Sunday, October 23, 2011


Carcassone is a medieval town with plenty of history and is pretty much divided into the old city and the rest of town.  The old city is developed around the Cite de Carcassone, and the fortress within was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1997.  Word has it the Walt Disney derived his inspiration for Fantasyland from here.

Even night views of the fortress are majestic.

St Nazarius' Basilica which sits within the walled city is also a magnificent structure, a neo-Gothic exterior housing a majestic interior of pristine stained glass windows and ornate carvings on its walls.

The view of the expansive lower city as seen from the vantage point within the fortress on a clear day is  pretty amazing.  Much of the fortress was restored only in the 19th century and very well done, I might add.  Yes, it's touristy but not overly so, and very enjoyable.

The city still houses many artisan shops, with carvings, traditional foods and produce, etc.  This particular shop we went into stocks a myriad of preserves, breads, and of course visitors can bring home the packed version of the local specialty, Cassoulet de Canard.

Next up: fine dining in Carcassone.

Figueres - Perpignan

City Centre of Figueres
One of the great things about driving holidays is the ability to stop wherever you like, whenever you like. So on the road trip from Barcelona across the French border, we stopped in Figueres, the birth place of Salvador Dali.  Of course, there would be a lot of Dali paraphernalia in this small town.  Not that we noticed, and being the shallow tourists we are, we actually took just a 30 minute stroll around town and spent the other 60 minutes eating.

Salt cod and young garlic omelette
The yummiest thing we had at this pretty pit stop was a salt cod and young garlic omelette at the Sentits Restaurant Gastronomic.  A non-descript cafe-bar type place but with quite an innovative menu to wow, created around the 5 senses, rather than a simple starter, main and dessert type layout.  And while pretty home-style in taste and presentation, the quality was surprisingly good.  Quite a gem.

Happily fed, we continued our drive towards Perpignan.  Enroute, we passed La Jonquera, and a sight we kept seeing were the many prostitutes peddling their services along highways and service roads.  Unfamiliar with the lay of the land, we did not stop to snap a pic or 2, but the element of novelty was mixed with a wariness of the sinister operation behind it, and a tinge of sadness for the dangerous way these women have to endure in order to make a living.  We later discover through the worldwide web that La Jonquera is home to Europe's largest brothel and because authorities are lax to enforce uncertain prostitution laws, this town does a roaring business attracting the French from across the border.

Perpignan city centre
Beyond La Jonquera, we arrive at Perpignan about an hour from the border.  Perpignan is a medieval French town founded in the 10th century, the centre of battles between the French and Spanish throughout history and finally being ceded to the French in the 17th century.  It is the last major town in the Languedoc Rousillon region before crossing the border to Spain.  Having arrived on a Sunday, it was very much ghost town since all the shops were closed.

But it was still a pleasant enough walk around town, exploring a couple of the historical sights near the city centre, and pretty brick laid houses with quaint stores at ground level.

Food wise, despite the proximity to Spain, was more French in style but with Catalan produce like jamon in abundance.  On Sunday night, there wasn't a whole lot of choice with food since most restaurants were shut too.  But at the suggestion of the hotel concierge, we ate at Cafe Vienne, right in the centre of town.  We were a little apprehensive since it was right smack in tourist belt but quality was more than competent.

Cafe Vienne's Mussels Mariniere

Cafe Vienne's Duck Confit with Potatoes
We stuck to staples like mussels mariniere and duck confit, so we weren't disappointed.  A rustic provincial type of meal which hit the spot after a long driving day.

Le Petit Moka's Chicken Gizzard Salad

Le Petit Moka's Crepe Miele
Lunch in the summer (albeit at the tail end) is very much a baguette or salad deal.  We chose a place which seem to do a moderate to busy business offering a large variety of salads.  Since they were out of chicken livers, we went with chicken gizzards.  Surprisingly very tasty with caramelised pearl onions, crispy bacon and a honey vinaigrette.  To finish, the other French staple of a thin crepe drizzled liberally with honey.

And we were off again.  Next stop: Carcassone.

Sentits Restaurant Gastronomic
Calle de la Rambla, 11-12
FigueresCataluña 17600

Cafe Vienne
3 Place Arago
PerpignanFrance 66000

Le Petit Moka
37 Quai Vauban

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Barcelona - Comerc, 24

Barcelona is very much the cradle of newer cuisine.  Ferran Adria has left his mark in many places, and Carles Abellan, the owner of Comerc, 24 has worked for Adria at El Bulli and has also managed his other ventures.  Needless to say, there is an Adria mark on the food at Comerc, 24.  The food is served very much tapas style, all in reasonably small portions, but there are enough courses in the tasting menu so you don't leave hungry.

Choice of breads and oils
They are quick to impress as soon you are all settled, ordered (ie. left it to the chef), and served the apertifs.  A wooden case with 4 Spanish olive oils and 3 freshly baked loaves delivered to the counter seat where we were.  This is probably the only place on our whole trip where we had any semblance of a warm loaf.  The 4 oils were distinctly different and interestingly so.  Pity I didn't take better notes.

Dinner was 10 courses (excluding desserts).  There were many hits and while all were executed well, some were a little more blah.  Here's a glimpse into the Festival Menu.

Cauliflower with smoked tea and nori
Cauliflower with rice vinegar and ginger
Monkfish with black sesame and black garlic
The fish section was a decent enough starter, alongside the cauliflower cold soup with smoked tea and nori.  No wows.  But the vinegared cauliflower was too much reminiscent of the type of pickled cauliflower you get from the tableside little pot at your local wanton noodle shop.  So it did nothing for me except remind me of home.

Filo, Parma, Basil and Lemon
 A nice savory take on the local Catalan biscuit version.

Pizza 24
This was a wowzer primarily because everything was so fresh.  Tomatoes, figs, Burrata and Basil are definitely best friends.

Sardines with Orange and fresh Wasabi
Same wow factor with fresh sardines, given a tang by the citrusy orange.  The wasabi was mild enough not to intrude and the crushed dry-fried pine nuts were just clever.

Tuna tartar
Another wow.  We've all had chopped tuna (a chutoro cut no less) topped with salmon roe.  But to seal them with an egg yolk sauce was just plain touch of heaven.  Really didn't want this one to end.

Consomme with Parmesan, Truffle and Egg
This one was great for the novelty factor.  White for Parmesan, Yellow for Egg and of course, Black for Truffle.  Tasted good too - the flavors coming through more than it looked.

Cod with Romesco
The zucchini flower is always welcome.  Good overall but the cod was an ok for me.

Duck rice with Foie
Another one of his specialties, we thought it was too small since it was really good.  But we understood why since the ball of foie cream did get rich and heavy.  Meant to be eaten all together, this was the epitome of duck coming through.  Again the crunch was clever to lift away some of the heaviness and the chewing allowed you to savor the goodness for that much longer.

To cleanse our senses, we weren't told to go outside to get some fresh air.  Instead we were served a couple of sprigs of Rosemary in a bowl of hot water and just told to breathe.  Ah.....

Whiting with Mediterranean Vinaigrette
Good but not great.  It felt that the whiting might have been over-vinegared very slightly, but the crisp fish skin was a nice touch.

Sirloin with Turnips
Very decent cut of beef but the turnips were clever and light, especially since we were nearing the end and getting full (though not uncomfortable).  It was also reminiscent of the soft radish from a braised beef brisket consomme in Hong Kong.

Dessert was 5 courses.  Probably the most we had at any place.

Lemon Ice Tea
 Light start to switch into dessert mode.  Not a real fan of pineapple though.

Loved the lightness of this one.  Great palate cleanser and felt like breakfast all over again.

Recuit Napolita with Strawberries
This was my least favorite since the cheese chosen was a little too blue for me.  A tad too strong and overpowered everything else in the little pot.

 Nice build up with chocolate bits, to the grand finale.

Conguitos C, 24
This was my favorite.  It really was reminiscent of a chilled Peanut M&M, as our server warned.  And boy was it the grand finale of desserts.  Excellent.

Petit fours
The green tea white chocolate deserves special mention!

Overall, an excellent experience which although executed in the heart of Catalan, were nothing short of an infusion of international cultures, especially Japanese.  Thoroughly enjoyable.  Special thanks to @g4gary for the recommendation!

Carrer Comerc, 24
Barcelona 08003
Tel: +34- 933192102

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Barcelona - Tapas Territory

When it comes to food portions, the Spanish have gotten it right.  Nobody wants to eat a whole lot of the same thing anymore.  With obesity becoming a problem in most of the developed world, everyone should just learn to eat in moderation.  Have Tapas – where you can get small doses of variety.  Yes, you can wash it down with a beer or Sangria.  In moderation, of course. 

Legend has it that when wine was offered to a Spanish King in medieval times, a piece of bread or cured meat was laid on top of the cup to protect its contents.  Henceforth, the variety of tapas (which in Spanish is taken from the word “Tapa” which refers to a lid or cover) grew and became as important as the alcohol itself.  Presumably so people don’t  keel over from too much alcohol on an empty stomach before dinner starts, and in Spanish terms, that is no earlier than 9pm.

Here’s some of the more memorable Tapas we ate in Barcelona.  Needless to say, they were all delish. 

Tapas 24’s McFoie Burger
Tapas, 24 is the brainchild of Carles Abellan, probably more well-known for his formal dining restaurant Comerc 24.  Like many other protégés, he too hailed from doing time under Ferran Adria at his famous but now defunct El Bulli. 

Lolita Taperia’s eggplant tempura with sweet molasses
Lolita Taperia was co-founded by Joan Martinez and Albert Adria, yes Ferran’s brother, initially known as Inopia.  Albert has since left the venture and Joan renamed it to a saucier Lolita with the signature red lipstick mark on all its paraphernalia. 

Cal Pep’s Potato omelet with mayo

 Cal Pep's deep fried peppers
Cal Pep is helmed by Pep Manubens, who oversees a busy live kitchen show at opening times.  The sights, smells and sounds are a delight as diners feast on the freshest of the day.  Food is kept simple and in its truest form so there is little to no dress up, pretty plates or foam!  And yes, I hear he is a good friend of Ferran too.

Maitea’s marinated sardine
For something more rustic, we tried Maitea and although coming away a little shaken from witnessing a petty theft right on the premises on our first night, it was vibrant and friendly.  Just don't sit too hear the door and don't leave your bag on the floor.  Tapas here were more traditional too with almost everything served on a slice of baguette.

Note: Many places don’t take reservations if your party is less than 4, you can either head there early, or have a beer, soak in the atmosphere, and wait.  Or perhaps name drop?  I hear Ferran is a good one..

Tapas, 24
Carrer de la diputacio, 269
Tel: +34-934880977

Lolita Taperia
Tamarit 104 · local 2-4
Tel: +34-934245231

Cal Pep
Placa de les Olles, 8
Tel: +34-933107961

Carrer de Casanova, 157

Monday, October 3, 2011


Casa Batllo

Impressions after 2 days?  Yes, this place is crazy about Gaudi.  

Even their geckos are Gaudi inspired.  While I must admit the guy was very clever about using natural light and introducing ergonomics into his work, I’m not a fan of the wavy lines he takes from the inspiration of the sea in creating his Casa Batllo.  It’s a great work, and very progressive for his time, but it’s just not my thing.  I mean come on, even the city’s drain covers have wavy lines? 

What I do like about the architecture in this city, is that everything is very neat on the outside, yet different.  The style variety of each building front comes together in the uniformity of the balconies each unit has.  Really does justice to the plenty of cloudless blue sky days this city enjoys.  Picturesque indeed. 

The picture is somewhat marred by the amount of petty crime I heard all about from each person who has ever visited the city.  We even witnessed at dinner one evening, when a poor man got his bag nicked in what was all of 5 seconds literally from under his feet.  The slick operator distracted everyone by being on the phone, walked into the bar, swiped the bag and was on his way out in that short space of time.  Spain has done a lot to sell itself as tourist friendly, but it really needs to do more to allow visitors to have fun with peace of mind.  Since that episode, I’ve spared no effort in clutching onto my belongings.  More stressful than work, really.

That’s really one of the reasons I don’t particularly enjoy La Rambla.  I don’t get the deal on the main drag.  In fact, it’s so crowded and unsettling that it’s really a drag walking there, with the many Paella and Tapas touts.  I mean really?  It does get better within the rabbit warren of streets in the old quarter off La Rambla with its trendy stores, and the walk down to the pier is pleasant enough.

The La Boqueria market though can be a highlight.  A busy cacophony of stalls selling local produce from fruit to fruits of the sea, spices and of course, little Tapas bars offering Tapas and beer for the weary.  The only bar which was still opened at 5pm when we got there was quite underwhelming but we were a little too hungry to care.

There are however, very decent restaurants around the area and one worthy of mention which many do the food Mecca through is Cal Pep.  You can’t make reservations if your party is less than 4, and so we join the ranks of many who queue before opening to score a seat.  If you miss the first round of seatings, you get a beer and wait behind the lucky ones who make the first seating.  The tremendous amount of action which occurs under the watchful eye of Pep Manubens is organized chaos.  And the system seems to work.  Once you get a seat at the bar, you get the freshest offerings of the day. 

The walk around Gothic quarter post lunch is an extremely pleasant one, working off all of that excellent food, looking at butcherias, trendy shoe stores and just soaking in the old historical feel of the area.

For a breather from the city, a day trip to Montserrat to visit the Benedictine monastery set in the hills is quite an experience.  The cathedral is a work of art and the surrounding peaks are excellent photo opportunities as well.  If you like choir boy singing, be sure to check they are there.  We lucked out since they are absent this whole week.

Stay tuned for more about the food!