Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey Surprise!!!

Okay, so I had no choice but to share the events that occurred last nite with you all. Sit back and hear a tale of the most memorable Thanksgiving of my life...

We got off work a little bit early due to a slow night, and as we Americans (Kevin, Kyle, and I) climbed the stairs to our apartment, we were lamenting the total lack of any Thanksgivingness in our lives. Suffice it to say we were all in pretty low spirits... to make things even worse, dinner at the restaurant had been the deep fried ham rolls. Ugh.

I unlocked the door with a sigh and pushed it open to see Vaughan (who had gone home midday, sick and nearly throwing up) standing there with a fork and knife. Before I had a chance to ask him how he was feeling and what he was doing waiting for us at the door, he throws his hands up and screams, "HAPPY THANKSGIVING, BITCHES! SURPRISE!" We continue into the apartment to see that the table is set and two bottles of wine, one already open, sit in the middle. In complete shock, mouths agape, we make our way into the kitchen, where Vaughan is putting the finishing touches on the meal. I was expecting a valiant effort, but considering we only have a single induction burner and nothing else to cook with, I didn't have very high expectations. Nonetheless, I would have been beyond happy with even some turkey breast and some boiled potatoes, a mere hint at a real Thanksgiving.

What I saw completely blew me away: creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans with garlic, cranberry sauce from scratch, gravy, six perfectly cooked turkey legs, caramelized onions, stuffing made with sausage and foie, and apple pie. Even thinking about it now, I'm filled with joy and awe. And what's really crazy about all this is the aforementioned lack of cooking apparati. Vaughan used our induction burner and stacked four to five pots at a time, one on top of the other, using the heat from the ones below as a makeshift bain-marie to cook the food above and/or keep everything warm. All this food, for six people, in two hours! Pardon my French, but HOLY SHIT.

Best of all, everything was absolutely delicious. We gorged and gobbled and guzzled until we couldn't consume any more, then sat back to take in the beauty that is Thanksgiving carnage: bones strewn about, gravy puddles on the table, stained shirts and hands, plates licked nearly clean. I don't think anyone at that table has been that happy in a very long time. No words can express our gratitude to Vaughan for bringing Thanksgiving to Spain. We sat around drinking and laughing for another hour before the massive amounts of food, wine, beer, whiskey, and triptophan forced us to retire. Every one of us fell asleep with giant grins on his face, for sure. There is no question, we have a lot to be thankful for.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone. I'm going to go daydream about that stuffing some more...

P.S. - As always, pics are here if you're interested:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bday weekend in SanSe!

So this was quite an incredible birthday celebration, I have to say. You all know I like to stretch out my birthday as long as possible, and though I was out of my country and my comfort zone and therefore not able to squeeze a full 3-4 weeks out of it, I did get a solid 3 days, and they were unbelievable days at that.

The nite of my actual birthday, Jay and I went to the local bar after work for a drink. There happened to be an AMAZING reggae/rap group playing there that nite that consisted of a dj and 3 singers/rappers. They performed songs in English, Spanish, French, and Senegalese, and they were beyond talented. Moreover, to my dismay, Nayad, the bar's owner, is friends with me and knew it was my birthday, so she got them to call me up in front of everyone... to stand there. For like 10 minutes. I really didn't know what I was supposed to do, and I didn't want to be a wet blanket and say no, so I kind of danced in place awkwardly. Thank God I had friends there to make fun of me for the rest of the nite regarding my awkward dancing. Oh well... a unique experience at least.

The next day I got through the day quickly and met Julia at the bust station at midnite. It being Sunday, there wasn't much open, but we managed to find a bar that seemed to be staying open for a bunch of hammered, middle-aged men to play darts. We were able to get a couple drinks in before the men stumbled out and it seemed appropriate to follow suit. Next morning we found the artisan bakery where my restaurant buys its bread and bought a chocolate brioche, a croissant, and a custard croissant to eat with our cafe con leche. The weather was perect, and as we ate we enjoyed the euphoric feeling one gets from drinking good Spanish coffee and eating artisan baked goods in the sun at an outdoor cafe by the beach. Glorious.

We headed to our hotel (Sunday and Tuesday nites were motels out of convenience due to the late arrival, very early departure, and proximity to the bus station), and on the way actually met a woman named Yvette, who was, of all things, born and raised in Cali! She bought us a drink and we chatted about the States, and got some restaurant/pincho bar recommendations. Arrived to the hotel, enjoyed the view for a few minutes, and headed out for what were our only plans for the day: EAT.

We hit up 4 or 5 different pincho bars, and spent the day trying surefire hits, surprising gambles, local fare, gastronomic art, and lots of PORK. Bacon-mushroom-shrimp skewers, mountains of foie, cuttlefish, Spanish peppers, olives, anchovies, blood sausage... There is no way I can list everything we ate, but hit the link at the end of this blog to see the pics and descriptions of every single bite. Our mouths exploded in ecstasy all day and into the nite; we sampled regional Spanish wines, frequently defaulting to wine from Toro, which is the mind-blowing red I discovered early in my time here. Every bite was better than the one before and we headed back to the hotel full, happy, and euphoric. A bottle of Cava greeted us in our room upon our arrival, and we spent the rest of the nite relaxing like two lovebirds. Bubble bath, balcony, bacon chocolate bars... It couldn't have been better.

Tuesday was much of the same. More pinchos, some of the best Spanish tortilla I've ever had. Mmm, baguette with bacon, goat cheese, and honey... again, hit the link for the full rundown. We fueled up and climbed the mountain at the north side of town. Insane views, beautiful, historic castles, watched the sun set over the mountains next to the sea , sitting on the castle wall. It was like a movie. Then back down the mountain to refill our tanks at the pincho bar that actually won the 2009 gastronomic award for best pincho: the award winner was seared scallop with clams, potato cream and citrus foam. The award was well deserved, without a doubt. Definitely the best place we ate at all weekend, and the Toro at this place was the best glass I've had so far. After dinner the weekend had to draw to a close, unfortunately. Headed to the motel and pretty much went right to bed, considering we had to wake up at 4:30 this morning so Julia could catch an early bus to the airport.

Today I have been lost in thought, reflecting on all the incredible things we saw, did, and of course ate! I feel very lucky to have spent such an amazing couple of days celebrating my birthday. I've basically got two weeks left here, and if I'm lucky, these memories will carry me right through to the end. If not, there's always the trip to Pamplona I have planned for the coming weekend.

For now, however, I am about to be late for work... so I am OUT!

Link for pics is here:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vive le France

It is gray, gloomy, and raining here in Lasarte, but cozy clothes and cafe con leche on a day off make everything better.

Yesterday I woke up and hopped on the train to Saint Jean de Luz, a very small, very old town in Southern France. I knew nothing about the town, what there was to do, or how to get there, but the more time I spend over here, the more these little adventures seem to appeal to me. I got some info from the guy at the train station and in less than an hour, I was there.

The town itself was very quaint: lots of old, old buildings, churches, and streets, but with the contemporary touch of copious boutiques, bars, restaurants, etc. The town clearly realized the tourist appeal of its antiquity and built as many opportunities as possible to take tourists' money. I was starving when I arrived, so I scoped out a few cafes and found one that seemed to call out to me. They served me the best croque monsieur I have ever tasted in my entire life. The cheese atop the sandwich was the absolute perfect balance of crispy, bubbly, and melty, and the mornay, ham, and bread beneath just melted together into creamy bites of heaven. Washed down by a glass of Bordeaux, my day was off to a good start.

From there, I spent a few hours wandering around the town. I window shopped in what were actually some cool little stores, walked along the water, snapped photos of old buildings, etc. Grabbed a chocolate croissant from a little bakery, and good God, it was like eating a chocolate filled cloud. Tried exploring some streets off the beaten path and found a cemetery outside town that totally blew my mind. It had clearly been around for at least a couple hundred years (based on the inscriptions on some of the headstones), and some of the markers were beyond impressive. Pyramids, giant crosses, obelisks, mausoleums, this place was like the Cadillac showroom of graveyards. I think I snapped as many photos within its walls as I did the entire rest of the day.

It started to get dark, so I headed back into town, found a wine shop, and bought a bottle of Bordeaux to drink upon my return home. Then for dinner I knew I had to do something nice and French... obviously, duck confit was the way to go. Very yummy, with frites and a salad, watching some tennis tournament live from Paris. I made it back to the train station, only to find that despite what the arrivals/departures screen said, trains in Saint Jean de Luz show up whenever they please. I watched three different listed departure times come and go and started to panic a little, thinking that I might be stranded for the night; thankfully, after 90 minutes of waiting, my train arrived. The night ended nicely with the Bordeaux (though to my unfortunate surprise, it was only so-so) and a movie.

Today will be spent hiding from daylight, watching movies, and digesting the 35 euro worth of Doner Kebab my roommates and I just consumed. Looking forward to work tomorrow, really looking forward to my birthday weekend with Julia in 5 days, and really, REALLY looking forward to being done in like three weeks!!! Europe has been fantastic, but the stars and stripes are calling me home...

See you soon!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

King of the Oysters

So last week was the final week of good friend and roommate Juan Carlos from Mexico. Up to this week, he was in charge of the oyster dish that I have alluded to several times; up to this week, my triumphs were encapsulated by applying the sauce during plating without getting bitch-slapped across the kitchen by Sany; up to this week, I was still a very, very minor part of the dish (roughly 10% contribution).

This week is different.

With the opening left by Juan Carlos' departure, someone was going to be assigned to pick up the slack on the oysters. True to form, Sany made no such declarations, but allowed the first few days of the week to be something of a free-for-all. When it was time to prep, she doled out random oyster responsibilities at will. When it was time to plate, she either asked whoever was closest or let someone try to jump in. Seeing that the position was apparently to be won as if it were a Surge commercial (anyone else remember that soda and those commercials?), I kicked my ass into gear. Today marked, to put it as dramatically as possible, my arrival at the mountain peak.

I have been put officially in charge of the dish, which means I did it perfectly, and did so enough times to prove to Sany that she can trust me (and Sany trusts people about half as far as she can shotput them). I prep the mis en place, I set things for service, I plate, I keep track of the orders, it's all me. And today I even had to train a new guy in all things oyster related... and might I add, I actually did so with patience, and with appropriate explanation when necessary. Imagine that! Using words and gestures to communicate my instructions instead of disgusted faces and curse words! Best of all, service went off without a hitch (on a pretty busy day), and there were even a few times I caught mistakes Sany didn't. Yahoo for me!

Okay, I realize that I may be making a slightly bigger deal of this than it actually is. After all, as I've previously mentioned, the oyster dish is pretty damn simple. But the way I see it, this blog should be at least somewhat entertaining, and we all know how much Johnny loves a good story full of drama and superlatives, so forgive me if I overly vivify an otherwise mundane course of events (BEST OYSTER PLATER EVER!!!). Moreover, to earn any ground in the land of Sany actually is a pretty big deal, and this marks the furthest I've come since I started with her; it's like getting promoted by the Soup Nazi.

Anyway, big deal or not, I am a happy camper. And to be honest, I was getting really bored with the complete lack of responsibility; having to stand around and wait for a single task all throughout service was making me want to shove the oyster shucker into my eye. At least now there's some multitasking required and I feel somewhat more engaged.

By the way, if anyone's interested, Julia is kicking ass in Tuscany! The white truffle festival starts in her town this weekend and the restaurant is booked solid for like three weeks. I spoke to her today and she had that wonderful Julia energy that comes from being just on the brink of overwhelmed but not there yet, and loving every minute of it. She's also working part time some mornings in a little cafe doing random cooking tasks: butchering wild boar, making sandwiches, baking pastries, whatever's around. She's fully settled in, and though living alone in a tiny town isn't easy, she's making the best of it. Best of all, she comes to San Sebastian next weekend for my birthday!

Alright, it's almost time for dinner service; time to don my apron and play with some more oysters. No sweat, right? Less than a month left here; can't say I'm sad about that, but I'll be making the best of the next few weeks.

Till next time... Viva las ostras!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just checking in...

Howdy out there!

I spent the past weekend staying local and catching up on my sleep, and things have been relatively slow at the restaurant due to the lengthening distance from tourist season, so I don't really have all that much to report. That being said, this blog is one of my main connections to my world back home, so I felt it necessary to write at least a little something.

It's really funny how bipolar my eating habits are during the week versus the weekends. During the week, every meal is eaten at the restaurant; and due to the incredibly poor quality of the food served, I tend not to eat much. How poor, you wonder? Let me highlight the worst of the worst for you as far as staff meals are concerned: tongue in tomato sauce... hot dogs in tomato sauce... boiled broccoli and fried beef (nobody knows which cut of beef it actually is)... fried eggs, rice, and soggy bacon... slices of ham, rolled around a piece of cheese, breaded and deep fried... you get the idea. Best of all, every week we eat the same meals, so at this point, very little is appetizing. My best days are when I can snag a handful (quite literally) of French butter from the walk-in to smear on my bread. Mmm, French butter...

Meanwhile, my apartment is almost overflowing with food. Spaghetti with tomatoes and bottarga (tuna roe) last nite... giant pork chops with caramelized apples and mashed potatoes and red wine au jus the nite before... LITERALLY the best empanadas I've ever eaten and ratatouille the nite before that... a small army of pork over 4 courses the nite before that... you get the idea. Most of what I've consumed has been photographed, so the previous weeks have spoken for themselves. I guess I can't really complain because I am eating like Henry the 8th on the weekends, I just wish there were a little more balance!

Other than that, things are still cruising. Today marks the official 'one month left' point, and I must admit, I am looking forward to getting home. Between now and then there will be a trip to Pamplona, one to southern France, one to Morocco, and one to Italy. Speaking of the Morocco trip, anyone wanna come? December 14th thru the 17th; I already bought my ticket and my travel buddy bailed on me, so unless I see any hands raised, I'm hitting Africa alone. No worries though, I love a good adventure...

Anyway, I have to head home and sharpen my knives. I am counting down the days until I see many of you. Oh, and don't forget, just 9 days till my birthday! I suppose I should just go ahead and set up a Paypal account here on the blog so anyone interested can just deposit my gifts directly to me. Just kidding... mostly.

Buenas tardes, muchachos!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Beautiful, beautiful Barcelona...

So this past weekend (I know it's almost next weekend for you all but my week started yesterday), I made the long anticipated trek to Barcelona to meet up with Julia. I went to bed early Sunday nite, alarm set for 5am in order to catch a cab, bus, and plane (and another bus) into Barcelona. I fell asleep excited for the next morning to arrive, and I awoke... at 6am. Cursing my new Spanish cell phone alarm, I showered and left as quickly as possible. Thankfully the trip was free of hiccups and I arrived within plenty of time.

Upon my arrival, I tried to meet Julia at the airport. She arrived only 30 minutes after me, so I had a coffee, and upon her arrival we tried to coordinate a meeting spot through cell calls and texts. This process lasted a good 25 minutes.
Because we were not in the same airport.
I honestly did not know there were 2 airports in Barcelona, so while Julia was at Girona (and she even went so far as to ask me several times, "Are you sure you're at Girona?"), I was at... the other one. We finally realized this, and with the last remaining credits on our respective phones (thanks, Murphy's Law), set out to meet at the hotel.

The rest of the day was fantastic. Great paella and fantastic wine at a restaurant on the beach, recommended to me by one of the chefs at the restaurant who is from Barcelona. Saw the Sagrada Familia, took photos galore of fountains, carnicerias, ourselves, cruised La Rambla, Sangria on the terrace of a little plaza cafe... good stuff.

Next morning we woke up at and had first breakfast (tostada, croissant, cafe con leche) around 11, and second breakfast (bocadillos de tortilla and bocadillos de chorizo) around 12:30. Set off for the Parque Guell, which was by far my favorite spot in the city. Hiked up one side through the forest, arrived at the top to a breathtaking view of the city and the sea beyond (so similar to the view of SF from Twin peaks!). Then wound our way down through the park, seeing Gaudi's surreal architecture at every turn. It was like walking through a park drawn by Dr. Seuss. Stopped near the bottom at the big plaza where we got some dope ice cream and kicked it for a little while listening to 3 dudes on guitars; they were pretty rad, Julia even bought their CD. Then out of the park (past the dragon, of course) and to find some tapas, obviously: pan con tomate, albondigas, garlic mushrooms... and a cold beer (because it's always 5 o'clock in Spain).

That was the last stop of the whirlwind weekend; back to pick up our bags, and then metro to our stop. Julia went one way and I went the other... so tough to leave each other after such an amazing time together (like when you have summer camp withdrawal). She headed to the airport to stay at a hotel the night before her early flight the next day.
I... missed my flight.
Definitely miscalculated travel time from city center to terminal. I, for some reason, was under the impression that there was a train from the Catalunya metro stop that ran directly to the airport, like a shuttle. What the trip actually entailed was a train from Catalunya to another station, then a transfer to another type of train at that station, then a transfer to another platform at another station (and this train only ran once every 30-40 minutes), then a bus from the airport train station to the terminal, then a drop off all the way at one far end of the terminal. I arrived as my flight departed.

Even worse, I had to drop like 250 bones on a flight 90 minutes later! It was the last flight to Bilbao. UGH. Needless to say, as I made my way to my gate, I was pretty miserable. I plopped into my seat to wait for the flight to start boarding, realizing I may not even make it in time to catch the hour-long bus ride from Bilbao to San Sebastian. But just when I was about to really start feeling sorry for myself, I realized that there was no way I was going to allow a shitty end to punctuate my state of mind as I wrapped up the weekend. There was so much that was wonderful, I honestly just put all my energy into focusing on that, looked through pics on my camera, and by the time I boarded the plae, I was fine. Slept the entire flight, the entire bus ride, caught a cab from SanSe and made it home in one piece (albeit a piece that was $250 smaller).

This week has beein flying by; I am back with Sany, and I never thought I would actually feel welcomed back by berating and abuse from a boss, but... it's good to be back. I am pretty much at the halfway point of the trip, and I feel like I'm at cruising altitude. Probably gonna take it easy this weekend, maybe hit up the Guggenheim (when it's actually open this time) or maybe a day trip into Southern France (the town of Irun to be specific... I think) if the weather improves. It's rained here on and off for almost 2 weeks... yuck. Cross your fingers for me, yeah?

Btw, here's the link for pics if you're interested:

Hasta luego...