Iberian Eats – Part One

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We recently joined some great friends for a two-week cruise from Barcelona to Miami. The ports at the start of cruise were Barcelona, Cartagena, Málaga and Cádiz in Spain, and Lisbon in Portugal.

Since exploring local food is as engaging for us as exploring local sights, we decided to walk ashore and to do lunch in each port. There’s plenty (or far more than enough) food available on board the cruise ship, but that’s not the same as tasting locally. Our goal wasn’t to find super-fancy starred restaurants. It was to find well-regarded attractive local places. Some Google searching and online reservations, and we were ready to go…. and eat.

Barcelona: Grill Room Bar Thonet

The reviews of Grill Room Bar Thonet said good local food, including tapas, at an attractive Modernista setting. (Modernista is the term for the design flourishing at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th in Barcelona. Antonia Gaudì played a seminal role in the exploration of this aesthetic.)

We arrived at the restaurant at the correct time. Once we caught the attention of one of the staff, he looked around the dining room, and then gestured toward a bare two-top right at the front door. While there were people in the restaurant, it was far from full. There were plenty of available tables, all set with table cloths. We demurred, asking for a table away from the front door. The response was, “Oh, you’re just two, and all the rest of the tables are for larger parties.” We countered: “We made a reservation just like everyone else!” His next idea: “Follow me; we can go upstairs” — which was a mezzanine, full of empty tables and empty of people, and hot and stuffy. Mike correctly said, “We’d rather not eat in the attic.”

Finally, after conferring with numerous colleagues, the staff person said, “Can you sit at the bar for now? When a table opens up, you can move.”

Fortunately, the bar was attractive. Other diners were already enjoying tapas and wine there. It also gave us the opportunity to watch the staff prepare slices of Iberian ham, bowls of local olives, and sear bowls of Catalan flan with a blow torch.

While we waited for menus, a server behind the bar finally focused on us: “What would you like to drink?” We said, “Local red wine. May we see a wine list?” He looked blank: “Oh, we don’t have one. What would you like?” We could see wine bottles lined up behind him along the mirrored wall. So we described what we had in mind — red, medium body, nice interesting nose, complex taste. Perhaps a Rioja (our friend Liz has been showing us delicious Rioja wines lately.) The server said, “I have a Ribera del Duero that’s very nice.” We’re open, so why not? But, kind of chaotically casual. We wanted local, right?

No big surprise, really, but the wine was pleasant. We’re sitting at an attractive tapas bar in one of our favorite cities. All good.

Eventually, menus arrived. Only in Catalan. Thank goodness for Apple and Google image translation. 

Just as we placed our order, the main server returned to say he had a table for us now. Just behind us, another server was setting a bare stone-topped table for us. A table that had been sitting unused the whole time we’d been there. The bar was pretty fun, but after we had made a big deal about the table, we had to smile, say thank you, and take our wine to the new table.

Which was a good thing given all the plates we’d ordered!

All the chaos of our start at the restaurant fell away. The wine was getting even better. Our new server was charming, and the plates started to arrive. 

Good food cures all!

Scallops: perfectly cooked, and chilled. With onion, tomato relish which was gentle, not too acidic; fresh. | Marinated mackerel with crispy toast: almost sweet, the mackerel flavor shines through without being fishy. | Olives
Tuna belly with peppers and tapenade: splendid with the tapenade.
Grilled artichokes with Iberian ham fat: canned (!) artichokes and a film of ham fat: bland. 
Créma catalana, brulée, strawberries

Wine: Ribera del Duero: Austum 2020

The next morning, we craved a local standard for a weekend morning: churros and chocolate. The concierge at the hotel pointed us to two favorite places that his grandmother used to take him to: Granja Dulcinea and Granja La Pallaresa, both on Carrer de Petritxol, which is known informally as Chocolate Street. 

We found Dulcinea first. Charming atmosphere.

Efficient humorless waiters who delivered steaming cups of thick chocolate and fresh churros. Who cares that the servers were dour; dipping the sweet churros in the hot surprisingly-not-sweet chocolate steeped us in good cheer-os. (Sorry, couldn’t resist; it’s the chocolate talking.)

Cartagena: Restaurante D’Almansa

In Cartagena, the historic center is a short walk from the ship pier.

We stopped at the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology en route to the historic center. The exhibits and collection explain the challenges of excavating underwater, and the evolution of Mediterranean vessels from Carthaginian times to the Era of the Explorers.

We expected a small historic district full of tourist shops and fellow cruisers. (On our Sunday, there were two other cruise ships in port, including one that could bring as many as 4000 visitors.) There was a little bit of that, but mostly we found a single pedestrian “Main Street” — Calle Mayor —  with local chain stores, bars, cafés and restaurants. Being Sunday, not all stores were open, but many were, as were most of the cafés and restaurants. And most of the people promenading up and down the street seemed to be local: lots of young couples pushing strollers and guiding the kids, older folks dressed up in clothes from around 1900, teenagers on their phones and in their designer sportswear. By 11 am, most café tables had a few amber beer glasses on them.

Sunday seems to be a relaxing social day in Cartagena.

We found Restaurante D’Almansa on a side street just off Calle Mayor. After our 100% Catalan menu in Barcelona, we had our phones ready to translate the menu here. A well-dressed woman met us at the door of the restaurant. We said simply, in English, “Hello! We have a reservation.” Since Cartagena is a small city, we expected to need to stumble through communication. But, she said in perfect British English, “OK. Good. Please come this way.”

We arrived at about 2 pm which is still rather early for Spanish restaurants. We found a white, simply decorated white-table-cloth dining room. There were people at only two of the about 15 tables; by 3 pm, the restaurant was full. We heard British English from one table, something Scandinavian from another, but the rest seemed to be local people — from what looked like a big family gathering of about 16 folks, to a quartet of ladies out to lunch, to a very young couple maybe on a date. It felt like a nice local almost family restaurant.

The menu wasn’t quite what we’d seen online. There was much more diversity, including surprising Asian notes. [examples] When we’d envisioned Andalusian local favorites, we didn’t see [examples]. (In France, local restaurants are generally fiercely proud of local cuisine; they seldom offer any dish or even ingredient not from the nearby territory.)

Thanks to our hostess’s English proficiency, we were able to ask for her recommendations for particularly local dishes and wine. Following her lead, we ordered aubergine chips, prawns tempura, veal stuffed with Iberian ham, and stuffed squid.

The aubergine chips turned out to be fabulous. Think super-fine crisp chips (with a veneer of respectability because they’re a vegetable after all — OK, technically a fruit). The tastiness of salt and light frying oil, drizzled unexpectedly with a thick cane honey syrup and sesame seeds. Somehow, it really worked.

The other dishes, however… They were ample if not particularly good.

Prawns: tempura fried then drenched with a mysterious sauce, which turned the tempura batter to mush, with thousand-island-dressing type sauce with touch of chili pepper | Aubergine chips
A big squid stuffed with little chopped bits of more squid (a bit carnivorous!). It tasted of, well, squid, and only squid.
An immense cut of veal stuffed with Iberian ham: veal codon bleu: veal, ham, cheese, breaded and fried. It was OK for what it was, but it was easily a meal for two people by itself. 

Wine: Ribera del Duero, Almarina

We concluded that we had an authentically local lunch. Not a place that was about “cuisine.” Just big food that local folks like to eat — prepared by a cook!

To be continued in Málaga, Cádiz and Lisbon…

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