Stories from Spain
Every time we go to Spain a lot of inspiration comes back. We've never claimed to serve authentic Spanish food at Toro, but the more time we spend over there the more we feel connected to the culture and cuisine.
Where the brave bulls like to eat, stay and party in Spain:
- One of my favorite spots in Spain is the super tiny and always packed Quimet & Quimet. Beyond the awesome tapas Q & Q has an incredible wine list. Hopefully the server with the tattoo of lipstick on her arm is still there. She's the best.
- If you never got to go to El Bulli your shot at that kind of magic is at the Adría brothers' restaurant Tickets. I really love this place. Reservations are hard to get and possible only through the website starting at midnight nightly. They fill up within minutes so stay up and don't miss your chance.
- Alkimia's tasting menu is molecular gastronomy meets refined French food. The space is formal, the food is modernist and it's a take-your-time meal. We had a twelve-course here meal that blew us away.
- The columnar, super modern Barceló Raval is a great hotel to stay at in Barcelona. It's not the best neighborhood but it's super close to the beach, the Rambla and the market and the price is right. We ended a lot of our nights in Barcelona on the 360-degree rooftop bar here. Don't swim in the rooftop "pool".
- If you stay there be sure to go to the ancient absinthe bar Marsella that's just around the corner. Also just around the corner is…
- Pollo Rico -- a hole-in-the-wall with damn good rotisserie chicken. Ask for the homemade hot sauce and a baguette to go with. This is the place you want to go to when you're recovering from your octopus and ham overdose which is going to happen at some point if you go to Spain.
- Of course you have to go to La Boqueria Market when you're in Barcelona. Once there, make a bee-line for Bar Pinotxo. Hover behind folks for as long as it takes to get a chair. Believe me, it's worth it.
- Cal Pep has been a great influence on Toro Bravo over the years but this past fall I had my least favorite meal there. My meal there in 2007, on the other hand, was one of my favorites. I'm sad to say it, but I think that its heyday has passed.
- Whenever I fly to Madrid I land in the early morning and head straight to Hotel Plaza Mayor. I really love this hotel. It's not too fancy but it's clean and nice enough, super central, there's a decent continental breakfast and the folks that work there are really nice.
- AC Santo Mauro near Retiro Park is a beautiful 19th century hotel that I also really love.
- Here's my Madrid day-one ritual -- I drop my bags off at Hotel Plaza Mayor, then I head to Mercado de San Miguel (see below) just across the street for coffee and juice, then when La Bola (see below) opens I head there for a big, classic Spanish meal of Cocido Madrileño. After that, I go back to the hotel and nap until it's dark and after that I'm out on the town and the bulls are running.
- Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor, is my favorite spot for a late breakfast because you can get a great espresso, maybe a little hair of the dog, choose all kinds of tasty prepared foods from the 20 or so stalls and it's never too crowded.
- Portobello, as in beautiful port and not the mushroom, is an awesome seafood spot that's a little out of the heart of it so take a cab and plan a long late lunch there. Get the lobster paella, salt bream and the steak cooked at the table. And be sure to get some of their housemade apricot desert cordial. They soak apricots in a really nice grappa for nine months for it and it's delicious. When we went to Spain for the cookbook in fall of 2012 this cordial saved us after a really late and a bit overserved night. We were pretty rough around the edges until we had it.
- Sobrino de Botín's claim to fame is that it's the oldest restaurant in the world -- open since 1725. Some people think that it's a tourist trap but I disagree. Respect your elders! Only go here if you're up for ordering at least half a roasted suckling pig. There's something magical that happens to an oven that pork is cooked in for that long, for that many years. You hear the same thing about old smokehouses and it's true. The flavor that's imbued from years and years of cooking just can't be recreated. So special. The garlic soup is really tasty here too. And, I forget the name of the place but there's a pretty good cider bar right across the street.
- There are a few De Maria restaurants around Madrid and the one that I like to go to is near El Junco (see below). Go for the grilled sweetbreads. There's nothing else that's all that special here but stop in and get an ice cold Estrella and a plate of the sweetbreads and everything will feel right in the world.
- Tonya and Eduardo are a Spanish couple with a daughter who goes to my daughter Ruby's school and plays soccer with her. We've become friends over the years -- mostly from hanging out around the soccer field when the girls have games. La Bola Taberna is Tonya's family's favorite and she grew up on cocido, particularly La Bola's. The last time we ate here we ran into Tonya's cousin! Go for a late lunch and get the cocido. Best I've ever had.
- Almendro 13 is a super tasty working man's place. It's real Spanish, eat-everyday food. It's also in a beautiful neighborhood and it's right by a school with a pretty courtyard that the kids are often playing in. Be sure to walk there or walk around after your meal for that nice slice of Madrid life.
- Another favorite spot is Taberna Laredo in the banking district. This is Leslie and Manuel Recio's, of Viridian Farms, favorite spot in Madrid. It's a more modern take on all the same dishes that Almendro 13 serves -- so it's classics refined a bit.
- Ten Con Ten Restaurante & Bar is a hip and dressy spot where you go to see beautiful Spanish people and eat great food. Get the sea urchin pasta. And know that if you order SHOTS of Fernet-Branca at the end of your meal you'll get enormous goblets of it.
- Go to the tiny, hip, basement jazz bar El Junco. It's a lot of fun -- sometimes a little bit too much fun. Just know that if you order a gin and tonic it's the equivalent of a triple here.
- The Madrid bathhouse Hammam Al Andalus is a must. This is one of the oldest Turkish bathhouses in Europe. There's nothing like it in the US and it's one of the most magical things I've done in my life.
- We had one of my favorite meals in Spain in Astorga at Restaurante Serrano, just across the street from Hotel Gaudi (see below). Take Spain, France and Oregon ingredients -- so lots of wild mushrooms, game, rabbit, liver, foie gras, foraged vegetables -- and a chef that's competent enough to cook all of it really well and you've got Serrano. It's a great dining room in one of the most beautiful parts of Spain. When we ate there the chef came out and was friendly enough to show us the kitchen. He also showed us photos of him and his family cooking along with family recipes. When we got home we sent them a copy of the Toro Bravo cookbook. I still keep in touch with him.
- Hotel Gaudi is a really cool hotel. It's a little bit aged but it has the most beautiful views of any hotel I've ever stayed at. I had a picture window in my room that opened up and framed Gaudi's first building that he built in the area which looks like a Walt Disney castle. Definitely get a castle-facing room.
- Casa Divi is really good working man's food in Leon. It feels sort of like a Spanish pub but with venison, foie gras, rabbit. It's really technical food in a lots of wood and dark tavern-like environment.
- If you're in northern Spain, rent a car and go to the top of the mountain to this village of O Cebreiro that supports the Camino del Santiago. Right when you enter Galicia the cuisine changes dramatically. Even in the mountains when you're still a bit from the coast you'll have old ladies with pots boiling octopus all along the side of the roads. It's definitely worth stopping and getting some octopus in olive oil.
- Once you're up to O Cebreiro one of the first restaurants there has a bunch of old ladies cooking on a wood-fired stove making the set meal for the pilgrims traveling the Camino as well as food for the people who live there. You want to get the Caldo Galego and the octopus and dessert. When I was there I had boiled pork ribs with the Caldo Galego and it was one of my all-time favorite Spanish meals. The food there is made by women cooking from the soul in an ancient kitchen. A stop at this restaurant is totally worth the trek to get up there alone.
- The pension we stay at in San Sebastian is Pension Iturriza in old town. The owner is the nicest guy and I highly recommend it. It's four blocks from the beach, there's a Michelin two-star restaurant right across the alleyway, all of the gastronomic societies are right there and so is one of the oldest churches in the area. It's an inexpensive place to stay and if you have a big enough group the owner has a two-bedroom apartment on the roof that's really nice. It's one of the only places with a rooftop deck facing the ocean.
- Order the mini Kobe hamburger at A Fuego Negro. If you stay at the Pension Iturriza the owner there will tell you all the great places to eat at including this one. He knows all the ins and outs of the restaurants and chefs and will tell you who's cooking where and who's feuding with who. The secret of San Sebastian is the pinchos and everyone's got one dish that's better than the rest. These tapas spots put a bunch of food out that's pretty good but ordering off the menu, which is usually just a chalkboard, is always better. Those are the things that you want.
- Bar Nestor's claim to fame is making the best tortilla in Spain and it's freaking phenomenal. They only make them twice a day and people line up for one to two hours to pay in advance and then get them once they're ready. Once they bust out the tortilla it's gone crazy fast. It's definitely worth going and waiting it out. They also make a really great steak FYI.
- Go to Atari Gastroleku Sirimiri. This spot was our home base in San Sebastian. It's really comfortable, they make great cocktails and the food is tasty. I'd say the food is an 8 out of 10 so it's not the best but it is the most comfortable spot close to Pension Iturriza if you stay there. Love it.
- About ten minutes outside of San Sebastian is Getaria where Restaurante Elkano is and it's totally worth the drive. If you've seen the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown show all about that area he went to Elkano in that. Elkano and all of Getaria is famous for open grills. Everyone has wood-fired and charcoal grills outside -- they're cluttered on the roads and built into the sides of the buildings. At Elkano, which is pretty famous, they said we're going to wait to tell you what the fish is tonight because we're going down to get it at the beach right now. That's how fresh the fish is. Everything at Elkano is cooked on charcoal grills. There's a little bit of a modernist take on what they're doing but it's still all open-fire cooked. Go to Getaria and take time to walk the streets. Just up the hill from Getaria is where the txakoli vineyards start.
- Get pinchos at La Cuchara de San Telmo.
- Kale Kantoi Taberna is basically a really cool little coffee shop, southwest of San Sebastian that I love. They serve the best OJ on the planet. Really, get it.
- Don't miss the Kebab de Costilla (pork rib) with a little bit of curry flavor at Borda Berri southeast of San Sebastian. This was one of my favorite dishes from the last trip.
- Petritegi Sagardoa is a cider house southeast of San Sebastian that's a must. When you go to a cider house dinner you want to make your reservation for dinner and be warned that when you go in it can feel a little cold, a little weird. You get a glass and then you sit down. A couple of rules to know about these cider dinners is that they will not serve you the next course until you finish your plate so dinner can go very late if you're trying to stall them. Also, a big mistake that I made when I first went into the cider room, where they open the tanks, was that I went to go fill my glass up and they all looked at me like what the fuck are you doing? That's because you're only supposed to pour one taste at a time. The whole idea of these events is to aerate the cider tanks so you just keep going back for more -- sip after sip. If you want to look like a pro right away DO NOT fill your cider glass.
- Go to Mercado Central in Valencia. I honestly think that this is one of the best markets in all of Spain because you can tell that it's where the locals go and do their shopping. I think a lot of the Spanish markets have gotten overrun with tourists and that's who they kind of cater to a bit too much. The market in Valencia is the real deal and the restaurants in it are phenomenal too. All in all though Valencia is not one of my favorite cities in Spain. I like it and it's fun but it just doesn't hit me the way other places do. Obviously, there are plenty of folks who entirely disagree with me on this one.
- Cadiz is probably more magical in the summer than in the winter when I was there but this is quintessential Spain -- as in boarded up businesses during siesta. The entire city just shuts down. I don't dig that but the food is really great and unique in Cadiz in large part because it's so close to Africa and also because the seafood changes there quite a bit. The anchovies that I've had in Cadiz are some of the best I've ever had.
- El Faro de Cadiz is known as one of the best restaurants in Spain. Diplomats fly in just to eat there and you feel that level of seriousness when you're there. I highly recommend it.
- My favorite Seville hotel is Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza. It's in the Jewish District and it's one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever stayed in. It's not lavish but it's gorgeous with all kinds of open-air hallways and areas. It's magical and the restaurants right around it are great too including Restaurante Becerríta.
- Walk by the Seville bull ring for sure because it's pretty incredible. There's also a famous bridge where everyone attaches their locks after getting married. It's nice to walk across that bridge. In general, Sevilla is a city that's great to get lost in on foot. Walk as much as you can while you're there.
- Budget cell coverage into the trip with your phone provider. It's so worth it to have especially for GPS and mapping and if you don't set up a travel plan they'll charge you through the roof.
- Don't go to strip clubs. Sit at Kyle's bar and maybe he'll tell you the story.
- San Sebastian has great surfing.
- Bring your own bike! Have it broken down and packaged by a bike shop before you go and bring it on the plane.
So, if you're lucky enough to find yourself in Spain I hope you'll check out some of these spots but I also encourage you not to over plan. Get lost and take some risks. Some of the best meals in Spain, well when traveling anywhere really, are from places that you walk into with no expectations and then get blown away by. Please feel free to share this with anyone planning a trip to Spain. It's always nice to have a cheat sheet.