Thanksgiving Dinner at Borago in Santiago, Chile

For Thanksgiving this year, we ate stone soup. Oh, and leaves. I guess I should mention the leaves, since there was a plethora of leaves.

Nope, I’m not even joking.

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I guess we did it because we’re totally authentic, old-school Pilgrims. And that’s what the Pilgrims probably ate that first Thanksgiving.

(Actually, that first Thanksgiving menu was a lot better than our meal at Borago in Santiago, Chile. And, at least we had wine. Sorry, original settlers. Sucked to be you—on so many levels.)

Not really. We did it because we jumped on a low-cost fare and went to Chile for Thanksgiving week. And, well, you gotta eat somewhere on Thanksgiving, right?

 

Borago is the no. 36 restaurant in the world. As the World’s 50 Best explains: “owner-chef Rodolfo Guzman’s interest lies as much in the pastures and woods as much as it does the markets and kitchen.”

Let me tell you, this Guzman dude has been spending a LOT of time in the pastures and woods. So get ready to masticate some dusty flowers and lick sticks—literal sticks, aka: “pre-spring flowers skewers”—because eating at Borago means you will be eating items picked from the nearest tree and foraged from the wild woods of Chile.

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This girl before she realized she’d be paying a whole lot of money to eat foilage.

Especially leaves. So, so, so many leaves. A cornucopia, if you will.

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We had dry leaves next to a cube of grilled lamb.

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Pickled leaves sheltering some grilled octopus, aka: murder-y plate.

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Slimy seaweed type leaves over a tiny piece of fish.

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Leaf sandwiches with a couple of water crackers and a schmear of cream stuff in between.

Then, of course, there was the rock soup. Literal rocks—one of which is covered with a black bean paste and two are covered with some sort of gelatin—over which a rock broth is poured. You are then instructed to “scrape the rocks” and make your own bean soup.

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It was all….a bit much. We’re pretty adventurous eaters. Sidenote: My sister was asking me about this just recently, and said: “When did y’all start…..or why do you…. eat stuff that’s like…ummmm….not American?” Which legitimately made me chortle and snort. And then I said, “I don’t think you mean un-American, I think you mean, like, unconventional stuff.” Which—thankfully—she confirmed was what she meant, pointing out that I have willingly eaten rabbit, which she considers a no-go.

Oh, dear younger Poe. I’ve eaten so much weirder stuff than rabbit. Like, (below) raw kambucha fashioned as meat and a side of Pewan (aka, tree bark, I think!)

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And we love a big tasting menu event. We trust chefs and want to go on a journey with them into what inspires them. We consider it all very much theater or art you can eat.

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It’s ummm, pretty, I guess.

But Borago definitely had us scratching our heads. We’re cool with being inspired by your country’s flora. But honestly? Almost nothing was very tasty. We just weren’t into the flavors. Or the flowers. I feel bad about it, but that was just the way it worked out this time.

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That’s fine. When we got back home on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, my own personal-forager/chef-for-life XFE struck out into the wilds of our local Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter stores and made me a fantastic, totally American Thanksgiving feast with nary a leaf or rabbit in sight. My Thanksgiving meal at Borago made me appreciate and love it all the more.

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Ah yes. More like it.

(XFE was also inspired to rake up all the leaves in our backyard that weekend, while I toyed with the idea of reaching out to Borago to see if they’d like to buy some.)

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A Dayquil-Induced Rant Against Pretentious Food Porn Magazines (Mainly, Saveur)

I was deathly ill last week. I was fairly certain it was the summer plague or typhoid. I’m not sure. My guess was walking pneumonia, but I’ll admit I tend to be a bit dramatic on these issues sometimes.

It started with a sore throat, some harmless coughing. Then, over the course of the next couple of days, it hit all the stages of grossness—stuffed up nose, phlegmatic cough, painful throat and ear canals and general miserableness.

I moved downstairs to the couch (in an effort to save XFE from both catching my disease and losing sleep from my coughing). And during those many long nights and days alone ensconced in my couch, drenched in Vick’s Vap-O-Rub, drinking cup after cup of Throat Coat (ok, and a hot toddy or two) and hopped up on various cold medicines, I had a lot of time to think about life’s mysteries and how precious good health is, and most importantly, the state of our household magazine subscriptions.

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Continue reading A Dayquil-Induced Rant Against Pretentious Food Porn Magazines (Mainly, Saveur)

You’ve Got to Be Kidney Me: 5 British Foods We Ate in London

I’m about to say something highly controversial: I love British food.

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Poezilla eat all the mini-foods. (Tea at Sketch)

And I’m not talking about “crisps,” because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a little salty sliver of fried potato goodness? Although, the British do tend to test that love with some rather unique flavoring options. Beef and onion? Roast ox? Prawn cocktail? Don’t even get me started on repeat offender/intrepid flavor alchemist, Tyrell’s.

But crisps are easy to love. What I’m talking about is heavy, stodgy British fare with funny names and a heavy reliance on the aforementioned potatoes or other mysterious carbs (what starchy root vegetable is a Yorkshire and why is it made into a pudding?)

I like the stuff that, in a pinch, could be used as a building material. You know, to stucco something perhaps, or be a passable substitute for mortar. We’re talking bubble and squeak. Bangers and mash. Jacket potatoes with baked beans and cheese. Toad in the hole. Welsh rarebit.

I didn’t even scratch the surface of my love of British food during our recent trip to London. I had forgotten all about my love of a good Ploughman’s lunch until we were almost departing. I never did seek out a Lancashire hot pot or a Cornish pasty. No stottie cakes doused in gravy (to be fair, stottie cakes are generally hard to find anyways). We’ll have to save all those delicacies for next time.

Here are a few British things I ate and loved this trip:

Full English breakfast – Since our hotel, the W Leicester Square, included a breakfast buffet every morning, we really only went out for breakfast once – our first morning in London. We were jet lagged and tired from sitting on the plane but we couldn’t check in yet (we’d been upgraded to a suite, which is all very nice, until you find out that the previous suite occupant has asked for a late checkout).

We went to a place recommended by our friend Amy, the Grazing Goat. It’s a small, bright gastropub that’s part of a boutique hotel on one of those posh, Georgian townhouse-lined streets near Marble Arch.

Since it was a Sunday, there were quite a few families with small, needy, yelling children smearing dippy eggs and soldiers all over their pink British cherub cheeks. If I liked children and their hippy parents, I’m sure I would have found it adorable. As it was, it was a lot for my jet-lagged self to handle.

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The tables were (of course) wobbly and the service was a bit spotty, but the English breakfast made it (mostly) worthwhile. Eggs, streaky bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans, toast and hold the black pudding, please.

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I skipped the tea and went for something a bit more caffeinated, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why I didn’t get a Bloody Mary or mimosa to soothe my nerves and pre-game for the Tottenham soccer match we went to later that day. Did I mention we had literally just flown in?  I think I was worried I’d fall asleep if I started drinking.

Fish and chips with mushy peas – My default British meal (and everyone else’s). I think I had these at least four time over the eight days we were there. Maybe five. Each place had their pros and cons: one place had better chips, another had better fish, yet another had a better batter. My favorite was the place we went on our first night: The Brewmaster Pub in Leicester Square. The haddock was great, the chips were triple fried, the homemade tartar sauce was wonderful and the mint in the mushy peas really cinched it for me.

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These are not the fish and chips at the Brewmaster. I forgot to get a photo of those. These are the fish and chips I had approximately 18 hours later at Villiers in Embankment. Very cute, nice place. Not as yummy as the Brewmaster. And much more expensive. 

Steak and kidney pie – I’m generally not a fan of offal, something that is very hard to avoid in jolly olde England. They’ll eat just about any organ over there. But, when your black cab tour guide suggests you try the steak and kidney pie at the oldest restaurant in London – Rules in Covent Garden — you just do it. Plus, it was the only pie option on the menu and it looked very, very good.

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I even ate a few of the kidney bits, all mixed in with the steak and awesome gravy and pastry, and washed down with lots of red wine. It was actually very good. Well, at least I didn’t die or anything.

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The old clubby atmosphere at Rules and plethora of animal trophy heads (there must be hundreds) can’t be beat, either. Just be sure to take your coat with you to the bathroom…those back stairs are drafty.

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(I did have a steak and ale pie at another pub later in the trip, but it was pretty meh.)

Sticky toffee pudding – After so bravely swallowing many small bits of gamey kidney, I figured I deserved a dessert. And my favorite dessert in the whole wide world is sticky toffee pudding. Rules does it up right, serving the (yes, sticky) toffee syrup-soaked cake with a dollop of just slightly tart crème fraiche. It was not my only sticky toffee pudding this trip, but it was by far the best. Maybe it was because of all the animal heads placidly watching me devour something not derived from them.

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Sunday roast – The event I had been planning and waiting for the whole trip and it did not disappoint. We had so many options to pick from, but I had read an article in Time Out about London chefs and what their favorite new restaurants were in 2015. Blacklock was mentioned time and again. It was my birthday and Mother’s Day (in Britain, at least) so I was extra glad we had made a reservation.

Blacklock signage

The restaurant is located in a Soho basement and has lots of communal tables full of folks sharing plates heaped with slabs of meat.

This was after our appetizer of bone marrow, because, well, England and weird meat byproducts. (Seriously, is there anything more invasive than eating the marrow of another animal? “Let’s see. I could gnaw at your tendons and tear your flesh into bite size pieces, but that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient. I know! Let’s crack open a bone and get at the gelatinous molecules inside there.”) I try to be a good sport and try everything, even if I have had it before and didn’t like it because you never know. But no. Still not a fan.

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We ordered what I’m affectionately calling the Gluttonous Americans Special, also known as the All In: roast lamb, pork and beef with duck fat potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, carrots and some broccolini, and a large, delicious boat of salty brown gravy– all for 20 GBP a person.

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The waiters were wonderful, very chatty and friendly and they politely looked the other way when I ate all of my Yorkshire pudding, half of XFE’s and the entire third one that I think we were supposed to share. They humored us while we marveled at the fact that Sunday roasts with all the trimmings hadn’t taken off in the U.S. yet.

Sadly, Blacklock did not have sticky toffee pudding and I know this because I asked, even though I was uncomfortably full and sweating meat by that point. I’m pretty sure I would have found a way to get one last dessert in.

Cracking the Oyster Cracker Code

Yes, we went to London weeks ago, and yes, we’ve been back for a couple of weeks now, and yes, I owe the world some posts about the Ab Fab time we had. But to misquote Kanye, “Yo, London, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but….” (Sidenote: I had to bookmark this Wikisite of Kanye quotes is now bookmarked. Because, let’s be honest, when isn’t a Kanye quote hilarious?)

What was I saying? Oh yeah. Kanye. Or, actually, oyster crackers and why they absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably suck.

Kanye

This tirade is actually not completely out of the blue, and is in fact, London adjacent. We had no food when we got home, so we defrosted some leftover chili out of the freezer. Now, since I’m from Texas, the only suitable accompaniment to chili in my mind are corn-based: cornbread or Fritos. Chili and corn just go together. Period.

My beloved XFE is not similarly palate-encumbered (and apparently, neither are the people of Cincinnati, where this abomination is quite common). He seems to like oyster crackers, and his reasoning seems sound: they’re small, so you can control the portions and they stay crunchy in soups and chilis.

cincinnati chili
Cincinnati does all kinds of weird stuff to their chili, including the use of cinnamon and cloves. Oh, and putting it on top of spaghetti. I believe that’s called “bolognese” NOT chili. 

But it’s precisely this characteristic that makes me so suspicious about the makeup of oyster crackers. What the hell? Why do oyster crackers stay (for the most part) crunchy?

This article gives a bit of history, and clarifies that they are a flour-based product but doesn’t really explain why they stay crunchy.

I would parry that it is because they are horrible. Tasteless, bland, horrible pseudo-accompaniments. Not even good enough to sit next to Saltines in the cracker aisle, because at least Saltines have salt on them. There’s some effort at flavor with a Saltine. Oyster crackers? Not so much.

In fact, I think the recipe for oyster crackers goes something like this:

  1. Take a plastic tub of white paste.
  2. Cook it till hardened.
  3. Top other more flavorful items with the results.
  4. Watch your saliva dry up and your tongue shrink away from the horror.

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So they are basically the equivalent of celery. No, scratch that. Because at least with celery, you can stuff that little groove with some spreadable cheese or peanut butter, making them a handy delivery vessel for some yumminess. You can’t spread anything on these stupid, mini-“crackers.” I don’t even recommend you try this, because I have and it does not go well. Those things just fly out of you pinched fingers. Plus, celery is good with Bloody Mary’s so again, oyster crackers < celery.

The other suspicious thing that about oyster cracker is that their shelf life is about equal to that of a cockroach. It’s true. We’ve had the same box of Trader Joe oyster crackers for ages. Because, how would you even know they were stale? They already taste stale and bland, so how would one distinguish a loss of quality? That very shelf life is why we recently had oyster crackers with our chili, and thus, put these odious little cracker wannabes on my radar and led to this long-overdue rant. They were just….there, like they always are, hanging out in our cabinets.

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Do these look appetizing to anybody?? “No oils, no cholesterol, no preservatives, no flavor. Total waste of chewing.” 

I’m happy to report that no oyster crackers were ingested during our actual visit to London, but a bunch of other English deliciousness was so we’ll get back to that during normal, non-ranty blogging days.

 

Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

I love San Sebastian. I fell for it hard on our first trip there in 2012 and I’m still enamored. I legitimately want to buy an apartment there. I’m not exactly in a position to do so just yet but a girl sure can dream.

So what do I love about San Sebastian? Oh, just the culture, the architecture, the shopping, the people, the vibe, and the food. Especially the food. But first, a little background: This coastal city (known in Basque as Donostia) is a cross between Paris and Barcelona. With a gorgeous beach thrown in for good measure. It’s really just all too much of a good thing.

Which brings me to the food: San Sebastian is a serious foodie town with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, second only to Kyoto, Japan. But when it comes to those mini works of culinary art known as pinxtos, I would argue that San Sebastian is home to the best.

Here are some of our favorites from this last visit:

Bar Txpetxa
Calle Pescaderia 5
If you want old school, this place is it. Txpetxa is a very traditional pinxto place featuring a fish-shaped menu hanging up behind the lacquered wooden bar. It’s primarily known for its antxoas or anchovies. The menu includes about 14 different types of pinxtos featuring its oceanic star, including one with blueberry jam which just sounds vile. I don’t know what would compel someone to put those things together. We skipped that one and ordered a couple of other anchovy-based pintxos. I, however, can’t stand anchovies, so to me, it tasted like cat food on bread. XFE has more refined tastes and he seemed to choke them down just fine. It’s tradition and I gave it a try.

Zeruko
Calle Pescaderia 10

Once we were done with our catfood and ready to give traditional pinxtos a swift kick in the scallops, we crossed the street over to Zeruko. This place is all about cool, modern molecular pinxtos. The mile-long bar display is a sensory overload as you try to make out just what ingredients are in each pinxto. Befuddled and overwhelmed, we settled on a few from the display (versus ordering off the kitchen board), including this gilded and grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops. We did not get Zeruka’s most famous dish, bacalao la hoguera, a piece of cod served up on a little grill that cooks in front of you.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Continuing on the experimental pinxto vein, we made sure to go nice and early to the much-hyped A Fuego Negro. We had tried to go the last time we were in the Parte Viejo, but the place was packed and we just couldn’t be bothered. On this visit, we had the Makobe with txips- a Kobe slider served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips, and pajarito fritos, which was sort of their spin on chicken wings featuring some small—not chicken—bird. Pretty yummy and American-taste-bud friendly.

Sirimiri
Mayor Kalea, 18 (right next to—and affiliated with–our old favorite Atari Gastroleku)
The definition of Sirimiri is “a very light rain; stronger than mist but less than a shower.” What a great word! Sirimiri features a good mix of playful pinxtos with traditional. We had their version of “natxos” and some really wonderful roasted goat topped with pickled cabbage. They also, like their sister bar, make an unbelievably good gin and tonic, which Spain, and San Sebastian in particular, has elevated to an art form. Very small interior but wonderful, buzzy vibe.

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La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
Saving the best for last: our favorite pinxto place in the whole wide world (so far). We love La Cuchara and every time we go (which can sometimes mean twice a day), we are constantly blown away by this place. How, oh how, does it not have a Michelin star? But don’t take my word for it: On our second night there, we struck up a conversation with a girl standing next to us at the bar. She told us she had been an apprentice chef at two-Michelin star Mugaritz and this was her last night in San Sebastian and she just had to eat at La Cuchara one last time.

We ate pretty much everything on the menu, revisiting some of our favorites from our last visit:  veal cheeks slow cooked in wine till they fall apart, bacon-wrapped scallop, cochinillo or suckling pig with an apple puree and topped with crispy skin. We discovered a couple of new favorites: grilled goat cheese with peppers, and roasted salt cod (bacalao) with tzatziki. And one dish that I did not care for: pig trotters. I am just not a fan of gelatinous proteins.

On our final night in San Sebastian, we reluctantly said goodbye to our bartender friend at La Cuchara and stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets with full bellies, trying to wrap our minds around all the new flavor combinations and textures we had had this trip. It’s impossible to pick a favorite pinxto, but I do know this: we will be back, San Sebastian. As soon as I win the lottery and can plunk down a down payment that apartment overlooking La Concha beach.

Running of the Bars: 5 Pintxo Bars in Pamplona

In Pamplona, we had a plan.

Well, not so much a “plan,” really. More like, a “vague, sort-of idea on some things that might be interesting to see and do.”

Pamplona store front
Apparently, a little Pamplona humor. This blue guy with the, ahem, huevos, was everywhere.

Unlike Bilboa and San Sebastian, where we’d actually been before and where I had made long lists of pinxto places we absolutely had to go to, we did not research Pamplona and it’s bar scene before we arrived. We didn’t even have a map.

But we did make up for that oversight, and in a big way.

Pamplona, like apparently all Basque towns, is a charming little city steeped in history. Honestly, you can stop in any town in Northern Spain and, after a few hours basking in their friendly glow and excellent wine, decide definitively that THIS is the place where you will someday retire and live out your days as mysterious and glamorous expats.

We didn’t even book a room until the night before we arrived. We were very lucky in that respect, getting a fairly comfortable room inside the city’s medieval walls at the Pamplona Catedral Hotel. After parking our rental car (a big selling point for the hotel), we got a map from the front desk and began exploring.

Pamplona - hotel

We had chosen to visit Pamplona for the same reason that I’m sure most Americans stop in: The Running of the Bulls.

I’ve been to a bullfight, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I consider myself a pretty big animal lover, and I have a hard time even watching animals fight each other on National Geographic documentaries without squealing and covering my eyes when the kill comes.

On the other hand, I am from Texas, so I’ve seen plenty of animals being killed. And, when it comes to most indigenous cultural activities, even those I don’t necessarily embrace wholeheartedly, I tend to err on the side of, “Whelp, to each his own, I reckon.”

But, after watching the Esquire Network’s Running of the Bulls live coverage featuring the Men in Blazers the last couple of years, I came to a couple of realizations:

1) There are a bunch of lunatics in this world;

2) Lunatics tend to drink (for courage beforehand, and to celebrate cheating death after);

3) Ergo, Pamplona must be a pretty dang good place to get a drink.

Pamplona - Running of the Bulls sign
Hmmm, this picture appears to be missing the necessary wineglass.

So, on a cold evening in December, we bundled up and embarked on our own Running of the Bars, pledging to stop at every bar and pinxto place along Mercaderes and Calle Estafeta, part of the slippery 0.5 mile route that the bulls and their would-be victims barrel down on their way to the bullring. The rules were simple: we’d have one drink and share a pinxto before moving on to the next place.

It was a long, long night, with many, many stops. We even skipped a few places (especially towards the end), but according to my fairly consistent photographic evidence, we stopped in at around 12 or so bars. Who knew that such a small stretch of road could have so many bars??

Here is a list of a few of our favorites, and believe me: if they were stellar enough to stand out in our memories after that long blur of a night, they were really, really good.

Cafeteria El Mentidero
Calle Mercaderes, 13

This place was our jam. Our regular stopping spot, for coffee and a snack in the morning, for a late pinxto lunch and, of course, on our Running of the Bars. We had some decent bocadillow and papas bravas there, but my favorite pinxto was a piece of bread topped with chopped ham topped with grilled goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. It was sweet and salty and savory and very, very good. One of my favorites on the whole trip, for sure. This place was badly lit and not exactly modern, but totally reliable and always open when we walked past it.

Irunazarra
Calle Mercaderes, 15

Right next door to our Cafeteria was this place: the exact opposite, design wise. A very inviting exterior gives way to a narrow space with huge copper barrels suspended over the main bar area and a long standing bar against the opposite wall. It’s also a restaurant and does a good job of separating the two areas. We had a pinxto with a sliver of jamon Serrano and some fried eggplant on a slice of bread. It was good, not particularly earth shattering.

Bar Guria
Travesía de Espoz y Mina

What I remember most about this place was the cool and modern décor (stainless steel bar) and the beautiful black and white tiles on the walls. The pinxtos were ok—I think we had a couple of fried things (including rabas. I definitely remember rabas) and a couple of fishy things on bread (probably bacalao). I know I’m being really informative here. They’re known for their txalupa, a piece of bread with a marinated sardine skewed to it and some sort of reduction on top, probably balsamic vinegar or something. It was a finalist in Navarre’s Pinxto Week 2012, a region-wide competition for the best pinxtos.

Bodegon Sarria
Calle de la Estafeta, 50

This place was primarily memorable for all the salted cured hams hanging over the bar. So, try the ham. The overall vibe was very warm and cozy with a wooden interior, a roomy bar and plenty of stools or standing space and tables and benches for those who wanted to linger or eat something more substantial, like, a whole ham, I suppose.

Cocotte Taberna
Calle de la Estafeta, 81

I’m not 100% sure this is the place where we had the most amazing pinxto in Pamplona. But when I go to the website, I see that they specialize in servings plated in Le Creuset mini cocotte, and well, that makes sense to me. This was one of our final stops of the night and by far, the best pinxto of the evening – a risotto with foie gras, mushrooms and a side of parmesan. I wanted to lick that mini cocotte after we scarfed it down.

A few other places we visited:

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Mini Meals: 5 Pinxto Bars in Bilbao

I might have mentioned that on our recent trip to northern Spain we ate all the pinxtos.

You might have thought that was an exaggeration. I assure you. It was not.

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Let the carnage commence.

We really did eat pinxtos from morning till night. There’s just something about those little appetizer-sized wonders that I just adore. Maybe it’s all the bar snacks I grew up eating as a kid waiting for my mom to either finish her waitressing shift, or run through her tips while hanging out at said bar, a place of both employment and entertainment. Although, to be fair, those bar snacks were mostly bowels of stale Corn-Nuts or some chicharones.

Whatever it is, I’m like Cher’s Rachel Flax in “Mermaids:” I could exist on a diet of just hors d’oeuvres.

Plus there’s the fact that, in Spain at least, it’s all but mandatory that you accompany your plate of pinxtos with a 2-3 euro glass of better-than-average vino tinto or vino blanco.

And, I love the history of them: They came about as a way to save your place at the bar while you went to the bathroom, or stepped aside to call your homies on your phone, or, more likely since we are in Spain, dashed outside to have a cigarette. The bartenders would give guests little pieces of bread to put over their wine glass to show they were coming right back.

There is a protocol to ordering and eating pinxtos. You slide up to a spot at the bar, point at a couple of delicious looking ones, or order some heated ones off the board. In many places, you can just help yourself to the cold ones that are literally out in the open. Or, you can point and grunt and have them served on a plate. The bartender will keep your tab open till you’re done. Most folks just get a couple and then move on. We sometimes broke this rule, eating many, many options from the same place just, you know, for quality control.

Oh, also, a lot of the old Spanish men throw their paper napkins on the ground when they are finished. No idea what that’s about but thought it worth mentioning. I totally wanted to do this, but didn’t dare.

On that note, here’s some of our favorite pinxto places in Bilbao. There will also be separate posts on pinxtos in San Sebastian and Pamplona, where we conducting our own “Running of the Bars.” That would be a pinxto crawl of all the bars along the route of the Running of the Bulls. I have photos from around 12 or so locations before everything turned heartburn-y and blurry and I completely lost track/the will to eat/photograph anything else.

Do not let it be said that our research was not comprehensive or exhaustive, dear reader.

Alternatif
Calle Licenciado Poza 50

A wonderful, if extremely narrow, bar near the soccer stadium, San Mames. We came by here more than once before and after Athletic Bilbao games. The crowds were festive, the bartender was friendly, and he made a great gin and tonic. This one is a bit of a cheat because while they did have pinxtos, we actually just had a bowl of peanuts encrusted in salt. You would pop one in your mouth, swirl it around to get some salt off and then crack it open and eat the peanut inside. I cannot find them on the Internet anywhere, so I’m not sure what their proper name is, but they were perfect.

Gozatu
Maestro García Rivero, 6

This is actually a bar that we went to the last time we were in Bilbao. We had gone before a weekend soccer match, and it was full of families and fans and had a great atmosphere. Naturally, we headed right there when we got to Bilbao this time. We found the street it was on fairly easily (there are a bunch of pinxto bars on this particular street), but we couldn’t remember the name or exact location. So we stood on the sidewalk and looked it up on the blog (there was a photo with the bar’s name on a napkin) and realized we were standing right in front of it.

I must say, it was a lot less lively and inviting than last time, so we kept our visit pretty short. And, we stuck with a classic, pan con tomate y jamon – nice crusty bread smeared with tomato guts and topped with some nice salty Iberico.

La Fugitiva
Maestro Garcia Rivero 5

Just across the street from Gozatu was the new and very sleek La Fugitiva. I’ll admit, I was drawn in by their excellent awning and cool type font. Since it was new, so was our bartendress, who was friendly but a bit clueless about the pinxtos on offer. We settled on a special, which included six pinxtos. They were all pretty meh, including the potato and cheese coquetas pictured here. We ended up wishing we’d skipped the hard-sale special and just had one or two pinxtos. Cool atmosphere though.

Zintzoa
Gregorio de la Revilla 13

This became our new favorite pinxtos bar in Bilbao after the disappointment at Gozatu. Wonderful food and drinks, great atmosphere. It’s on a busy street corner and had outdoor seating so the people watching was fantastic.

We definitely had a few of what on the receipt appear as “muselina de bonito con piparra,” but which I believe were the tuna sandwiches/rolls with green peppers. Or maybe those were the “bonito del cantabrico con alegri,” which the INCREDIBLY unhelpful Google Translate said is “bonito del cantabrico with joy.”

Whatever they’re called, they were awesome. Tuna in Spain is dense, and briny, and doesn’t even need any garnishment, although the peppers are so, so good with it. It is completely different. It’s like comparing “Real Housewives of Potomac” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” They may sound similar and they may swim in the same Bravo waters, but one is very much of lesser quality.

Speaking of, I really want to watch “Mermaids” right now. (ALL FISH-HORS D’OEUVRE-RELATED PUNS INTENDED.)

Saint Jean de Luz: ‘Silence of the Ducks’

I now know where ducks go to die and give up their livers.*

Well, ostensibly die. You (or a duck, for that matter) can’t live without a liver. BUT you (or a duck, presumably) can get by with as little as 25 percent of a liver. Oh, and? It regenerates, growing back to its full size eventually. Freaking science, man.

I digress.

Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz is an adorable little Basque beach resort in the very South of France, about three miles from the Spanish border. It’s got a lovely old church that hosted a royal wedding back in 1660, a quaint little lighthouse, and a little cobblestoned pedestrian area lined with shops selling espadrilles and bakeries brimming with delicious gateau basque.

It’s also apparently populated by duck organ snatchers.

I have never seen so much foie gras in my entire life. Notice I didn’t say, “I’ve never seen so much foie gras in one place.” That’s significant because in no way do I want to downplay or minimize the complete foie gras orgy we were privy to during our visit. I mean to say “I’ve never seen so much foie gras in my CUMULATIVE life of 43 years.”

And Saint Jean de Luz is not even the foie gras capital of the world. That distinct honor belongs to Perigord, in the southwest part of France.

In store after store, we saw it. We saw it in sweaty, whitish-yellow lobes and in beautifully packaged tins. We saw it vacuum packed, layered in terrines, crammed into jars, whipped into mousses, and ground into pates. We saw it served in every iteration and as a topping on any bastardized pseudo-American delicacy, be it a hamburger or a pizza (this place has both and delivers).

magret-royal
It’s called a “margret royal” and is has mushrooms, foie gras and duck breast. Because I was wondering what they did with the rest of the bird after performing a liver resection. 

When it comes to foie gras, I feel the same way about the controversial delicacy as I feel about Maroon 5 or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians:” a guilty pleasure that I can only take in small doses. It’s too gamey and meaty for me. I tend to like just a smidge, maybe pan seared and spread on some sort of bread, then topped with some type of sickening sweet fruit, like fig or apple.

However, when one is vacationing in a veritable Wounded Knee for ducks, you do as the killers/imbibers/natives do.

2-drake-album-cover-photoshops-duck-head
Sidenote: My favorite duck fact is that male ducks are called “drakes.” Really give new meaning to “Hotline Bling.” “You used to call me on my cell phone. Late night when you need my liver.” 

We had it two ways (pressed and poached) during a very fancy lunch at this place. We had it in a pigeon entrée (and possible in an amuse bouche) during an unforgettable dinner at this wonderful place. We even had it melted into a risotto, but that was in Pamplona, not Saint Jean de Luz. I’m fairly sure it was snuck into some innocent-looking French fries somewhere as well, but I can’t say definitively.

Foie gras

What I can say is if you even think you might like foie gras, visit Saint Jean de Luz. Just don’t expect to see or hear any ducks singing “Hotline Bling” while you’re walking along the beach or port.

*This joke was completely ripped off from my schmoopies, XFE. He came up with it and I laugh like a liver-less mallard every time he repeats it.

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

Poe at soccer
Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

La Cuchara san Telmo
A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

Suite_Terrace_Terrace_1600x900
This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

IMG_3704

It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

IMG_3418
Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

Oysters, Pistols and Tipsy Walking in New Orleans

October is a very big month for me, both personally and professionally, and we celebrated some seriously huge milestones this past month. In fact, we were so busy celebrating them, that I didn’t even have time to write about them! So just consider this the first in a three-part series. Or something.

First up was the birthday of my manpanion-for-life, XFE. We don’t usually travel for XFE’s birthday, what with Porktober® and all that being right around the corner. BUT, we decided to jump on some low fares and cash in some Starwood points for a quick weekend trip.

So, we went to New Orleans and acted like we were about 15 years younger than either of us are. We stayed up late, drank too much, ate too much, talked to random strangers, bought expensive artwork.

It's entirely appropriate to make finger pistols when buying artwork.
It’s entirely appropriate to make finger pistols when buying artwork.

Yeah, a little souvenir for my new office and to commemorate my first year of self-employment.

We saw this subtle little work of art while walking by the Hall Barnett Gallery on Chartres Street. They’re an LED reproduction of a neon piece called “Guns.” Supposedly, there were only three produced—one owned by the gallery owner, Holly, another owned by a couple in New York and then us.

They were absolutely unnecessary, but we just couldn’t walk away from them. I mean…neon guns? Hello? And they change colors! There’s even a remote control. We negotiated them down a teeny bit, but the final number still made me need a stiff drink afterwards.

(Update: They were damaged during shipping, so now we’re waiting for a new set. Or is it pair? Fingers crossed. Or is it guns crossed?)

Boo. Hiss.
Boo. Hiss.

Luckily, we were staying right across the street from the gallery at the W French Quarter. This is the infamous hotel where I cracked my head open five years ago. Actually, almost five years to the day. I know this because that super helpful Memories feature on Facebook popped up with that FrankenPoe picture right before we left.

Honestly, none of this is cute. The pout, the bags under the eyes, the airport bathroom stall. Oh, or the stitches.
Honestly, none of this is cute. The pout, the bags under the eyes, the airport bathroom stall. Oh, or the stitches.

Besides slippery dangerous showers, the W French Quarter is also home to SoBou, which is a Brennan’s establishment and therefore means: 25 cent martinis at lunch. (Note: if you ever do go this option—and you absolutely should—do not get one of the Kool-Aid colored/flavored pre-mixed martinis like a Cosmo. Get a classic, dirty martini).

I will say, we had a few issues with the W Hotel this time out. We were using points, cash and upgrades to cover our three-night stay, and they basically wanted us to move rooms each night. There was much finagling until they finally upgraded us to a carriage house studio type room that had definitely seen better days and had a non-working hot tub surrounded by cigarette butts on the patio.

W New Orleans Collage

The concierge also dropped the ball on the champagne I had ordered, despite the fact that I had filled out all the paperwork and called twice to order it and confirm that it would be in our room. There’s a whole litany of other annoyances (including XFE’s pet peeve: old, snagged towels with threads hanging everywhere), but, at least no one ended up in the emergency room, so that’s a half-hearted win. Sorry, W French Quarter.

We fared better in the eating category. On our first day we did a very scientific comparison/survey of two famous oyster places: Felix and Acme. We ate approximately four dozen oysters between the two places—raw, grilled and Bienville. XFE joked that we should have been pooping pearls after all that. Final consensus: Acme won by a shell sliver and honestly, it was their boo fries that had us coming back again the two days later (French fries covered with roast beef gravy and cheese).

Let's see, from left to right: oysters, oyster place, oysters, and oyster place.
Let’s see, from left to right: oysters, oyster place, oysters, and oyster place.

When we returned to Acme, we were not alone. We dragged along a couple of new friends we met during what was perhaps our very favorite tourist activity ever: the Drink and Learn Tour. We’ve been on a lot of tours in a lot of places, but this particular tour was hands down the best tour we’ve ever been on (and….didn’t take any pictures of. What can I say? I was too busy enjoying it).

The owner/tour guide, Elizabeth Pearce is a drink historian, fantastic historian, and an all-around hoot. You meet up (at a bar, naturally) and you receive a small, crossbody cooler containing four color-coded drinks. Then you take a short walk, stop, take a sip of your drink, and learn about the colorful history of New Orleans through adult beverages. Everything from how and why rum punch represents the early melting-pot days of the Crescent City to how praline liquor helped female slaves buy their freedom. It was so entertaining and we both learned a ton.

Then we went and got oysters and beer because that’s what you do in New Orleans. Or at least, that’s what we do there.*

(*We did a bunch of other galivanting and tomfoolery, but this is a family blog, so better left unsaid.)

New Orleans Collage