Friday, January 27, 2012

In Fair Girona...

The little medieval town of Girona, just two hours north of Barcelona, is dotted with public fountains where locals and visitors alike come to fill their bottles or buckets with fresh spring water.  Stumbling upon one of these gargoyle visages while walking the ancient walls or green creek beds that run through the city is like finding hidden treasure and, having spent the last week watching Spanish director Guillermo Del Torro's horror films, I half expected spirits to come pouring out of their mouths when we pulled out the corks that stemmed the flow.

The combination of Girona's narrrow streets, steep stairways, and magic fountains seemed to echo the mountaintop city of Chefchaouen and had me daydreaming about Morrocco.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fresh Bread...

Nothing is quite so comforting as the smell of freshly baked bread.
Tucked away on a narrow streets of Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, this little bakery smelled like home and took me back to summer mornings in Santa Cruz and picnics in Dolores Park.   After 157 days on the road, it's finding these little things that I love the best.

For more thoughts on smells, click here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Sagrada Familia...

There are few words, I think, that could even begin to describe the prolific works of Antoni Gaudi.
Standing outside, the under-construction towers seem to lack uniformity and the fluidity of his other buildings.  Five million things seem to be happening at once, to dizzying effect.
 Inside, however, this all changes.  A forest of colored pillars rises around you, light streams in through leaded windows, and the ceiling fans out above like a canopy of leaves.  Here, everything comes together in the most hyperbolic* feat of architecture I have ever seen.  I wish my dad had been here to see it too.

Before climbing these towers of the Sagrada Familia, I had never experienced any sort of vertigo with heights.  But, built to reach as close to heaven as the nearest mountains, the spindly towers and narrow steeple steps had my knees shaking.  This great cathedral really does touch the sky.

*During the audio guided tour, they continually referred to the architecture as "hyperbolic" which I assumed meant prone to hyperbole.  Later I found this is not true at all, but refers instead to a mathematical term regarding a hyperbola triangle.  Facts aside, I am rather partial to my definition and will continue to regard this architectural style as "prone to exaggeration".

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Eating Out In Barcelona...

Ryan  has  been putting me to absolute shame when it comes to eating.  After a few unlucky meals to ring in the new year, I have approached new foods a bit more gingerly as of late, a disposition that was only made worse after reading George Orwell's, Down and Out in Paris and London.  
However, as soon as we arrived in Spain, all my careful eating habits were lost.
You can't just come to Spain and not eat all black footed pig, spicy chorizo, million different kinds of mushrooms, or slimy anchoives piled in front of you.
Before leaving California, Ryan was given a list of places to eat in Barcelona by Mark, a long time California chef, who currently resides in the kitchen at The Penny Ice Creamery.  Marks been around:  he's worked for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse (where he likes to reminisce about the time Alice let him start a restaurant baseball team and embroidered their caps with a flourishing P), for Wolfgang Puck, and a number of other notable names in the industry.  So, you can trust that this guy knows what he's talking about when he gave us a restaurant guide for his favorite haunts in Barcelona.
Here are his suggestions, complete with his voice (I pipe in every one in a while in italics).

El Xampanyet ~ Cava bar right near the Picasso museo
Carrer de Montcada 22
+ 34 93 319 70 03 Metro L4 Jaume 1
Closed Sunday – Monday
One of my favorite bars, great little tapas and dirt cheap Spanish champagne - get there right at opening at noon to snag a table or you'll spent your entire meal standing! Try peppers stuffed with cheeses, salt cod with black olive or dry-aged Manchego.

TapaÇ24 ~ tapas 5 blocks south of our apartment off the Passeig de Gracia
269 Carrer de la Diputacio
Metro L2, L3, L4 Passeig de Gracia
Open throughout the day 8-midnight, closed Sundays
Another of my favorites, service can be brusque with non Spanish speakers but the chow is awesome. The truita (Spanish tortilla), gambas, bikini (Iberico ham sandwich), patatas bravas, korean bbq wings (I shit you not), Bomba (deep-fried meatballs) and the chocolate with olive oil and sea salt. Just thinking about this place makes me want to book a plane ticket!    Oh my goodness, those bikinis aren't just ham sandwiches!  They're iberico ham with black truffle paste, pressed and grilled with manchego cheese...oh, oh, oh, oh!

Bar Pinotxo
91 La Rambla - right inside the entrance to the Mercat de la Boqueria
Open daily 7am-5pm
The best for cheap rustic eats, counter seating only, order directly from the cooks or Joan, no printed menu. Items not to miss: chiperones (baby squid), butifarra ( grilled suasage), lobster, cigrons (chickpeas with blood sausage), navajes (razor clams), exquixada (salt cod salad) to name a few... Great place for breakfast, Spanish style: pan tomaquet, chuchos  y cortados!  I came here in November too, on the recommendation of Chef Jami Cakes, and was only too happy to go back. Elbow your way up to the counter for very limited seating between tourists and locals alike.  Breakfast here is fantasic (we went three times this week), and the staff is great- they even drew me a map to the place they get their haircut so I could get a trim too!

Cal Pep
Placa de las Ollas, 8 - just a few streets south of the Picaso Museo in the very cute la Ribera hood
closed Sundays dinner from 7:30-11:30
Long lines, counter seating only and brusque service, but... Incredible seafood: roast monkfish, fried calamari, tiny squid, sepia (cuttlefish) a la plancha, tiny fried fish - eat heads and all, gambas (super sweet prawns), cigales (even sweeter langoustines), and this dish I can't remember the name of but it's super tiny fried fish served with a deep-fried egg - crazy good.  Arguably the best seafood restaurant in the entire world (and another Chef Jami recommendation).  There is no menu but if you give your server your budget, they'll start bringing you plates and plates of seafood.  My favorite are the langoustines Mark recommends, served with an onion sauce, and the roasted monk fish, my new favorite fish.

Not a Mark-recommended place, but an essential Barcelona spot none the less,
El Champagneria
Carrer de la Reina Christina, 7  
Monday through Saturday 9:30-10:30
No seating room here, only hoards of people squished together delicately handling glasses of pink cava and eating greasy hamburgesas and chorizo bocadillas.  It's an odd sounding combo at first, but with champagne served for less than a Euro a glass, it's brilliant, and I'll have eleven thanks.
We did have a funny experience here once, when, during a tasting frenzy, we asked our server what his favorite dish was.  His response:  not anything from here.
So, though it may not be the most gourmet of places, the ambiance and experience is unbeatable.

There you have it, the best of the best in Barcelona, with recommendations from people who really know their stuff.  
¡Buen provecho!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Just a hop skip and a jump from Paris, here we are in Barcelona!  Oh, how I love EasyJet.  Until we have such a brilliant airline in the states, I think I'll just stay here, thanks. 
First up on the itinerary:  visiting the legendary buildings of the Catalan architectural wonder, Gaudi.

 Being inside Casa Batlló is like being underwater.  Not only do the gradient blue walls mirror the colors of the sea and the glass stairwell distort your vision like the surface of a pool, but there is the strange sense that every visitor seems to be holding their breath, awaiting with expectation the next extraordinary bend in Antonio Gaudi's marvelous creation.  Traditionally, Art Nouveau is about following forms in nature, best seen in winding floral decorations reminiscent of Islamic arabesque, or Celtic knot work.  Never before have I seen work of this era that follows, so intrinsically, the patterns of the natural world. 

Emerging at the top of the famous apartment building felt like tumbling out of a wave.  Everyone seemed to breathe sharply, and deeply, like they were coming up for air.  From the top, we looked out over Barcelona.  In front of us was the ocean, behind us, Parc Guell and the pine green mountains, and to our right the sun sank behind Mount Juiic, throwing the palace profile of the Catalan history museum and the iconic communications tower into sharp relief.
Bon dia, Barca.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paris Routines...

Although I still haven't developed a palate for coffee, I really do enjoy passing the mornings at Parisian cafés.  
After opening the shop,  we head out into the cold for warm drinks and croissants, sitting at the sidewalk tables until our fingers are too numb to turn a page or count change.  This routine is repeated again in the evenings, after a museum exhibit, screening at Le Champo, a hike up to Montmarte, or some other daily diversion, this time with more scarves wrapped around our necks, as we attempt to combat the frosty night air.

I'll miss these little Paris routines that really make me feel at home.  Tomorrow, after we count all the 29,000! books on the shelves of Shakespeare & Co. for the annual store inventory, we're headed down to Spain in search of sun and new adventures.
A la prochain, Paris.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Crêpe Conundrum...

When it comes to eating in Paris, David Lebovitz is generally a more reliable source than Anthony Bourdain, whose recommendations always seem to land me in a bit of a pickle.  Lebovitz's guide to Paris led us to Rue de Rosiers, in the heart of the Marais, in search of authentic Jewish felafels.  This little street is lined with open windows, where you can walk right up and order anything you want, all wrapped up in a pita pocket.  In addition to the endless lines queued for felafel, crêpes are also a popular option on Rue de Rosiers.  

Crêpes, those quintessential French snacks, aren't too dissimilar to pitas and burritos; you can wrap up anything you want inside these too.  But to a little-bit homesick Californian, the great debate stands:  which is better?  The chic crêpe, or the humble burrito? (Sorry pita, you're just not in the running.)

Uh-oh.  Don't let David hear me:
I think I'm kind of partial to burritos...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Le Chateaubriand...

If these previous weeks have been somewhat unlucky food-wise, they have made up for it in celebrity chef sitings.
After coming back from La Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Ryan swears he saw Yves Camdeborde, chef of Le Comptoir.  (I have to admit, I didn't really know who he was, but it was exciting none-the-less.) 
"Okay, cool, next we have to see David Lebowitz."

If you've never heard me wax on about David Lebowitz before, I'd be very surprised.  
Who is David Lebowitz?
Author of The Perfect Scoop.
Former Chez Panisse pastry chef, resource for all things Parisian, and my culinary idol.
(Also, mainly responsible for my ice cream obsession.)

"Would you even know him if you saw him on the street?"
"Um, no."

So, that evening, before going for a drink at Le Perle, I googled him.
And two hours later, on Rue Vielle du Temple, he walked past me.
I saw David Lebowitz.
I nearly died.
Actually, I nearly chased him down the street in what only would have ended with me a tongue-tied mess, blubbering incoherently about ice cream flavors, the bay area ice cream scene, and whether or not he knew so-and-so.  Thankfully, I managed to stay in my chair, and contained my enthusiasm to a wave.  And guess what!?!  He waved back!!
My life is complete.*
Ryan took great pleasure in teasing me about the whole affair, but honestly, the next week when we saw Inaki Aizpitarte, chef of Le Chateaubriand, he was even more star struck than I had been.
Seated with a good view of the kitchen, he could not help craning his neck to see the chef at work.  And with good reason, the plates coming out of his kitchen were some of the most curious dishes I have ever eaten.  Not to mention delicious.  
If I hadn't had my camera on hand to sneakily snap dimly-lit photos of each dish, I would definitely have forgotten elements of our twelve course meal.  The fixed menu meal was conducted as follows:

Poppy Seed Crusted Cheese Biscuits
Grapefruit and Mackerel Ceviche
Tamarind Powder Dusted Crispy Shimp
Avocado Mousse with Radish and Sea Snail
Ginger Miso Soup

Black Seaweed Purée topped with Lychee, Shashimi, Grapefruit, Black Spinach, Iberico Ham, and a Celery Seaweed Remoulade
White Fish with Seared Skin, Scallion Sauce, Green Onions, Leeks and Shaved Black Truffle
Smoked Mozzarella Foam, Mixed Mushrooms, White and Dark Duck Breast

Cheese Platter
Rum Soaked White Mushrooms with Vanilla Bean Cream and Candied Clementine
Creme Caramel "chef style" (topped with a soft boiled egg yolk)
Sugar Poached Mango Sprinkled with Indian Digestive Spices

Sometimes, I think, people deserve a bit of idolizing.

*I'm totally joking, of course.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Breakfast at Shakespeare And Company...

At home, my family eats waffles every Sunday morning.  In Paris there are traditions like this too.  Sunday mornings au bord de la Seine are for pancake making chez George.

George passed away three weeks before I came to stay, and even though he's not here to stir the batter, shout down at people out the window, or give unpredictable advice to his resident tumbleweeds, he lives on through (more edible) pancake breakfasts, stories reminisced, and maybe even as the bookstore ghost.
Thank you George, it's lovely to be back.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake...

Within the last two weeks, I have had food poisoning twice.  
Though it probably has more to do with eating the pieds d'agneau Anthony Bourdain recommended,  there is also the slightest chance that it may be due my extra-ordinary level of pastry consumption.  Really, I don't even think that Marie Antoinette could rival me in the sheer number of croissants, macarons, and I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I'll-have-that-sticky-colorful-thing-right-there-please's that I eat on a daily basis.  
Naturally such a lifestyle, which I have resolutely decided to justify as "fieldwork", needs to be paired with a night of re-watching Marie Antoinette, and a day trip to Versaille.  

Versaille in winter is so very different from the frosting-colored palate of Sofia Coppola's film.  The interior of the palace was drearily lit, and outside, as in the rest of the of the jardins around Paris, the trees stood naked, and the flowerbeds had all been overturned.  If the deciduous skeletons weren't eery enough, the garden's statuary had been tarped too, so all you could see were the outline of human figures frozen atop their marble pyres.  
Winter, I think, is not Paris's most flattering season.  Instead, winter is the season of sweaters, of hot mugs of tea, and of books.
Tomorrow I'm off to my favorite place in the world, where it's quite alright to stay bundled up inside all day reading, and play endless rounds of Bananagrams. Shakespeare & Company will once again be my home for the next weeks and I couldn't be happier.          :)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Something is not right.
Tucked between the warm scarves, new shoes, and coveted black beans in Ryan's suitcase was a bag of Bananagrams.  At home, Bananagrams was a regular staple and we played everyday in Santa Cruz, breaking them out after a long day of work or taking them down the street to the brewery on Monday nights.  
And the best part of this ritual was, I nearly always won.
I don't know if it's a result of not having spoken English regularly in the last four months, or if I just lost my streak, but I have lost every single game since Ryan's arrival.
What is this world coming to??

In conjunction with the mourning over the loss of my winning streak, we visited cimetière Père Lachaise one cold, blustery day last week.  The grey skies of early January seemed to suck the life right out of everything, alive or otherwise.  The granite tombs and mausoleums lining the narrow paths seemed unusually cold.  Potted plants and bouquets of flowers lay shriveled and dying on the headstones, and the wind whistled through them to the tune of "a dark and stormy night".  In the skeleton trees, ravens perched where leaves should have been. 
The light was nearly gone by the time we found our way out of the labyrinth of the cemetery.  If we had stayed even a moment longer, I think we might have seen Isadora Duncan or Jean Avril dancing on the graves.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Unnatural History...

It feels funny to play tour guide here in Paris.  Since his arrival, Ryan has been full of questions about what this is and, what's that.  I do my best to fill him in with what I know: bits of French Revolutionary history, stories about the arcs, grand boulevards, and Haussman architecture, anecdotes on the people in the impressionist paintings at the museums, and how to order un café during our daily trips to the boulangerie... It's been interesting to watch his reactions to the sight of the Notre Dame lit up at night, buskers holding concerts in the underground tunnels of the metro, or  being conned by gypsies.  Watching him experience all these things for the first time has made me a bit pensive about how I experience new places.
I think the best moments of Ryan's visit so far has been when we experienced new things at the same time.  The weather has been pretty mild for a Parisian winter, and we've been capitalizing on our good fortune with extensive walks around the city.  During one of these promenades, we came across Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature.  (The museum of hunting and nature.)


If you've ever set foot into my room, then you are well acquainted with the number of dead things hanging off of everything:  a mounted deer head, multiple sets of antlers on the window sill, a fawn skin and coyote fur, foxes draped over the chair, a raccoon tail hanging off the end of the bed, and pinned insects under glass bell jars gracing the bookshelves...  So, by default this little museum was bound to be precisely my kind of thing.
Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature was the most interestingly curated space I have ever been to.  The museum is set up to imitate a hunting lodge, with wooden paneling on the walls, rich velvet wallpaper, and dark herringbone flooring.  Each gallery is dedicated to a different game animal, and covers everything from it's history as an animal of the hunt and to it's role in literature and mythology, as well as the natural history of each creature. Spread amidst the taxidermy and paintings of the hunt were contemporary works of art, ranging from illustrations of the animal spirit, sculptural abstractions of  the beast, or installations of cast iron sculptures popping out of the ceiling, creating a cascading relief down the wall, or throwing eery shadows from gnarled iron light fixtures. 
This mix of tradition and of contemporary ideas was really compelling, blurring the lines between predator and prey, and perpetuating the myths of man and beast.  
It was the sort of museum that I like to think that I would create: stimulating and visually aesthetic.  Short of launching into an essay on art and the dialect of myth and moral, I will to suffice to say that it was my favorite museum I have ever been to, and I am very glad to have found it.