Tag Archives: Food

Ahh, Mssr. Franks!

When I told my Mom where we would be traveling she remarked that it sounded like fun, but that we should be careful in Marseilles. Little did I know how prophetic her warning would be. It turns out that someone in Marseilles has had a grand old time on my dime. They went out to what appear to be a few bars on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, racking up around $700 bills each night. Then they apparently decided to bring the party home, so they stopped off at Carrefour (the European Walmart) and dropped another $2800 (I’m guessing a new plasma). It’s still not fully resolved, but my accounts have been closed and BofA has wiped the fraudulent transactions from my statement.

This whole situation has cast a little pall on our last few days in France, but today was really magnificent regardless. While we’d planned to rise early and see some smaller Chateaux before our 2:00 p.m. tour at Ch. Mouton Rothschild, 3 hours of late night phone calls with Bank of America and Visa killed that idea. We got started around 12:00 and found a delightful cafe in in the village of Bages. We ate a small, traditional lunch of Charcuterie (various sausages and cured meats) and a cheese plate (2 chevres and 2 cow’s milk). This set the tone for the short ride out to Mouton.

Once there we assembled in the visitor’s salon, went into a small theatre to view a welcome message by the Baroness and then started the tour proper. The facilities are amazing, and we learned a great deal about how one of the finest wines in the world is assembled. Like any prestige product, Mouton jumps through many self-imposed hoops out of adherence to tradition knowing that they can make up the expense at the back-end. We’ve seen the entire gamut of wine-making facilities in Napa and Sonoma, and none of them can hold a candle to what goes on here. After we’d toured the winery, they took us into the phase of the tour that neither of us appreciated very much: the Baron’s ram-art collection. It was a huge room full of jeweled and gilded objects d’art featuring male sheep. The old-French word for “ram” is Mouton. In modern French, it means “small hill.” Next, we were off to the tasting. Last year’s estate bottling is going for roughly $400/bottle, and they didn’t bring this out for us. While I would’ve appreciated a vertical tasting of ’61, ’82 and 2000, that wasn’t in the cards. What we did get was a preview (barrel tasting) of the ’09. It wasn’t ready to drink by any means, but it was a wonderful insight into what the wine will become in 10, 20 and 30 years. This is typically our favorite feature of tastings in Napa, so it was a unique treat to do this at Mouton.

Next up was Pichon Longueville. This property is awe-inspiring. They’re classified as 2nd growth from the 1855 Classification, and in my opinion it’s the top of the 2nd growth pile (the market tends to agree with me). This Chateau doesn’t have the glitz or name recognition of the first growths, so they must rely on their wine to speak for itself. To this end, everything in the winery is geared towards efficiency and consistency. We thoroughly enjoy this wine at home, and it was a wonderful treat to see where it’s born.

Next we took a short drive around Pauillac, if only to see Lafite, Latour and a few other places whose wares we covet and/or enjoy. The drive helped us decompress from the winery experiences, and soon enough it was time for dinner. Our hotel is rather like a country inn, albeit in an 18th centruy Chateau. The restaurant is run by Thierry Marx, and they’ve had 3 Michelin stars for a few years. If we hadn’t eaten at El Bulli a week earlier this meal would likely have been the high point of our trip.

A brief overview of our main plates:

  • Liz had the Canadian lobster, and it was cracked in the kitchen.  It was taken out of the steam basket just before it should have been, and then was placed in a bowl and sealed in a bag.  The steam expanded the air in the bag so that the bag formed a bubble and the lobster finished cooking as if in a pressure cooker, only from it’s own heat.  At this point, the bubble is brought to the table and “popped” in front of the diner. The meat was served with a cup of the water from the pan in which it was steamed.  It was suggested that a sip be taken and then a bite.  Remarkable preparation, presentation and taste; an amazing concept.
  • Mig had a fillet à la Bordelaise.  This was pan seared in the kitchen and then plated.  Next, a cup of smoldering vine cuttings was placed next to the meat and the whole package was wrapped up in a sheet of cellophane, tied off and then delivered to the table.  For an idea of what this looked like, imagine a gift basket with just a small fillet at the bottom of the basket.  Once at the table, the bag was opened and the smell of vine smoke wafted above our table.  The meat was absolutely fantastic, and again this was an amazing concept.

The rest of the meal was equally remarkable.  Unfortunately for them, the El Bulli experienced seriously compromised our enjoyment of this meal.  I would likely place it as my 3rd or 4th best meal ever, and I’m sure Liz would place it somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Driving to Bordeaux

We had an early morning today to get ready for the trek from Barcelona to Bordeaux. Just as we were getting the hang of the city without street signs (Barcelona), it was time to leave. On the way out we planned our route a little more carefully, and it paid off. First stop? Liquor store! We weren’t sure if we’d be able to get Havana club easily in Paris, so we stocked up before we left Spain. Next stop? Bocadillos for the road! A chorizo and brie sandwich just tastes better at 160 kph.

About halfway from Barcelona to Bordeaux is the tiny mountain country (principality) of Andorra. How often do you get a chance to go a few minutes out of your way to get another stamp in your passport? It took a little extra time and effort to get there, but that’s just what we did. The border station is pretty funny. There’s basically a roundabout ~1/4 mile in radius with a hut at one end. If you want your passport stamped, you pull aside, walk into the hut, then continue back the way you came.

And a word about the road. Last year the BBC program Top Gear did a segment on the best driving road in the world. They tried out various roads on the continent, most of which were in Southern Europe. Eventually they decided on a route from Davos, Switzerland, to Stelvio, Italy. I’ve only been on the segment of that road that has all the stop lights so I can’t make an honest judgment. But after what I saw today I think they may have gotten it all wrong. The road from Andorra to to Foix, France, is breathtaking. Again, I’m slightly disappointed to have been cooped up in a Audi A4, but more often than not I was in the fastest car in the pack and I was able to pass the “cloggies” at will. The Europeans have this driving game figured out. You want to drive fast? Have at it; but it’s going to cost you. Consider this: the road tolls from Barcelona to Bordeaux ran ~€40 and the tank of petrol was ~€70. That’s $156 at today’s exchange rate (1.4255:1). Certainly not an everyday event, but man it was fun!

Once we’d passed the Pyrenees, the road into Toulouse and ultimately to Bordeaux was completely uneventful. In fact there wasn’t really any excitement until we started seeing signs for Pauillac. Our hotel is in an old Chateau a few hundred yards from the the Port/Centre of Pauillac, in the village of Bages (as in Chateau Lynch-Bages). After we’d found the hotel, we rolled into the driveway and a porter met us with a smile on his face. When I stepped out of the car he greeted me with, “Good evening Mr. Franks.” I can only guess we were the last guests to arrive tonight, as I don’t look a thing like my latest press photo.

After we’d checked in, we jumped back into the car for a ride down to the docks for dinner. We decided on a local specialty: pizza. 😉 Keep in mind, this pizza had duck on it! Dinner completed, we came back to the hotel to head to bed. We’re hoping to have an early start for the Chateaux visits tomorrow.

Tortas in Spain

Leave it to Liz to find the only place in Barcelona that serves tortas.

The concierge at the hotel didn’t understand why we would want to come here, but like Cheech Marin in Europe we were having taco withdrawls.  The restaurant is in one of the neighborhoods that was having it’s festival during our visit.  This brought up Barcelon’s already hi-voltage atmosphere to a level somewhere between Mardi Gras in NoLa and Woodstock (’89…everyone was well-dressed).

The Oldest Restaurant In The World

We came to Europe because we won, in some cosmic lottery, a reservation at the best restaurant in the world. But since we were going to be here we also wanted to see what else they had to offer. Although we didn’t know about it before we came, our guidebook tipped us off to the presence of the oldest restaurant in the world here in Madrid. That’s nice and all, but what sold me were the facts the Hemingway hung out here and that their specialty is suckling pig. The place is called El Sobrino del Botin, it was founded in 1725 and it’s featured in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The history in the restaurant is palpable, and the menu is simple. The pretty much do one thing and they do it really well. We started with some Jerez (Tio Pepe) and gazpacho. I think this was the first time either of us had tried either and we’re now big fans of both. Next came the pig, and it was absolutely awesome. I haven’t had this dish since I was ~7 years old, and to be honest I can’t remember anything about that meal other than the cool wine bottles. This time, however, I get to record it for posterity! While they didn’t deposit a whole pig on the table, there was at least a pound of pork split into three large pieces from various parts of the beast. The meat itself was tender, juicy and had more pork flavor than I would’ve expected. The meat was accentuated by a simple au jus-like broth and the skin (crackling). Regarding crackling: think wafer thin chicharones that are as crispy as fresh tortilla chips. The whole package is delectable. I’m really going to seek this out in the US.

While everything was wonderful, I couldn’t help thinking that we just ate at the Madrileño House of Prime Rib. They do one thing, they do it well, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of have to think that if we lived here we would only bring in guests from out of town. But as a traveler, it was exactly the sort of place I seek out. And as a bonus I got to walk in some more of Ernest’s footsteps!

Museo Reina Sophia

After we checked into our hotel (more on that over the next few days), the first order of business was lunch. Our hotel is on a square that is filled with cafes. We had our first real meal of tapas, and were happy as clams (marinated in olive oil, of course!). The next stop was El Museo Nacional, Centro de Arte: The Reina Sophia.

In one word: Wow!

Granted, this museum is only for 20th Century art, but it was absolutely my favorite so far (Liz still has Picasso, Paris, on her ballot). The famous pieces are:

  • Picasso’s Guernica
  • I bought a portfolio of the entire canvas at a 1:1 ratio…it’s a box with 600 sheets. Problem is they’re printed front and back, so I would’ve needed to buy 2 copies to assemble my own. Esta bien.

  • Dali’s Woman at a Window
  • Her calves have the most amazing lighting effect. It is indescribable.

  • Picasso’s Woman in Blue
  • He disavowed this painting because it didn’t win a National competition; only came in Runner-up.

El Bulli Overview

*** UPDATE: The full El Bulli review can be accessed by clicking on the El Bulli buttons in the top navigation bar. We look forward to seeing your comments and responding to any questions you may have. ***
This is just a placeholder post for the El Bulli review. I’m planning to do a full write-up, course by course, after we return to SF. At the very highest level I can say without equivocation that the hype is justified. This is the best restaurant in the world, and quite honestly I can’t see how anything could’ve been improved upon.

Briefly, we met Ferran Adrià as soon as we entered the restaurant. We took a brief tour of the kitchen and he shared a few seconds with us. It felt like we were in the presence of Pablo Picasso, John Lennon or Coco Channel. We were completely awed before we ate and the admiration we hold for him following the meal is indescribable.

Cafe In Roses

Shortly after arriving in Spain, we drove all the way out to the Roses peninsula.  It’s a 2 lane road about 18 km long with a rotary every km.  If they were 4-way stop lights, the ride would’ve taken 45 minutes.  As it was it took about 30.  We drove all the way through the town of Roses and into a residential area before we saw the first sign for our hotel, “Hotel Vistabella *****”.  Those stars don’t really represent reality.  It’s a wonderful hotel, and perfect for the site.  The Four Seasons would stick out like a sore thumb here, so this is really how it should be.

After we checked in, we walked down the hill to a beach-front cafe.  It was packed because of the free Wi-fi.  We had some beer, fried calamari, and milkshakes. Yummy beach food! Just as we were leaving to walk back up the hill, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” began playing in the background.  I have no idea what that means…I just thought it was nice.

Monaco Grand Prix

After a day trip to Italy we returned to Monte Carlo, and since we were in the car we thought it was a good time to do a (video taped) lap of the fabled Monaco Grand Prix circuit. I only clipped one mirror! When you see the video, you’ll see what I mean. By the way, the lap record is ~1:13. We did it in about 10:30. It should be fun to edit, although we may try to do another lap in the morning if the traffic seems lighter.

Dinner last night was at Stars’n’Bars, a pretty decent facsimile of a US sports bar, only with an F1 theme. It’s owned by a Texan, and we felt right at home. I didn’t tell Liz where we were going, although I did promise it was the only time we’d do something cheesy while we were here. The highlight of the meal wasn’t what was basically a TGI Fridays menu printed in French. No, it was the two Spanish gentlemen seated next to us. They could only be described as “Euro Lizards.” After we left we made up stories about the shady business dealings in which they were involved. For the rest of our lives we’ll be telling stories about the metric tonne of smack they just smuggled into Europe aboard an America’s Cup yacht.

Now we’re off to another famous F1 haunt: the Tip Top Bar. Rumor has it this is where the drivers hang out when the F1 circus leaves town. Since they all live here for tax reasons, it seems reasonable enough. We’re also going to stop into the Casino. We’ll be sure to post some pictures later tonight.