Welcome to Buen Provecho! A gastronomic tour of Spain seen through the eyes of a citizen expatriate

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zen Market (Madrid)

The Chen family has enjoyed tremendous success with their design Asian restaurants in Madrid and its peripheries. Zen, Zen Central and Asia Gallery, the latter which is located in Madrid's exclusive Westin Palace Hotel, are the predecessors of the latest creation, Zen Market (http://www.zenmarket.es). With decor resembling the trendiest eateries in New York and London, Zen Market is unique in that it occupies over 2,000 square meters of Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, offers many of the more than 300 guests spectacular views of the field, has a lounge bar with a wide selection of cocktails not commonly found in Madrid and even includes 11 private boxes to be used during games.

I was accompanied by two friends during my first Zen Market experience, so rather than each ordering first and second courses we decided on one of four Menu Desgustaciones (Tasting Menus). I must say I was initially quite impressed by the prices. Two tasting menus came in at 35 Euros per person and two others at 45. Shocking when taking into account that the restaurant construction and design are rumored to have cost over 5 million Euros.

With pretty large appetites, we decided on the Menu Gastronómico (45 euros per person) plus one of the house specialties, Auténtico Pato Lacada Estilo Pekín (Roasted Peking Duck). As we looked onto a floodlit field that was hosting an event, the immaculate servers at Zen started us off with a small appetizer consisting of mixed field greens, finely sliced veggies and a cube of tempura battered salmon. I must admit that several Asian restaurants skimp on the quality of such on-the-house appetizers, but the ingredients selected by Zen complemented one another extremely well and the light use of dressing brought out each and every flavor.

As we sipped on our Pisco Sours, Whiskey Sours and Lychee Martinis (the cocktail menu is quite impressive, but the time it took to make our drinks was less than acceptable for an Asian restaurant boasting to be one of the best in Europe), the first item on our tasting menu was brought to the table. The Sopa de Miso con Almeja Japónica (Miso Soup with Japonica Clam) had the standard taste of any non-instant Miso soup you will find, but the clam that sat in the bowl provided a distinctly unique seafood bite. Had it been a business meeting, date or other important event, however, and I am sure there are plenty that take place at Zen Market, getting at the actual clam would have been difficult without proper dining etiquette instruction. I just popped mine open with my fingers and pulled it out, but there really was no need as it had very little flavor on its own.

With the soup out of the way and my friends and I on round two of drinks, the waitstaff served the next three plates on the menu: Ensalada de Frutos del Mar (Seafood Japanese Style Salad), Tartar de Atún y Tobiko Negro (Tuna Tartare with Black Tobiko) and Carpaccio de Buey (Beef Carpaccio).

The first was really nothing more than three pieces of Sashimi layed over Frisée lettuce. The one piece of shrimp, salmon and some sort of white fish were very fresh, but lacked the taste you would expect if ordered at any Japanese restaurant. The light dressing over the greens resembled that of the appetizer and I would venture to say it was the exact same. Really?

The Tuna Tartare was more to my liking although I have made a conscious effort to avoid eating Ahi (Yellowfin) due to over-fishing of the species. The fish was finely chopped, topped with black Flying Fish Roe and what appeared to be strands of saffron (I have yet to confirm the latter) and sat in what I believe was a Ponzu sauce. The presentation and combination of flavors were both fantastic, but for God's sake don't serve Tartare in a bowl, especially when you expect clientele to use chopsticks! I love Tuna Tartare and prefer it to be more compact than that of Zen's, so after picking at it for several minutes to no avail, I finally gave in to using a fork.

The third dish looked so good but was so disappointing. When I order Beef Carpaccio I expect to receive paper thin slices of bright red meat, perhaps topped with truffle oil and Parmesan. Because Zen is Asian cuisine, I knew that wouldn't be the case. But I was astonished to see their version. What we were served was a bowl containing shredded Daikon Radish and four slivers of flavorless beef Tataki; nothing resembling the slightest hint of Carpaccio. You would certainly expect better from a restaurant priding itself on being one of Madrid's new "places to see and be seen."

Fortunately for my tastebuds, the next course was my favorite of the night: Bogavante con Sal y Pimienta (Pan Fried Lobster with Salt and Pepper). Two platters each containing half a lobster tail and a claw found their way to our table and I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into them. While the presentation was a bit drab and could have used a touch here and there, the taste more than made up for it. The meat popped right out of the shell and was both firm and juicy. The taste was also extaordinary. The combination of seasoning with the searing from the pan (it looked more seared than fried) gave the lobster an almost tangy flavor. Definitely a must when ordering a la carte.

Before our last two items on the tasting menu were served, we were first shown the entire Peking Duck (as is the custom) prior to it being carved and brought back to us in a bamboo steamer basket. I am not crazy about duck to begin with, but I must admit this was pretty good. I don't know if it was the crunchy texture, the bean sauce, the green onions or the pancake, but I was pretty impressed... Until I saw how much it cost when we got the bill. I know proper Peking Duck involves hours of care, but 70 Euros is a little steep for what turned out to be nine miniature pancakes.

The last two dishes included Magret de Pato y Salsa de Ciruelas (Duck Maigret with Plum Sauce) and Arroz Frito con Marisco (Pan Fried Rice with Shellfish). The Maigret was tender as you would expect from a breast, but I prefer lean meat of any nature and this definitely was not. Although cooking it without removing the fat does add fantastic flavor, the duck would have been more appealing had it been removed prior to serving. The sauce was also satisfactory, but Zen did go a little overboard with it. As a huge rice fan, I found Zen's version with shellfish to be a nice break from what you tend to find in Spain. Here it's either white or Tres Delicias, which includes ham (so wrong in my book). Zen's had subtle hints of shellfish and veggies and was fried just right. Let's see if any other Asian restaurants here take notice.

After dessert, which consisted of a ball of Raspberry sherbet, a squeeze of crunchy lemon mousse and what resembled a slice of flan, we made our way to Zen's lounge for a nightcap. The service left much to be desired and after a lot of bickering between the bartender and what appeared to be a cook who was lending a hand, we decided to pick up and leave. All in all, Zen Market provided an impressive ambiance and a very cool setting, but if you want Chinese or Japanese food in Madrid I can think of plenty of other places where you will get much more bang for your buck. I hope to visit a couple and write about them to give you readers some other dining options. Buen Provecho! rating: 3/5

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

El Capricho (Jiménez de Jamuz)

Time magazine called it "the perfect steak." Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten said it was "probably the greatest steak I've ever eaten." The Guardian listed it as "The Best Place in the World to Eat Steak."  Located 70 kilometers to the Southwest of León lies El Capricho (http://bodega-capricho.com/es), which I had the great privilege of visiting last week.

Away with all molecular gastronomy and pretty dishes by Adria, the Rocas, Aduriz, Arzak, Berasategui, etc.  I have yet to visit any of them, but equally deserving of all the accolades garnered is El Capricho. Proprietor and Master Grill Man, José Gordón knows his beef. Usually on the road in search of the best Buey (Ox) on the Iberian Peninsula, which can cost as much as 16,000 euros a head, Gordón kindly showed us around the premises and revealed some of the secrets to his success: Hand-picking the most noble of animals based on the right mix of age, temperament, protein mineralization, fat content and more, followed by the proper aging process of 60-90 days before landing on the grill.

Our El Capricho experience began with a brief detour through the kitchen, where bright red cuts of the 12-year old Portuguese Buey that we would soon be eating sat ready to be sliced and grilled. We were then led through a dark cavelike hallway with tables to each side before reaching our own private underground dining room.

The first of several appetizers was the Cecina de Buey (Cured, air-dried beef) produced in-house. Only 0.8% (8/1000 kilos) of each animal purchased by El Capricho is used to make this Spanish delicacy. Most Cecina you will find is sliced too thick and served too dry, but Chef Gordón has mastered the technique to produce the finest Cecina I have ever tasted. The three-year curing process results in tender, easily pliable cured beef that El Capricho serves in paper thin slices.

We were then brought two mushroom dishes, the first being Boletus con Foie (Wild mushrooms with foie). The boletus were large, meaty and flavorful, but a tad on the salty end. I wasn't that impressed, perhaps because I am not keen on foie, but everyone sitting at the table was raving. The Boletus were followed by Colmenillas Rellenas al Ajillo (Morels stuffed with shrimp and sautéed in oil and garlic). I found the dish delicious and creative, although we all agreed that the shrimp was too overpowering.  After removing them from the cap, I could certainly distinguish the smoky, earthy taste that Morels are known for. The oil the Morels had been cooked in later made for great bread dipping.

Pimientos Asados a la Parrilla (Roasted, grilled red peppers) and a salad were the final two items on the menu before the main course. The peppers had a fantastic roasted taste and weren't doused in garlic as so often is the case in Spain, but they were a little on the oily end. The salad, meanwhile, combined locally grown lettuce, onion, red peppers and tomatoes and was topped off with black olives and homemade balsamic vinaigrette. El Capricho used the perfect amount of dressing and the salad was by far one of the freshest and zestful I have ever had.

The moment we had all been waiting for finally arrived. What weighed in at about 2.8 kilos (6.2 pounds) of Chuleta de Buey (cut of ox) was wheeled into our private room and sliced by Sous Chef Vanessa. The meat was served rare and simply spectacular to all the senses.

The slivers of the 12-year old Portuguese ox were lean, beautifully marbled and just melted in the mouth. With room for more, we ordered another Chuleta that weighed in at 1.4 kilos (and cost almost 100 euros). Although the portion was literally the next cut on this particular ox, it was even more flavorful and tantalizing than the first. Rather than serving it straight from the cutting board to our plates, Vanessa let it sit on an earthenware platter that had been rubbed down with fat that had been cooked and removed from the same cut of meat. No words can do the flavor justice. The most wholesome of beef at its very  finest. God speaking to us through food. Absolutely exquisite.

If you decide to visit El Capricho, I recommend ordering a la carte and skipping over most starters. Order one side dish such as the salad, but stick to the beef and pay no attention to the price. The only downside of our meal was the rookie waiter who looked after us, but by taking him out of the equation I would describe my El Capricho dining experience as one of the most thorough and transcendent yet. Buen Provecho! rating: 5/5

Friday, June 3, 2011

Central Mexicana (Pozuelo de Alarcón)

When told I would be having lunch at a recently opened Mexican restaurant located in the outskirts of Madrid, I must admit I was a bit skeptical. But as we drove up to Central Mexicana (http://www.centralmexicana.es), it was the only joint in a long strip of restaurants that was completely packed. What first grabbed my attention was the large front deck crowded with tables and a large open window that gave way to the inside, where other guests enjoyed their meals with a nice breeze blowing through the entire eatery. The setup was just the first of many surprises.

As soon as we sat down we were brought a bowl of chips and two kinds of salsa. One was Tomatillo based and the other Chili based, but neither was spicy. And that is coming from a quasi-Texan. Spaniards may think otherwise. The chips were fresh and like none I have tasted before in Madrid, but I didn't ask if they were home-made.

We began with an order of Guacamole and Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans). Although I prefer mine, the Guac was delicious. The avocado was mashed perfectly, not too creamy and not too chunky, and the subtle hints of onion and cilantro were just right. It was also well-seasoned and the pomegranate seeds added a nice hint of contrast and texture. The Frijoles were just as good. And the fact that they were black beans made them even better. I could have done without the few chunks of chicken floating around, but I didn't mind in the grand scheme of things. The beans were also topped with some queso fresco, which was a nice touch.

For our main courses, one of us ordered Queso Fundido con Chorizo (Queso w/ Chorizo), another decided on the Tacos de Bistec (Beef Tacos) and I got the Arrachera 'Rosarito' (Flank Steak). We all thoroughly enjoyed our dishes, but I did not try anything other than mine. Based on appearance alone, I don't know if the Queso would have been to my liking. Its orange color immediately reminded me of Velveeta. I was assured it didn't taste as such, but I declined a sample anyway. 

While I didn't taste the Tacos either, they did look fantastic. The beef was diced into small pieces and served on two small flour tortillas with chopped onion and cilantro on the side. Speaking of tortillas, and although I prefer corn, Central Mexicana's were small, light and not too doughy. My plate was such a large portion of food, unexpected at lunchtime, that I ate with a fork rather than stuffing my face with rolled fajitas/tacos.

The Arrachera was delicious. The slivers of steak were bite size, seasoned very well and tender to my liking. The plate was served with small sides of rice and beans, a grilled onion and Nopalitos (Prickly Pear Cactus), all of which accompanied the dish well. I would definitely recommend it to anyone with a beef craving. Of note, and I'm not sure if it was because all the waitstaff (including the owner, Salvador) is Mexican, but the service was outstanding, which is hard to find nowadays in this country. Buen Provecho! rating: 4/5

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bistro Caripen (Madrid)

With some special friends in town, I decided to treat them to a special dinner at one of my favorite spots in Madrid, Bistro Caripen. I hadn't been in quite a while, but my first pleasant surprise was that they actually picked up the phone on my first try the night I called to make a reservation. It had always been a painstaking task in the past, so I was sure it was a sign that the meal was going to meet or exceed my expectations. And it did both.

One of Caripen's specialties is the Mejillones de Roca (Mussels served in a White Cream Sauce), so I couldn't afford not to order them having promised my companios some of the best mussels ever. Served in a casserole pot as a standard French dish, the mussels were simply divine. Not too easy or overboard on the cream and not too big as to displease the eye. The meat easily tore away from the shell and at not once did we notice any grains of sand as often is the case. Two of us scarfed down the entire pot in minutes.

For our main course, two of us shared one of the specials of the night, Fideos Negros con Langostino (Black Tagliatelle with Prawns), while the other ordered one of Caripen's standard menu items, the Spaguettis con Bolognesa (Spaghetti Bolognese). A very generous portion of spaghetti was served al dente in a copper pot and the bolognese was light, subtle and yet extremely flavorful. It could have easily been split between two people.

Although the tagliatelle was a bit overcooked and soggy, it still had an extraordinary mix of flavors including a hint of the squid ink it was made with, the garlic it was sautéed in and the prawns that accompanied it, which I must say were cleaned extremely well and very tasty. You won't find many places deveining their crustaceans, but Caripen does a fine job. What at first looked like a small portion of nouvelle cuisine turned out to be more than enough of a scrumptious dish.

What would a French bistro be without its crepes? So of course we ordered the chocolate and cream crepe as well as the warm apple tart. The former was as light as air. There was just the right amount of chocolate as to be able to savor the pastry and the cream was obviously home-made as it only came apart once in the mouth.

While the tart could have used some cinnamon for some added flavor, what I loved was the thinness of the pastry and the slivers of apple. It reminded me of a traditional Italian-style thin-crust pizza and even had the crunch to go along with it. We had no trouble downing both desserts before being offered a typical standard liquor nightcap. Indeed a special meal with special friends. Buen Provecho! rating: 4.5/5

La Taberna Del Pelón (La Granja)

With my time in Spain likely drawing to an end, I have made traveling and pleasing the pallet a top priority. But no need to worry. Although it is unlikely that I will get to return to many of the restaurants that I have frequented in my 19-plus years here, my memory serves me well and I will continue to update this blog.

That said, a couple of weeks ago some friends and I headed up to Segovia and La Granja to see the sights and have a nice traditional Castilla y Leon lunch. I picked the spot, and having never been to La Granja had only websites to work with. While most restaurants in the area serve the same dishes, my intuition didn't fail me. La Taberna del Pelón (http://www.latabernadelpelon.com) had a rustic home feel and the grub was as casera (home-made) as it gets.

I started with a Gazpacho (although originally from Andalucia I was looking forward to my first of the spring for quite a while), the ladies shared the Ensalada Templada con Crujiente de Cabra (Mixed Greens Salad with Fried Goat Cheese) and my mates had the Sopa Castellana. The salad was presented beautifully with a savory red berry vinaigrette and the cheese was lightly battered and fried to golden brown perfection. The Sopa Castellana (Castillian Soup) isn't for those without an appetite or a weak stomach. It was the heaviest soup I have ever tried and would have been much better on a frigid winter day. Apart from being served piping hot, its ingredients include bread, eggs, garlic, ham, chorizo and paprika. Needless to say, a meal on its own.

For our second course, I chose the Chuletas de Cordero (Lamb Chops) and my friends ordered the Cochinillo Lechal Asado (Roasted Suckling Pig). Much to my delight, the chops were seasoned to perfection, meaty, tender and lean, which on many occasion isn't the case in Spain. The fries were also good, but you will rarely find poorly made ones in this country.

Although I am not much of a Cochinillo fan, the suckling pig was... well... succulent. The taste wasn't as overpowering as past experiences and the meat just fell apart in my mouth. I didn't try the skin (nothing goes to waste here), but I was told it was crunchy and added a nice combination of textures.

We were too full to order any dessert, but even if we had, several of the items had already been 86ed, which is surely a good sign. I would give La Taberna a high Buen Provecho rating based on quality alone, but the service lacked something to be desired. The restaurant was pretty full, but you would think the wait staff (family members) would have less of an attitude and be more gracious. Buen Provecho! rating: 4/5