[Pigging by Wilfrid: September 22, 2008]
Last week was all about what I consider the best kind of eating you can do in Granada - grazing on superb artisanal hams, sausages and cheeses. But let's wrap up the restaurants we visited too.
After all, what would a trip to Granada be without a brain 'n' balls omelette?
Starting out with a very good and relatively new central destination, Puerta del Carmen.
Scroll down for Chikito and Sevilla
The flight from Barcelona to Granada is short and relatively inexpensive. You leave a humid, grey-stone, northern Mediterranean metropolis in the morning; barely an hour later you drop out of the clouds over a bright, dry, brown landscape, and shoulder your bags over the tarmac in the piercing, dry heat to the tiny terminal.
The apartment keys were picked up at a bar in the Realejo district, just around the corner from the bright, bargain duplex I'd rented. Granada, unlike Barcelona, remains a true tapas city (Madrid too, for the most part). Your basic tapa is a plate of free food which comes every time you order a drink - and that includes a coke or a lemonade. It can be just a few olives or nuts, but it's usually rather more generous.
In the tourist-ridden bars around C. de Elvira, the incentive is to pull in crowds of thirsty travellers and sell them beer. You are handed large, toasted ham and cheese heroes and plates of fries with your drink order. Nothing amazing, but you can essentially eat dinner free.
In the local bars around the Realejo, I was happy to find little dishes of braised meats, paella, and oily-warm potato and onion salads being passed out. I snacked on the latter while awaiting the apartment agent's arrival. But that done, we were still a hungry party after dumping our bags and heading down to the city center.
I wandered down C. Reyes Católicos - I think I was looking for Los Manueles, but I missed it, and found myself on the small Plaza del Carmen baking in the sun. Puerta del Carmen, a tavern, restaurant and wine retailer beckoned. It was busy inside with its lunch-trade - and this being Granada, lunch can stretch to three o'clock and beyond. Although tables stood empty, reservations had been made, so we had to wait. Two pieces of good news: olives and nuts and bits of sausage were quickly passed to us, and I sampled a small glass of beer pulled from the iced tap. Bless them, they have temperature gauges on the beer-taps here, and it's truly chilled.
Frosted beer and free nibbles made the forty minutes or so slide past comfortably, and just watching the large platters of food being carried to the tables convinced me it was worth it.
Finally seated, a huge house salad was shared. Chunks of marinated tuna, white asparagus, avocado, olives. A plate of the great little habitas too, the tiny green beans with ham and egg.
Fish choices followed. Given the opportunity, I will always order an odd part, whether of fish or mammal, so I chose the neck of a hake. Fresh, oily in a good way, chunks of white meat sliding easily from the cartilege.
The plate was cheerfully decorated with chives, but the garnish was appropriately simple. A few potatoes, a lemon wedge, the odd pickle and pepper, a cherry tomato.
A whole fish was ordered too, lubina or sea bass, headless and tail-less but otherwise impeccable.
For some reason, the photograph of the pickled partridge makes it look a weird pink color. I don't remember it looking especially odd when it was served. Perdiz en escabeche, I should say: the bird jointed and marinated in oil and vinegar with herbs and seasonings. This was tart and tender, and arrived with a little heap of shoestring fries.
Now, even though it was a late lunch - what with the travel, the ice cold beer and the hot sunshine, I decided a bottle of fancy red wine would be overdoing it. With regret, though, because the long wine-list showed not only a wide selection of regional choices, but some serious trophy bottles from Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. What's more, the same list showed retail and restaurant prices, the average mark-up being a paltry two euros. This amounts to a giveaway by New York standards. Only one inexplicable thing: not a vintage to be seen.
If we'd returned for dinner as intended, I'd have figured out why that was. Time ran out on us: but this is a definite choice for dining and serious wining on some future trip.
On my previous visit to Granada, I'd spent some happy hours in the tapas bar at the front of Chikito, a Barcelona classic on a busy square called Plaza Campillo. I peered with intent into the small, formal dining room: the high-backed chairs, neatly laid tables, and well-fed diners all looked appealing. Sadly, when I made my bid for dinner, I discovered a reservation was required. I made do with very good ham and beans, followed by pork with basil sauce, on the terraza. But it wasn't the same.
This time I made sure to stop by a couple of days in advance. And then, when the time came, the dining room wasn't particularly busy. Nor, to my great disappointment, was the food particularly good.
Perturbed by the stale bread on offer, I thought foie with apples sounded nevertheless like a good idea. There was plenty of it, but it was swamped in a sweetish balsamico sauce. Perfectly edible, but couldn't bear comparison with the remarkably good foie dishes I'd tasted throughout Barcelona.
The smoked salmon appetizer was, I suppose, classic; but I think it tipped heavily toward being just old-fashioned. Again, the main ingredient was overwhelmed - this time by capers and peppers.
Surely Granada's great gift to world cuisine, the tortilla Sacromonte wouldn't disappoint?
It didn't. It made a substantial appetizer, though. Essentially, this is a fluffy omelette riddled with the brains and testicles of...well, some say kid, some say lamb, but I honestly doubt many could tell the difference. Make it at home with sweetbreads (I dares ya!) - that should work fine. The addition of the offal makes the egg pleasantly loose-textured: this was good - moist and savory.
The dollop on top looks like ketchup, but it was just a thick tomato sauce of no particular interest.
If you started reading at the beginning, you'll already have met the sea bass at Puerto del Carmen. At Chikito, its poor relation was cooked dry, doused in an ordinary white sauce, and given about the most meagre vegetable garnish possible.
No shortage of nice fried potatoes with the other main courses. Perhaps my surprise at these dishes reflects my ignorance. Many years ago, I ate a dismal dinner in the gloomy, northern military town of Burgos. I ascribed the tendency to serve fatty meat sitting in puddles of fat to Burgos's famously cold winters. I never expected to see the same approach in Andalusia: more fool me.
The tender, but fat-caked roast lamb was served in a cazuela brimming with its fatty cooking juices. It was hard to eat much of it. The oxtail was served in precisely the same style. I am hardly averse to animal fat, but I am afraid I found these dishes a little sickly.
A sweet finish - some sort of banana and cream deal, I think - in an attempt to clear the palate.
I had high hope for Chikito: the tapas are still just fine. Tell me I was unlucky.
There's a tangled mediaeval (earlier?) street pattern around Granada's cathedral. It's fun to dive into this stone jungle and track your way from tiny square to tiny square. In the thick of it, another Granada classic: Sevilla Ristorante (tapas bar, several dining rooms, and a terrace overlooking the old Royal Chapel). Sevilla is nearly eighty years old, and Garcia Lorca was inevitably a regular.
One lunch is slender evidence, but I can only review what I ate. Sevilla was good.
Our dining room, at least, was very pretty: a few tables around a waiter's station. Nice tableware. Service was quiet and correct. And there was even an amuse: cooling gazpacho.
A light start, for once. Some simple shrimp fritters, curnchy, a little oily perhaps, but fine.
You order your paella by number of diners. It is presented in the traditional pan, then portioned at the waiter's station. My fault I didn't whip out a camera before our server started his practiced spooning.
When you find paella outside Spain, it tends to be heaped with showy stacks of shrimp and mussel, lobsters even. I've seen paellas where the rice was hidden by fruits of the sea. And indeed, you'll find paellas like that in Spain too, especially where the restaurant sets out to attract tourist custom. At Sevilla it's about the rice, and they do it right.
Deliciously sticky, aromatic with saffron, studded with little nuggets of chicken, small mussels, strips of pepper and peas. Rice dishes take up a whole section of the menu. Now, it's true the menu also boasts oxtail and lamb, and for all I know they might be served in dishes of grease just like Chikito. So maybe Chikito gets a raw deal here: but I only eat and report, and there seemed to be an extra touch of refinement here.
The dessert - just vanilla ice cream - but pretty as a picture.
So there's Granada: not the greatest restaurant city, but still a place where you can eat well. And there's the Alhambra, and the stunning views of it from the "miradors" on the other side of the river. And then, of course, there's Bar Arco Iris. Just off the c. de Elvira at the distant, quieter end from Plaza Nueva. This is a marisqueria serving true tapas - one bite free with each drink ordered. But what tapas: sparkling seafood, cooked almost under your nose on a hot pan, sprinkled with salt and oil. And damn, it was closed! I hope Antonio had a happy holiday, and I hope I get another chance.
Next week: Finishing off Spain with a wild holiday scrapbook. Lots more Barcelona food, upscale and downscale, which didn't fit the previous categories. And part two of "Barcelona in Literature".