Tuesday, May 8, 2012

When in Madrid (and Avila & Segovia)...

Last week was bliss. I don't want to brag, but there's no way to sugar-coat that one. Jake and I went to Spain for a week for our 1st anniversary and it was beyond amazing.

First we flew into Madrid, which I found to be very NYC-like. People always seemed dressed to the nines (except the tourists) and the whole vibe is a little bit...business-like? Reserved? I can't really put it into words. That said, it's a beautiful city with amazing architecture and history...and food. I could write about all the cool things we did and saw (and took over 1000 pictures of), but for the sake of this blog I'll focus on the food, which did not disappoint.

After arriving Sunday morning we checked into our hotel and immediately set out to see the city since we were already a day behind (thank you so much American Airlines). After a packed afternoon, we headed over to the Prado to grab a bite to eat and see how long the line was. The line was REALLY long and I was starving, so we ended up at a place called VIPs. We didn't realize until we sat down that it was basically a Cheesecake Factory with a shorter menu. As in all American food. Not the best start to our Spanish eating adventure, but I was so hungry that it had to suffice. Besides, after that there was no where to go but up.

Monday (which happened to be our actual anniversary) we had scheduled a tour of Avila and Segovia for the day so breakfast was pretty early. So early, in fact, that almost nothing was open. Were you aware that almost nothing opens in Spain before 10 am? I wasn't. Burger King didn't open until 10. Even Starbucks didn't open until 9:30. We were at a bit of a loss. The only thing open at 8 am was a little place on Calle Gan Via called Cafeteria Gran Via 26. It was small, and the word cafeteria has negative connotations for anyone who has ever gone through the public school system in America, but it seemed to be our only option. Cafeteria Gran Via 26 is proof that looks can be deceiving.

In Spain they have something called Zumo. I think every eatery in the world should have a Zumo machine. It's basically a big juicer, and it makes fresh-squeezed orange juice that reminds me of breakfasts in Austin (where my dad still makes fresh tangelo juice nearly every morning).

My bocadillo de tortilla de patata (potato fritata sandwich) was so good that I plan on making my own version for breakfast next week, and Jake's pizza was very interesting. It wasn't what you'd expect of a pizza, it was like a breakfast bread (read: slightly sweet) with tomato sauce, pepperoni and cheese. He liked it, and I liked a bite without any pepperoni. Throw in a sugar donut and we were very happy campers. Or very happy tourists, if you prefer.

Even Starbucks tasted better in Spain. The mocha frappuccinos were more chocolatey.

We also saw some...unusual...food items in Avila. I was tempted to try the Tex-Mex chips for about 3 seconds, but my track record with Tex-Mex food in Europe is not good. The Texas Embassy in London does NOT--I repeat DOES NOT--serve actual Tex-Mex. At least it didn't last time I was there. Oddly enough though, these are probably not the strangest flavors of chips I've ever seen.

After touring the walled city of Avila, lunch was in Segovia in a little restaurant that I think was called Tomates, next to some old Roman aqueducts. How weird is that to think about? Oh, just sitting here eating 50 feet away from some aqueducts that have been here for thousands of years. Crazy, right? Anyway, Segovia is supposed to be famed for it's amazing food, but we (okay, I) got so caught up in shopping at the local vendors stalls that we ran out of time and had to grab something pretty quickly.

I'm almost positive that we ordered patatas bravas, but I have no photographic evidence of this. Jake had un bocadillo de jamon Iberico (an Iberian ham sandwich) and I ordered a tuna sandwich, as it was one of the only non-meat items on the menu. That surprised me over and over again. I realize that Madrid and Segovia are kind of in the middle of the country, but I expected more seafood options when there was a coast so nearby. Anyway... Sadly, Jake wasn't impressed with the ham. I think he was expecting more flavor or a different texture, and it actually put him off of trying any more ham for the rest of the trip. My tuna was okay. I've never had a tuna sandwich served with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, so that was different, but honestly not terribly special otherwise. The fries Jake ordered with our sandwiches were good, but I grossed him out (as usual) by dipping them in a mixture of ketchup and mayo. 

After a long day of touring and shopping we decided to stop at one of the restaurants on the way back to our hotel and it was such a terrific choice. The Gran Bier Cafe. If you ever happen to be walking along Calle Gran Via near the Metropolis in Madrid, I highly recommend it.

I should probably give you a little back story here to explain our mutual obsession with a certain Spanish dish. On our first official date we went to a restaurant in Dallas called Chic, which served Barcelona-esque cuisine. On this date, we ordered the patatas bravas tapa, which is basically fried chunks of potato with a spicy sauce. We loved it and have been obsessed with bravas ever since. I've made them several times over the last 5 years and they remain one of Jake's favorite foods. That said, we basically had a plan to try bravas at every place we ate to compare them, so we managed to eat them at least 7 times over the course of a 7-day trip, often twice a day. You have been warned.

To start we ordered the bravas, smoked salmon with vinegar and garlic prawns. The bravas had a hint of Serrano in the sauce that we've never tasted before or since, but Jake went crazy over it so I'll be adding it to my sauce next time I make it. The salmon was not what Jake was expecting and since he seems to have an aversion to almost all things creamy, I was the only one brave enough to try it. Not bad, but nothing I'd crave again. Two bites were enough. Since he wasn't into the salmon, I let him have most of the prawns. I'd say they were good enough. I realize at this point you're probably wondering why I'd highly recommend this place. Just a sec, I'm getting there.

For our entrees he ordered the pitu de caleya con patatinos (chicken with baby potatoes?) and I had grilled hake with herbs and potatoes with aioli sauce. Let me just say that the aioli rocked my world. I told the manager (in probably really awful Spanish) that if I could only eat one food for the rest of my life it would be that aioli. It was creamy and garlicky and TO DIE FOR.

Yeah, I know my face is reeeeeeally shiny in this photo. At the time I just didn't care.
While our first round of drinks was okay, the second was surprising. I'm not a beer girl. I spent an entire summer in the UK drinking hard cider because I really really REALLY don't like beer. I've never liked a beer in my life. After the kriek (cherry) Mort Subite that Jake ordered, however, I can't say that anymore. It was really good. My cider was okay. Not as apple-tastic as the Blackthorn Dry I still pine for (the Blackthorn in the US is NOT the same as the one they serve in the UK), but not bad.

With drinks still amazing me, our dessert arrived, and it was so good we almost ordered a second one.  Have you noticed how almost all of my photos have at least one bite taken out of the food? That's because I get so excited by the smell or appearance of my food that I often take a bite or two before I remember to take a photo. Three layers of chocolate combined in such sweet, creamy, perfectly chilled balance that I couldn't get enough. I wish I could find another word for perfect.

After dinner we headed back to our hotel and decided to have a last drink at the bar before heading up to our room. In hindsight, this would be a big mistake, however it seemed like a good idea at the time. We enjoyed a Jameson's & coke and a glass of wine while chatting with Ricardo (the bartender) about football (that's soccer in American), and just before we were going to go, Ricardo informed us that there was a custom in Spain that we must partake in. According to Ricardo, after a meal in Spain people often have chupitos.

Chupitos = shots.

For the record, I may only be 27 but it's been a while since I did shots on a regular basis. The first one he poured (from a bottle he pulled from a freezer in the back) was yellow and not awful. It was a mistake to say this out loud, and he promptly poured us shots from the other bottle. This second bottle had a clear liquor that I can only say must have been something akin to everclear and the thought of which, even a week later, is in danger of triggering my gag reflex. I wish I were kidding about that. I guess I should be grateful I don't have pictures. Add to all this a 500 ml bottle of cava in our room and the train trip to Barcelona Tuesday morning was pretty much hell. It was a hell of my own making, but altogether miserable nonetheless. Breakfast was water, Alka-Seltzer and tums; I wasn't in the state of mind to remember to take pictures of it. Jake did, however, take a picture of me on the train:

Next stop: Barcelona.

Things to add to my project list:
  1. tortilla de patata
  2. three-chocolate mousse
  3. bravas sauce with serrano


  1. Vips????? uuuuuuuuuh... not a really good idea!! hahaha It's not bad, just not that spanish... Never heard about the other place you mentioned, I hate beer too so if you do too and your liked it maybe I should try it!!! Can't wait to hear about Barcelona!!!

  2. Happy Anniversary - and what a way to spend it! Sounds like a fantastical foodie adventure, with a little culture and history thrown into the mix!

  3. Happy anniversary! I went to Spain when I graduated high school and have been wanting to go back since then. Love your pictures and adventures.

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