Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tapas of Seville

Magret de Pato

Spain is probably the best country in Europe for the solo diner. With an abundance of tapas bars, one can easily get variety and quality in a casual setting at reasonable prices. Seville is my favorite city in Spain, and it's a great tapas town.

I had previously visited Seville for five days, about fifteen years ago, and fell in love with the city. For me it has the quintessence of what I really appreciate in a foreign city: manageable size, well-preserved history, a distinctive local culture, an abundance of cultural attractions, great food, and people who live life to the fullest. Though I love big cities like Madrid, Paris, Rome, London and Hong Kong, with their energy and endless attractions, for a New Yorker the smaller cities that have a real sense of individuality are a special treat. For me, the American city that best fits this description is San Francisco. Some European favorites in this category are Strasbourg, Arles, Bergen and Verona.

This time I only had two nights in Seville, and the better part of one day was devoted to a visit to Cordoba. But I know I'll return to Seville, where the beauty of the women and the smell of orange trees and frying fish are additional seductions.

I did get to three tapas bars this time in Seville. I returned to my favorite one from my last trip (2 or 3 visits; it was that good), Cervezeria Giralda, and it was as stellar as ever. It's high-end for a Seville tapas bar, but the difference is in the premium ingredients and preparation, plus by New York tapas standards it's a steal. Most of the tapas cost 3.5 Euros (just under $5 at the current exchange rate), and at the places I know in New York tapas of this quality would probably run $8-12 each. Tapas at more humble bars are more like 2 Euros.

Pastel de Champinones con Bacalao

The best thing I had at Cervezeria Giralda this time, and probably the best single thing I had during my brief Thanksgiving trip to Spain, was the pastel de champinones con bacalao. What I got was not what I was expecting. Based on the name, I figured I'd get a little pie with mushrooms and salted cod. Instead, it was sort of like a terrine of a delicious, mild creamy cheese with chopped mushrooms topped with a slice of fresh cod (perhaps lightly smoked?) in olive oil.

Running a close second was the magret de pato (duck breast), with a fruit glaze, shown at the top.

Costillitas de Cordero

The costillitas de cordero (baby lamb chops) were rib chops, a bit tough, a bit fatty, but otherwise quite tasty. For these three items the bill was 10.5 Euros ($14), with no additional taxes or tip expected.

Bar Las Teresas, which was a stone's throw from my hotel, is another excellent tapas place with most items at about 2 Euros.

Jamon Iberico & Lomo Iberico

Spain is a great place to try Iberico ham, which is prohibitively expensive in the U.S. It's not cheap in Spain either, but you can buy a taste for a song. At Las Teresas I had lomo Iberico (cured pork loin) as well as the ham.

Champinones a la Parilla

I was a bit disappointed with the champinones a la parilla (grilled mushrooms) as they were white mushroom caps, perhaps my least favorite mushroom. For me the accompanying carrot salad was actually the highlight of the plate.

Pulpo a la Gallega

Pulpo a la Gallega (Galician-style octopus) is a dish you find all over Spain, in tapas bars and some more formal restaurants. It's cooked octopus in olive oil (sometimes warm, sometimes cold), topped with smoked paprika, one of the world's great spices. The version at Bar Las Teresas was respectable, though not extraordinary.

Stewed Swordfish in Tomato Sauce

But the pez espada guisado (stewed swordfish) was extraordinary. The fish was incredibly fresh-tasting and the tomato sauce had lots of character. The combination was perfect.

Bodega Santa Cruz (also known as Las Columnas) may well be the most popular tapas bar in Seville's Barrio Santa Cruz (where all the places I ate this time are located). Perhaps its popularity is due to the low prices, or perhaps it's that crowds of young people attract bigger crowds of young people. I went on a Saturday night and the crowd of mostly young people was spilling way into the street. I managed to find myself some bar space and ordered a number of items: tortilla Espanola (the national snack of potato omelette), boquerones fritos (fried anchovies), a montadito with carne mechada (a mini-sandwich with pot roast), and a fried shrimp dish (I forget the description) that had a heavy breading--similar to Chinese fantail shrimp or Vietnamese beignets de crevettes. Everything I had at Las Columnas was either too salty, too greasy, or both. I suspect all this stuff goes down just fine with heavy-drinking students, but I was very disappointed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

South African in Charlottesville

Jeffersonia may have been my reason for visiting Charlottesville, but my visit also gave me the opportunity to dine with friends I hadn't seen in over 20 years. The choice of restaurant would have been a no-brainer nine months earlier, when Calvin Trillin wrote an encomium in the New Yorker to Sichuan chef Peter Chang, then running the kitchen at Taste of China. But Chang was no longer in Charlottesville, and my research failed to turn up any particular must-visit restaurant in town. So I chose The Shebeen, a South African restaurant with good press, figuring that at least I'd get to try something different. Happily, it was not only different, it was very good.

We started with the spicy peri-peri wings and a "Stellenbosch sampler," which displayed the Indian and Indonesian influence on the cuisine of the Cape region. It consisted of chicken satay, samosas and fried eggplant, served with banana ketchup.

My main course far exceeded my expectations. I ordered sosatie, described as "a delightful dish of cubed leg of lamb, skewered on sugar cane with dried apricots and marinated for at least twenty-four hours in mango chutney, tamarind & turmeric, grilled and served with samp and beans, yellow rice, mango chutney and a cucumber-mint yogurt." I was concerned that it might be too sweet, but there really was just a touch of sweetness to the meat, and the lamb was really excellent. Samp and beans, a typical Xhosa dish, is a cracked hominy and bean combo that reminded me of cachupa, the hominy and beans dish I had at Cesaria's, a Cape Verdean restaurant in Boston. The Shebeen was all out of rice that night (how's that possible?), so instead I substituted mealie pap: hominy grits with cheese. This humble starch, a staple of the Bantu diet, was absolutely delicious.

The Shebeen doubles as a sports bar, which is perhaps why, as a public service, they hang the day's sports page above the urinals in the men's room.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Vegetables Beat the Meat at Hyderabadi Kabab Joint

The chicken kababs, fresh off the grill, a buck apiece at Deccan Kabab, a small Hyderabadi fast food joint in Jackson Heights, were spicy, tender and tasty, but the chopped beef kabab (Hyderabadi cuisine is, generally, Muslim rather than Hindu) was rather dry and quite rubbery.

The chicken biryani was respectable but not exceptional. The two vegetable dishes we ordered, though, were indeed exceptional, surprisingly so at a place whose name cries out "Meat!"

Bhagaray baingan is an eggplant dish with a peanut-tamarind sauce that is one of Hyderabad's great contributions to Indian vegetarian cooking. I had previously tried it at Sukhadia's, which makes a respectable and very rich version, but Deccan Kabab's take on the dish, which tasted like it included pickle spices, was superior.

Deccan's version of palak paneer was different than any I'd had before. The spinach was whole leaf rather than chopped, and the preparation (outside of the paneer, of course) did not include dairy (well, maybe some ghee; I'm not sure); I'm not partial to the creamed spinach approach to palak (or saag) paneer. The sauteed onions were a satisfying twist, and the spinach itself was darker than usual, with a deep, slightly charred flavor, as if the spinach had been somehow roasted before being sauteed.

Deccan Kabab
74-06 37th Rd. (near 74th Street)
Jackson Heights

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Janie, the Perfect Stocking Stuffer

If you've come here looking for leg, you're out of luck, because Janie isn't a she, it's an it. The Janie Dry Spot Cleaner, or simply the Janie stick, is as amazing as it is simple. It's simply a stick of dry, chalky clay with an accompanying brush, but it does wonders. It's the best thing I know of for lifting oil- or milk-based stains, and it's perfectly natural, with no chemical smell and nothing that can ruin your fabric. It's been around for decades, and it looks like they've never redesigned the packaging. You can find it at notions shops as well as some what-not shops, but it's also available online from a number of vendors, including Amazon. I buy mine at The Container Store.

Janie is simple to use. You rub some of the clay into the stained area of your clothing and let it sit a few minutes while the clay draws out the stain. Then you brush it off. Brushing will get most of the clay out, along with the stain, but any residue will come out with washing or dry cleaning. It works best when the stain is fairly fresh, but it also works remarkably well on older stains, including on clothes that have already been washed. It's like a folk remedy that's better and safer than the fruits of modern chemistry. It costs about $6, and it is indeed a perfect stocking stuffer.

A Wrong Number

On Thursday night I got a call from my brother to inform me that my mother was in the emergency room awaiting admission to the hospital (nothing life-threatening, thankfully). He had received a call from one of my mother's friends in Florida, and he gave me the hospital's phone number that she had given him. I called the number the following afternoon, and I guess I wasn't listening closely to how the receptionist answered. I said, "I believe my mother was admitted there last night; can you check on that?" The woman replied, "Sir, this is an animal hospital! But I'm sorry to hear about your mother."

So I looked up the number of University Hospital, in Tamarac. The number was one digit away from that of the Sadowski Animal Hospital--721-2200 vs. 721-2100. How could that have happened? An animal hospital and a human hospital, and only a one-digit difference in the phone numbers. What are the odds? Does chance have a devilish sense of humor?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Those of you who have followed the brouhaha over the construction of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, erroneously referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque" (and originally named Cordoba House, by the way), may find echoes of the current rhetoric in this account of the backlash over the proposed construction of a grand synagogue in Cordoba in the 13th Century:

"There is also proof of the construction of a great synagogue in the Jewish quarter, which provoked the criticism of both the council and a great part of the Christian population. Thus, in 1250, Pope Inocencio the Fourth issued a Bull in which the construction of this synagogue was described as a great scandal for the city. There is no confirmation of its opening or any documented evidence to back up the theory that it was located in what is now the small square of Maimonides. The ecclesiastical hierarchy and the majority of the population, having anti-Jewish attitudes, argued that the dimensions, height and architectural prominence of the synagogue should not be permitted."

Maimonides Statue

That quote comes from an exhibit at the Casa de Sefarad, a 14th Century Jewish house in Cordoba that now functions as a museum of Sephardic Jewry. My visit to Cordoba, a day trip from Seville, began in the Jewish quarter, the first historic section you pass through if you're coming from the train station.

Casa de Sefarad Courtyard

The museum was a fascinating surprise; I hadn't even known it existed until I stumbled upon it. One of the quirkiest artifacts was this LP cover from a collection of Jewish songs banned by the Inquisition:

The one ancient synagogue that does survive in Cordoba is a small ruin that served a number of purposes after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Moorish influence is quite apparent:

Cordoba's main tourist attraction is the Mezquita, the great mosque turned cathedral. It's an odd mix of Moorish architecture with later Catholic additions. The mosque had been built on the site of a former Christian church (a fact that raised the hateful nincompoop Newt Gingrich's hackles many centuries later), and it was converted to a cathedral after the Christian restoration.

I had a surprisingly excellent lunch at Bodegas Mezquita, right by the Mezquita itself. You wouldn't expect a place in the most coveted location for tourist traffic to have great food at reasonable prices, but a decal in the window from Guide Routard, the French backpacker's guidebook series that has been the source of solid recommendations in the past, gave me the courage to give it a try.

I ordered a 1/2 racion of surtido de Iberico, a platter of charcuterie from the prized acorn-chomping Iberico pig: ham, loin, and several kinds of chorizo and salami.

Patatas bravas (brave potatoes) is a common tapas bar item, spicy cubed fried spuds. The topping varies from place to place. Often it's mayo or aioli with smoked paprika mixed in, which I find disappointing. The best I've had was at the Las Bravas chain in Madrid, which has a secret sauce that they pump onto the potatoes. The version at Bodegas Mezquita was quite good, with a memorable, tangy sauce.

The meatballs (albondigas) with almond sauce I had was described on the menu as a Mozarabic dish; Mozarabs were Christians under Muslim rule who adopted certain aspects of Arabic culture and apparently made delicious meatballs.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

How to Access and Donate to WikiLeaks

For my readers who believe in freedom of information and freedom from government intimidation, I'm sharing this information, thanks to The Guardian.

To access Wikileaks, click on THIS LINK, which will redirect to whatever URL Wikileaks may have to move to.

The Guardian has also set up an INTERACTIVE DATABASE to the U.S. Embassies material and related reportage.

If you'd like to support Wikileaks financially, the recent ban by PayPal is hardly insurmountable. You have several options to donate at THIS PAGE.

A Fable

From the latest issue of Mung Being, the Fables issue, The Rematch.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Avocado-Crabmeat Gazpacho Preempts Cuban Sandwich Egg Rolls

I spent an afternoon in Salem this summer, en route from Rockport back to Boston, and lunched at Finz, a spacious, sunny waterfront seafood restaurant. I had decided on a lobster roll, which at $17 was about $7 bucks cheaper than the same thing in Manhattan. And I was planning to start with an appetizer that was quite tempting to a pig-happy guy like me, something I'd never seen before but immediately declared a brilliant idea, on paper at least: Cuban sandwich egg rolls. What's not to like? Pork shoulder, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles stuffed into an egg roll skin and deep fried. Not only that, if it looks like a Chinese egg roll it's practically kosher!

But I was waylaid. We asked what the soup of the day was and the waitress told us it was an avocado gazpacho topped with crabmeat. That sounded good too. An inner struggle ensued. Gazpacho or egg rolls? Egg rolls or gazpacho? A foodie more neurotic than I could have been crippled by indecision. But not me. "I'll have the gazpacho," I said, hoping I hadn't made a mistake I'd regret for all my living days.

I did not regret it. It was wonderful, the perfect summer soup. It was like a cross between a guacamole and a gazpacho, and the pristine white crabmeat was the jewel in the crown. The lobster roll was good, but an anticlimax.

I must return to Finz next summer. I can't stop wondering about those Cuban sandwich egg rolls.

Pickering Wharf
Salem, MA