Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jamonisimo, Barcelona

September 4th, 2009. 12PM.

This is it. The Best Ham In the World. I do feel like it changed my life, albeit slightly. Conversations about ham will never be the same again, because other people will praise the merits of Parma, or Iberico, or San Daniele, but I'll know that I had The Best. Of course, I don't have a lot of conversations about ham, so it won't be much of a problem. I should also say up front, "Thanks Chuck."

Be warned: this is a bit outside the normal bounds of the tourist areas. Do not try to walk there, as we did. It's picturesque for a while, then you get bored of the picturesquity of block after block of 6-story buildings and quaint squares at every intersection, but you still have the second half of the walk to get through. Also, note that they close from 1:30 to 4 or 4:30, so you'll need to eat on an American schedule. You could go somewhere for a proper lunch afterward, if you were a glutton for punishment.

So yeah, we were pretty happy when we finally got there. However I was a bit confused on first appearances, because it just looks like a deli  - fine, a deli with a whole lot of pig legs hanging around, but after only a few days in Spain I already thought that was normal. And a very clean, cool, modern deli at that, which was a bonus after a long, hot walk. I don't know what I was expecting - more restaurant, I suppose. Certainly I was confused at not seeing any tables, because I had been expecting for months to settle in to one for big plates of ham. It was a bit awkward getting started due to language issues, but once we talked to the Italian assistant, he set us straight and we got to work. They do have tables in back - two of them, in separate nooks that also hold fancy cookbooks (El Bulli, Charlie Trotter, etc) and racks of wine - and we claimed the bigger one with a resolution to eat ham until closing time.

I like to think the history of Jamonisimo goes like this: basic corner butcher really likes ham. Starts selling good ham. Starts looking for the best ham. Finds it. People start beating a path to the door. They can't resist eating on the sidewalk as soon as the ham is sliced. The butcher says "Why not sell them some cava too?" and renovates the shop to include two tables just for those odd customers who insist on viewing a butcher shop as a restaurant (the renovation appears quite recent). Famous people visit. Worldwide fame ensues. That brings us up to date. But to be hospitable, there's a proper menu, and it includes different varieties of meat, various cheeses, and the odd vegetable to make you feel like you're not just eating ham.

It's the varieties of ham that are really stunning though. We were stunned. You may actually find it too fussy if you just want slices of ham - not only can you choose between three locations (Andalucia, Salamanca, Extremadura), but you can also choose which part of the leg you want the meat cut from. For some reason it never ocurred to me that the front tastes different from the back tastes different from the top (this is in 'living' view, not 'slicing' view). But they sure do, and of course each origin of pig tastes different too. Regardless of the location, each of the legs is handled from birth to ham by one farmer (of course, they prefer to say 'artisan'), cured for a minimum of 30 months and made in quantities of only 8,000 per year. This only sounds like a lot if you don't think about industrial production volumes. For instance, the US alone slaughtered a shade under 84 MILLION pigs in 2009 through September (most recent USDA national data, I think).

Here's the key word: industrial. As a result of Jamonisimo, it has entered our vocabulary as a derogatory term for food. After we started eating and drinking, we all got more friendly - I think they were waiting to see if we'd be weird, but after several plates of ham we were buddies. And eventually we got around to asking the waiter what he thought of various hams. The best thing that's available in Japan is, I think, Prosciutto San Daniele, which is Italian but does come from the north and not too far from Spain. So, we said, as an Italian, what do you think of San Daniele. "Well," he said, "it's OK, but it's industrial. We don't really have a ham culture in Italy." Imagine that? An Italian says (paraphrasing) "Y'know, Italians really don't understand cured ham. That's why I came to Spain to work in this shop and study ham." Telling, damning, interesting, however you want to put it, we liked to hear it. Everyone likes to think they're clever.

Enough of the pontificating, let's get to the porn. Being American, I can't resist something labeled 'EXTREME', so even though this was from Extramadura, which probably has nothing to do with extremism, we started with it. This was just a plate of the good stuff, not Jamonisimo's 'tasting in textures' treatment. More on that later.

Shoulder of Extremadura, just to see what it's's not even worth trying to describe these. They're just the best ham you can imagine.

Even after that we started thinking the pork was a little heavy. We ordered tomatoes, and the waiter popped out to get them. I hope the green-ness means they're an heirloom Spanish variety, but I'm not sure.

You know what these are? They're the best anchovies in the world. I think they were actually labeled that way on the menu. After growing up with anchovies being a bit of a punchline, something people would refuse to eat, I've come to the point where I like anchovies crumbled up in sauces or pastas, and I'm OK with whole ones on pizzas. But these were an entirely different species. They were incredible. As they should be, at almost 2 euros per fillet.

Spanish cheeses are a little limited in range, but nice. I think this was manchego and idiazabal, both of which come in at a really nice points on the soft-hard and sharp-mellow scales as far as I'm concerned. With some quince paste. Again, tasty, but an afterthought.

I was really worried before we arrived that my companions wouldn't be up to the challenge. I was wrong, and I'm sorry. We also ordered the mixed sausage plate to see what it was'll recognize the salami-like thing nearest the viewer, and also the chorizo on the far side (both of which were, predictably, awesome). The thing I had read about but not had is the lomo in the middle.

It looks almost like a processed capicola (industrial, but I still like it) but is made rather more extravagantly from cured pork loin, which of course comes conveniently in this shape. Again, awesome. Yawn.

Why we didn't go 'whole hog' on the first order is beyond me, but for the second main plate (again, thanks for the stamina, guys!) we went for the Texturas of Salamanca. This means you get a three piles of slices, each from a different of the leg. I'd like to say I formed a distinct preference for the front or back or tip or whatever, but it's really too specific for me. The differences in taste and texture were clear at the time, but the memory is fuzzy!


All of this made me very happy. I'd like to think Luigi had a pretty good time too. [I'd like to think his name was Luigi, but I didn't ask.] He certainly looks happy. It's good to be proud of your product and watch people enjoy it.

We closed the place down! And went directly for a siesta.

Jamon jamon!
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Taller de Tapas, Barcelona

September 3rd, 2009. 9 PM.

Almost a week in Spain and no tapas crawl? I honestly wasn't that broken up about it. If I understand correctly, the point of tapas is to eat small plates of fresh, simple, tasty food while drinking in a convivial setting. In Japan that's available in a thousand places every night of the week. Still, it's inexcusable not to take in that local color, so we headed to El Born and the few streets with the most tapas places. This is actually a two-part review, but the second place was so crappy that it put us off going on to a third place. Bastards.

Taller de Tapas is well known, large, clean and professional. This may or may not be a good thing - a place like the nearby El Xampanyet is smaller, less clean and much more charming. But the food is supposed to be good at TdT, and I like the fact that they have tables. I know standing to eat and drink is part of the culture, but I can't get into rearing up on my hind legs, even if it means consuming chunks of roasted flesh with sweet peppers. The staff at TdT were dressed well and standing outside to welcome us in.

The menu seemed a bit like an embarassment of riches; we tried not to overorder. As always, I wanted to drink cava but tried to avoid seeming overly bossy about food by letting the group go for sangria again. Meh. TdT is dark, atmospheric in a recently-renovated way (probably newly-constructued, actually, but still with lots of old-seeming stonework), not that crowded but still noisy. The staff rushes around without seeming to see much, but it's not hard to corral one of them and order more food.

Croquettes are a normal tapas item. These were normal.

Big plate of grilled mackerel, bones and carcasses removed. Being Asian (kinda), we're happy to eat this stuff, maybe more than American tourists. It seems different from Japanese mackerel. Not better, just different.

Pread smeared with a thin layer of tomato is also a standard thing at tapas, and in fact in Spain. This was probably the best version we had anywhere, but it was far from being exciting.

Chorizos were pretty good.

The little green peppers that get roasted and served up in big plates taste just like Japanese shishito to me. Are they related? In any case, it's funny to eat something in Spain that you can't get in America, but can buy in 20-packs in any Japanese supermarket.

With all that food ordered in one rush, we took a little breather...just long enough to stick the camera out to the side of the table and get a picture. And start thinking about when we should cut things off so that we could try another place...

And then we received some 'main' dishes - country sausage with beans, one of the best things we had. I love a good sausage, in large part because I have them so rarely.

And again a piece of steak with pepper. This steak wasn't as good as the ones at Cervesaria Catalana. You should just go there. In fact, while I liked Taller de Tapas, and strolling around El Born at night, my basic review of the tapas scene is "Just go to Cervesaria Catalana". That said, we didn't get in to Cal Pep or El Xampanyet, and didn't try to go to Paco Meralga or Quimet & Quimet. But based on my own judgement of my own judgement in judging places from the exterior and menu, I'd say there's no place in El Born that matches CC.

We stopped the food at that point and headed out. With streets as interesting as this, who needs good food? Well, I for one still do, but it's a neat area. This street was deserted except for a stylish loungey restaurant place, but the streets next to it and intersecting it were some of the most busy around. We walked some more before picking another place.

Badly. This seemed to have a rougher, more casual aspect than TdT, but that roughness extended to the food preparation.

Meatballs. Can't go wrong with meatballs.

Fried squid. Bready, a bit soggy.

Spanish menu difficulties; probably wouldn't have gotten these deep-fried dough balls if we had known they were deep-fried dough balls. Not good.

Some in the party were still agitating for paella; I was still agitating for black rice, cooked with squid ink. We satisfied both dimensions with this dish. Unfortunately it wasn't much to write about.

And here we accidentally ordered a tripe soup. Again we didn't know it was tripe, and in the relative confusion of ordering a bunch of things we didn't know exactly how much we had gotten. When this came we tried to protest that we hadn't ordered it, and the waiter, bless him, pointed at one of our party and said "SHE ordered it." Which was true. In any case, we didn't eat much of it.

Ah well. A sad and uninspiring end to the evening. Things did get a lot better the next day when we visited some more tourist attractions and had The Best Ham In the World.

Taller de Tapas (via Laietana)
++93 481 62 33

Mimolet, Girona

September 3rd, 2009. 1:30 PM

Girona has a lot going for it - the medieval walled section aside, there are plenty of interesting-looking restaurants and shops! I decided this made sense after I learned one critical fact: Girona is actually the 'budget' airport of Barcelona, meaning if you take a RyanAir flight from London to Barcelona, you could well end up in Girona. There must be plenty of tourists saying "Well, let's 'ave a look, as long as we're here." The preserved sections, including the lovely views of buildings along the river, can't hurt either.

Mimolet was...across from our hotel. And we liked the cut of its jib. Kinda minimal, kinda brown.

Kinda contorted.

Seriously, finding a restaurant like this in the medieval quarter of a smallish Spanish city? Seemed like a find.

The potato chips by the left foot were stale.

Without video, you can't tell that this wall changed color slowly. But you can see the clean internal style and also another of those artist's models on the other table.

I'd like to say this was pea soup; it certainly included cockles and a drizzle of oil on the top. I'd also like to say I tried it, but I have no memory of the taste. Ah well.

This was sold as a typical dish; certainly I think it looks like fried eggs with chorizo. Come to think of it, the chorizo may actually have been blood sausage. I remember this somewhat fondly because of the skillet.

But I remember this most fondly because it was my starter...sweet corn, soft cheese and pieces of cherry...

In cherry soup! I saw this on the a ala carte menu and managed to get it included in the quite reasonable prix fixe lunch (EUR 26, I think, with a bunch of options per course). While it was in no way the equal of the previous night's cherries with smoked eel at Can Roca, it was in many ways a refreshing and tasty treat for a hot summer day. I would eat this all summer long if I could get cherries in quantity at price.

My fish. I really wasn't that happy with him. Two whole fillets that were a bit strong to my tastes, competently cooked but not fully boned, astride a fortress of vegetables that were in many respects raw. And not in an agreeable way (onion, heated through but still aggressively sharp in smell and taste).

Duck confit was much better. On apples, I think.

Getting fresh cheese with berries is always a nice idea, don't you agree? You see it so rarely in Japan or America, but it's a very light and pleasant way to enjoy the synergy of several sour things. And I love berries.

However I ordered this cylinder, which I remember as being frozen coconut mousse with pineapple compote. And it was good. An odd sort of dry texture to the mousse that I quite liked.

Were you to be in Girona you could be much worse than this place. But you might also enjoy freestyling some of the places tucked under dark arcades; there were a few Basque family-style places that looked quite interesting, whereas this food would be competently offered in many cities. In truth it seemed a little pale in comparison to the previous two nights (El Bulli and Can Roca), which is hardly fair.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

La Vienesa, Girona

September 3rd, 2009. 10 AM.

On our morning in Girona, we had a few more hours to walk around and feel medieval. The old areas are really nice - cleaner than those in Barcelona and targeting a more sedate tourist (no Irish bars, for example). Breakfast in Europe is a challenge to me, and usually comes down to bread and maybe a coffee...

As it did on this day, but fortunately from this very pretty shop. It must have been one of the nicest facades in the town, so don't get the idea that it's all this way.

There are a curious number of bakeries in Spain; more, it seems to me, than Paris. Based on what we ate, I don't get the sense that they have the same focus on quality or variety. I'd certainly like to do a more detailed study...

As mentioned a few days ago, Estrella's low-cal beer-like product is called FREE. Damm! It's still hard for me not to chuckle over this. Maybe by the time I'm 40 I'll be able to stop laughing at things like this.

Anyway, this was a pastry stop, followed by more walking, after we which we came upon the shop we really should have gone to in the first place.

Situated on a larger square in the old section, La Vienesa has a big, modern Italianate doorway that's out of keeping with the surroundings. Quite grand and luxurious feeling, when combined with the window displays it seemed like a place where I really wanted to eat and regretted already having had some pastry. I have a feeling the name is a Catalan version of 'Viennoiserie', or pastries, but I'm not going to check. What do they call Viennoiserie in Vienna? Heck, they don't even call Vienna Vienna in Vienna.

Look how nice! The window display is pastry presented like high-end chocolate. Looking at the poster for Xuixos, we realized we hadn't eaten anything of the genus 'fried dough' yet (e.g., churros), but this remained a small fail for the whole trip. Xuixos actually look more like elongated filled donuts, and as with all sugar-coated, cream-filled, deep fried products that I didn't eat, I'm sorry that I didn't eat some.

Also in the window was a small animatronic diorama relating the parable of Jesus with the wood and chocolate - see how the chocolate bits look like curls of wood falling from the bench, just like Jesus done it? This is cool in its own way but much less amusing than the shop down the street which had in its window a long line of figurines that looked for all the world like a miniature Klan rally, although with more purple, blue and black and robes than you ordinarily get (those being generally reserved for officers like the Klaliff and Klutz).

Inside there were all sorts of treats; I remain unsure what these jelly fruits were (and have failed at using the interwebz to locate info). They seem like candied fruit, but are too regular in shape and color. You'd think marzipan, but they're a bit clear...I'd like to be enlightened on this one. And I sorta regret not trying them, but we had had some breakfast and were already staring down a lunch reservation.

Remember I only write about places where I ate something, and here the excuse was a cool glass of orxata. I've just learned that this is different from Mexican horchata, which is made from rice - this one's actually made from tigernuts. har har. In any case, it's a lot like drinking sweetened soy milk or rice milk, but without the soy flavor (not that it's a bad flavor). I just hung out at the counter for a couple minutes, pretending I wasn't already full and scared to eat lunch.
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