Friday, November 26, 2010

More from Ronda

Dinner last night, my second Thanksgiving meal, was tapas. I started at a fairly standard looking place, whose name I can't remember, where I had cured salmon and jamon serrano on toast. Then I moved on to Traga Tapas, the tapas outpost of the very high-end Tragabuches, perhaps Ronda's most expensive restaurant. Unlike most Spanish tapas bars, which have a well-worn, pedestrian look, Traga Tapas is sleek and trendy, as were its diners and its bartender. The offerings are somewhat inventive. I had a pintcho with sausage and onion and something called a stewed croquette (it was fried, but I guess the filling was stewed meat). The two most interesting items were the the asparagus pintcho which was topped with ethereal ribbons of sheep cheese and what I believe were apricot preserves and the chopped pork "sandwich," where the top layer looked like bread but was actually something like bechamel.

Today's lunch, at Almocabar, considered one of Ronda's best restaurants, was fabulous. I started with the stuffed squid with truffles, which was stuffed, it turns out, with the squid's legs. My main course was the picturesque and delicious duck leg with baked apple shown at the top.

During my morning ramble I saw this sign for a preschool.

Having eaten a fairly large lunch at late-for-me Spanish hours (at 2:15 I was the first diner), dinner (at 10PM) was just a quartet of pintchos at Casa Ortega: eel, chicharron (gimme some skin), salmon atop salmon salad, and the coveted jamon Iberico.

Ronda is home to Spain's first purpose-built bullring, built along the lines of a Roman arena. Ronda's importance in the history of bullfighting made Hemingway a fan of the town. Now they only stage bullfights on special occasions and it otherwise serves as a museum. I actually have no interest in the barbaric sport; I've never attended a bullfight, nor do intend to do so in the future. But it's an important part of Ronda's patrimony, and as a tourist I figured I should visit it. After all, though I'm also not a fan of genocide I've been to Dachau, Auschwitz and the Cambodian killing fields.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from Ronda

I'm spending a long Thanksgiving weekend in Andalusia. I just arrived in Ronda this afternoon, by bus from Malaga, my airport of entry to the region. Along with Seville, Granada and Cordoba, Ronda is one of the most visited towns in Southern Spain, but most of the tourist traffic is day trippers from Costa del Sol resorts like Marbella (Michelle Obama was recently one of them). I'm staying two nights, one and a half days, before moving on to Seville, one of my favorite cities in the world. This is my first time in Ronda.

Ronda has plenty of charm, but its most striking aspect is its position atop two hills with an 18th-century "new bridge" joining the old and new(er) towns. From the Puente Nuevo, one has fabulous views of the hundred-meter-deep El Tajo Gorge. That and the winding, narrow streets of the old town make it an ideal spot for a wanderer like me.

Lunch today, just after arrival, between the bus station and my hotel, was at Pedro Romero, a noted restaurant near the bull ring. The restaurant is named for Pedro Romero Martinez, who is credited with the invention of modern bullfighting (right here in Ronda) in the 18th century. The food was decent enough, but I suspect I'd have done better if I hadn't gone for the cheapskate fixed menu at 15 Euros for 3 courses and a glass of house wine. The typical soup of Ronda, with eggs, ham, rice and bread was quite good, as was my dessert, a cinnamon custard. Main course choices were either grilled salmon or beef stew. Since I couldn't expect to be surprised by grilled salmon (and figured it's farmed), I decided to try the beef stew. And you know what? It was beef stew!

My hotel is a delight. The San Gabriel is a converted mansion (built in 1736) with charming public areas, pleasant rooms, and surprisingly reasonable prices (I'm paying 68 Euros a night for a single). My predecessors at the hotel include Isabella Rosselini, Robert Plant, John Lithgow, George Hamilton, and a number of Spanish celebrities. My predecessors at restaurant Pedro Romero include Orson Wells and Ernest Hemingway. Ronda is tiny, but it has plenty of names to drop.

More about Spain later. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pete and David Do the Founding Fathers (and Frozen Custard)

First things first. Carl's Frozen Custard, in Fredericsburg (since 1947), is the perfect place to stop for a treat between Monticello and Mount Vernon. And custard it is, egg yolks and all, not some lily-livered soft-serve masquerading as custard. There are only three flavors, and you know what they are. I tried two, vanilla and chocolate, on a cone, for $1.89. The flavors were fresh and delicious. If you're a history tourist to this part of Virginia (be it American Revolution or Civil War), a stop at Carl's is de rigeur.

Less memorable was our lunch stop, at Allman's Bar-B-Q (since 1954), also in Fredericsburg. The atmosphere is great, a little roadside joint with a counter and a few tables, and "Mom" in the kitchen. But the pulled pork sandwich left much to be desired; it was dry, low on flavor, and without a trace of smokiness. The hush puppies were actually the highlight of the meal.


I'd been wanting to visit Monticello for the longest time, but not being a driver my options were very limited. Surprisingly there's no public transportation from Charlottesville, and only a Gray Line tour from Washington. Several years ago I proposed a trip to Charlottesville to my friend David Mindich, whom I met, appropriately, in the doctoral program in American Studies at NYU. Our schedules finally meshed last weekend. We hooked up in D.C., where we had a fantastic dinner at Zaytinya, which assured its place as my favorite D.C. restaurant. The following morning we set out for Charlottesville, stopping for a serviceable southern buffet lunch at historic Michie Tavern.

I'll say little about Monticello, having nothing of value to add to the preponderance of information about Thomas Jefferson's home. If you want to know just about everything, you'd do well to read Jack McLaughlin's Jefferson and Monticello.

Mount Vernon

Our first and third Presidents both lived on Virginia plantations when they weren't living elsewhere. While Jefferson's Monticello is on a secluded hill, Washington's Mount Vernon is actually on the banks of the Potomac. Both homes were on land inherited from their respective families, but Jefferson built his house from scratch (twice), while Washington expanded the existing house. While Jefferson's ingenious innovations are a delight to the visitor to Monticello, I find the riverside location of Mount Vernon more hospitable.

In Charlottesville we also visited Jefferson's other architectural triumph, the University of Virginia.

Rotunda Skylight, University of Virginia

Though Edgar Allan Poe only spent a year at the University (he had to give Charlottesville wide berth after that, due to considerable debts), his room (appropriately, number 13) on Jefferson's original "Academical Village" is now maintained as a shrine of sorts where one can peek through the window.

Poe's Room, U. VA, with the Spirit of Mindich

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New Southern and Nueva Peruana in San Francisco

As I've written in recent posts, a good deal of my dining (and breakfasting and lunching) in San Francisco was devoted to historic venues I had somehow never gotten to before. But I also had several excellent meals at fairly new places. I learned about Limon, a restaurant that describes itself as Peruvian/Nuevo Latino fusion, from San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer's Top 100 list. Considering the wealth of restaurants in the Bay Area (the list isn't limited to San Francisco), it's no easy feat to make the list. Limon is indeed deserving of its place on the list.

Don't expect a traditional Peruvian menu at Limon; the Nuevo Latino moniker (or "new world cuisine") is an apt description. While there's only a baker's handful of main courses (in other words, six), there are a large number of ceviches, tiraditos (sashimi-cut ceviche) and appetizers.

The two appetizers I shared were excellent. Costillas Nikkei (crispy spare ribs with a rocoto-soy sauce) were wonderful, moist as well as crispy with a rich porky flavor. Rocoto is a Peruvian hot pepper sauce, but the ribs weren't really spicy, more a spicy-sweet (but not cloying) mix. Also excellent was their spin on fried calamari, served with fried yuca and breaded green beans.

Despite the small number of main courses on offer, I had a hard time deciding, as all sounded quite tempting. I ended up going for the Chuleton Carlitos (pan roasted pork chop over cabbage-bacon hash and mushroom ragout). It was a wonderful play of flavors, with a strong, but not overwhelming, black pepper presence. Once again the pork sang to me, as did the sides.

* * *

It was the shrimp and grits on the menu that drew me to 1300 on Filmore, next to Yoshi's jazz club in the Fillmore district, which for many years was San Francisco's main black residential area and is now building on its history and refashioning itself as an entertainment district with an emphasis on black music. On the Friday night I went to 1300 the streets were abuzz with activity, a major change compared to just five years ago. 1300 on Fillmore is owned by Monetta White, whose family has roots in the neighborhood, and her husband, chef David Lawrence, a Brit of Jamaican ancestry with a background in French cuisine. The menu melds influences from French and California cuisine with classic dishes of the American South.

The shrimp and grits appetizer was a fairly faithful rendition of a classic Charleston shrimp and grits, reminiscent of the version at Charleston's Barbadoes Room, though not in the same league. Still, I'd say it was the best execution of the dish I've had outside the Low Country.

It was hard to settle on a main course, as all of the descriptions made me salivate like a Pavlovian canine. I decided I was in the mood for fish, so I ordered the black skillet roasted catfish with andouille dirty risotto and cornbread panzanella. I was not disappointed.

I'd say prices at both restaurants are moderate, or perhaps the high end of moderate.

San Franciscans are lucky, as I'd bet that per capita they have more good (and more diverse) restaurant choices than the residents of just about any other city in the U.S. I was lucky to have gotten to two of the better newish ones during my most recent visit.

524 Valencia Street

1300 0n Fillmore
Corner of Fillmore and Eddy

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cast Your Underwear to the Wind

When is it time to throw away those old clothes? For some people it appears to be never, for others as soon as they're perceived to be out of style or too worn or damaged. My policy for a number of years has been to take my ready-to-be-discarded clothes on vacation, for one final wear. That way I can discard clothes along the way and return with a lighter suitcase or one filled with new things purchased while away.

Now when I think an article of clothing is on its last legs, I save it in a special travel drawer. Then, when I'm ready to pack, I take as many items as befit the weather at my intended destination.

Underwear is a no-brainer, and you can quote me on that. Let's say your briefs are getting a bit threadbare, or the waistband has lost some elasticity, or there's a hole or two. Save them for your next trip and after you've worn them one last time leave them in your hotel room's trash can.

I do the same with shirts and polos, and occasionally pants. I dumped a whole mess of old clothes in Korea and Cambodia this past winter.

While there are some travelers who like to be extra-fashionable while on vacation, my theory is that where nobody knows me it doesn't much matter what I wear. And it's so nice to have a lighter bag on the way back, or one filled with custom-tailored Madras shirts purchased in Chennai for a song.

My one exception to the rule is socks. I do a lot of walking, and good padded socks and comfortable, sturdy walking shoes are essential.

On my recent cross-country train trip I could have opened the window and literally cast my underwear to the wind. But, not wanting to sully the majestic American landscape with Cherchesian jockey shorts, I ended up doing so only figuratively.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Vintage S.F.: A Raw Bar, a Hofbrau and a Pancake that Thinks it's a Fish

Two of the historic San Francisco eateries on my hit list were within a short walk of my historic hotel. I've walked by both on numerous occasions over the past thirty years, but somehow never managed to go inside either until the vintage restaurant project of my most recent visit.

I missed the Swan Oyster Depot in the past because it's always so crowded at lunchtime (and they don't do dinner). This time I went at 11:30 to beat the crowds. The restaurant has a counter with 20 stools (no tables), and even at that early hour all but two were taken.

The Swan (at 1517 Polk) opened in 1912, and has been under the current family ownership since 1946. It's a classic raw bar and a San Francisco institution. I ordered a bowl of their New England clam chowder and a half dozen oysters, a mix of Pacific and Atlantic varieties (kumamoto, miyagi and blue point). The chowder was excellent--simple and not thickened (a relief from the all-too-often gummy versions). The oysters are right-priced; I think the half dozen cost about $11. The oysters are served with a number of condiments and sauces, including a house mignonette.

Seated next to me at the counter was a woman who was drinking champagne and having a mini-feast. "Champagne at 11:30 on a weekday. Nice work if you can get it," I said. She told me she had just quit her job and was non-stop celebrating before embarking on months of overseas travel. I had originally planned on eating just the chowder and the oysters, but she had a plate of sliced fish that looked fabulous. I asked the counter guy what it was. He called it Sicilian-style sashimi; I might call it carpaccio. She had a combination of albacore, yellow tail and scallops; I substituted sardines for the scallops, wanting something richer in the mix. I'm so glad I ordered this, as it was the highlight of the meal. And at $10 for a healthy serving of sashimi-grade fish, served in olive oil with red onions and capers, it was a steal.

Tommy's Joynt (corner of Van Ness and Geary) has been around since 1947. It's a classic hofbrau, with a bar on one side, cafeteria-style food service on the other, and tables in-between. The cartoony facade is a familiar sight to San Franciscans, whether they've eaten there or not.

I thought about ordering their buffalo stew, a house specialty, but ended up going with a brisket sandwich (a particular weakness of mine) on a sour dough roll. It was served with a barbecue sauce on the side, but I thought it was better served by some spicy mustard. Though a tad too fatty, it was nonetheless quite tasty--a nice $6 sandwich. Tommy's reminded me of the Blarney Stones of New York.

May's Coffee Shop, in the Japantown shopping center, may not be a truly historic place, but it's been around for a while. Anyway, I went by early one morning to try their signature item, taiyaki, a sweet pancake in the shape of a fish. I had the traditional version, which is stuffed with red bean paste, but May's also makes chocolate and chocolate-banana versions.