Sunday, November 27, 2011

MADRID: A Paella Feast at Casa Benigna

Paella was a high priority on our visit to Spain, one of my most favourite things to eat in the world. To my surprise, it wasn't abundantly popular among the tapas culture in Madrid and we spent most of our meals dedicated to small plates of cured meat, Spanish omlette, croquettes and even tripe. Fear not, we did not leave Madrid without an indulgence in paella - our friends, Jen & Andrew, had a plan to take care of our paella cravings and we were treated to a feast at Casa Benigna.

Casa Benigna is one of those "local" finds, tucked away on a quiet, residential street. Reservations are always needed and we were welcomed into the warm, intimate restaurant after a homey knock on the door, including greeting from the owner's mom. I always get a good feeling from family run food joints! Although we were given menus, I don't think I even flipped it open - part of the experience are the fresh and special dishes that can be offered off the menu....we let our friends take care of the ordering :)

Everything from the olive oil for our bread was an experience - one from Italy and one from Spain. The server poured both into glasses for us to pass around and smell like you would with wine. They were each distinct and simultaneously had crisp and smooth flavours to the smell. We had house soup to get our appetites roaring (not that we needed much help), followed by a delicious duck and eggplant starter. We couldn't pass up the recommended "scrambled eggs" and potato topped with fresh black truffle - the server had brought out the fresh truffle for us to smell upon ordering. It's truffle season! The food kept coming fast and furious, I barely had enough time to take it all in! Next we had a delicious salmon omelette with zucchini and some sea kept - it was a sweet tasting dish served with a light tomato sauce. This was one of the most memorable dishes of the night for me, truly unique and was a nice, light starter...despite it arriving on the table in a giant paella pan!

Now for the main affair: We wanted two paellas, and learned that traditional
paella preparation does not mix meat with seafood/fish so we decided to have one of each. We settled on a squid ink paella for our seafood choice - I love the unique, savoury taste if you can get past it being, well, black! It's definitely one of my favourites and I never turn down the opportunity to have it. We also had a vegetable paella with chicken done with jasmine rice, which was very aromatic and seemed even healthy! The jasmine grains was very unique and was a different flavour and texture to paella. Both were served in GIANT custom pans used by the restaurant (available for sale!) was a good thing there were 6 of us ready to indulge!

After polishing off the paella, pretty quickly I might add, we dived right into the AMAZING dessert - first a mixed platter to share including delicious gelato and chocolate cake, and then individual chocolate dipping cups for pastries (they reminded me of Chinese almond cookies!).

The whole experience at Casa Benigna was wonderful. We were well cared for the whole night, with the service professionalism of any high end restaurant, while still maintaining an intimate and friendly feel. I tried to look at what other patrons were having but was sure everyone was indulging in something different, which is exciting in itself, knowing you can have a very custom meal. Although the restaurant can certainly hold a decent crowd, reservations are highly recommended!

Casa Benigna
Benigno Soto 9, Chamartin, Madrid

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MADRID: A Visit to Segovia for Suckling Pig

We couldn't turn down the chance to visit the nearby town of Segovia, famous for the Roman built Aqueduct, a UNESCO recognized World Heritage site. The stunning architecture welcomes you to the town, a short 30min high speed train ride from Madrid. It's breathtaking! Some of the other sites include the Alcazar of Segovia, a residence of the monarch in the Middle Ages. When the Royal Court moved to Madrid, the castle became a prison for over two centuries. The Alcazar was destroyed by fire in 1862 and was later rebuilt to be used by the Artillery. As it was rebuilt, some of the rooms are fairly modern, including thrones that were surprisingly made in the 20th century...yes, you read that right. The rooms around the castle are named after small details in the room, such as pine-cone like decor from the ceiling of one room and cord-like decor surrounding doors in another. The room of the monarchs was most memorable to me, with facades of monarchs surrounding the space. It was a little Disney to me but still impressive. Housed at the Alcazar is also the Museum of the Royal Artillery School, including interesting technology and devices used throughout the years. We also made the 152 stair climb up the great tower which offers a spectacular view around the city and of the Cathedral of Segovia, especially beautiful surrounded by fall colours. We were surprised by the vastness of the Cathedral and intricate details. Its gothic style reminded us of the Notre Dame, although much less busy and "polished" but still quite impressive. Some highlights include the huge organ, intricate details throughout, detailed glass windows and vast corridors.

The sites in Segovia were beautiful and we had the luxury of wandering the city leisurely since it was low season; but truth be told, we were sold on Segovia because it is also known for its suckling pig (cochinillo)! Our first stop in the city was for a reservation at Jose Maria. The restaurant is known for its traditional fare and it was by far the busiest place we visited in Segovia - the place was packed! Jose Maria is also known for its service and constant concern for quality of his ingredients, most famous of course is the suckling pig that they raise and make special care for to ensure fine and tender meat.
This is not an experience for the squeamish, we were constantly surrounded by servers bringing out whole roasted piglets to serve...impressively carved with a dish (that's Jose doing it)! The tenderness of the meat and crispy skin were both AMAZING, I can still taste the juices from the meat. I couldn't imagine why someone would order anything else, although a dish of fish nearby looked incredibly good as well! We each decided to have suckling pig along with a side of asparagus (have I mentioned how hard it is to have vegetables in Spain?)...which also came with some delicious fried zucchini. There was no way I could finish my portion, it was HUGE. That entire slab of meat you see IS meat with just some rib-bones underneath. I think I got through half before I gave up. I ate as much as I possibly could, it was too tasty to turn away! This was no cheap meal but a MUST DO and totally worth the trip from Madrid. This may have been our most indulgent and memorable meal this trip!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MADRID: Tapas Galore!

I have fond memories of eating in Spain from my backpacking days in Barcelona, we were thrilled back then to afford a good meal after spending time in London and Paris...paella, seafood and sangria galore! I couldn't have been more excited to visit our friends in Madrid, Jen & Andrew, who promised delicious tapas eating adventures!

La Latina: Tapas are, of course, core to eating in Madrid, and it is especially popular to tapa hop - think bar hopping but for food (and usually drinks too!). Our first night had us in the La Latina area of central Madrid. This area is known for the highest concentration of tapas was like a dream come true! Our first stop was Txirimiri, a modern, high energy tapas bar with mostly standing room only. I wish I had been warned to wear a sling bag! We did
manage to find a couple bar stools and enough counter space for our food - it's not uncommon to be left standing with your food, but there is a restaurant space in the back with seating if you are lucky to find it open and available. Stading andeating was part of the experience! We started with a delicious Spanish omlette on bread, looked almost like a piece of pie on top. It was sweet tasting from the caramelized onions. Next we had some delicious croquettes which would become a staple of almost every meal we have in Madrid. We were off to a good start but the best was yet to come: the special "burger" was a pile of meat served on bread, smothered in a stroganoff-like sauce. It was soooo
good. Then came the mushroom risotto with foie gras on top, hello heavenly! It was prepared fresh, hot and savory. I may have licked the plate clean myself if that had been appropriate. These last 2 items were definitely among the best we had! I can still taste them now :). We eventually made our way to a restaurant down the road that was a little quieter and specialized in cured meats, yummy jamón ibérico and chorizo to be had. That's the beauty of "bar" hopping, you can move from place to place to have their specialties or if you're just looking for a change in scenery.

Mercado de San Miguel: This gourmet food market is on the site of an old
"traditional" market in a beautiful glass structure with cast-iron frame not far from the popular Plaza Mayor. It slowly lost relevance as hygiene of street markets were questioned and the city's growth outpaced the ability of the market to meet everyone's needs. Mercdo de San Miguel was born out of an interest to keep the market alive, now filled with high quality fresh foods including stalls for sushi, assorted tostadas (shrimp, fish and other toppings on crostinis), croquettes, vermouth on tap and fresh juice. We also had mini foie burgers, cheese fondue, traditional seafood tossed in vinegarette and delicious chocolate cake and apple strudel to finish off our fun meal. It takes some patience to secure a spot at the share tables in the middle of the market, but most people were quick to eat and move on. This was a great way to try many different things under one roof, we took turns wandering the market for dishes and drinks to try.

Chimi & Churri: Tony and I stumbled upon this little place near Puerta del Sol that Andrew had pointed out during one of our walks. We wanted to escape the restaurants right around the plaza to avoid (best we could) over-priced tourist traps. We were starving by the time we sat down at the bar, and as we wrinkled our noses and squinted at the overhead blackboard in an attempt to remember what the Spanish words meant, the server kindly offered us a menu with English translation...whew. I think we would have managed anyhow but it was still a nice reprieve. We blindly ordered everything we had appetite for, completely underestimating the portion sizes: chorizo sausage, grilled sweetbread, ham with mushrooms, garlic shrimp tostada and a meat empanada. In true tapa style, we did not think much about the amount we ordered, but it turns out a couple of these were full entree size - I'm sure they wre on the tapas menu, maybe they should have specified for how many people. Oops. The food in this little cafe was good although I would have liked for the server to tell us we were in way over our heads! This was a simple, no frills place for some traditional foods. Had we not completely over-ordered, our meal would have been a pretty good deal :). Next time maybe we'll just try the 10€ prix fixe.

We were hungry for a quick bite before heading to the zoo on our last day in Madrid (how could I resist the opportunity to see baby pandas??). We passed by Viena Capellanes not far from Plaza de Espana and decided to stop in. Although a chain restaurant that does some catering, we were pleasantly surprised with the food. Our favourite was the tripe, a popular local dish, served tender and in a savoury sauce that was a bit curry-like. Yum! We also had another Madrid favourite, broken eggs with chorizo on fries and a blood sausage cannelloni with pine nuts. All delicious! We try hard to avoid chains or "tourist traps," but this place was pretty good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Day in London: Borough Market & Tayyabs

We had one day in London after flying red-eye out of Toronto - no better way to fight jet-lag than to head on out and keep busy. We basically kicked our friends out of bed (thanks Lis, JK and Simon) and headed for lunch at Borough Market. I loved it the first time I went and couldn't wait to taste (and smell!) that raclette cheese again, yummms! The market was busy as expected and we bee-lined our way to get some raclette and potatoes. It was scraped piping hot off the wheel, melted on our little bowl of potatoes. Amazing and every bit as good as I remember, maybe better! It was a good start to our eating. Next we made our way to get a duck confit sandwich (other end of the market) which was really good but the bread was more of a plate than anything for us :p. We also made a stop at Roast To Go and had a pork belly sandwich with apple sauce...highly recommend, it was so tender and tasty! I could have used more apple sauce on the meat though. So. Good. We made a pit stop at Monmouth for coffee and I happened to spy a little bakery next door: Konditor & Cook. After examining all they had to offer (mulled wine truffles were very tempting), I picked up a slice of raspberry hazelnut chocolate cake for the group, covered with chocolate fondant. It was every bit as good as that sounds, and very filling. You'd think dessert was the end of our eating, but we still made our way to the shellfish stall and had grilled scallops with bacon. Seriously, how can one resist?! We were temped by the giant wok of paella initially but were too full by the time we made it back and I had a taste of soup instead, minted asparagus which true to the name was very minty but a little too much for me. With happily stuffed tummies, we embarked on our day of walking along the bank to check out some sites.

After wandering from Tower Bridge to Millenium Bridge, exploring Tate Modern and some quick shopping at Selfridges, we made our way to the East end of London for some Pakistani food at Tayyabs. This place was packed, and is apparently always lined up outside but crowds were moderate when we arrived. It's BYOB at Tayyabs so we picked up some beer which helped us pass the wait for a table, which thankfully did not take that long. Upon entering, I discovered really how big the restaurant was, two floors packed with patrons! The food looked and smelled delicious, I was starving and couldn't wait to dig in. Our friend Vince took care of the ordering and we were treated to a feast of tandoori chicken and lamb chops on hot paltes, karahi gosht, a traditional Pakistani lamb curry dish, a delicious saag aloo (spinach) and some amazing nan, including a sweet nan with sesame that was fluffy and surprisingly really tasty - I had not imagined having sweet nan with my food but I wish I could have had more! Although we were fully stuffed from our abundant and flavorful meats, we could not turn down the chance to try Tayyabs's own yogurt pops that came in mango, pistachio and their original malai. My pistachio one was really good and the perfect way to cut down the spice flavours in my mouth. The most amazing part of the meal? Dinner was £15 a person, which was just a crazy deal! It was so delicious, came quickly and an unbelievable deal. No wonder there's always a line-up outside. Tayyabs was definitely a nice local secret to discover!

Can't complain about our quick jaunt in London, still managed to have some great food experiences! Borough Market is definitely an experience to be had and Tayyabs is a restaurant I'd love to visit again.