (no more than a tablespoon or so)
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste (I used about 1/2 a teaspoon of the former and 1/4 of the latter)

Mash everything together with a potato masher or fork. (Don't mix in a food processor as it'll ruin the texture--you want it to be mashed to the point where it holds together, but with a few pieces of bean still discernible.)

The perfect summer tickle, particularly delicious paired with crisp steamed green beans or on olive oil slathered crostini.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What to Do with a Box of Pringles in Barcelona

A year ago this week, I arrived in Barcelona with a suitcase of my favourite shoes, a smattering of essential cooking utensils and an inflatable mattress. It was raining oppressively and Barcelona, at first sight, looked wilted and unkempt from the window of the cab. I undressed to my underwear in the hotel room, took a box of Pringles from the mini-bar, sat on the narrow single bed, ate the Pringles and cried.

I didn't return to Pringles until a few evenings ago. I was walking with a Colombian boy along the beach. We had a bottle of wine and a blanket, a backpack with books and sweaters. We splurged on the Pringles at the last minute. We ate some of them under the trees in Poble Nou park, while watching a kids' birthday party. Then, as the sun was setting, we took the rest to the rocks by the shore where we remained sitting into the night.

Port in Porto

There are many lovely things about Portugal. The ubiquity of port wine is one and the fact that many bodegas in Porto will give you a free tasting (Croft and Noval among them) is another.

A type of port that is rarely available in Canada and that I first came to try at Noval in Porto is a white. Unlike ruby or tawny ports, which are typically served as digestifs (though tawny, technically, can be served as an aperitif as well), white port is usually served chilled as a delicious and relatively inexpensive aperitif. It varies in sweetness: a regular white is the driest, a fine white is sweet, and a lagrima is sweeter still. The LCBO in Ontario appears to stock a few brands of fine white, though I expect that you might have to hunt for them.

When we checked into the stately Pestana Palace Hotel, overlooking the Duoro River in Porto, the staff served us a fantastically refreshing mixture of white port (approx. 1 part) and tonic (approx. 2 to 3 parts)--over ice and garnished with a lemon slice. Search the LCBOs, find the white port and make this your new summer drink.