Monday, 31 October 2011

Small plates make me hungry

Continuing the theme of small plates (and I even did a tapas evening for friends on Saturday), I wanted to make note of the delicious meal I had at Opera Tavern, on the day I booked my trip to Spain. The Opera Tavern is the sister restaurant of the more well known Salt Yard, and they both specialise in tapas or small plates from Italy and Spain. Getting a table at a few day's notice was tricky - an online booking system makes it all the easier for everyone else to get in there, so we ended up with a very un-Mediteranean 6.15 start time.

The menu covers a range of cured meats, meat off the grill and fish, vegetable and meat based small plates. We staggered our order, savouring a small amount of flavours, musing and then ordering a couple more. First up was a chorizo and squid skewer topped with a tangy pomegranate seeds, cucumber and green tomato relish. The chorizo was clearly top notch and, chargrilled, went perfectly with the meaty squid. Very good.

This was followed by more squid, however, this time as battered rings with battered purslane too. It was my first purslane and a totally new taste, very salty and somewhere between seaweed and spinach.

After all that protein, we craved vegetables. A super green broad bean, tenderstem broccoli, gnocchi and pesto small plate was incredible. The pesto was particuarly fragrant and sweet, and every last spot was mopped up.

I'm a sucker for courgette flowers (and that's all my courgette plants were good for this summer - not the end of the world, seeing as they cost £3 a flower from Borough market) and particularly enjoyed Opera Tavern's, which left the flower attached to the baby courgette and was stuffed with a light, smooth goats cheese and drizzled in honey. Classic combination.

After a board of impeccable quality sliced chorizo, we climaxed on the Opera Tavern's most famous, and perhaps most unlikely dis - the Iberico pork and foie gras burger. It's a diminutive dish, but packed full of rich flavours, a velvety bite, and a perfectly formed little brioche bun. I ate it as slowly as I could, appreciating every last bite interceded by meat, bun, cheese and caramelised onions. Mmm.

We finished on a little plate of truffles, biscotti and a glass of dessert wine. Classy.

I'd definitely recommend Opera Tavern for the food, and it's possible to have a not-too-pricey meal there, although it's definitely in the 'treats' category. Atmosphere-wise, we were in the dining room on the 1st floor, and it was busy without being buzzy. The clientèle were clearly quite well off, but I didn't notice anyone as excited about the food as I was. Maybe that's what it is to be classy, eh?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cadiz, if you please

I wanted to see everything in Andalucia. I was tempted by the palaces of Granada and Cordoba, the small villages along the Costa Tropical, the faded glamour of Malaga. I wanted to see the sea and the mountains. But with only a week to play with, I decided on Cadiz as the other side of my first adventure in Andalucia, coaxed by the returns of its Google Image Search, it's sea-locked situation and tales of its slightly end-of-the-road atmosphere. As a destination for a couple of days, it didn't disappoint - and we managed to scale the length of the city quite a few times, chasing the sunset to the Cadiz's southwesterly tip at the Castillo de San Sebastian.

Just too dreamy.

Being sea-locked and all, Cadiz is famed for its fresh fish. Particularly fried. Tapas is also popular, but clearly not to the extent of Seville - there were times where we'd be roaming the streets for block and blocks trying to find open tapas bars, especially later on in the evening, and even in key plazas. It shows you can try too hard to the 'authentic' thing (late night tapas binges, you'd think) and sometimes that just doesn't work. Tapa prices were notably cheaper in Cadiz though and in some places you were given a plate for free with drinks, just like in the movies.

We had a couple of very memorable portions of fried fish. The first on our first lunch after the train ride from Seville. It was at Meson La Cartuja, just off the main square in the old town. A whole platter of fried fish, including white bait, sardines, cuttlefish and cod. For about 10€. Pretty amazing. We ordered a salad to go with it as we were afraid of death by protein - our salad also came topped with tuna. It was incredibly fresh and the batter was very light compared to that in British chippies.

We also tried the most popular freidura (fish and chip shop, basically), which is on Las Flores - a pedestrian street with lots of flower sellers. Lots of happy families strolled past, children armed with tall flowers, on their way home. Inside it was like a Spanish version of the British chippy, slightly weary, down at heel but full of all walks of lives tucking in to yummy fresh fish and other raciones. We had fat and juicy prawns fresh out the Atlantic, and some croquettes for substance. The prawns were delicious, so meaty and sweet.

Our top tapas was at La Marina, overlooking the market square. We had a tripe stew with chorizo and chick peas - my first time eating tripe and boy is that a pungent taste. Almost a bit too much for me, but the chorizo flavours helped to soften the blow. We also had tuna cooked in a sweet onion and oloroso sauce (delicious), kidneys in sherry and 'salad' which was basically potatoes with more tuna. All were delicious, and as you can see from our spread, we were a bit more mezze than tapas, having them all at once. The olive oil based sauces were so moreish, we really had to ration our bread soaking them all up.

We also had tapas at Le Gorda Te Da De Corner, a cheap, bright, studenty tapas restaurant, where all the tapa were 2€ or under. It wasn't all fancy pants, but the pork with an almond and cream sauce was tasty.

Some of our fanciest tapas was at snazzy Sopranis, just around the corner from our hostel. It was incredibly stylish, and the proprietress was pure Almodovar as she strutted around, taking care of her guests in heels and leather trousers. We just had a couple of dishes - duck ham with an orange zest and pine nut chutney, and a sardine and red pepper empanada, which was such a winning combination of flavours - definitely one to try at home.

Our final meal for the holiday was in Jerez, where we flew back from. Jerez is a sherry town - the air is thick with the smell of it - and has a comfortingly stuffy and conservative feel about it. Our guidebook told us that the sherry dynasties bred a local elite who like to ape the customs of the British upper classes, playing polo, wearing deck shoes, chinos and starched shirts.

Our lunchspot was right in keeping, Restaurante Alcazaba, a faded traditional restaurant, all yellow walls, wood panelling and lots of big hair (ladies) and slicked back hair (men). That's not to do it down though - a bit of olde worlde charm in an olde worlde town is just right. And all the Jerez slickers were onto something good - 4 courses and wine for €11! The first was a potato salad tapa to share, I had Revuelto - Spanish scrambled egg with wild mushrooms for a starter. It was all about the mains though - mine was slow-cooked oxtail in a rich gravy and sautéed potatoes. Pete had pork steaks in a roquefort sauce.

So that was it. The last of the sun for 2011, but a great introduction to Andalucia and authentic tapas. I'm all inspired to try out some of the dishes on friends and go back and see more of the region.

Monday, 10 October 2011

El Tapeador!

As a (final) post-dissertation reward, boyf and I took off to Andalucia for 5 days of roaming the streets of Seville, Cadiz and Jerez in search of excellent, authentic tapa, sherry and warm autumnal sunshine. The only time I'd been to Spain was a trip to Barcelona with my mum in 2000 - a lifetime ago. Most of my 'grown up' travelling has been to the Eastern Europe (inter-railing for 6 weeks in 2004), Eastern Med (Bosnia, Croatia x2, Montenegro, Turkey, Greece) and Portugal, land of my forefathers. But some delicious meals at Moro and other tapas bars, reading the Moro cookbooks and hearing friends' tales of amazing times in different parts of Spain got me tantalised.

We went to an amazing array of tapas bars in our 5 short days there, so these are just some of the greatest hits from Seville - Cadiz and Jerez to come.

Salmorejo is the gazpacho of the south - it's thicker and smoother than the traditional gazpacho. It's topped with jamon and egg and lots of olive oil. We had quite a few of these over our stay - we loved the fresh taste of the raw tomatoes and then fruity acidity of the top notch olive oil. This was my favourite one - at bright and cheery Duo Tapas bar just off Alameda de Hercules:

One of the most fun things about kind of understanding Spanish is that you kind of know what you're going to get but the actual form and presentation is a total surprise. Or so it was when I ordered Tostada Bacalao, which I imagined would be toast with salt cod. What arrived was a lot fancier - thin crisps and subtle salt cod, fried together and modelled, with egg, as a patty topped with alfalfa sprouts. It was from Kiosko Los Leones, in the middle of Alameda de Hercules, which was great for people watching with a glass of Cava.

My favourite tapas bar was hands down El Rinconcillo, apparently Seville's oldest tapas bar. We rolled in after getting a bit lost in the winding alleys (it's very easy to lose your sense of direction), and it was still lively with locals at 11pm on a Monday evening. I ordered Espinacas con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas) and Bacalao con Tomates, which was salt cod served with a sauce of slow cooked tomatoes and peppers with lots of olive oil.

The bar itself was stunning - you could just feel the history and imagine it not being hugely different 300 years ago...

Another favourite in Seville was Meson del Pulpo, a galician restaurant in the centre of town. We had one of our most luxuriant lunches there - gobbling up a racion of Pimientos de Padrón, salty fried mini green peppers, a tapa of pork steak in an almond and sherry sauce (LUSH!) and a silky Galician octopus served with a confit potato. That one was totes simple, but so fresh and tasty.

And finally for Seville, an old favourite - Gambas Al Ajillo. This one reminds me of childhood holidays in the Algarve - spitting hot olive oil, sweet, sweet garlic sauce and perfectly fresh Atlantic prawns. We ate this one in an atmospheric little plaza in Triana, the old gypsy barrio. A band entertained us with shanties while I sipped a cool Manzanilla. I used bread to soak up every last spot of the garlicky, prawny olive oil.

Afterwards we caught an authentic flamenco performance at Casa de Anselma, one of the best places for low-key, passionate and gritty flamenco - which doesn't even open til midnight. It was the perfect way to an end our enchanting stay in Seville. Next stop: Cadiz!