Tag Archives: restaurants

Barcelona: The Guide

First there was the anticipation. Then there was the packing. After that, there was the coverage. Now, at last, here is The Guide to Barcelona (according to me).

As with the other guides on this site, I don’t pretend to cover everything. These are my personal highlights and low lights of what’s out there. I hope it’s the supplement you were looking for to narrow down, expand or otherwise warp your itinerary. Enjoy!

A quick note on travel guides: I was a Let’s Go girl when I lived abroad. Then they got a little newsprinty and I cut over to Lonely Planet, but they’re not as selective as I’d like (I know what they include or omit constitutes an opinion but they don’t narrow it down a lot), so I went looking for a new, more opinionated and organized guide for this trip to Spain. My new best friend is the Top 10 series by DK Publishing: excellent photography, small enough to carry around, removable map included, and content divided by area and category. Sweet.

What You Should Do

Sagrada Familia

Let’s just get it out of the way: yes, you should probably go and see Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished monster cathedral. You’re going to see it whether I say you should or not, so I’ll get behind your effort. I can’t stand Gaudi and the Modernista style, but the cathedral does have sort of a Guinness Book of World Records appeal, given how long they’ve been building it (128 years and counting). In my view, that’s on a par with the world’s largest ball of twine, but, truth be told, if I were within walking distance of that twine ball, I’d probably go see that too. Seriously though, it is impressively large and unique, so man up, get over your horror of tile work and head over there. I wouldn’t walk to the top of the spire though – punishing trip, I hear.

Unless you’re a fan, Sagrada Familia will also relieve you of any responsibility to go out of your way to catch Parc Guell, or the apartment building La Pedrera, other highly recommended Gaudi constructions. You’ll probably pass some Modernista work on your way to other places you’re going anyway, so no need to plan special outings.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Surprisingly, given that it’s also in the Modernista style, the Palau de la Musica Catalana makes the top of my list. Maybe that’s because I love me some stained glass and the concert hall has a one-ton inverted stained glass bell in the center of the ceiling. Also, unlike Sagrada Familia’s endless ramblings, the palau has a tight, efficient design with a purpose: a concert hall with the best possible acoustics for one of the first co-ed professional choirs. All the sculptures and tiles and columns and iron work fooforah support that objective. Mad props. It’s an amazing thing. Oh – and they got the whole thing built in a mindboggling three years. Take that, Gaudi.

To see inside, you have to book a tour (in the right language, mind you) or attend a concert. Tour’s just under an hour and they run regularly in English, but the tours book up and the Palau’s web site is not helpful, so it might be a good bet to wander by on your way elsewhere, buy a ticket at the box office for another day so you know you’re sorted.

Eat fideuà, olives, and jamon iberico

See notes on fideuà and restaurant recommendations here.

If you don’t like olives, as I didn’t before my first trip to Spain, this is the place to learn. You don’t have to go out of your way to find them – they’ll be served before almost any meal at a restaurant – but you may want to track down a grocery store to bring some back with you after you’ve had them. Most likely the ones you’ll be served are manzanilla olives, native to Spain, or manzanillas stuffed with – don’t gag: they’re not the same as the ones you pick off your pizza – anchovies.

Jamón ibérico is a must. It’s cured ham from pigs fed exclusively on acorns. Which sounds boring for the piggy but is salty and tasty for you. You don’t have to buy one of the entire legs, hoof included, that you see at the grocery store to gnaw your way through before you get to customs (or smuggle it in a tennis racket case as someone who shall remain nameless told me she did); the cheap stuff in sandwiches from bodegas will be stringy and unsatisfying, and the $95/lb. offerings are a little rich for some of us. Start with ordering some at a proper restaurant one afternoon and see how you like it.

Picasso Museu

Picasso was a misogynistic jerk, we all know that, but the man could paint. And draw and collage and pot, which is a welcome expansion of the usual, “Look at my naked cubist ladies!” museum repertoire. Barcelona was something of a hometown for Picasso, and the Picasso Museum was willed an excellent collection of his early and student work: drawings for larger works, small oil paintings on wood, notebooks full of pencil sketches and so on. Of course they have large, important works as well, but the most appealing part for me was seeing the early classical grounding that allowed for Picasso’s later evolution into groundbreaking styles. The artist in progress and so on. The museum is housed in a city castle, which makes for a charming but also somewhat disorganized and labyrinthine experience.

Head across the alleyway from the gift shop to the Textil Café for a coffee or lunch before or afterwards. It’s half-filled with tourists and the service is painfully slow, but it’s in a pretty, sheltered courtyard and their food is quite good.

Montjuic and related activities

Barcelona, in case you haven’t noticed, is ringed by mountains which provides a handy opportunity to take funiculars up the sides of them or, if you’re deranged, bike up them. Montjuic is one of said mountains, the least suicidal one to bike, and home to, among other things, the Fundacio Joan Miro (a museum dedicated to, er, Miro), the imposing Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Olympic stadium (built for the 1936 Olympics, used in 1992) and a warren of very lovely parks with, sometimes, views across the city. The funicular to the top is part of the metro system, so heading up and making an afternoon of it isn’t nearly as complicated as the map looks like it will be. Definitely hit the Miro, wander the gardens, skip the stadium, if you’re up for it take on the National Museum and then meander downhill via escalator, stairs and paths among the fountains and gardens that will land you in the Placa d’Espanya where you can check out…

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Barcelona Pavilion is a “house” by Mies van der Rohe built of steel, glass and marble for the king’s reception at the 1929 World Exposition. They tore down the original, thought better of that bad decision and reconstructed it in the ’80s. If you have any interest in architecture or design, you have to go. It’s small and costs about $7 to get in, but it’s worth half an hour just to be inside those straight lines. We ended up here after a long, long day, happy to discover it was open until 8PM and intrigued that the brochure clearly labeled “English” was just as clearly written in French. I assume this was in keeping with one of van der Rohe’s less well-known utopian plans for future society. (Architectural info + bad photos here. Better photos here, especially here.)

What You Could Do (specialty)

These are some “if these are your kind of thing” recommendations.

Formatgeria La Seu

The artisanal cheese movement has yet to catch on in Spain, so it’s a rarity to find a place so focused on and willing to discuss cheese. It’s not that Spaniards aren’t making cheese in huts on the sides of mountains and meadows, it’s that Spain isn’t flooded with the wine-pairing classes and Whole Foods’ marketing and retired bankers going into goat-rearing that America and France have. Formatgeria La Seu has been chipping away at that for several years now. The shop is central (if tiny), the proprietress is Scottish so you can ask questions freely, and the cheese is phenomenal. Follow her lead and buy whatever she tells you to: she knows whereof she speaks since she goes out into the countryside to find and collect the best cheeses herself. If you have a spare Saturday afternoon, you can even swing by and take a class. (Hours: 10-2, 5-8)

Get yourself some espadrilles

I know. I don’t wear ’em either. But these are some kickin’ kicks. Handmade on the premises, the espadrilles at La Manual Alpargatera come in everything from the traditional flats to crimson gladiator wedges. I bought two pairs and love them like my future children. Who will also, presumably, provide little in the way of arch support.

Liquor

Some restaurants, especially the ones on the water that serve that day’s fresh catch, drop off bottles of clear liquor and shot glasses at your table after you’ve finished eating. Have some. It’s a digestif made out of fruit and gasoline. You’ll like it, especially if you’ve just had half a bottle of wine with dinner. In fact, you’ll like it so much that you’ll swing by the grocery the next day and buy a bottle for $7 to bring home with you. The stuff is terrible but highly addictive.

Vincon

Vincon is a design shop a few blocks north of Placa de Catalunya and worth a visit, if only to buy a few gifts and wish you had that much money to spend on a minimalist bassinet your baby’s going to outgrow in 20 minutes. The place is huge and offers everything from rubber handbags molded to look like roosting hens to high-end kitchenware to Pantone luggage.

Sant Felip Neri Square

Round behind Barcelona Cathedral in the Born neighborhood is a tiny square with a small café outside a wildly expensive hotel. There’s a lovely tree, a fountain, it’s off the beaten path and the café con leche is perfect. While you bask in the afternoon sun, you can think sad thoughts about the bullet holes in the church wall across from you. Location here.

What You Could Do

Tibidabo

We didn’t re-visit Tibidabo this time, but it’s worth a trip after you’ve been up Montjuic, that is, which is a nicer mountain. Tibidabo does have better views though, given that it’s much, much higher. Drive, if you have access to wheels, and you can stop at various points on the way up or down the hill to take photos. Otherwise, public transport will get you there and you can visit the highly impressive Temple de Sagrat Cor church, wander the park, sample the amusement rides which have inexplicably been installed next to the cathedral and generally take in the sun and altitude. (Panorama preview here.)

Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat

The History of the City Museum is not gripping and was, for me, a little tedious, but it does allow you to go underground and view excavated Roman ruins still laid out as they were found. Streets, laundries, wineries and so on lie under suspended pathways beneath modern Barcelona. If you – or your kid – are into archeology, you’ll like it here. (Their web site is spectacularly unhelpful. Check your guide book.)

Museu d’Art Contemporani & Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

MACBA/CCCB. If you’re an artist, you should hit MACBA, but if you’re not, you, like us, will think that the focus on modern art of 30 years ago feels more archival than interesting. What was cutting edge video collage in 1973 does not feel like classic art now: it feels, sadly, expired. I’m all for a white building though, and the current exhibition of “what we’ve got in the basement” won’t go on forever. (Photo to the left is Lawrence Weiner’s, Some Objects of Desire, 2004.)

What You Can Totally Miss

La Rambla

I think all the guide books are high when they recommend La Rambla as a must-see in Barcelona. It is distinctly an “avoid it if at all possible” on my list, crammed as it is with foreigners, pickpockets and the worst of the worst of tourist-pandering shops and restaurants. If you want the rambla experience (trees, cafes, shops), get off the subway at Placa de Catalunya and walk north on Passeig de Gràcia or Rambla Catalunya.

Corte Inglés

Again with the crack-smoking by the guide book editors, Corte Inglés, the biggest department store in Barcelona, is a mess. Yeah, it has a little bit of everything, but it also has mostly nothing. If you want the clothes, go to the shops themselves: Mexx, Kookai and Desigual all have stores elsewhere in the city with better selections than the sub-boutiques crammed into Corte Inglés. The whole Corte Inglés experience was like going to a pointless WalMart masquerading as a Macy’s. (One exception: the basement of the location in Placa de Catalunya has a comprehensive drugstore for buying only-sold-in-Europe products, and a fully stocked grocery store.)

Anything Olympics-related.

Unless, of course, you’re a future Olympian. In which case, you might have a word with them about using the track for a couple of laps.

Camper shoes

I don’t understand the appeal of Campers. They’re wide, unflattering and not even a little bit chic. I thought maybe I’d missed their point because I had only seen the styles they export to the United States. Turns out they export all their styles to the United States and they cost just as much in the city that spawned them as they do in the States. Still stumped.

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New York: 202 (brunch)

202.jpg

Go to 202. Go. Go on. If I were in New York, I’d be on my way over there right now. They’re famous for their French toast, or at least that’s how I found them, and if you like French toast at all, you should definitely have that. It has found the line between “soaked enough that I’m not eating just toasted bread” and “not so undercooked that it’s crossed over to soggy,” and it lies there happily beneath excellent strips of chewy bacon.

Also on the menu: a British breakfast not drowning in grease. Simple: poached eggs on toast, a sausage, bacon, perfect grilled cherry tomatoes, and a paddy of shredded potato. Their coffee is outstanding, which is a crucial exception to me. I usually don’t even order coffee in restaurants for brunch because it’s usually bad or cold. Main point? 202’s breakfast menu is standard stock done well and carefully.

Couple of other notes: they’re open at diner hours in the week (well, 8:30AM), even though they’re located inside a chic retail store that opens later, so that’ll give you a chance to score your French toast without a wait. Their tables are narrow antique rectangles which are surprisingly conducive to both conversation and light writing, but this is not a free-wireless place packed with hipsters typing on their laptops: breakfast will set you back $20. Lunchtime gets trendy – it is in Chelsea Market – but mornings in the week or brunch a little on the early side on the weekend (10:30) are ideal times to get some real food, a little time with your coffee and sort yourself out.

75 Ninth Ave. nr. 16th St., 646-638-1173
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8:30am-11pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-11pm

New York: NoHo Star

nohostar.jpgWhen you go to the Bleeker Theatre – which, by the way, you should, because, if my 2-for-2 experience is any predictor, they put up entertaining shows there – you should hit the NoHo Star on the corner of Bleeker and Lafayette, just across the street. It’s a little too trendy and expensive to be a destinaation dinner spot for me, but the drinks are good, they have boiled eggs on the bar (and who doesn’t love that?), and the baguette sandwiches are reasonably priced ($10-12) and super delicious. I have no other sample set from their menu because I usually only drink there, but those sandwiches should be enough to get you in the door for an early or late light dinner. (It’s mad crowded with what appear to be locals at dinner hour.) The rest of the menu trends towards the $20-$28 range and I just don’t want to eat pricey in a locale that loud and that central. But if you want the best toasted baguette with sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato, greens, capers and aioli, this is your stop. Put a little salt on it before you munch. The bar is good and the house prosecco + raspberry Stoli is a pretty drink for a lightweight evening out.

Williamsburg: Dressler

Dressler in Williamsburg got a star in the new Michelin guide to New York! Go Dressler! We ate there in August on the recommendation of our excellent Brooklyn friends and it was worth every penny.

The place is decorated in what I’d describe as high-end cozy Gothic. A lot of ironwork, ultra-cool chandeliers that look like hand-carved metal. Some places with cutting edge decor balance it out by serving cocktails that taste like they were mixed with the metal polish and food that was looks and tastes like it was designed and cooked by the architect. Not so at Dressler.

The waitress talked me into La Bicyclette, a drink made with St. Germain Elderflower (?!), lemon and cava that was not the fruity, girly confection it sounded like. The heirloom tomato appetizer was perfect (local produce! organic! and so on…) and the wild bass entree was both subtle and flavorful, the accompanying vegetables and sauces a perfect complement to the fish and not at all overwhelming. (In my experience, there’s a lot you can do wrong with white fish and they did none of them.)

Even though we had a box of Magnolia cupcakes under the table, we ordered dessert. How could we not? The place was fantastic. The oven-roasted peaches with brown butter cake and black pepper ice milk did not disappoint. Oh my Lord how they did not disappoint. They did not disappoint the way Paris and Christmas don’t. I swear the brown butter cake was the best cake I have ever had. And the peculiar black pepper ice milk – about which I had another word with the waitress (I’m not sure she loved me…) – was ideally light and cool with the warm cake and peaches.

And then we had cupcakes on the sidewalk. Hooray!

New York: Rice to Riches

rice.jpg On Monday, after having lunch in SoHo at Rice, my friend Sharon and I looked around for dessert. Our first thought was gelato, but then she thought of Rice to Riches, a rice pudding emporium right around the corner. Having just consumed a large bowl of rice with lemongrass chicken, the wet bowls of rice and cream in shades varying from cream to fawn to brown didn’t pique my appetite, but I liked the place anyway. It reminds me of the old-school New York diners I miss so much in California. Rice pudding is honest. It has about four ingredients, none of which are on the Atkins list and all of which taste excellent. So I’m taking the unorthodox step of recommending a place second-hand. (Reviews from Sharon, Time Out, the Times and New York Magazine are all glowing.) I will note, however, that large bowls of rice pudding just are not visually appealing, especially after a substantial meal, so arrive hungry if at all possible. Or drunk, as I hear people often do.

Rice to Riches is open all hours (until 1AM on weekend nights, 11PM other nights) and serve every imaginable flavor of rice pudding. Actually, they have several that I wouldn’t have imagined, including French Toast and Tiramisu. For an extra fifty cents, you can get whipped cream or coconut on top, among other things, and for a dollar, you can have oven-roasted fruit with your six, eight or fourteen-ounce (or, if you’re awfully peckish, eighty-ounce) bowl of niceness. The décor is hip retro-modern with wavy surfaces, a few tables and a curved bar. What’s not to love about this place?

San Francisco: Cole Valley Bakery

cole valley bakery.jpgCole Valley Bakery, corner of Cole and Parnassus, open 7-7, closed Monday

Cole Valley Bakery has a full range of tarts and pastries and breads for breakfast or pick-up. They also serve sandwiches, salads and soups to a lunchtime crowd.

Their croissants are, in all respects, real French croissants. This means that they are light, flaky and NOT the size of my head. They have a slightly crunchy exterior and plenty of room between the million interior layers of butter and magic dough. This would be reason enough to head to Cole Valley, but it’s not the only one. Their coffee is first-rate. It’s not stale or boiled or overheated or pumped full of Starbucks steroids. It is rich, straightforward coffee and the perfect base for their perfect café au lait.

Other highlights include their canelés, which I have seen nowhere else, and their panniers (or elephant ears, as we American’s have thuddingly dubbed them) put all others to shame.

Lunches are bigger than you would expect, so don’t over-order. Even their small garden salad is sufficient for a light lunch. The only flaw in their superior bakery line-up is their baguettes, which are tough. The mini-baguettes are the base for their numerous, pre-wrapped sandwiches, which are still worth getting. Be prepared to chew fiercely. Selections include Gruyere and ham, saucisson and cornichon, aoili turkey and cranberry and a superb tuna salad complete with bits of apple.

Their soups range from the very bland to the truly excellent, so make sure to ask for a sample before ordering.

San Francisco: Circolo

Circolo had every chance of success with us. It had cool lights and an, um, water feature outside and it’s in our neighborhood. “What more could you want?” we thought and off we tripped in our Saturday finest to drop $140 on dinner and 2 drinks each. What we want is a decent chef and Circolo’s not the place to find one. Before we get to the sad food though, let’s discuss the ambience. They’re doing a club/restaurant thing that is only moderately successful, although I’ll admit that my frustration with the surroundings was likely enhanced by the dismal food. The dining area clearly converts to a dancefloor and while they’ve done a tasteful job of masking this fact and separating it from a lounge area in the forward part of the room, the space is not intimate.

We started with the dumplings, a predictable but almost inevitable choice for me. They were crispy and yummy, as were the mojito and a specialty margerita that accompanied them. So far so good. R. had the most expensive item on the menu, Kobe beef and foie gras, because he loves the combination and is willing to risk his arteries for it. I had the special, a whole, semi-pre-cracked crab, with parsley and lemon marinade. It was awful, awful, awful. It was a strange, offputting temperature, not chilled, not warm. It turns out that “marinade” means absolutely sodden. The crab was overwhelmed with an ultra-sweet broth that seemed to be made up of liquid nastiness and masses of diced parsley which wholly obscured any flavor the crab would have brought to the table and almost obscured the crab itself. The helpful idea of pre-cracking it was also poorly executed and saved no trouble. It was accompanied by “garlic toasts” which were equally cheaply over-flavored and half of which were inedible, having become saturated with the crab’s unfortunate parsley soak. R. fared slightly better with his dish but only because it wasn’t entirely unacceptable. The pairing of the interesting texture of Kobe beef and foie gras is a mistake. Foie gras smooth, rich density should be reserved for pairing with only the finest meat of like nature. That is clearly not Kobe beef, which has a unique, masculine flavor all its own which was ill-matched to the liver. To round out the meal, our second round of mojitos was overloaded with mint, one of them to the point of being almost undrinkable. Must have been the same guy who came up the parsley marinade.

Circolo: full of promise but very disappointing and expensively so.

San Francisco: Espetus

Espetus is at 1686 Market at the intersection with Gough. Definitely make reservations: 415-552-8792

Espetus is all man. And when I say “man”, I mean an overly tan, front heavy man with a mustache who may or may not have been indicted for that thing that happened on the docks that certain night in 1986. The kind of man who, when he shrugs, turns up both hands, flattens his mouth and pulls his neck back as he says, “Whaaat? Fuggedaboudit.” The kind of man who enjoys having heart-attack-inducing quantities of meat cut at his table and dropped directly onto his plate. Yes, we are in the land of Brazil where hotties in bikinis and rampant fraud abound. Welcome to San Francisco’s one and only churrascaria.

Churascaria, for the uninitiated, are dining establishments focused on meats of all kinds. The chefs cook them on 2-foot metal skewers and, when you turn the little dial on your table to green, the servers descend with the entire skewer and a huge knife, slicing off pieces of each specialty for anyone at the table who has not passed out from Atkins overload. The meats are, for the most part, excellent. They range from pork with parmesan (a little dry) to sausages (outstanding) to chicken with garlic (tasty) to an entire rib cage of an unfortunate cow (stringy meat but impressive visual).

The overall experience is surreal and not a little overwhelming. The decor is upscale and subdued and the price (a flat $45 per person) is equally trendy. The essence of the place though is very Denny’s: eat far more than you should, salad bar’s in the back. (Literally. There’s nothing exceptional there, with the possible exception of the corn and cilantro melange.) It had the air of a restaurant you find on the side of the road in the Midwest where your Uncle Milt always loves to go and the desserts are all Jell-O based. The waiters descend one after another and create a kind of bizarre meat race. (They would do well to train with the subtler dim sum cart jockeys at Yank Sing.) Frankly, when I’m paying $45 for dinner, I prefer to order my meal already composed. I gauge my appetite at the outset, order accordingly and negotiate the meal at a reasonable pace. Espetus is not about that. They’re about speed and quantity and, without careful and early resistance, you will end the evening feeling nauseated and distinctly unhealthy, a fate I barely escaped.

Overall rating: Strange. (Good meat. Bad concept.)

San Francisco: Yank Sing

Had everything we could get our hands on in the first 10 minutes of passing carts, with a heavy stress on dumpling-like items. The best being the shrimp ones. The satay is also well-sauced instead of the usual tandoori-esque treatment. The sweet rice dumplings get me every time. First, it’s not just rice. Second, while sweet, they are not the most excellent thing I seem to believe them to be. Beware a roving eye: the servers are very, very good at zoning in on you, which makes this a great place for a large party where there are more people to run defense. Or a greater chance of totally over-ordering. Still the best dim sum I’ve had in SF.

San Francisco: XYZ

In the W Hotel on the corner below SFMOMA. Get it? “WXYZ”? The restaurant, like the hotel, is shooting for a very sleek, minimalist look which it achieves but which does not usually wear well. This translates into hip, high-backed curved booths with uneven pillowed seating. No matter: I’m sure the filling has failed under hipper bottoms than mine. The food was excellent. The special appetizer was a really stunning chicken pate, excellently smooth after the rough Provencal version we have been working our way through at home and which bears a striking resemblance in consistency to cat food. The salads were standard greens but large, well-chopped and well-dressed, a great version of a classic. I had a white fish special served on a bed of surprising pureed sweet potatoes. V. tasty. He had a pulled pork and pasta dish which was original but wrongly seasoned. Interesting but not as good. Dessert was superfluous after all the preceding.