About 70 kilometers south of Madrid lies Toledo, a religious center boasting a Christian, Jewish, and Muslim past. History runs deep here and memories of a medieval Arab history are never far away, from the Arabic-origin names of the Alcazar to the gorgeously domed architecture featuring colorful inlaid tiles, Middle Eastern style.
Today, Toledo is a bit of a tourist trap replete with a McDonalds branded choo-choo train that circles the town square in regular intervals, but that didn’t stop us from visiting for the day. After a tourist trap lunch in the tourist trap square, we made our way down the labyrinth of narrow streets and navigated the town above the Rio Tajo to arrive at the Toledo Cathedral.
The design is both gothic and Moorish; east and west at the same time.
To be completely honest, we enjoyed wandering the streets of Toledo more than we did checking off the city’s landmarks. After a week straight of nonstop sightseeing, we were tired. We found a mom and pop Asian grocer near the train station and stocked up on snacks for our train ride back to Madrid. Toledo was beautiful. I preferred the quiet and narrow side streets to the bustling souvenir shops and ticket queues, though.
We spent the next day in Madrid at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid’s too-cool-for-school modern art museum. Later that evening, I conspired with Sacha, Nishan’s cousin in London to meet us at Txitimiri at Barrio de la Latina for a surprise dinner. Sacha took an evening flight and took a taxi straight to the restaurant. The surprise on Nishan’s face was worth every bit of covert planning. Ladies and gentlemen, Anthony Bourdain’s doppleganger exists, and his name is Sacha.
After a late night out, Nishan and I spent our last day in Madrid taking it easy at Buen Retiro Park, which is sort of like Madrid’s answer to Central Park, complete with a lake, a rose garden, and sculptures galore.
Even after leaving Spain, we managed to get one last travel meal in on our way back to SFO. A lunch of weisswurst and pretzel at Deutch in Frankfurt kept me happy during the flight back. We returned feeling like we’d hardly scratched the surface of Spain and with hopes that we’d return someday. Perhaps next time we’ll visit San Sebastian or Andalucia. Who knows?
Mercado de San Miguel felt familiar. Located near Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, the market bore an uncanny resemblance to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Rather than serving as a traditional market, Mercado de San Miguel is a gourmet tapas market with vendors selling boquerones, cured meats, seafood, and an assortment of sweets.
Boquerones in particular are aplenty at this market, and we kept going back for this one in particular: pickled peppers, anchovies, and the briniest olives you can imagine. Perfection.
Afterwards we strolled through Plaza Mayor and made our way to Chocolateria San Gines for yet another plate of churros con chocolate. Chocolateria San Gines has been around since 1894 so they know a thing or two about chocolate, but you know what? Nothing compared to our experience at Granja Viader in Barcelona. But I’m being unfair. These are two completely different cities. Apples and oranges, I guess.
We walked off all the sugar by passing through the bustling Puerta del Sol en route to the Royal Palace of Madrid. The palace is on the site of a 9th-century Alcazar, first constructed as an outpost by Muhammad I of Cordoba and inherited after 1036 by the independent Moorish Taifa of Toledo. Today, the palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, but is only used for state ceremonies.
Nishan and I took the rest of the day easy to prepare for the day’s big event: dinner at the two Michelin starred La Terraza del Casino. Initially overseen by the legendary Ferran Adria, it’s now led by Paco Roncero and the tasting menu draws heavily from El Bulli.
After beginning with cherry and yuzu cocktails, we were presented with “olive oil butter,” a playful spin on spherification. This was followed with “goat cheese and quince moshi,” but really, this was more like a tiny green salad served alongside a mini toothpaste tube of, well, more solid olive oil.
Next came the “chocolate and foie gras Filipino.” I don’t know what the Filipino part of this was all about, but this was basically melt-in-your-mouth foie gras encased in white chocolate. Nishan loved this. Me? Not so much.
After a simple but delicious take on tuna tartare served sushi hand roll style, we were served “guacamole and herring.” This was a more sophisticated version of so many of the herring tapas I’d seen around Madrid. The creamy avocado was a perfect foil for the vinegared fish.
Next came a perfectly glazed and simple plating of Peking duck followed by the “fried quail egg and potato.” I’ve never eaten off of a clothesline before, and while I loved the playful presentation, I wished for more flavor.
After my “shrimp omelet” (or rather, transparently thin disc of crisped egg with baby shrimp) came the “frozen tomato rock.” Yet another take on spherification, and I enjoyed this one a lot. The icy exterior gave way to a liquid tomato center. So much concentrated tomato goodness!
Next came my favorite dish of the evening: fresh almonds and caviar. Just give me all the caviar, please. I enjoyed this immensely. Even the almonds were perfect. They reminded me of the freshly peeled raw almonds that are so common as a snack in Iranian cuisine.
I’d lost count of our course at this point, and we were next presented with “moluscada,” a delicious plate of mussels and clams in a light broth. So good. This was followed by gnocchi with pesto and baby cuttlefish. The gnocchi were ethereal.
But here’s where things began to go wrong. Our next course was the “vegetable garden.” The presentation was very cool: a mini vegetable garden, wooden box and all, alongside a pair of shearing scissors with which to harvest our salad with. But beneath the salad’s breadcrumb “soil” laid gobs and gobs of mayonnaise. SO MUCH MAYONNAISE. What is it with Spain and aioli overload? I couldn’t stomach this.
Things got back on track with the umami-laden olive oil paella. Then came the sole a la meuneire. I wished this had more flavor, but them’s the breaks with white fish. The last savory course of the evening was the Iberian pork with yucca and dates. This wasn’t my vibe, but that’s okay. I was saving room for dessert anyway.
The first dessert course was named “Versailles,” which was basically a rose with what seemed like dyed fruit slices enveloped inside as petals. Were we being punked? Aptly enough I felt the same way when I went to the actual Versailles and saw how long the ticket lines were. The next dessert course, called “strawberries and cream,” was a plate of strawberry ice cream garnished with tufts of spongy cake.
The last course of the evening was “unique origins chocolate bonbons,” or what I like to call, “thirty-six pieces of chocolate when you’re too full to touch even one.” Is La Terraza trolling the world? We’ll never know, but kudos to the team for gorgeous plating, fantastic service, and a playful spin on so many Spanish classics.
Paul Theroux wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar that travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts. He’s right. This trip to Spain was partly in pursuit of something new, something exciting, but also to get away from the breakneck speed of everyday life. And so on our fifth day in Spain, we made our way to the Barcelona Sants train station, bound for Madrid. The three hour AVE train ride was a breeze and we enjoyed a simple breakfast of toast, jam, and coffee from cafe on board. Coincidentally, we were on the same train as a second division Spanish football team from Catalonia, which made our ride even more exciting.
We took a taxi from Madrid’s Atocha station to our hotel in the Salamanca district and quickly set about exploring the neighborhood. First stop: Mallorca.
Mallorca is a bustling deli and pastry shop with plenty of seating for busy Madrilenos stopping to grab a quick bite. Nishan came to love Mallorca for their cream puffs; I loved them for their cured meats. We enjoyed a plate of truffled mortadella and bread while people watching the fashionably dressed along busy Calle de Velazquez.
Afterwards we headed towards Madrid’s Avenue of Art to see the Museo Nacional del Prado, one of Europe’s most prestigious museums, housing Spanish paintings from romantic to 19th century styles. Goya is the most extensively represented artist but with over 1,300 works in the main building alone, there’s no shortage of European art.
We spent the afternoon strolling around the Cortes neighborhood and grabbed an afternoon snack at Estado Puro, run by Paco Roncero, who was mentored by the esteemed Ferran Adria. Roncero also runs Madrid’s La Terraza del Casino. Estado Puro is a more casual joint with modern twists on classic tapas.
Our first tapa was the Parmesan ice cream with lemon jam. I can’t say I was a fan of this one. The sweet-savory mix was too much and the ice cream was more chalky than creamy.
Next up: potatoes with garlic aioli and herring roe. I was hoping for something with a patatas bravas vibe, but these simply had too much aioli. I like a dab of mayonnaise here and there but these babies were stuffed with it.
Finally we had the artichokes with quail egg and trout roe. Now we’re talking! The artichokes were perfectly cooked: succulent in the center and slightly crispy on the exterior. The egg added a creamy factor and the roe added just the right amount of salty pop.
We spent the rest of the day lazily heading back to the Salamanca district, where we called it an early evening. It was only our first day in Madrid but we’d soon come to learn that nearly all culinary roads lead to the legacy of El Bulli.
Barcelona is so chock full of sites to see that we were forced to pare down our itinerary on our last full day in the city. We crossed out Montjuic in favor of Casa Mila and the Eixample because really, we couldn’t get enough Gaudi. Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, was Gaudi’s last civil work in the early 1900s.
The building’s unconventional style made it controversial to neighbors when it was first built, but what really makes the building stand out is its roof. Six skylights and staircases, twenty-eight twisted chimneys, and four domes twist and turn throughout the area, much of which is covered with fragments of marble and broken tiles and snail-shaped water tanks.
Afterwards we stopped at Cacao Sampaka in the Eixample neighborhood for a late morning snack. Cacao Sampaka is every chocolate lover’s dream. The boutique boasts high quality chocolates flavored with everything from gin and tonic to orange blossom flowers to Ibiza sea salt. We tried the liquid chocolate and churros. The cafe chocolate was too rich for our tastes but we picked up a few boxes of chocolate to take home, and these were much better.
We needed something more savory after Cacao Sampaka, so we popped in to Cornelia & Co, an adorably chic restaurant meets cafe meets picnic shop. I had the charcoal grilled Galician octopus. Served on a bed on potatoes and liberally sprinkled with pimenton, this was some of the best octopus I’ve ever had.
After a quick jaunt past Casa Batllo (Gaudi’s other work in Eixample), we made our way to Barcelona’s famed Cal Pep for dinner.
Cal Pep is perhaps Barcelona’s most famous seafood restaurant. Seating is extremely limited and there is no menu. Rather, the idea is to tell the server what types of food you like and dislike, and they serve you accordingly until you’re full. We began with some sardines on tomato.
Next came some tuna tartare, followed by fried artichokes, a tortilla, jamon iberico, and tomato bread, but my favorite courses were the fried squid and the razor clams. Both were seasoned so simply but they were tender and tasted outstanding. We also sampled the sauteed clams and the sauteed cockles, but I thought these were too salty. I appreciate Cal Pep’s dedication to simplicity, but sometimes extra flavor can be a good thing! (And I don’t just mean salt.)
The real star of Cal Pep is the chef owner, Pep Manubens. When he’s not running the restaurant, he’s joking around with the patrons, laughing boisterously throughout the small space, and being super affable. And I have the selfie he took on my phone to prove it.
Barcelona is synonymous with Gaudi. Antoni Gaudi is everywhere, and I don’t just mean at the souvenir shops. Many of Gaudi’s architectural works have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, not least of which is the Sagrada Familia.
I don’t think I was prepared for how overwhelmingly stunning the Sagrada Familia would be. Honestly, I still can’t process it. I don’t care what religion or creed you belong to. Now this, I thought to myself, is a house of God. The columns are designed to mirror trees and branches; Gaudi was famous for an organic style inspired by natural forms. Even the rooftop affords a panoramic view of Barcelona, from the sea to its famous hills. What audacity he must have had to have designed his interpretation of a basilica — and I mean that in the best way possible.
Afterwards, we took a taxi to the Barceloneta district for lunch at Xiringuito Escriba, a breezy Mediterranean beachfront seafood restaurant.
I had to get the grilled Galician razor clams. The only thing better than grilled seafood is grilled seafood doused with excellent olive oil — and Spain has no shortage of that.
I also had the fideua, a Catalan specialty. Similar to paella, these toasty noodles were cooked with seafood and seasoned with a bit of lemon. The seafood was top notch but the dish was too salty. Too bad.
We weren’t done with Gaudi just yet, though. After lunch we took the train to Park Guell, an expansive hilltop park overlooking the city and yet another of Gaudi’s gifts to Barcelonians.
It was time for dinner, so we hightailed it to the Poble-sec neighborhood for what was to be my favorite meal in Spain: tapas at Quimet y Quimet. This postage stamp sized bar is standing room only, but it’s more than worth it to squeeze in for a meal. Service is straightforward and no nonsense. I don’t speak Catalan, but I can get by just fine in Spanish, so I did all right. If you’re not sure what to order, point at what looks good and dig in.
To begin, we had the cured beef cecina and sweet tomato montadito. I’m pretty sure my eyes rolled back in pleasure at this one.
Next up was the anchovy and baked red pepper montadito. This was as wonderfully delicious as it looks.
Third, we tasted the asparagus with olive, pepper, and caviar garnish. I am in love with Spain’s super soft canned asparagus spears. Also this dish comprised roughly fifty percent of my vegetable intake during this trip.
Next we had Quimet y Quimet’s most famous dish: the salmon, yogurt, and truffled honey montadito. I enjoyed this but strangely enough preferred the others. I can probably assemble this at home.
We then had the scallops with caviar montadito. Along with the cecina and anchovy montaditos, this was my favorite. Catalan tinned scallops are out of this world.
Are you still with me? Good, because we’re wrapping up. The stuffed baby squid was fine but my least favorite dish of the meal. More flavor, please. Our last dish of the evening was the foie gras and mushrooms. Nishan loved the foie gras, I loved the mushrooms. Everyone was happy. Everyone won.