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

Thursday, July 21, 2011

El Güero (Madrid)

Having been born in Brazil, and soon thereafter introduced to and fallen in love with Latin and South American cuisine, I was over the moon when a friend recently invited me to lunch at  a Venezuelan dive in Madrid. Prior to actually meeting for lunch, I did my due diligence and researched El Güero (http://www.elguero.es). What used to be a strictly Mexican restaurant, El Güero (a word used in Mexico to denote a person with blond or red hair or of fair complexion) began offering Venezuelan cuisine when Alicia and Antonio, a married couple who landed in the Spanish capital many years ago, took over proprietorship of the joint. I also noticed many of the dishes on the menu resembled those found in Cuban or Mexican cuisine, but I was pleased to find out that the Venezuelans added their own touch to what you might take for Ropa Vieja or Gorditas.

Rather than ordering a la carte, and because it included what I originally intended to order, I opted for the 12 Euro Menú del Día, which in most restaurants in Spain is a set menu from which you choose a drink, an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  To accompany my meal and wash things down, I selected a fresh fruit juice called Parchita, the Venezuelan word for Maracuya (Passion Fruit). Having already tried concentrated Lilikoi juice in the past, which I found delicious but brutal on the taste buds and throat, the Parchita was completely the opposite. It was neither too sweet nor too bitter, and rather than cringing as I sipped it through the straw, it put a huge smile on my face.

So did the Arepas, which are a traditional national food of Venezuela. Similar to a Mexican Gordita, an Arepa is a round cornmeal patty that is either grilled, baked or fried and then stuffed with cheese, meat, beans, veggies or fruit. On this occasion, I was able to pick two varieties and chose Queso Blanco (White Cheese) and Carne Mechada (Shredded Beef).  Both were delicious. The patty was grilled to a nice crunchy exterior and soft interior, and was much lighter than I expected. The Queso Blanco, which resembled Mozzarella in taste and texture and is actually called Queso Guayanés, was produced in Asturias (a province in Northern Spain) by a Venezuelan family according to Antonio. The Carne Mechada, meanwhile, was similar to Mexican Salpicón or Cuban Ropa Vieja but appeared to have fewer vegetables thrown into the mix. It was lightly spiced and tender as slow-cooked shredded beef should be.

To top the Arepas off, we were brought a bottle of homemade Guasacaca sauce, which is commonly served with meats and fried foods as Chimichurri is in Argentina. El Güero makes theirs by blending avocado with oil, vinegar, onion and Paprika, and boy did it add a yummy kick to the Arepas. Consider it the Venezuelan version of Guacamole.

Thinking we weren’t going to have enough food and wanting to try a little more than came with our order, we also decided to share a plate of Tostones con Queso (Fried Plantains with Cheese). The Tostones were cooked just right and had very subtle hints of banana flavor. Of course, we poured the Guasacaca sauce all over these as well and gobbled them right up.

When it came to my entrée, I opted for the Pabellón Criollo, which consisted of Carne Mechada (Shredded Beef), Judias Negras (Black Beans), Arroz Blanco (White Rice) and Tajadas Fritas de Platano Maduro (Pan Fried Unripened Green Plantain Bananas). Again, the plate looked exactly like it came out of a Cuban kitchen... Ropa Vieja, Moros y Cristianos and Platano Frito... But the taste was anything but Cuban. The Beef was the same as that used in the Arepa, which I found pleasing to begin with. The Black Beans were a little on the bland side, but put beans in front of a Brazilian and they’ll go down with no complaints. The rice was also good. It had that nice South American flavor to it, which you have to taste to know what I am referring to. I have never been a banana eater. In fact, I despise them. But I am willing to try everything on this blogging adventure I am on and I must say I didn’t leave any trace on the plate. I don’t know if it was the sweet caramelization or the firm, non-mushy texture, but the Platanos were darn good.

My two lunch mates selected the Patacón Relleno con Carne, which was like a Fried Unripened Green Plantain sandwich. The two layers of banana were filled with Carne Mechada, a homemade Tartar sauce, Pico de Gallo (Chopped Tomato and Onion) and White Cheese. What an incredible combination of flavors. And what a fun dish to eat, especially when drenched in Guasacaca sauce.

With barely any room left in our stomachs, we then had to decide what to order for dessert. I chose the home made Crepe de Cajeta, an extremely thin crepe or pancake doubled over and filled with the caramel-like milk-based sauce similar to Dulce de Leche. Many times you will find that the Cajeta is too thick or too warm, but El Güero’s was light and just runny enough to make me have to scoop every last drop off the plate with a spoon. Our other desserts included the Tarta de Tres Leches (Three Milk Cake), a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream and topped with meringue, and Helado de Vainilla (Vanilla Ice Cream) sitting in chocolate sauce and topped with strawberry sauce. These, too, were outstanding and a great ending to an even better meal.

I left El Güero a very happy camper and would certainly go back for more of its delicious Venezuelan cuisine, but if given the choice between Brazilian Feijão, Cuban Ropa Vieja with Moros and Cristianos and Venezuelan Pabellón Criollo, I have to admit that 98% of the time I would jump at the former two first. But that's just me being partial! Buen Provecho! rating: 4/5

Monday, July 4, 2011

Arrocería Duna (Valencia)

Before heading back to Madrid from the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Valencia, my travel mates and I made a pit stop at Arrocería Duna (http://www.arroceriaduna.es/en/), located approximately 10 minutes inside the Albufera National Park. The restaurant first opened its doors in 2002 and has since developed into an almost 11,000 square foot eatery with spectacular views of white sand beach and crystal blue water. The all-white minimalist and modern motif creates a unique and special setting that was as easy on the eyes as the food was on the stomach.

We each selected an appetizer to share at the table followed by two Paellas (more on this later) as the main course. To get things started, we were brought an Ensalada Valenciana (Valencian Salad), Tellinas (Tellina clams), Calamar de Playa (Grilled Squid) and Puntillas (also known in Spanish as Chopitos, or Battered and Fried Baby Squid).

The Ensalada Valencia was spectacular. The colors of the vegetables were so vibrant that it was almost too pretty to eat. Although the Romaine was chopped a little small to the fork's content, it was slightly bitter and crunchy as it should be. All the other veggies, which included tomato, onion, corn and olives, were market fresh, and the egg, tuna and light oil and vinegar dressing provided the final touch. It was the perfect refresher course before the rest of our order poured out of the kitchen.

Tellinas came out as the second appetizer. This oval shaped bivalve mollusk is commonly found on the Iberian Peninsula coastline and resembles a standard clam but is slightly smaller. Although each shell contained the tiniest bit of meat, traces of sea water, lemon, white wine and olive oil were ever so prevalent. It didn't take us but three minutes to devour the entire platter, by which time our next plate had already appeared.

The Calamar de Playa was gorgeous. Presented as florets, the grilled squid was accompanied by a finely chopped mix of zucchini, squash and red and green peppers, all of which were topped off by a Quenelle of soft cheese. Sitting on a black plate, lightly drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, the squid tasted every bit as good as it looked. It wasn't tough as often is the case due to overcooking and when eaten with the vegetable medley combined for a rich mix of flavors and textures.

Our final appetizer before the two stars of the show was the Puntillas. More commonly referred to as Chopitos, those served at Arrocería Duna had to be some of the best I have ever had. Many restaurants don't do a good job of cleaning these baby squid and oftentimes you will bite into a grain of sand or cartilage, neither of which is very pleasant. At Duna, the Puntillas were larger than expected but still packed delicious punch. The batter wasn't too overbearing and although fried to golden brown beauty, there was no trace of the oil they had been submerged in. There was no need to ruin the flavor or texture with the sauce that accompanied that platter. 

Hungry for more, we were eventually presented with our two Paellas. While many consider Paella the national dish of Spain, it was actually first created in Valencia. The word Paella is Valencian (similar to Catalán) for pan and traces its roots to the Latin word for pan, patella. According to Spanish writer and gastronomer Dionisio Pérez, a true Paella includes eel, snails and green beans, but because Valencia lacked such ingredients, natives turned to local products found in abundance, such as  rabbit, chicken, snails and duck. Paella has continued to develop over time and now hundreds of different varieties are served all over Spain and the world.

Although Arrocería Duna names theirs Paella, I would consider what we ordered Arroz a Banda, a thin layer of rice cooked in a Paella dish but using fish broth to cook the rice rather than water. Arroz a Banda also sees the seafood or fish eaten on the side of the rice, but for presentation purposes I believe Duna just places the seafood on top. That said, this tired but hungry rabble sat in amazement as we looked at our Paella de los Rojos and Paella de Langosta. Each dish supposedly served two people, but we could have invited a small army to lend us a hand and mouth.

Aptly named los Rojos (the Reds), the Paella de los Rojos was topped with two Carabinero (Red Shrimp/Scarlet Prawn), while the Paella de Langosta (Lobster) was topped with two lobster halves. The meat of each of the shellfish was divine and the rice of each paella outstanding, but the Paella de Langosta outdid its counterpart and was the richer of the two. Getting the rice to look and taste as good as Duna does it is a difficult assignment, but that is why it has enjoyed the success it has over the last nine years. The shades of yellow and orange jumped out at us as we first lay our eyes on the Paella, and once in the mouth, the just-passed-Al Dente rice went down like an angel upon landing. The best part, however, was the toasted rice along the edge, otherwise known as the Socarrat, and there was plenty to be had in ours. Duna sure does know what customers like, and at this rate I am sure they will continue to provide outstanding meals to seafood and rice freaks like me. Buen Provecho! rating: 5/5

Taberna Gaspar (Marbella)

Last week I headed down to Marbella for the night before a wedding in Malaga and a weekend that included the Formula 1 in Valencia. A few friends who were already there decided we should hit up a local joint named Taberna Gaspar. Judging by the clientele sitting on the terrace, it occurred to me that this was a hole in the wall that not too many outsiders knew about. Under the name of the outdoor sign reads "Lentos pero torpes," meaning  "Slow but clumsy." Although the service was a little laggard, the food was anything but clumsily made, so in that sense I am not quite sure what they are referring to. You may also notice that many of the items on the menu are fried, which is called Fritanga in Spain and quite common in the South.

The menu changes on a daily basis according to local markets and only has between 15 and 20 items to choose from, but the mainstay is the Tortilla de Patata (Spanish style omelet/Frittata), which is only prepared for dinner service and topped with Pimiento Rojo (Marinated red peppers). Tortilla comes in many different versions in Spain, but it is classically prepared with egg, potato, onion and salt. After sautéing the potatoes and onions, beaten eggs are then thrown into the pan. Once the bottom side is cooked, it is flipped upside down onto a plate and slipped back into the pan. I have never known of  anyone getting ill from eating runny, undercooked eggs in Spain, but I prefer to eat mine as well cooked as possible. Most eateries in Spain serve their Tortilla with a raw and runny inside, which was why I was so impressed to see that Gaspar served theirs cooked through almost all the way. The potatoes weren't too soggy or undercooked either and the right dash of salt brought out the flavors of every ingredient. 

We then shared a plate of Croquetas (Croquettes/Fritters),  which were home-made and fried to a beautiful golden brown crunch. Croquetas are fried potato dumplings and in Spain are typically filled with pieces of ham, as was the case at Gaspar. Similar to Tortilla, Croquetas may be undercooked or soggy, but neither was the case on this night. Ours included just the right amount of ham (two little pieces) and were served with a bright orange garlic sauce that tasted like a mix between Alioli (Aioli) and Chimichurri, which is extremely uncommon.

Next up were Salmonetes Fritos (Fried Red Mullet). The fish, which is commonly found in the Mediterranean Sea, was battered very lightly, allowing the bright pink skin to gleam through. The meat fell right of the spine and although considered a white fish had a richer taste than say Bacalao (Cod). The lettuce and tomato garnish also provided a breather from all the Fritanga prior to the last two dishes being brought to the table.

Our first red meat dish was the Entrecot (Entrecôte). The cut had been ordered medium-rare, was served exactly as requested and was just the right amount for the five of us. It was nowhere near the quality of beef served at El Capricho, but for a Taberna (Tavern) it surely did not disappoint. Served in slices, the plate also included the previously seen garlic sauce (not at all needed) and french fried potato slices/chips.

We were pretty full by the time the Albondigas (Meatballs) made it our way, but we managed to scarf them down anyway. Meatballs in Spain are made with a either a mix of beef and pork or just beef, and  fortunately Taberna Gaspar's were the latter. They were cooked just right, which for me meant that I could slice right through them with a fork. The Shiitake mushroom sauce was an unexpected and pleasant touch and the same potatoes that garnished the Entrecot were the perfect companion in terms of both taste and presentation. We washed everything down with another mug of beer and headed out for a night on the town. Buen Provecho! rating: 3.5/5