In Lieu of Gifts, Please Send Wine

14 04 2013

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We fist visited Lieu precisely one year ago. Easter Sunday feels just right for a proper degust, and there’s nowhere we like to do it more than at Daniele Scelza’s place in Madrid de los Austrias.

This time we succeed in bringing along a guest, and yet fail to remember a proper camera. It’s a blow – the lunch is certain to be a visual treat – but we’re running slightly tight on time, and the iPhone will have to suffice.

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We’re startled to note that we’re the only ones here. Lieu’s certainly not a place for rowdy lunchtime cañas, but the absolute stillness is stark. Of course, it’s an honor to be the center of attention – like last time, we’ve specifically requested the barside chef’s table in order to maximize connection with the kitchen. However, we badly want to see this place make it big, to not only weather the crisis but to sail through in high style.

Darío and I trawl through the excellent wine list, noting many current favorites. Juan Gil makes an appearance, so we inquire as to what else among the offerings might be in the same vein. Daniele recommends a 2010 Clio, and, my god, yes. Like its murciano brethren, it seems to expand in all directions at once, licorice and smokiness, overripe red fruits and dusky vanilla. The fledgling oeonologist within is positively giddy.

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An amuse of breaded morcilla dotted with apricot, followed by suckling pig canelone with crumbled pork cracklings and red pepper air. Weight mediated with lightness.

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Every single spring, I’m smacked across the face with a mad craving for asparagus. This visually stunning arrangement celebrates the stalk in both white and green incarnations, the fresh grassiness counterweighted by panna cotta and dots of creamy yolk. Spring’s stirrings, plated.

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Sheets of potato and bacon draped in velvety beef sauce. Oh, and a pair of juicy escargot. Yes. I love snails this way; their earthy umami is most successfully underlined for me by other robust flavor combinations. It calls for a second bottle of Clio, which keeps displaying different facets depending on its accompaniment. For sheer versatility, I think I even prefer it to my beloved Bierzos.

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The fish course is hake with herbs de provençe, resting on a bed of stoplight red tomato compote and topped by green quinoa. I ask where one acquires this variety of quinoa – because, wow! – which makes Daniele grin, and he reveals they make it in the kitchen by blending up herbs (duh).

The pork shank’s thickened juices form a yin-yang with the creamy yellow polenta, lifted with greens and a scattering of rogue raisins.

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Daniele and the newest member of his team come out for chat re: wine, business in Madrid, the jazz classics playing in the background. He’s a consummate host and, quite frankly, my favorite professional chef in the city. Note that each and every dish on the tasting menu is completely different from those a year prior. Daniele seems to take this as a matter of course – seasons change, and so should menus. Plus, why get into the restaurant biz at all if not for the opportunity to surprise your public with something new?

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The first dessert course is exactly this – something new, a kir royale like we’ve never considered it before. Icy berries huddle in the bottom of a glass layered with cassis sorbet just this side of sour. Champagne foam floats ethereal. It’s the hidden ginger chips that shock you, though, a sudden crunch of obstreperous spice that runs parallel to the otherwise angelic concoction. We goggle.

Our final sweet is Lieu’s cold and creamy rendition of arroz con leche, complete with puffed rice grains and slices of kumquat.

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We’ve picked Daniele’s brain regarding the world of professional oenology – I’m thinking it might make a very nice Next Step – and he emerges with a bottle of Rioja, and presents it to me. Wha! We spoke about Rioja Crianzas normally being much too woody to suit our taste, and he tells me this Viña Eizaga is anything but, and that I should give it a go.

I reel at the kindness. Can’t wait to pop the cork.

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The rain that’s been so unrelenting all of Semana Santa refuses to abate, and we figure we’ll wait it out in nearby Café de Oriente. Espresso and a corner table and belly laughs round out the afternoon: wholly idyllic.





Mark Bittman’s Squid and Artichokes Braised in White Wine

7 03 2013

Predictably, the cusp of spring brings desire for both rebirth and new vegetables.

Mark Bittman's squid and artichokes braised in white wine

The rain doused me today. I think I needed it along with the city. The surprise snow last week was charming for an hour or two, but ultimately resulted in little more than frozen toes. March calls for proper rain.

I went out walking in it, south to the Mercadona I used to frequent my very first year in the city. Very first year. It’s suddenly long ago. The grunge and the gintonics and the wicked-witch-of-the-West nails, Hector and Marta, Emily, theme parties and walking back across the city incensed about the nature of love during the night’s smallest hours. Surely aggravating our unseen neighbors with joyful raucousness of all sorts, much stomping and wailing. Always meaning to try that Colombian place across the street. Wearing boots. Cooking my first octopus, deciding to stay.

It’s all still there, when I visit. All the chaotic love that I found in Madrid, me, for myself, despite/owing in part to The Brick getting lodged somewhere deep in my corpus callosum. You know, I don’t even think about it anymore. I’ve told that story so many times that it has ceased to have weight. I disagree, in the end – we can heal, and we do. We’ll never be the same, but who wants pepper-pots anyway?

Mark Bittman's squid and artichokes braised in white wine

I want to rededicate myself to the art of constantly learning. I’ve misplaced much of the curious drive that so propelled me that first year. It’s not a wish to regress, far from it; it’s a desire for much more movement. I read somewhere recently that we Americans mistake comfort for happiness, which rings terribly true.

And so, today: I decided to learn how to prep artichokes. I’ve done so before but never alone. The thistle bulb takes specific TLC before it’s ready to offer up its buttery secrets, and the specific names for its alien parts make the process feel all the more intimate.

Spoon out the choke. Savor the heart.

Mark Bittman’s Squid and Artichokes Braised in White Wine

1 lemon
4 large artichokes, trimmed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
2 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 medium-sie squid, bodies cut into rings
1/2 cup white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
Minced parsley to garnish

1. Prep the artichokes: squeeze the lemon into an awaiting bowl of water, and submerge the artichokes as you trim them so they resist oxidation. Cut them into quarters.

2. Heat 2 T EVOO, then add the garlic and anchovies. Cook a few minutes, breaking up the ‘chovies. Add the squid, artichokes, and wine. Stir and cover.

3. Uncover and stir the mixture every 5 minutes or so. Both elements should begin to tenderize around 20 minutes; at this point, remove the cover and let the liquid simmer off – should take about 15 minutes or so. Season with black pepper, salt if needed, and parsley. Serve.





Merluza and Leeks in White Wine

14 10 2012


You should be eating more leeks. They’re cheap, available everywhere, and low in calories, plus their taste basically turns into butter upon sautéing in a smear of olive oil. Leeks can be used anywhere you’d use an onion, which is to say, at the beginning of practically every kitchen preparation known to man.

Don’t let the whiskers put you off. David Lebovitz demystifies the beard.

Whitefish loves leeks. This one is a merluza (hake) filet, and has been steamed over said sautéed leeks, garlic, dill, and a glug of white wine. Add S&P, drizzle with EVOO, and begin anxiously anticipating tomorrow so you can eat it again.

Merluza and Leeks in White Wine
ganked from Mark Bittman.

1 leek
4 cloves garlic
olive oil
dill, or thyme – I actually liked the thyme better. Bittman suggests basil.
1/3 c white wine
merluza filet

1. Clean your leek, then roughly chop it. Mince the garlic and toss it into a frying pan with the leek and a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add some S&P. You want to “sweat” the leek – soften it and allow it to develop a beguiling complexity of flavor, but not overtly brown it.

2. Toss in your herb of choice followed by the white wine. Let the liquid come to a simmer, then lay the merluza atop its leeky bed. Crack some pepper over it. Turn down the heat if needed, cover, and let steam for 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness of the filet.

3. Guild the lily with a drizzle of EVOO. Devour with a chilled glass of white.





Tres Peces, Cinco Botellas

17 01 2012

Moved house. New year, new piso, new pisomates.

Same wine. Same weeknight dinner parties, different guest list.

Same croquetas. Croquetas is as croquetas does.

New deck, new dealer, new hand, new trump suit. New animal noises, fresh giggles, old bottles. Emerging hoots, ebullient hollers.

Far from the same old song and dance.





The best is when you rediscover.

12 10 2011

When you walk down a familiar street at an unfamiliar hour and the lightstreams flow orange like eels through the infinite columns.

When splashy new streetart wizards its way onto walls.

When a new bar transforms to an old bar, and they greet you with a shout and open arms and Rioja.

When a friend’s face illuminates at the first taste of jamón ibérico de bellota, and you remember yours and you smile big and you experience all over again.

When the cast turns over completely, when the script goes to shit, when you have to start it all over again, when you find yourself on the verge of what appears a terrifying void left by past loves and past support beams, past pyramids you were so proud to have placed together stone by precious weighty stone, feeling safety in stability and the known.

When you realize what plunging ankledeep waistdeep neckdeep into those shifting swirling sands means, that precise instant of cognizance where color shifts a degree this way or that and things start to rotate, buzzing excitedly.

When you’re told tales of your own enthusiasm, when your image is as a crackling electric ouroboros, when production takes a running leap and ends up keeping pace at consumption’s side.

When you give all of it, when you are seeking for the pleasure of seeking, when you spread far and wide, when you keep nothing for yourself.

When your unfurled tendrils meet the nourishment of the city in glorious chlorophyll feast, blossoming million-petaled-beauties everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.

Hola, year two. Vámonos.





Sunday Night in La Latina: El Tempranillo Tapas

8 10 2011

The barrio of La Latina is the oldest area of the city, and it bustles most furiously on Sundays. El Rastro flea market during the day brings in scores of secondhand seekers; the night brims over with bubbly and tapas, particularly concentrated in calle Cava Baja.

El Tempranillo is my second favorite wine bar in La Latina. One glance at the decor leaves no doubt as to their priorities. As per the usual, I request a recommendation of Rioja – the bartender’s expertise definitely trumps my own. He rambles off a name and I agree immediately, resulting in two long-stemmed glasses of deep red diamonds, rich with the promise of warm complexity.

Such liquid treasure must be accompanied by equally superb edibles. Grilled chipirones on a bed of creamy caramelized onions are sweetly reminiscent of the sea without distracting from the Riojana star.

The bacalao accented with crunchy slivers of bell pepper atop a garlicky tomato sauce is an elegant presentation of a classic, but the showstopper is, rather unbelievably, the smoked salmon with banana. That’s right. There never was a happier marriage of fish and fruit than this salty-sweet symphony, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction; the steady turning of the world comes to a screeching halt as we experience an entirely new and extraordinarily successful flavor combination.

My companion, eyes glazed over in pleasure, proclaims,

This. This is the best thing in Spain.





Luchana CouchSurfers – September

27 09 2011

For some, too much is never enough: my enormous flat bulges at the seams with its ten international residents, plus their various and frequent guests, yet at the beginning of the month we collectively elect to open our couches to travelers passing through the city using the CouchSurfing website. I’ve had an account since just before I moved to Thailand, where I used it not only in terms of surfing and hosting, but also as a means to establish an ever-dynamic social base. CouchSurfers are all over the map, coming from every country and camino, sharing a passion for meeting other travelers and swapping stories.

After introducing the idea and the website to the uninitiated of the Luchana house, we collectively decide to give it a go; I use my account to filter and organize incoming requests, posting the schedule of anticipated guests on a calendar print-out in the living room. September turns out to be particularly high-traffic, owing to the frequent presence of two further guests occupying the other sofas:

1) Gio, Columbian photographer/videographer and previous resident of my very own room in the house, has just returned from months of solo travel through Spain and Portugal. He’s a Luchana institution by this point, ever the wanderer but always returning to beloved Madrid, picking up new kitchen skills in the process.

2) Max, German-American bartender/egg-eater/entrepreneur, is suddenly one of my longest-standing friends: we met six years ago living on the Earlham Wellness Hall, of all places. Philosophies have since shifted, and Max has spent the past while bartending in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. He’s got his sights set on ambition, however, and I like to think I was a large part of convincing him to apply for the Madrid auxiliar program, which he’ll be beginning along with me next week (although not in the same Instituto).

Apart from couch-crashers Gio and Max, Luchana has racked up five official CouchSurfers during the month of September:

1) Viktor, Mexican currently studying Latin and Greek in Romania, inaugurates the CouchSurfing experiment the very next day; he notices my profile proclaiming me “Online Now!” and inquires as to whether he might be able to stay that same night. I waver just a moment before responding positively, deciding that getting the ball rolling immediately is the best way to keep enthusiasm high.

Viktor arrives in the afternoon and we set out for a stroll, during which he teaches me much more about Spanish history as reflected in the city statues and structures than I think I ever managed to glean from SPAN 402: Histories of Spain. He is linguist, writer, and philosopher; together we successfully complete a mission to locate blank sheets of paper, his preferred tool of the trade. Over rooftop cañas, we discuss the Meaning of Meaning, singularity vs. author vs. reader, and the above pictured Vaso de la Libertad.

Upon departure, Viktor leaves the house a lengthy letter of thanks pegged to the living room wall, complete with verbal flourishes in antiquated Spanish. He’s an ideal introduction, and has extended an invitation to visit Romania that I may just accept.

2) David, Brit touring the country by thumb, arrives shortly after my return from Berlin. He’s on the quiet side, and unfortunately we don’t end up coinciding a great deal, to the extent that I even lack a proper photo of the guy. He crashes here for a couple nights, then heads out.

3) Alessandra, Napolitan living in London for the past year, is quickly revealed to be a kindred foodie heart; we sample sardine-stuffed olives at El Mercado de San Miguel and whiskey-topped tinto de verano at La Paca. Neighborhood touring takes us further south to calle Argumosa in Lavapiés, where we talk ex-punk phases and living with mainly males. We share a lively ensalada mixta and grilled squid dinner with Max and Gio at a traditional-style Spanish spot in Malasaña.

The following evening we reconvene over a bottle of La Rioja’s best Alessandra’s thoughtfully brought to the house, and I whip up an extra-large batch of palak paneer as a spicy accompaniment. New housemate Miguel joins in the feasting, which is followed by a miniature art exhibition on the sofa consisting of of work of the present creative types. Longtime Luchanero Eugenio reveals himself to be of multiple talents.

4) Sylvain, French computer engineer brought to the city by his company, elects to extend his stay in Spain over the weekend as well. We share morcilla, pimientos de Padrón, pan de jamón y tomate, bacalao, and fried eggplant with salmorejo, along with a glass or two of cool white wine at nearby Lateral. Around 1AM, post-stuffing ourselves well beyond the point of sheer gluttony, we venture back to the piso to check out the party that’s surely happening. We enter into darkness and silence – shit! Looks like the piso’s taking the night off. However, Max arrives soon after, followed by CouchSurfer Eddie and his hosts Kaeli and Fernando, who I’ve invited to the assumed party at my place. The plan quickly shifts to checking out the Malasaña scene, and we kick it in funky Tupperware. The night wraps up with absolutely all present breaking it down on the dance floor to early 90s hip hop jams.

5) Eddie, born in Ukraine with roots in Israel and high-school experience in Boston, is currently working for CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. He’s a major player in the get-down-stay-down that goes-down Friday night in Tupperware, and the beat refuses to go out for the count; next up is a daytrip to Toledo, in which I rediscover the best asadillo Manchego in España. Nighttime brings the much-anticipated piso party, including guest appearances by Kaeli and Fernando, and all proceed to boogie their pants off into some wee corner of the nearly-morning.

The next day brings gastronomic experimentation even for me; Eddie’s heard tell that they enjoy pig ear ’round these parts, and of course I’m game. Supercutre Bar El Jamón in Lavapiés has the porky goods, and I sample glutinous, vaguely meaty oreja for the first and last time. The pimientos de Padrón go down much easier, so much so that I’m beginning to think they may be a new obsession. Evening wanderings include an attempt to take part in a swing event that leads us instead to talking public art at La Tabacalera, then meeting up with Max for red wine plus caviar-flecked ensalada de mariscos at La Buga del Lobo.