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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Portuguese snacks

On the way back from yet another great meal at Restaurante Cabrita this evening, I was delighted to notice a fartura stand open. These food trucks and trailers pop up around the country during the summertime, and in Lisbon, especially around the festa de Santo António (mid-to-late June). A fartura is more or less the Portuguese answer to funnel cake - they squirt a thick rope of dough into hot grease, and cut the resulting fried spiral into about 8-inch lengths, and dip them in cinnamon sugar. The result: nirvana.

Another great Portuguese snack is the pão com chouriço: slices of chouriço baked into a large roll. The roads around Mafra - perhaps the number one place in Portugal when it comes to bread - are littered with makeshift stands selling them, and they're the best around. But if you don't happen to be driving in the vicinity of Mafra and do happen to be around Lisbon, next best is a mini-chain (two locations that I know of - one on Av. 24 de Julho by the waterfront in Lisbon, and one on the main pedestrian street in Costa da Caparica) called A Merendeira. They make them on the premises in wood-fired ovens, and they're the real deal: great, crusty bread, and tasty slices of chouriço - nothing else necessary.

Restaurante Barbantes

I've become rather fond of Vigo in recent years. It's a somewhat quirky city in a stunning setting on the Ría de Vigo where ones euro buys one a bit more hotel than in other cities in Spain. And its close proximity to the Portuguese border gives it a bit of border town character. However, a great meal at a great price was proving a bit difficult to come by until last year, when I stumbled upon Restaurante Barbantes.

It's a family-run place that advertises comida casera, and they don't lie. The tireless dueño appears to be on hand at least 16 hours a day - I've never been there when he wasn't behind the counter, and the woman in the kitchen who does all the cooking is, I believe, his wife. Whoever she is, she sure knows what she's doing. I have had close to a dozen excellent meals here - it's difficult for me to get interested in eating anywhere else in Vigo, especially after a couple of samples of what else was out there. The 8,50€ menú (primero plato, segundo plato, dessert and beverage - and if that beverage is wine, they leave you a whole bottle) is a fantastic bargain, and is offered both at midday AND at night. Their borrego asado is a plate of meat too big for most normal people to finish (not me, of course), seasoned with some hot paprika, onions, a lot of bay leaf, and a hint of tomato. These albondigas (meatballs) are even tastier than they look.

And this fish parrillada de pescado was just beautiful: scrupulously fresh chunks of skate, sea bass and hake (part of the 8,50€ menú, no less).

Even desserts are above average here. And if you come by for breakfast, be sure to try a fresh-made empanadilla, a meat pie filled with 2 or 3 types of chopped pork product - the perfect way to start the day.

Restaurante Barbantes
Rua de Cuba, 3
36204 Vigo, Spain
(+34) 986 41 60 24

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Casa Gervasio revisited

It was my last night in Asturias, and since a visit to Oviedo is not complete without a cena at Casa Gervasio, no other destination was even an option. And now that I finally have a camera, it seems an update is warranted.

However, I’m delighted to report there is no update – everything is as wonderful as ever. Just a few pictures. The chorizos a la sidra here are among the best I’ve ever had, if not the best.

Stewed to juicy perfection in, of course, sidra, they are so tender the really do practically melt in your mouth.

These patatas fritas may look like ordinary potato chips, but they were just fried and are at once crispy and tender. And still warm.

A plate of jamón ibérico (aka, food of the gods) is always a great sidra accompaniment. This pic is not my best effort, but think cured ham more amazing than prosciutto could ever be.

There were some wonderful-looking tortillas espanolas at neighboring tables, but ours, while still good, came out slightly overcooked and in no way superseded memories of the tortilla at Bar Lito the night before. I wasn’t inspired to even attempt a photo of it, although I would have been happy to get one that good almost anywhere else.

Since I had no pictures of sidra being poured properly (pay attention, Tertulia, since you are dishonestly calling yourself a cider house), our friendly camarero gamely agreed to let me get a shot of him expertly pouring a culín. Here’s where it’s most obvious that I don’t quite have the hang of my camera yet: you’ll need to imagine a green bottle held horizontally above his head.

It appears that I’m just going to have to go back again soon for a better shot.

Casa Gervasio
c/de Fuente de la Plata, 68
La Argoñesa 33013 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 23 42 55

La Venta del Jamón

On the old highway between Oviedo and Gijón, there's a restaurant that's been around for over 100 years - La Venta del Jamón. And there's a reason it's been around that long.

I think Asturian cooking can be summed up as simple, honest treatment of the best ingredients, and this establishment is one of the most exalted examples in the province. And there are a couple of things that they do better than anyone. First and foremost, their croquetas de jamón de bellota are the most amazing croquetas I have ever tasted (and my friend José Ángel - who has eaten a lot of croquetas in his time - agrees).

Their lightness and intensity of flavor are nothing short of mind-blowing.

There are traditional Asturian rice dishes that are almost never found in restaurants, but this place makes them, and superbly. The octopus (pulpo) one is perhaps the best-known, but I'm quite fond of their arroz con pitu de caleya (rice with free-range chicken).

Rather like a simple paella - it's cooked in a paella-type pan - but without the crusty bits.  It's made with rice, broth, and shreds of poached free-range chicken. That's it. And the flavor is transcendent.

And their crema de arroz con leche requemado (rice pudding with a burned sugar crust) is almost as good as Casa Gerardo's:

Although not cheap, when one considers the high quality of ingredients and preparation, this place is a relative bargain.

La Venta del Jamón
Carretera Oviedo-Gijón, s/n
Pruvia de Arriba 33192 Llanera, Spain
(+34) 985 262 802