Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Northern Spain Wrap Up: Madrid

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 10

The four-hour drive from Lograño to Madrid was pleasantly uneventful. We made a quick stop about 1/2 way at a highway rest stop; in Europe these have restaurants, shops, gas, etc. 

Our driver Antonio calculated that we had driven 3000 kilometers/ 1864 miles over the course of the 10-day trip! He was really the best!

We checked into the NH Madrid Paseo Prado which is in an excellent location but needs to update their rooms. Judy and my room was large with a sunken living room and shag carpet, and black marble bathroom! Chica-bow!

We loaded in our van for one last ride as Antonio dropped us off at Botin for lunch and we said our goodbyes to him. 

Botin is known as one of the oldest continuously running restaurants in the world (and of course Hemingway ate there). They are also known for their suckling pig. This was my 3rd time eating at Botin, every time has been fun and the pig is always good. I had better wine at this meal however!

After lunch we walked through the main streets of Madrid, most of our group hadn't been before and they would only have this day. Judy and I were staying an extra night and had our own plans for the following days so we happily followed along. 

Gerry took us into Lhardy, which is a really traditional old-school restaurant. He showed us how in the front room you can just stop in for a little break, serve yourself from the collections of wine, port, sherry, etc. and also serve yourself some hot broth from the gorgeous silver urn. There's also a little shop with lots of delicious items to take home. I've gotta stop back in here on my next trip!

That evening, Judy and I went and had big delicious gintonics at the Hotel Urban before meeting the group. The service has gone down a bit since I was last here but the bartender still made us delicious and gorgeous drinks and treated us to a few little apero snacks.

We then met everyone for drinks and beautiful appetizers on the rooftop bar at the Palacio de Cibeles where the chef sat with us and chatted about food, drinks, and Madrid. It was a super fun and lively way to start the evening. And it is an absolutely beautiful building with great views.  

For our last dinner as a group we walked over to Casa Lucio for an old school dinner of jamon, boquerones, padron peppers, mushrooms with raw egg yolks, a Spanish style scampi, and an absolutely delicious rice pudding. And wine. And pacharan. As we do. 
The owner, Lucio Blázquez, was the star of his own show, greeting tables of regulars as well as those he had never met, making everyone feel as if they had all know each other for ages. It was a very fun last dinner. 

The next morning, Beth & John left to catch their flights home while Judy, George, Anne, Sheldon, Robin and I had a private tour of the Prado that Gerry arranged. It was so great to have such a passionate guide show us some of the highlights of this massive museum. 

Photos aren't allowed in the Prado so I can't point out all the sexy things going on in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, or how time is taking its toll on a large equestrian painting and you can now see a shadow of where the horse's leg was originally painted, or the nightmare inducing effects of Goya's Satan Devouring His Child. So you'll just have to go and get a private guide yourself!

Now it was time for Judy and I to say goodbye to the others. We spent the rest of our afternoon lazily enjoying lunch and wine in Plaza Santa Ana, window shopping for capes, actually shopping for jamon at Enrique Tomas, and just generally wandering around. 

That evening we stopped into Le Venencia for sherry as the locals do. It's old school and inexpensive, and there are always a few characters bellied up to the bar to talk to. 

From here we made our way to Mercato San Miguel to have dinner by grazing the assortment of market stalls. The food we had didn't seem to be as high of quality as in the past but I was greeted by this mobile wine merchant so it wasn't a complete loss!

And don't get me wrong, we had some nice bites as well!
We decided that dessert was to be churros and chocolate at the very famous San Gines. Thankfully this place still rocks!
And we wrapped up our excellent day with gintonics at our hotel bar.

Day 11 for Judy and I, our own private tour if you will, started out with more chocolate and churros at Chocolat. I mean, why not? It was our last day!

And it was an absolutely gorgeous November day so we took advantage of the weather and walked all over Retiro Park. There were boaters, buskers, and even a beer in the sunshine for me. Such a great way to spend an afternoon!

For lunch Judy and I had reservations at Malacatin, recommended to me by one of my chef friends. This tavern dating from 1895 is known for their Cocido, or chickpea stew. 

We arrived and were seated in a big wooden booth, walls crowded with photos of matadors all around us. Then the stew, consisting of 14 individual items, started to arrive. Holy hell this meal was amazing! Luckily they warned us not to eat too much in the beginning!

From their website (English translations) here is what you get: Noodle Soup, Fatty Salt Pork for dipping, The Mercy of the Cabbage and Dried Ham Broth, Dried Ham Casserole, The Charm of the Castilian Chickpea, The Brave Hen Plucked to the Pot, The Serious Boiled Potato, The Spicy Chillies, The Juicy Pieces of Shank of Beef, The Gherkins in Vinegar, The Bizarre Chorizo of León, The Tasty Spring Onions, The Extreme Black Pudding of Extremadura, The Lack of Water from Lozoya. 
Hysterical! Delicious! I couldn't even get it all in my photo!

We then took the advice from another chef friend of mine and rolled to a hammam for a long soak, scrub, and massage. Ahhhhhhhh!

On our stroll the day before we had come across the Palace Hotel and their beautiful Rotunda Room. We decided to have a cocktail in the bar just off the room, the 1912 Museo Bar. Home to a collection of historical photos and curios from famous clients (Hemingway drank here! ha!) the bar feels very exclusive. We ordered gintonics for 25Euro each which came with no garnish! One and done!

Still pretty full from our epic lunch we decided to have a small bite at Taberna La Dolores in Plaza Jesus. This was an excellent neighborhood spot, we were the only foreigners, and we had house vermouth, jamon, matrimonials (cured and uncured anchovies), and chips. Perfect.

One last gintonic nightcap in our hotel bar, some sitting on the suitcase kind of packing, and the next morning we shared a 30-minute taxi to the airport for 30Euros. 

If you are interested in tours like this please take a look at my friend's Facebook Page for upcoming itineries. I guarantee they will always be delicious!

All Madrid photos here
Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias
Beef and Basque

Seafood All Around San Sebastian
One Night Only, Logroño!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Iceland Stopover

Trip date: June 2017

I took advantage of a great 4-night Reykjavik deal thru Icelandair 5 years ago but until now I hadn't done the stopover program that they always offer. So coming back from Stockholm (more on that later) I decided to break up the return trip home with 2 nights in Reykjavik.

I flew Economy Comfort class on the 3-hour trip, which gives you access to the Saga Lounge at the airport, complimentary drinks/snacks on board, and each middle seat is "Reserved for your comfort" (empty) with a little ½ table inserted giving a bit more space. Add to this the exit row I chose and I had quite a bit of room!

Once landed at KEF I boarded the Flybus which I had booked in advance online. It's a 45-min drive to Reykjavik and the bus has wifi and seat back chargers making it a comfortable way to go. It costs about $30 but I heard of someone taking a taxi which ran them $200!

A quick transfer to a smaller bus at the city's bus terminal and then I was dropped off right outside my hotel, the Icelandair Hotel Marina. When I was here last, the marina seemed very far away from everything and was very industrial. It's still industrial but seeing that the city has grown so much there are lots of restaurants, bars, cafes, tours, etc. now. In fact, Reykjavik's best cocktail bar, Slippbarinn, is in the hotel (no surprise that I chose it right?).

I checked in, dropped my bags in my very cute single room with a few of the harbor, and caught the last 30-minutes of happy hour in the bar.

It is very expensive to drink in Iceland as you may have heard. But let me give you a specific; a martini can go $29. So happy hour is a big thing. The waiter told me about the free app AppyHour which shows you the closest bars that are currently running happy hour. The bars seem to stagger them so you can make your own crawl out of it.

Not all happy hours are the same. At Slippbarinn they have a special menu of classic drinks, which was perfect for me; one Tommy Margarita for $12 please and thank you! Other places offer 2-for-1 or just beer or wine specials. The app generally has that information.

I then walked over to Matur og Drykkur for my dinner reservation. What a fantastic restaurant this it, I highly recommend. It is housed in an old salt fish factory; now a very cool, open kitchen concept, serving delicious modern Icelandic cuisine.

I started with a cocktail of Icelandic gin, crowberry, and thyme while looking over the menu which has both a la cart and set tasting menus (including a vegetarian option). I chose the Icelandic tasting menu with beverage pairings (cuz me!).

My first course was paired with a Brennevin shot (Icelandic aquavit) so I was immediately charmed. Everything was delicious but the stand out was the incredible soup of halibut, mussels, apples, and raisins. I thought the wine pairings were also quite good (they can also mix in beers) and the waiter even treated me to a tasting of crowberry and birch liquors on their own as well as an Icelandic Old Tom gin. As I ate I enjoyed watching the chef plate everything right in front of me.

M og D isn't cheap but it also wasn't gimmicky, the ingredients were local and awesome, and the service was fantastic. It is casual (cuz Iceland!) but it was nice; I loved it! I also loved walking home in the midnight sun!

One thing I noticed on this trip was the campaign against having whale on restaurant menus. There is even a sticker you can look for on doors that says "Meet Us Don't Eat Us" which signifies a restaurant choosing not to serve whale. Full disclosure, I have eaten both whale and puffin in Iceland in the past but I liked that the city is getting away from using this as a touristy thing and fully support it.

The next day was my one full day to play and I made the most of it! I got up, had a great smorgasbord buffet breakfast in the hotel and walked all of 2 minutes onto the pier to catch my Puffin Express Tour with Edling Tours. This boat goes out at 9am, 30 minutes before any other tours, and because it is a zodiac boat it can get much closer to the island than the regular boats. Cherry on top, there was just one other couple on my trip so the 3 of us had Captain Axel and bird watching expert Corrina to ourselves!

We were provided survival suites (which were nice and toasty), binoculars, and gloves (which I never needed). There were no other boats when we left the harbor for the island; it was quiet and beautiful on the water. Puffins are really small so even though we were close, you really needed the binoculars or a serious camera to see them. And they are super cute! It was hatching season so there were many protecting their nests, normally they hang out in the sea.

Yea, puffins! The tour was an hour and we cruised around the island a bit before heading in. I had booked this online the day before but on busy weekends you probably want to book more in advance. They also have an afternoon whale watch you can add to it.

Afterward I went for a nice walk thru town and did some shopping, not on Languverin as most guide books would tell you but on Skolavoroustigur. Here you'll find a cool deli selling Icelandic cheeses, jams, etc, the Handknitting Association store which sells 80+% local crafts, some cool design shops, and a few souvenir stores; all in the shadow of the Hallgrimskirja (cathedral).

I went to Loki Cafe for lunch and chose the Iceland #2 plate which has smallish servings of smashed fish and smoked trout on house rye, bean salad, and mashed turnip. It was good but others had the soup which looked and smelled *really* good. If you go I'd get the later. All with a great view of the church.

That afternoon I had booked an Icelandic horse ride with Ishestar. After being picked up and taken to their stables, I was outfitted with a helmet, offered rain gear, and introduced to my horse.

We took our horses on a 1 ½ hour ride through some absolutely beautiful lava flow scenery; wild flowers perfuming the air and mountains rising in the background.

The only thing I didn't like about the ride was that you had to choose either a slow walk or a faster trot/tolt group which was for riders with at least 15 rides under their belt. As I have maybe 5 rides under mine I stuck with the slow. It would have been nice near the end to be given the option of trying the tolt or at least seeing a demonstration of it. So if you are keen to ride horses, you might want to inquire to your tour if this is something that is available. And for those of you who are considering horseback riding in Iceland and you don't know what tolt is... WTF? Go see the puffins! :)

After happy hour at my lovely Slippbarinn I walked to Pablo Discobar for a drink. It was still early so no true nightlife yet but the drinks were good and the 3-story Latin restaurant/bar was fun. It started absolutely dumping rain so my plans of a cocktail crawl were squashed as I had left my raincoat with hood back at the hotel. I made my way back to the waterfront by ducking under each building awning on my way to Kopar Restaurant.

Kopar is right on the water and has a really cool appetizer tasting menu for about $60. You get 6 app-sized courses and a glass of champagne. All were great, the rock crab soup being a major stand out (what is it with Iceland and their soups?) and the waiter was sweet and comped me an additional glass of white wine with my meal. I really liked this restaurant which was a recommendation from a friend and thought the appetizer tasting menu was a great idea!

I stopped in my bar for a nightcap, or should I say brightcap?  The sun didn't set each day until midnight and rose at 3am, with hardly even dusk in between. This was such a bucket list thing for me to experience that I was super excited by it, and also happy to have blackout blinds in my room!

The next morning I chose the breakfast option at the cafe connected to the hotel, instead of the buffet (both were included in my room price thru Skyr, latte, avocado toast, cheese, fruit, croissant... delicious!

I took one last walk around town then down to the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall and along the water to the Sun Voyager sculpture.

There is so much construction going on I felt like I was back in Seattle! I was told there is a 5-star hotel under construction across from the Harpa and the area is a huge mess. Reykjavik is certainly going through some growing pains and I have to say that I missed the small simplicity that I experienced in the past.

That isn't to say I don't still love Iceland, but now you need to book your Blue Lagoon 2 months in advance (I couldn't get a reservation) and the Michigan starred Dill restaurant is booked 3+ months out. So it's more of a normal city which requires advance planning than what I experienced before.

I ended my trip the same way I started my first one; lobster soup at the Saegrefinn right on the wharf. The shack is much busier now and has built a covered outside patio, but the "menu" of an open refrigerated unit was still there offering various fresh catch skewers ready to be grilled, and the soup was still delicious. So not everything has changed.

After arriving at the airport again via Flybus, I flew Saga Comfort Class back to Seattle. My seat was upgraded to the same as Saga (1st) class but I had drinks and food off the cart (complimentary) instead of the "fancy" menu. All good!

Another wonderful trip to Iceland, next time I plan to take more time and get to other regions besides Reykjavik. If you're headed there, make your plans in advance, pack for all kinds of weather even in summer, and support the local economy. It's such an amazing part of the world!

All Iceland photos here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

One Night Only, Logroño!

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 9

The drive from San Sebastian to the Navarre area was easy and scenic. Just south and inland, Navarre, a Basque region but not Basque Country, is best known for its capital city of Pamplona.

We stopped after 1 1/2 hours in the small town of Olite which is the home of the Palace of Kings.
From what I could tell, the entire town is basically just an extension of the castle. We didn't go inside but we had a lovely stroll around it and then sat in the practically deserted town square for a drink. I can't imagine staying in Olite for more than one night, but it was a very pretty and worthwhile stop!

Another 30 minutes south we reached out lunch destination, the vegetable-driven restaurant Elcrucero in the town of Corella.

Our multi-coursed lunch was paired with wines from the Navarra winery Aliaga. Although the restaurant is known for its delicious vegetable dishes (the cardoon with pomegranate was especially great) the roasted goat we had as our main was absolutely succulent!
It was getting late when we loaded back into our van after lunch and as we drove into the Rioja region we experienced one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever witnessed.  Antonio pulled over so we could watch it go from orange to red to pink to purple!
Just to the west of Logroño, we stopped in San Asensio to visit Bodegas Lecea. We had a great time tasting the wines and had a very interesting tour of their cellars. 
It was a quick 30-minute ride back to Lograño where we checked into the Sercotel Portales. This was a good if basic hotel but we were only staying one night so it was more than fine. 

We barely dropped our bags before it was time to meet up with some of Gerry and John's local friends who would be taking us out for the evening; Tonica and Tom. 

It was Friday night and we were heading out for the ultimate pinchos (what this region calls tapas) crawl on and around Calle Laurel. I had not never been here before but my brother spent some time here and from the photos of food he had sent me I knew it was going to be great!
It seemed like EVERYONE was out, and it felt like a big happy party! Basically the streets are lined with mainly small restaurants, each with their own specialty. You order that, a glass of wine, beer, or sidre, and you stand in the streets eating and drinking. 

Our first stop was Bar Soriano for the fabulous grilled mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, and shrimp. We were off to a good start!
Next were "matrimonios" at Blanco y Negro; anchovy and fried green peppers in a sandwich. Surprisingly good! 
Next door at Bar Cid we had more mushrooms, this time big oyster mushrooms hot off the grill!

Meson Abuelo was next and although we had some very good lamb sweetbreads this restaurant was a bit too large, too bright, and too new for me. 

Along with all of this amazing food, the people watching was top notch!

At this point some people wanted to go for a sit down dinner while others wanted to continue the crawl (me!). So we split up and I headed off with Tonica, Beth, Anne, and George for Tonica's favorite pincho, grilled pineapple and prawn. Holy hell, this was my best bite of the night! 
And unfortunately the only place I didn't write down!

We wrapped our crawl up at the very modern Umm with a delicious gazpacho. They've got the name right here! 

On the way home, Tonica was nice enough to show us around a bit, it's really a lovely town and I'd love to stay longer next time! It was well past midnight when we got back to the hotel and the streets were quiet again.

Day 10

The next morning we drove past the walled town of Laguardia but the fog was so incredibly thick that we couldn't even see it!

From here we stopped at the Marqués de Riscal, not to try the wine but to take a look at the Gehry-designed hotel. I had toured this winery when they were actually building the hotel and had been shown the small architectural model, it was awesome to see it finished!

We left the Rioja region and had a 4-hour drive to our final destination of Madrid. I have to say that the visit to Logroño was really one of the highlights of this trip. My question; when can I go back? I gotta find the spot that sells those pineapple and prawn skewers!

All photos from Navarre and Rioja here

Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias
Beef and Basque

Seafood All Around San Sebastian