Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Candelabras and Cone-heads - Sevilla

Day 5 (cont'd)
The reason we’d skipped off to Spain in the first place stood modeling her curved, ivory cone-head in the dressing room. Landing the role of Freia in Wagner’s, Das Rheingold, my soprano singing sis (in-law), Keri, and her husband, Chris, had been living in Sevilla for six weeks.

Spanish sonata: If you hear “opera” and think “yawn”, this Cirquel de Soleil-like rendition might change your tune. Giants towered with massive, metal limbs like Transformers (robots in disguise) and floated across the stage with the ease of Rosy from The Jetsons, their claw-like paws pinching as though they might pull a prize from a boardwalk, crane machine. Androgynous acrobats mastered gravity-defying skills and even the Devil rode a segway.

The only problem:
Wagner opera = singing in German
Singing in German = translated on screen
Translated on screen in Spain = translated into Spanish

Needless to say, though we’d studied the plot beforehand, there were a few moments in the underworld where I found myself a little lost. But that didn’t dampen the brightness of Freia’s glowing apple (her signature prop) or radiant voice…the queen of cone-head concertos.

Pre-show mojitos: My mind went fuzzy to an old black and white film, as if we’d stumbled upon one of Greta Garbo’s former haunts. El Cafetin de los Remidios was a classy joint, where cigarettes deserved to be smoked in long-stemmed holders and coquettish glances would fit in famously beneath the glow of bar-top candelabras…cordial elegance matched with elegant cordials.

After opera tapas: Dolled up in our opera duds, we straggled into Taberna Coloniales and were told to order quickly. But not impolitely, in fact, even though the crowd was thinning out, they had another table move seats to accommodate the six of us.

Chris, the most fluent of the bunch, mis-ordered and ended up with an open-faced, anchovy sandwich, which he ate anyway (and thoroughly enjoyed). Who needs to call it a mistake, when you can call it an experience?

The pictures don't do it justice, but the chicken in almond sauce was delicious (once it got a few shakes of salt).

Goat cheese rounds with honey and figs were decent, but a far cry from the perfection at Casa Paco.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time to get Sevilla-ized: Tapas and Papas

Day 5

Madrid’s Manhattan-esque mirage vanished, as we bumped down Sevilla's cobblestoned sidewalks to our apartment. The manager, John-Pierre, was a calm, gentle soul, so I tried to subdue my Sam Kinison-like explosions as Bubba and I were given the studio with a private rooftop terrace – “Ohhh, Ohhhhhhh!!!”

Cooking the Books: Casa Paco reminded me of a favorite paperback. It was an easy read with their simple interior and sidewalk seating, worn with love, but still flirting with first-time charm. Plus, Paco was one of the few places that offered English menus, and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down…the same went for my fork.

Goat cheese au gratin browned with honey. Oh, and did I mention bathed in melted butter? If I was on death row, this would be included on my last meal wish list.

Pork cheeks were like short ribs, fork tender with veggies and a reduced, red wine gravy. Hello there, sweet cheeks...and good-bite.

Swordfish swam in a white wine/ orange sauce that also starred cinammon and raisins. Somehow this odd combination brought the perfect balance.

Sirloin in mustard sauce, though tasty, wasn't my favorite. But that didn't deter this mama from enjoying her papas, thin coins of lightly fried potatoes, served with almost every meal here.

This might have had the comfort of a well-worn, repeatedly-read paperback, but Casa Paco wasn’t old news by any means. Their in-touch technique with taste trends rooted in old country know-how made them a need-to-know name.

I’m talking New York Times front page, arts and entertainment section, an ad in classifieds and the answer to number 18 down - Two words/ eight letters: the prince of papas, gods of goat cheese and home to the Grand Dame of waitressing (Thank you, Maria).

Casa Paco - the best seller of Sevilla.

*photos courtesy of Mom (Marcie) Alkema

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pre-dined Valentine - Wine Vault and Bistro

Valentine’s Day. Absolutely the worse holiday known to man (and woman). If you’re single, it magnifies your “cheese stands alone” status by a thousand. If you’re in a relationship, affections are held hostage, forcibly released through Hallmark hallelujahs, stuffed animals that you were already too old for 10 years ago and roses picked up at a gas station after realizing that TODAY was Valentine’s Day. Money forced. Love lost. And the reason why Bubba and I decided not to do anything this year.

But that was before I was tempted by a former love of mine…the Wine Vault and Bistro, offering a pre-Valentine (Feb 10th), three-course menu for $20 (paired with a wine flight - $15)*...and practically begging me, "Will you be mine?"

Sweet seats
2 (of us) + 4 (seats in front of the fireplace) + 1 (enormous heart constructed from corks) = infinate amounts of pleasure secluded in the most romantic seat in the house.

First course
Roasted pork belly/ herb crushed potatoes/ pickled mushrooms/frisee/ butternut squash puree: I’ve been to Chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s Butter in Manhattan and her pork belly’s got nothing on the Bistro. This was the most tender, meaty belly I'd ever eaten - minimal fat and a crispy, caramelized pigskin that scored more than a touchdown. 2007 Gerard Bertrand “Pic Saint Loup” Rhone Red Blend (5 oz. pour)

Second course
Seared duck breast/ crispy confit/ wild spinach/ sunchoke puree/ xo sherry/ black trumpets/ broccolini: I like my breasts with some bounce and this was cooked to medium-rare perfection, strapping in its juices with crisp, salty skin. To the side, a cluster of meat pulled from the thigh made me think of ZZ Top's, “She’s got legs…she knows how to use them” because The Vault knew how to kick it when it came to confit. Besides consistently topping themselves on the plate, I always walked away with a bit of culinary knowledge like learning that sunchokes were from the stalk of a sunflower – who knew? 2006 Baxter “Toulouse Vineyard” Pinot Noir (5 oz pour)

Idiazabal + chestnut ravioli/ charred onions/ parsley pesto/ hazelnuts/ nasturtiums: Our next lesson began by introducing us to a new ingredient, Idiazabal, a salty Spanish cheese. Melding with the heartiness of the chestnuts and wrapped in its delicate frock of homemade pasta, this little circle had style, both bright in flavor and color, beautiful inside and out. 2007 Talbott Chardonnay (or) 2006 Baxter “Toulouse Vineyard” Pinot Noir (5 oz. pour)

Third course
Local strawberry tart/ green strawberries/ vanilla cream/ chervil/ meyer lemon: I’d keep walking because this tart was pretty pedestrian (was the pastry store-bought?) - the only throw away dish of the meal. 1998 Doamine Fontanel Rivesaltes Ambre (3 oz. pour)

34-yr-old px sherry float/ housemade butterscotch ice cream/ caramel powder: This was rooted (without the root beer) in classic float formation with a slight twist of spirits to give it wings. Cuarante y Tres “Licor 43” Spanish Liquor (1 oz. pour)

The best restaurant in town, as far as I'm concerned. Current and inventive, in both, concept and ingredients – if you haven’t been, you need to go. You won't be disappointed...cross my heart and hope to dine.

*weekly three-course dinners for $20. Find out what they’re serving this week:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Museums and Marrow - Madrid

Day 4
Lasting Impression: Visual caffeine washed the walls of Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, where contemporary angles weren’t only architectural. Along with housing all the big wigs of impressionism (Monet, Van Gough, Degas), more recent works like Edward Hopper’s lonely Hotel Room and Lichtenstein’s pop-art kept us buzzing*.

Freeze Frame: How Bazaar…how very Harper’s Bazaar. Mario Testino and his camera were well-known for capturing notable persons (supermodels, celebrities), for notable publications (Vogue, Vanity Fair), but his grand-scale, photo exhibit (All or Nothing) in the museum’s basement elevated his altered “apple of my eye” images to the highest level.

Taking the ordinary and making it jump, shaping the odd and making it human: a waif wearing underwear and hip padding in a deserted mannequin factory; the close-up of a tanned, woman's face removing a fake eyelash in her floppy sunhat; a dog winding its leash around a blonde’s floor-length gown as she stood on the outermost point of a boat (you wanted to scream, “Don’t fall in!”).

And when the exhibit was over, I wanted to scream, “Don’t end!” Testino fabricated intricate worlds and spun their story, flawlessly, in one frame. He shoots…he scores**.

Local love: The cold had started seeping into our bones, so we were overjoyed to find a place, not only open (around 4pm when most close before dinner), but lit up like a birthday cake. La Daniela Medinaceli was crowded with a band of rosy cheeked locals who wouldn’t surprise me if they burst into simultaneous song. It was like everyone was in on the same joke here with knowing smiles passed around like punch-lines.

Maybe the joke was on us since our sub-par Spanish was of no use against the rapid-fire repartee flung at us with the intensity of ninja stars. An awkward dialectic dance ensued, but brought us to the understanding that La Daniela’s special was a soup loaded with beef, chicken, chorizo and veggies. Did we want that?

Soup was exactly what we were looking for – nothing warmed you better from the inside out – and we nodded approvingly. So we were a bit surprised when our waitress brought the bulbous tureen boasting a flavorful broth containing thin noodles, but void of any meat. Where’s the beef?

How can you have any (black) pudding, if you don't eat your meat? What we hadn’t understood was that “the special”, was a list of courses: the first course was soup…the second course was the meat and veggies.

We figured this out when a behemoth platter of brisket, bone marrow, black pudding, chicken, chorizo and some gelatinous fatback thing was plunked down at one end of the table, and a heaping mound of chickpeas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and falafel at the other.

We marveled at our table, wide-eyed, before digging in with the wonder of archeologists. Bubba was the most adventurous and even gave the fatty blob a try. The best part was that we never would have ordered this if we knew what it was (blood pudding wasn’t necessarily a favorite of mine), but as we looked around, everyone else was enjoying the same feast…and now we were in on the joke too.

But the real reason for all those sideways smiles and rosy cheeks was revealed when our waitress cleared the dishes and brought over two enormous, glass bottles containing what appeared to be oil and vinegar, but were identified as after-dinner digestives – Spain’s answer to grappa. The “oil” was similar to Limoncello and the “vinegar” was anise-flavored.

Either/or, I felt like Alice accepting her “drink me” directive in Wonderland, but rather than shrinking, we left 10 feet high…and a bit dizzy (suddenly it didn’t seem so cold outside anymore). One of my most cherished memories of the trip. Be sure to fall down this rabbit hole.

*photo#1 - Woman in Bathroom, 1963- Roy Lichenstein
**photo#2 - Todo o Nada (All or Nothing) exhibit brochure cover - Mario Testino