Bilbao, Gaztelugatxe, and Guernica

IMG_9241What you need to know about Bilbao… Tours By Basques.  Thats it.  Let Mikel take your hand and show you around his city.  No amount of research can replace meeting a local guide and spending half a day with him.  Without a tour, we could be passing by a Pintxos bar, seeing napkins all over the floor, going “Feh! this is disgusting. Lets find another one”.  When in fact it is not only perfectly alright but advisable to throw your napkins on the floor.  So a mountain of dirty napkins on the floor is actually a sign of a good local bar.

What you need to know about Gaztelugatxe…  Just go!  Its one of the more exciting reasons to visit North Spain.  Give it about 3 hours, and try to arrive as early as possible on a weekday preferred.  It got a lot more popular lately after Game of Thrones (Gaztelugatxe is Dragonstone).

What you need to know about Guernica…  A couple of hours in this sleepy town will not be enough to fully understand its importance.  But its a good place to pair with Gaztelugatxe.  Have lunch at Boliña (There are two different Bolinas close to each other and both are good), see the “Guernica” mural, and of course Casa de Juntas

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Scampi is the Bomba!

Scampi Mafaldini

I will start this one with the definitions…

Scampi – Langoustines, or small lobsters the size of a large crayfish found throughout the Mediterranean and Atlantic ocean.  They are an expensive delicacy in the Mediterranean, and even more expensive here

Shrimp Scampi – A dish made of Shrimp, garlic, white wine poured over pasta.  At least thats the classic way.  There are many other variations out there

Bomba –  Calabrian Chili paste consisting of.. you guessed it… Calabrian chili, EVOO, and pickled veggies in some variations

Scampi the Restaurant – PJ Calapa’s (Costata, Ai Fiori) dream restaurant in Flatiron heavily featuring the three above

The Infatuation – Still clueless!

Scampi

The state of Italian dining in NYC is getting more interesting by the day.  From Scampi alone I can walk a few blocks to Maialino for the Roman classics (another outstanding meal a few weeks ago).  I can crawl to 13th street for the neighborhoody Da Andrea (I’m due).  I can walk to Ulivo, Mercato’s more mature sister, for some Southen Italian (I’m due there too).  Or I can just walk to Nishi (insert smiley with heart eyes here).  There has never been a better time for Italian in the city.  The wealth and depth of it makes everyone question, what is Italian food anyway.

But in order to stand out in NYC these days, you need to be creative.  Whether that creativity comes from childhood memories, working at three Michelin stars, or whatever.  PJ Calapa started in Texas, and worked his way through the ranks of NYC via Bouley, Nobu, and Michael White’s AltaMarea group.  For me it was Costata (RIP) that solidified him on the culinary map.  But Scampi feels like that dream restaurant.

The space is like a lesson in restaurant decoration and design.  It can get loud at dinner times and very quiet and airy during lunch.  The lunch bar seat closer to the front is my favorite seat in the house.  One on night we endured the two seater next to the busy kitchen door where we felt the restaurant’s pulse.  Our waiter, although clearly overworked, was ‘futuristic friendly’.  The type you only see in Sci-fi movies.

Scampi Beef Tartare

The food rundown:

Bomba – This will be on your table when you come in.  Its not meant to be for the bouquet of Grissini (bread sticks – nice touch), but to be combined with the dishes, especially the pastas.  I was eating this stuff with the spoon.  There are rotating pickled veggies mixed in (last time mushrooms).

Razor Clams – Reminiscent of a similar dish he created in Costata. Chopped clams mixed with chives and prosciutto.  Unlike similar dishes we had lately like in Frenchette, this one worked, again.

Scampi Razor Clams

Beef Tartare – Not particularly beefy, but nicely balanced and flavorful. There are quite a few ingredients here to make it happen including Parmesan, chives and the Bomba.

Mafaldini Scampi – This is their signature dish, featured on every table and every review (including sadly Infatuation.  These guys rush to review every restaurant before hitting puberty).  The Mafaldini has that wonderful chew and is a serious contender with Lilia as the best Mafaldini in NYC.  But what makes the dish work is the crunchy toasted Filone breadcrumbs (toasted with garlic and more) featured in other pastas.  The best way to eat this however is mix some of that Bomba midway.  This is a must get

Langoustines – These better be perfect for $14 a pop and they are.  As usual they come butterflied, and while there’s not a lot of it, the meat is glorious sea butter

Delicata Squash – One of the newest fall dishes.  Nice and heavy, in a good way

Scampi Squash

Octopus – The lone meh!  Slightly overcooked and forgettable when compared to the other dishes

Lumache – This is a hearty pasta dish.  Its a snail shaped pasta (like elbows on crack) mixed with Tarragon pesto, clams, and those crunchy Filone crumbs I can eat with a spoon.

Cassata – If you like semifreddo, get this.  If you dont like semifreddo, get this

Grillo by the glass – Its a bland, but a rare sighting of the Sicilian white.  Its delicious.

Go!

Scampi
30 W 18th St (5/6), Flatiron
Rating: 2.5 Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that.
Recommended Dishes: Razor Clams, Mafaldini, Langoustines, Lumache, Cassata

Scampi LumacheScampi Cassata

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Guernica in Luanco – Unexpected Theme

Guernica - Scallops

A series of unanticipated themes can emerge during ones travels.  Sometimes you discover them during the research process, and sometimes they come totally unexpected.  A particular food, wine, or even a song that will remind you of a place every time you listen to it in the future.  LP – Lost on You for example takes me to Sicily.  Its my yoga.  And I can sort of see pesto becoming one of the subjects of the next trip.  But this was a different type of theme.  An educational and sober one.  Guernica, a subject I didnt know much about prior to the trip, became the theme throughout the last trip.

On April 26th, 1937, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the Nazis as a favor to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  It was a market day, and the first bombardment of this kind on civilians.  It was essentially target practice for the Nazis.  Guernica is the subject of a mural size painting by Pablo Picasso housed in Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid which we saw on our first night in Spain.  Its arguably his most famous and important work.  A week later we went to the actual town of Guernica and learned more about the event, and why they chose this town.

Guernica Rice Dish

Guernica, the ultra popular seafood mecca in Luanco, Asturias was an accidental continuation of the theme.  I dont recall how I stumbled upon it, but do recall the saliva inducing images that sold me, and my anticipation for seafood cravings at this point of the trip.  We took a 50 km detour from Oviedo and pretty much planned the entire day around this lunch.  But calling it after the painting and catastrophe always felt a bit odd to me.  I figured maybe I would understand it better once we get there, but that never happened.

Guernica - Octopus

But as soon as you come in, you get hit with this in your face confirmation that you are in the right place and nothing can go wrong.  Absolutely packed with locals, families enjoying lunch on a Sunday afternoon.  3:30 is lunch in this part of the world.  Pixin (monkfish) and clam infused rice dishes that can feed a small village flying everywhere.  Do they have more for us?  You betcha!  We couldnt get enough of the rice dishes (meat or seafood) in Asturias, but this was a particular umami highlight.

There was also simply grilled fresh sea bass with garlic.  This is not the Turkey farmed Branzini served all over New York City.  And when you look up Spanish Pulpo in the food bible there ought to be a picture of this Octopus.  This one had the texture and flavor to match the look.  And then you start to remember why you are here in the first place.  The images!  These Zamburinas were simply phenomenal.  Still kicking myself for having them only once but we didnt see them much on menus in the north.  Go!

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The 16 Dishes that Define Hell’s Kitchen Today

Nano Ecuadorian

Nano

15 years behind a desk deep inside Hell’s Kitchen introduced me to the wonderful world of car dealerships, construction machinery, and gay bars. I watched the neighborhood develop, grow and become one of the least appreciated food areas in NYC today.  It is a NYC neighborhood, full of personalities and stories.  9th ave has morphed into a little foodie paradise over the years, while 10th ave is full of destination gems.

Today I sit behind another desk, my own.  But I still visit Hell’s Kitchen about twice a week for work (so subtle) and research, and it still feels like a second home.  As with just about any Manhattan neighborhood, its nice to explore the area on your own.  But to bring some of these stories to life and understand what this neighborhood is all about, I recommend taking a tour (ok, not so subtle).  These are the dishes that define Hell’s Kitchen today in no particular order.  A combination of classics, personal faves, with some fresh meat mixed in between

Chicken Paitan at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop – Its easy to fall for the classics at Ivan, but this latest invention is my favorite today.  It got the richness and deliciousness of a Tonkotsu bowl without the heaviness.  Its also the first dish to break the rule and appear in both Ivan restaurants (besides the classics)

Chicken Paitan at Ivan Ramen

Seco de Pollo at Nano – Although I’ve known about Nano for a while and enjoyed it in the past, its only in the last year or so that I’ve really discovered this true gem.  Chicken strips cooked with Naranjilla, a sour fruit grown in Ecuador.  Abel, the owner is one of those Hell’s Kitchen personalities you want to meet.  But if you want to see the last time he came to work dressed up, you will need to look at this.

Pepperoni Pizza at Capizzi – The Sacco slice, and the Diavola at Don Antonio are pretty darn great as well, but my gut usually leans toward Capizzi.  The pepperoni is cut thick, giving it more oomph.  And the pizza parlor look and feel takes you to another place and time: Staten Island circa 2016

Capizzi

Shrimp Tacos at Otto’s Tacos – Otto graduated from a mom and pop to a corporation (often the end result of finding success in East Village).  But their signature shrimp tacos are still some of the best in a sea of Taquerias.  They come smartly seasoned, with a tangy homemade serrano cream, fresh herbs and onions.  Wash them down with the homemade Horchata

Silan at Taboon – Vanilla ice cream layered with puffed rice and date honey sprinkled with caramelized pistachios and topped with shredded halva.  Need I say more?  I probably should.  This is one of the most popular big boy desserts in Hell, and its been on the menu since day one.

Taboon Silan

Canotto at Sullivan Street Bakery – You wont find this addictive pastry anywhere else because it was invented and patented by Jim Lahey.  The dinghy shape gives it the name (not to be confused with dinghy shaped pizza terrorizing Napoli purists).  You can find both savory and sweet Canottos but I always go for the Dolce (seasonal fruits, mascarpone, nuts).

Jonah Crab at Gloria – Simple, yet outstanding.  The sweet as lobster crab mixed with strips of Kohlrabi (like a cross between Turnip and Daikon), aided by a thin eggy Sabayon.  Ok, maybe not that simple, but so satisfying.  This mini Le Bernardin is possibly the most underappreciated fine dining in HK.

Gloria Crab

Ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles at Pure Thai Cookhouse – Confession time.  I dont really order this anymore, as I usually go for for the specials these days.  But its clearly the most important dish at the most important Hell’s Kitchen Thai.  Mix it all in including the Yu Choy (like chinese Chinese Broccoli), and the small amount of broth and you got magic

Pure Thai Ratchaburi

Carnitas at Tacuba – The only Carnitas (Mexican pulled pork) I tasted in NYC featuring that Mission District slow roasted nastiness.  It comes with Chicharron (Cracklings), four little tortillas for you to master your taco skills, but thats not all… A beautiful, tangy tamarind habanero salsa that will make you want to dip your credit cards into.

Tacuba Carnitas

Ika Shoga (Squid) at Blue Ribbon Sushi – EWZ old timers may be surprised by this pick instead of the oxtail fried rice.  They are both quite exceptional.  But while you can get some incredible fried rice dishes all over NYC, I havent seen anyone treat squid quite like this.  Sauteed with ginger and garlic.

Blue Ribbon Sushi Squid

Murg Kesar Kebab at Saar Indian Bistro – Its only been open for a few months as of this writing.  But when someone like Hemant Mathur (Malai Marke, Chote Nawab) opening his first Hell’s Kitchen location it automatically becomes the best Indian in the Kitchen.  I got a feeling that once I taste the much hyped Cauliflower Latkes (they didnt have them last time), I may sub it here.  But these Saffron, lemon and ginger infused chicken strips are melt in your fork exceptional

Chicken Kebab at Saar Indian Bistro

Tofu at Danji – Let me just say this.  I dont really eat much tofu.  But as soon as I get inside Danji, I smell the soy vinaigrette and order this dish even when I dont plan.  The four rectangles are flash fried, and topped with ginger scallion dressing, and that wonderful soy vinaigrette.  The result is crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and incredibly delicious throughout.

Danji Tofu

 

Oxtail Soup at Pam Real Thai – The Khao Soi is equally terrific.  But If there was ever a dish that helped me through the last 5 NYC winters, this is it.  Pam is like my Thai Jewish mother making me chicken soups when I’m under the weather.  But instead of boring chicken, you got three marvelous bony oxtails, with a complex fiery broth.  It cures flu like symptoms and summertime sadness.

Oxtail Soup at Pam Real Thai

Soup Dumplings at Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns – Ive seen many moms and many pops getting squeezed out of high rent 8th ave over the years.  But as long as these guys continue to deliver high quality XLB (soup dumplings), they can make it anywhere.  Well, maybe not Staten Island

Trenette at Mercato – I have to list the best Italian in the hood, I just have to.  I dont believe you can go wrong with any of the pastas here.  But I always go for the light Trenette al Pesto Trapanese (almond, garlic, tomato), especially in the warmer months.

Mercato TrenetteBourekas at Gazala’s – Although a bigger and potentially better Gazala’s just opened in UWS, the little Hell’s Kitchen institution feels like the flagship.  And 9th ave wouldnt be the same without these warm flaky, outrageously delicious pastries lining up the window front.

Gazala'a Place Bourekas

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Colorado Random

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Maroon Bells near Aspen

I’m working on one of those epic Hell’s Kitchen posts that needs a bit more chewing and time, so its a rare back to back lazy post.  We just came back from Glenwood springs, supposedly home to the largest hot springs pool in the world.  Hiking and pooling pretty much summarizes this quicky.  And surprisingly good food to boot, even though I exceeded my burger quota for the month.  Read the captions for the names of places.

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Maroon Bells

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Vail

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Aspen Trees

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Maroon Bells

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Glenwood Springs pool

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Maroon Bells

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Hanging Lake

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Hanging Lake

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Ooookay!

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Ziggy reflecting on Dillon Reservoir

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Jimmy’s Bodega Crabcake

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The Pullman Chicken

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Jimmy’s Bodega Tacos

 

 

 

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This is Segovia

IMG_8534Simply put, Segovia is the perfect tourist town.  It took me a while to understand what it means when others said it, but I think I get it now.  Its traits may vary between individuals, but not by much.  To me it needs to be very different than where I come from.  It should be pleasing to the eyes and offer enough interesting, spectacular, or important attractions.  She needs to have a personality or known for something.   Hmm, notice how I went from “It” to “She” after finishing my beverage.  Fascinating!  And most importantly, she needs to know how to cook

I dont know if Lola from Castellum knows how to cook, but what I do know is that this guide knows her stuff.  And she will set up your blind date with the suckling pig of your choice if needed.  Its important to see places like this with a guide if you want to get the full experience.

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Royal Palace of La Granja of San Ildefonso

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San Lorenzo de El Escorial

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EV Bites: Why East Village

 

Instead of the usual monthly EV Bites, I figured I’ll spend a few minutes talking about the dynamics that makes East Village the best food neighborhood in NYC, therefore North America.  It will be quick, and painless, and delicious.  And I will offer a few names as exhibits A, B, C, D (a little Alphabet City humor.  Though I’m a little tired as I’m writing this and not entirely sure how funny it is, and whether I’m making sense at all).  But here it goes.  There are enough names here to cover at least two EV Bites posts

A few weeks ago I was talking to another young entrepreneur like myself (stop laughing!), the owner of Dian Kitchen, a Yunnan fast casual just opened in East Village (rice noodles, cold chicken salad, fiery sweet potato fries – Go!).  Not surprisingly she said that East Village was the only area she was able to find affordable space in Manhattan.  This is something I hear often, and is sad and scary in a way.  But the unfortunate reality is generating a lot of fortune for the NYU residents, and young professionals living in the east

Due to that “affordable” rent and availability, East Village has slowly morphed into an incubator for up and coming talents like Alex Stupak, Marco Canora, David Chang and even Bobby Flay started his career in EV.  It breeds corporations.  Its ultra competitive environment these days helped generate mini chains like Mighty Quinn’s, Otto’s Tacos, and Luke’s Lobster.  As the saying goes, “If you can make it in East Village, you can make it anywhere”.  Ok no one really says that, but its true.  When the opposite occurs, a successful establishment in another neighborhood opening a location in East Village, success doesnt come nearly as quick, as evident by the cricket sounds at Frisson Espresso (really good coffee but so empty).

This competitive, survival of the fittest environment helped generate an incredibly diverse selection of cuisines and establishments that are really good at what they do.  If you are simply an above average Szechuan or Isan, chances are you wont see your one year anniversary.  On my tours I often use Filipino food as an example.  While you will be hard pressed to find a Filipino restaurant in [Name any other Manhattan neighborhood], in East Village you have a quiet Sislig Sisig war.  Same goes for Venezuelan.  You can even find International stores, spice stores, and more obscure cuisines like Georgian, Jamaican, and even something called American food (Ducks Eatery).

And you get the sense that there’s something in the East Village air that keeps the owners on their toes.  Whether its Marco Canora reinventing Hearth, Nick Anderer perfecting Roman pies, or Will Horowitz inventing new foods.  These guys are not exactly counting on tourists, office workers, or local residents to simply walk by, but become destinations to New Yorkers looking for the best.  They dont rest because they cant afford to.

But it wasnt always a great food neighborhood.  For a while it was simply the place to get Pierogies.  You still can do that at Streecha (They are back after summer break) and of course Veselka that still boast hefty brunch lines.  But the Pierogy belt is now surrounded by Little Japan.  And Little Japan is now surrounded by quite possibly, our richest (culinary wise) Chinatown.  This is more of a fresh phenomenon where Queens establishments like Szechuan Mountain House and Dun Huang are now testing EV palates.  They are joining the likes of first timers like Le Sia and Dian Kitchen, and the more established Xi’an, the Bao, and Han Dynasty.  Dozens of new Chinese opened in the past few years and most of the survivors are excellent.

And then there’s exhibit M.  It is easier for me to find a McDonald’s and other American chains in Madrid than East Village.  EV is down to one sad looking McDonald’s on 1st ave.  The last time a Starbucks opened, there was a quiet protest by the local residents.  EV boasts the highest percentage of coffee shops per capita on the east coast.  And the vast availability of cheap foods like tacos, Arepas, and Japanese noodles can be head spinning at times.  There’s a good reason why I chose East Village to run food tours.

 

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Pinching San Sebastian’s Old Town

Néstor Bar SteakDid you know that the act of moving one’s finger and thumb apart to zoom on a map on a screen is called Pinching?  Figured I should probably explain the title right of the bat.  But after so many years dreaming, sometimes inappropriately, about the food mecca of San Sebastian, I’ve finally, finally made it to…… Getaria.  After all that, that’s where we ended up staying for a week, and San Sebastian became a day trip.  Regrets?  None whatsoever.  But did I wish to spend more time in San Sebastian.  Well, kinda.  I wanted more, but turns out so do a lot of other people.

Turns out the San Sebastian Pintxos (“peen-chos”) crawl is the worlds worst secret.  Yes, I suppose if you are planning your first trip to Spain, a Tapas crawl in Madrid, or a Pintxos crawl in San Sebastian or Bilbao is a good way to connect with local cultures.  But its not so easy to do for tourists.  Pintxos and Tapas crawls are not just about the food, but more of a way of life.  Its a way to relax and socialize with your friends before lunch or dinner.  Its not something you force and its never meant to be done after a full day of sightseeing.  Maybe by just reading this and planning your Pintxos crawl three months in advance you are breaking the cardinal rule of Pintxo crawling.  But researching is part of the fun, right?

Néstor Bar

So research away, but keep things flexible, dont stress, and do enough explorations on your own.  Look at these as ideas and suggestions to pick from.  There’s another list of places I didnt get a chance to visit, just as long as this one.  On one of them, Borda Berri, I spent a good 7 minutes by the counter, waiting for some acknowledgement that I’m there and “what would you like sir”, but it never happened and we just left shamefully.  This place gave “packed” a new meaning.  Imagine around 40 people including food tours bigger than mine spilling into the sidewalk in a small bar that fits perhaps 15.  A NY fire Marshal wet dream

Out of 7 or so places I tried, I picked 5 that I can comfortably recommend.  Some of these are well known, some not so much.  And some suggested by our trusted guide Mikel from Tours by Basque

Ordizia – No lines, no crowds, no hoopla in this tiny hole in the wall.  You can even have a conversation with the server/bartender.  All the goodies displayed on the board.  Try the grilled squid with shrimp and ham and “Brotxeta Chuleta”, steak with peppers and potato.

Ordizia Pintxos

La Cuchara de San Telmo – Seems popular with tourists but very manageable for lunch.  Get a table outside which you may share with some new friends.  Try the signature extra large Octopus that comes butterflied and grilled to perfection.  Some of the meatiest, most delicious razor clams you’ll encounter.  And if you never had proper stewed Veal Cheeks, this one will do.

Casa Urola – An old-timer serving traditional and seasonal fare in the dining room, and haute leaning pintxos in the bar.  Try the “Urola” with lobster, the delicious squid, scallop.  And this is a good spot to try the Gilda, a skewer of anchovies (keep reading…), olives and pickled peppers, named after Rita Hayworth, who was similarly “spicy and salty”.  Gilda the movie was extremely popular in Spain.  And if you are not a big fan of anchovies, try this anyway.
Casa Urola - Squid
Néstor Bar – How to describe Néstor Bar?  Imagine a quiet, comfortable table in the corner, soothing easy listening in the background, with the occasional laughter of a young loving couple celebrating their 5th anniversary, and a waiter that makes you feel comfortable and welcomed.  Now imagine the opposite of that and you have Néstor Bar.  Wait for your “table” in chaos, until you get standing room counter for the 4 of you, but can only fit two and half.  But once you taste the steak (top), with tomato salad, and green peppers, you go “F$&ck comfort”
La Vina – Its almost unfair to make it the cheesecake stop because everything else looked so good, but the Tarta de Queso here is quite exceptional.  La Vina is world renowned for this light, addictive goodness so many come to experience.  I didnt know that we will be eating so many cheesecakes in north Spain, but this one easily topped them all.
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Bombay Bread Bar – Mission Possible 3

Bombay Bread BarZ-List fanatics, both of them, already well familiar with this newest incarnation from Top Chef star Floyd Cardoz.  But as with some other recent Z-List additions, I never got a chance to write a review on “Paowalla 2.0”.  Paowalla’s blog post title would have read “Oops, I did it again”, after Cardoz essentially tried to recreate another fancy Tabla to satisfy his devotees.  At BBB Cardoz is following his gut.  And it works, a lot better than the “critics” leading to believe.

Classifying Bombay Bread Bar can be tricky.  Indian chef, working with Indian ingredients must mean “Indian”, right?  Much to the chagrin of theorists and traditionalists who bulk at the prices.  Indian food should never ever cost this much, creatures of habit proclaim.  And the likes of Cardoz, and other Asian chefs forfeit the right to get creative and charge premium for it.  Not only hogwash, but on my last meal I tasted Italian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese flavors in this so called Indian.

Bombay Bread Bar - Upma

As for the “critics” out there, the state of affairs of Google results in NYC these days is looking a little sad.  Its dominated by marketing and Google skills, rather than knowledge.  I dont want to name the names out there, but one of them rhymes with “Infatuation”.  These are not seasoned reviewers.  They read like Yelp reviews, and often sound like they dont really know what they are talking about.  They lock in the first Google page nowadays, even prior to actual reviews, with a “Review soon to come” post.  Their BBB review is yet another example of advice that is either wrong or unnecessary.  Missing in this case, the most important aspect of the establishment, the chef, and his ability to invent and change.

The Upma Polenta, the first thing I tasted at BBB, showcases that Cardoz brilliance.  Its Semolina based earthy goodness with mushrooms and hints of Coconut and Kokum.  Like the most delicious grits you will ever eat.  The creamy Cauliflower Makhani, not on the current menu, made great use of the Naan.  I’m a sucker for a good garlic naan, and the flat naans here are exceptional.  So is the chickpea chaat, a medley of green chickpeas sprinkled with toasted yellow chickpeas.  And while you wont find much lamb presence in lamb curry, you will certainly taste it in all its glory.

Bombay Bread Bar Donut

Another “small plate” winner is the Three Chili Chicken Fry which got the sweetness of a General Tso’s chicken along with the intense heat of Szechuan.  Follow the Chinese flavors with hints of middle eastern in the new Sea Bream.  Served whole, but deboned and stuffed with a fantastic spicy red paste reminiscent of a mild Yemeni S’chug.  It replaced another good one on the menu, a Banana leaf wrapped Halibut covered with yet another great paste.  The Chicken Tikka, not Masala is another strong consideration with the larger plates.

Perhaps the only dish I didnt care for so much after three visits was the baked Eggplant which felt heavy and unbalanced next to other dishes.  I found the rice dishes good but not necessary.  The drinks can use a better hand, but I’ve only sampled two (sticking to beer).  And how does the Indian Donut not generate Cronut like lines?  Intense sweetness with its pistachio cream, candied pistachio, and rum syrup.  Go!

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This is Salamanca

IMG_8691Salamanca, 200km west of Madrid, is much more than a University and church town.  But these two reasons alone are good enough to visit even for an old Jew like me.  I just feel old and cranky this morning, and need to think about happier places.  Salamanca was a happy place.  Watching World Cup Soccer in one of the most striking Plaza Mayors in Europe.  Having a local show us around town.  Looking for the mysterious astronaut embedded in the facade of the “new” church.  Surrounded by the red Sandstone plastered all over the old town.  And meeting the only English speaking nun we’ve ever met, selling delicious cookies from a convent (Convento de las Dueñas).

But you want to spend at least a few nights here to experience Salamanca’s magic.  Its conveniently located if you are heading north to Asturias, or west to Portugal.  In fact you are only 3 hours away from another University powerhouse, Coimbra in Portugal.   You can also reach Avila, a walled stunner, within an hour or so.

IMG_8715Read about Salamanca and the frog that became its symbol.  Look for it on the University’s famous facade, on a skull.  Its not that hard once you know what it looks like (see pic below).  If you fail to find it, you will struggle on your next exam.  If you are not a student and you fail to find it, you will get Shingles within a week!  The frog, or more likely a toad was a symbol of sexual temptations throughout Spain’s history.  There were once prostitutes roaming the area, luring the male students, and the frog reminded the students of the consequences.  The skull represents death, a possible outcome due to the many diseases the prostitutes carried.  Thanks Obama!

Salamanca doesnt strike me as a foodie paradise but there’s plenty of good eats for a short trip.  Plaza Mayor challenges the notion that main squares in Europe offer nothing but tourist traps.  A local took us to Mesón Cervantes in the plaza where we enjoyed the local specialty Farinato – fried potato, eggs, and a sweet leaning sausage hash, among other things.  Also on Plaza Mayor you got Las Tapas de Gonzalo (Best Patatas Bravas of the trip), and their finer sister El Mesón de Gonzalo not too far.

The same local took us on a mini tapas crawl starting with the ultra local Taberna Dionisos known for their Tostas (small open face sandwiches).  And we quickly got hooked on Croissantería París and their ham and cheese croissants.  Hornazo, the local savory pastry stuffed with pork, chorizo and egg I was so looking forward to try, surprisingly did not look too appealing and I never got to try it.  The fact that I was stuffed every time I saw it didnt help.  And dont forget about the nuns (most likely closed between 3-6) and their cookies.  And  make sure to visit the Convent of St. Stephen nearby.

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