World’s Best Restaurants

International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

BARCELONA – LAST STOP IN SPAIN

Upon deciding to revisit Spain after a 28-year period, Barcelona was foremost on the list of cities to visit. After just a few days in this vibrant city on the Mediterranean, it is clear what the attraction is for so many — both inhabitants and tourists alike.
 
For sure the thing I am delighted about is NOT having a rental car during our stay. After needing the car to make the approximately one-hour drive to Girona for our much-anticipated dinner at El Cellar de Can Roca, I couldn’t wait to have the hotel take care of returning the car to Hertz.  Not only is this a city with excellent public transportation, but it is likewise full of “loco” drivers and tons of motorbikes weaving in and out of not-clearly-marked lanes.  Add in the buses, pedestrians, and the like, and I’ll gladly opt out of driving for once.
 
About that dinner around which our itinerary in Spain was planned, it definitely lived up to all the extraordinary reviews and Michelin stars, but in a most wonderful, fun, and not stuffy way.  There are three brothers Roca — Josep handles all the wine together with the four sommeliers for each seating (two seatings per day, Tues-Sat) and he greets every table; Joan is the head chef; baby brother Jordi is the pastry chef.  They must really get along because not only do they work closely, but they are rarely separated and all live near one another.
 
Doing justice to what was eaten is virtually impossible. As with the astonishing restaurants in San Sebastian (see previous post), a menu was provided at the meal’s end with course descriptions (to which I repeatedly referred in order to write this). We asked for and got a peek into the kitchen and a brief chat with all three brothers. More than one person inquired as to how we were going to be able to drive after the meal, but that wasn’t a problem. We were in the minority of guests — only 20% — who do NOT go with the wine pairing.  Thus a glass of champagne and sharing a half bottle of wine in no way impaired the drive back, especially after a good bit of food and a four-hour experience.  By the way, their wine pairing includes 14 different pourings, which we were told amount to 750ml — i.e., a full bottle per person. Following are photos and details:

 

Each table is set with just 3 rocks (for the brothers)

 

 

Clockwise from top left:  Live olive tree bonsai style with stuff olives attached to the branches; the hubby with one of three immense wine books on a rolling cart; sea bream foam and ceviche; pine nut duo
The above arrived closed (shown right) and then opened to reveal tastes of the globe, from Mexico/Turkey/China/Morocco/Korea.
Then it was local bar food a la Roca (complete with small cut-outs of the brothers): the red ball is filled with Campari which dissolved in the mouth.

 

From top left: Spring vegetable stock;mushroom bonbon and brioche; favorite: 3-corn ice cream
Fish, clockwise from top left: Skate with mustard; Mackerel; Oyster with anemone; Cuttlefish with peas; Surf & Turf – sardine with pork jowl; Prawn
Savories (clockwise from top left):  Crispy pig with garlic; Veal shin; Goose; Pidgeon. NO, I didn’t try everything!
And then there were the sweets.
Top row, l-r: Milk/Lime combo; Chocolate “anarchy”; Orange “Colourology” – frozen balls of all different orange flavors.
Left: Amazing rolling dessert cart. Right: The offerings.  The vertical cylinders are apple.  Ridiculous.
At the end (close to 1am):  Top is Josep – front of the house;
the gleaming and enormous stove;
head chef Joan (l) and pastry chef Jordi (r)
After returning to the hotel at nearly 2 a.m., hindsight would have been experiencing the meal at lunch en route to Barcelona.  This became abundantly clear after sleeping ’til noon!  Alas, small note to self in an otherwise spectacular experience. 
 

 

We then explored the city on foot followed by Flamenco tickets in the evening. The waterfront area is beautiful with a long walk between two prominent hotels: The Barcelona Arts and the W. In spite of rather cool and cloudy weather, many people still enjoyed a dip in the Mediterranean.  Finally, when in Barcelona — Spain to be sure — how can one not seek out the best paella? Our hotel sent us to La Salada Mar for the delicious dish and it did not disappoint.   

 

Above at the Hotel Arts (vacant) pool.  Frank Gehry’s “Goldfish” can been seen from everywhere on the waterfront.  Below is the seafood paella ..

 

An entirely different and terrific meal was at Dos Pallilos, whose owner and chef once worked at the now-shuttered El Bulli, long at the top of the world’s great restaurants.

 

Clockwise from top left: sauteed vegetables; “hamburger”; mushroom caps w/ garlic; seafood potstickers

 

The chef’s jacket from El Bulli is on display outside his new “home” — he is shown above (on the left) together with his crew making “raviolis” for the evening’s dinner seating.
After eight wonderful and certainly gastronomic days in Spain, we say adios and gracias for a lovely stay in this country.  It is a shame the country is not better managed — the unemployment rate is a whopping 23% — for we wish the people here greater success and encourage all to visit this beautiful destination.   Next stop: Milan.
 
International Travel

Europe 2015 – First Stop: Madrid

Want to eat at a restaurant whose ranking on the World’s Best is either #1 or #2 depending on the year?  No problem! Simply plan a trip to Spain, including the Barcelona area; contact the restaurant way far in advance; and then wait. That is precisely what I did in preparation for the big Post-Tax-Season annual vacation.  And, I ask you, why not?
If you consider yourself a foodie and enjoying this type of experience is on your bucket list, then why beat yourself up by waiting and failing to score?  Of course there’s a big difference between what I did and waiting until the last minute. Once I knew the approximate dates in Spain, I secured the reservations and proceeded to map out the trip in accordance with needing to be in Barcelona on that particular date. Was it worth it? Well, you’ll just have to wait and find out!   

And why Spain? A high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants, plus not having been there since 1987 were both considerations. Driving in Europe is always fun and provides lots of options. And starting the trip in a major European capital is the best way to get the good flights — in this case Madrid. I could say something about having foresight into the greatly-depreciated euro, but truthfully it is just luck.

After scoring two Biz Class seats non-stop on Iberia to Madrid (50K AA miles each plus a total of $275 in fees), this year’s trip is largely a driving one. With no more than five hours of drive time between locations, there is the added benefit of flexibility if a change is desired. The itinerary is: Madrid, San Sebastian and Barcelona in Spain; fly to Milan to spend two days with friends from Luxembourg (more on that later); fly to Dubrovnik for various stays in Split, Zagreb and other sights along the Dalmatian Coast via rental car.   Finally, on to London for two nights prior to the return flight home. London provides larger numbers of nonstop options to LAX, plus does anyone really need a reason to go to London?? 

My seat passed the
“flatness” test —–>>>

The flight on Iberia was on time, provided fully-flat seats, and the food was quite good. The downside was an entertainment system that was outdated and functioned poorly. Otherwise, it was a seemless journey over the Atlantic, arriving mid-day. I am full of praise for Hotel Villa Magna, originally neither the first nor second choice.  Having recently read about it, the choice was perfect. Great location, beautiful and modern decor, superb service. Win/win/win. Our concierge sent us to Ars Vivdendi– italian fare with a spanish touch due to the proprietors’ dual cultures; it was walking distance and perfect for the first night .. but I needed to get adjusted prior to taking the customary food photos.


First up, we were off to the Prado Museum, likely on everyone’s list; it is first-rate.  We saw both permanent and special exhibitions of Goya, plus a small sampling of Picasso and an abundance of other great art.  There are works in this museum from before America had museums …

(Above) You might want to ditch the cell phone
to engage the folks passing by!

<—Yes, there’s a person inside there.

A real treat was exploring the Mercado de San Miguel, absolutely packed this Sunday. Perfect for grazing from stall to stall with mouth-watering treats offered by all.  We refrained as we were headed to the world’s oldest restaurant — so deemed by the Guinness Book of Records — Botin, established in 1725. From what we saw, this is well patronized by the locals and not just for the tourists.  We had both excellent service and fine regional fare, particularly the roast lamb which is their specialty.

After a brisk few hours touring the city’s highlights (a mediocre guide with a very nice car), plus doing our bit to help the local economy (aka shopping), we had the extreme pleasure of an indulgent lunch at Santceloni.  One way to look at this is when lunch doesn’t end until 4:30 or so, who needs dinner? Highlights of an exquisite meal and impeccable service below … next stop:  San Sebastian.

The first thing we actually ordered
Out of the 10 photos, we only ordered
is on the left grid, bottom right corner.
four dishes; the rest were the offered!

  <<—- The Three Amigos:
Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and 
The Hubby.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THE REST OF SEOUL AND ON TO SHANGHAI


Part 2 of our visit to South Korea continues with the final day in Seoul, which included a visit to the fairly new Leeum,

Samsung Museum of Art.  There are three very different buildings, each designed by a different and renowned architect.   I loved the vast collection of priceless celadon pieces and the modern art; this is a wonderful place to stop and browse …

Next stop was the massive Lotte Department Store.  The basement-level food hall rivals Harrod’s and the top two floors are “duty free.”  As this was Sunday and the beginning of a holiday week that includes May 1 (celebrated internationally as Labor Day), it was wall-to-wall people, mostly Chinese, who have an insatiable appetite for shopping, especially where designer labels are concerned.  I’m just wondering how so many people afford the goods … which, duty free or not, are still expensive by just about anyone’s standards.

 

Korean Hot Pot (cooks right in the serving dish)

Of course eating traditional Korean barbeque was something we looked forward to, and the hotel sent us to a restaurant called Bamboo House.  A lot of the cooking is done at the table and was very delicious with tons of small “condiments,” but it can be on the pricey side … we learned the Japanese are not the only Asian country where prime beef is just fabulous but one better not expect anything close to a Flintstone-size portion.  

Shredded vegetable “pancake”

 

With our guide Adele

And now it was time to leave this wonderful country.  It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Israel, for both countries were established in 1948 and deserve great credit for the vast number of accomplishments made in a relatively short period of time.  We said good-bye to our guide with some final hugs and pictures, and look forward to a return visit.

 

The Bund

BACK TO CHINA … for the final leg of our trip, this time to China’s financial capital of Shanghai.  And back to shoddy internet, pushy people and too many smokers!  Now that I have that out of my system, we were pleased to meet our guide Jeony (easy to remember – like my sister Janie) and driver Mr. Xu (“Zhou”).  We are staying on the older east side of Shanghai, right off the famous Bund (boardwalk), as opposed to the newer west side of Pudong across the river — which area was marshland only 15 years ago.   As even short flights (under 2 hours from Seoul) can be exhausting when factoring in all the airport time, I was glad we did not have plans for the afternoon or evening.  

We asked our concierge to recommend an Italian restaurant and had no idea what was in store.  After a brief exploration around the hotel, we returned as the hotel said they would escort us to the restaurant (that’s a first), which they kindly did up to and including handing us off to restaurant’s manager.  This turned out to be an exceptionally memorable meal.   8-1/2 Otto e Mezzo has been open in Shanghai barely one year, but the sister restaurant in Hong Kong is legendary with three Michelin stars (no rating as yet of Shanghai restaurants).  

 

Freshly made pasta

 

 

Veal Milanese

A native of Florence, our new bff Leonardo is a career restaurant person who took great care of us.  He reiterated what we had learned elsewhere: the frustration experienced by top eateries in China  in terms of sourcing quality product and the associated “tax” (graft) paid to get it right.  I’ll let the pix do the talking but wow.  And they couldn’t have been nicer.

Strawberry Napoleon

Jeony and Mr. Xu picked us up for touring Shanghai; off to the Old Town area and the Yuyuan Gardens.  The contrast between new and old here is stark, with 700-year-old buildings that now house ColdStone Creamery along with traditional tea houses, etc.  Unlike the Summer Palace in Beijing which was built for royalty, the Yuyuan Gardens were meant to be an oasis in the center of the city for the affluent but now belongs to the government.  

That looks very sanitary … selling drinks with the dangling cigarette!
With Jeony, our guide

 

Two American husbands deep in a baseball discussion

 

Feed me!

Everywhere else was packed with tourists during this holiday week of May 1, but the gardens were much more serene.  Surprisingly (well, not really) we managed to end up in yet another pearl store.  Even I’m weary of bargaining at this point!   We then enjoyed a very traditional lunch (we were the only non-Chinese at this restaurant per our request to go local and authentic); Jeony helped us order and made sure everything arrived while dining elsewhere as is the customary guide/patron scenario.  

Ordering our lunch …

 

Back to the hotel where I am happy to report I utilized the “gift certificate” offered for a spa treatment (save $200 RMB or roughly $30!).   I have some reluctance going to high-end hotel spas – there’s not necessarily the quality of treatment relative to the cost.  This proved to be a wonderful exception.   Downright affordable compared to many hotel spas and truly glorious; just a great experience.  I was chatting up a gentlemen in the waiting area who was in Shanghai for the third time THIS YEAR; he was a Philly-based businessman who has factories in different parts of China.  I asked him about doing business here and he said once you leave Beijing and Shanghai, it’s basically a Third World country.   I could fairly argue that the same could be said of China’s two top cities as well  …  Ironically, as I am writing this, I am watching Charlie Rose interview Google CEO Eric Schmidt (Bloomberg, CNN and the BBC are the typical channels available) where he is discussing Google in China and the government’s ability here simply to shut down access as they see fit.  Try that in a free and open society … anarchy!


Next blog will be final thoughts and pix from our Asian adventure!