London Calling

OK, so it’s obviously been a while since I posted. It’s not that I haven’t been eating any interesting foods, but I just haven’t felt much like talking about them. However, that all changed when me and the GF (now fiancee!) vacationed in London a couple weeks ago. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the food there, but I knew I wanted to try some of the classics (fish and chips, meat pies, British pub ales, etc.) And there was one classic in particular that I wanted to try more than any other: the traditional English breakfast.

In case you aren’t familiar with what the full (or “proper”) English breakfast consists of, let’s just say that it’s not like what you’ll find at the local Waffle House. Never had baked beans for breakfast? Well, that’s exactly what you’ll find in England. In addition, you’ll also get a fried (or poached) egg, some sort of sausage or bacon, and toast. And I wasn’t going to be happy until I found the elusive, final component: black pudding. Nope, black pudding isn’t dessert, but another name for blood sausage. Yum.

After some interwebs research (and a whole lot of walking), we managed to find the perfect English breakfast at the Regency Cafe near Westminster Abbey. Apparently this place is legendary among the Brits, and as soon as we walked in, I could see why. The interior was classic old-school diner, filled with working-class locals, and the kitchen staff was decked out in chef’s whites (all a good sign). After one glance at the menu, I knew it was gonna be great.

Ordering was a no-brainer: a full breakfast special, a side of black pudding, and black coffee. After ordering, the guy behind the counter said “black pudding and black coffee…good man!” Not gonna lie–that made me feel good.

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Anyway, on to the food. Once our orders arrived, I knew this was going to be the English breakfast experience I was looking for. Baked beans, a perfectly-poached egg, bacon, sausage, black pudding, and a side of toast. The beans and egg were pretty much what you’d expect, but the real gems were the meats. The sausage in link form was flavorful and juicy, and the “bacon” wasn’t like American bacon at all. It was more reminiscent of the non-fatty parts of a piece of bacon, and it tasted almost like a combination of bacon and ham. Either way, it was tasty. Oh, and I can’t forget the black pudding. Sliced thin and pan-fried until slightly crispy, it had a milder flavor than I expected, but it’s richness was balanced out by the saltiness. Awesome.

Needless to say, this was not light eating. We were fortunately able to walk most of it off while sightseeing, but part of me wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep it off. If you’re ever in London and want the real English breakfast experience, you probably be hard pressed to find one better than the Regency’s.

If you’ve always heard that British food is bad, you’ve heard wrong. Everything we ate was delicious, and we had some truly amazing meals. Highlights were definitely St. John and the Ginger Pig, and even chains like Wagamama and Masala Zone were exceptional. If you take food seriously, you’d love dining in London.

 

Barcelona Part 2

As some of you know, I was lucky enough to take a trip to Barcelona, Spain a few weeks ago. Trying to summarize all the food we ate is no easy feat, and in a previous post, I chose to focus on my first experience with paella. It was definitely good enough to warrant its own blog entry, but I didn’t want to forget all the other tasty things we ate. If you love food, Barcelona is the place to be.

Our first day started with a heavily jet-lagged trip to Mercat de la Boqueria, one of the city’s oldest markets. Aside from the gorgeous array of fresh produce, meats, fish, and cheeses, the Boqueria also contains several restaurants, most of which are lunch-counter sized and packed with people eating (or waiting to eat). I’d heard that Bar Pinoxto was a must-try, so me and the GF pushed our way through the crowd and luckily scored a couple of seats at the tiny bar. I was too tired and hungry to take pics of this meal, but let me just say that it was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Grilled, fresh octopus with olive oil and a chickpea dish with blood sausage, pine nuts and balsamic were standouts, but we also had this amazing mini-wheel of pan-fried white cheese (not sure what kind) on top of what resembled a fried potato cake. Unbelievable. A great way to start the trip.

Dinner that night was the aforementioned paella. Awesome.

Day 2 had us back at the Boqueria, and this time, we hit another one of the lunch counters (Bar Boqueria). All of these places seemed to serve traditional Catalan cuisine, and no matter what we ordered, we never went wrong. If “lunch counter” makes you think of sandwiches and such, you’d be wrong here – this was food that any chef in Atlanta would be proud to serve. I opted for some fresh sardines in olive oil (salty, fishy goodness – very different from canned) and Spanish-style morcilla (blood sausage), which was unlike any I’d tried before. The GF got a quiche-like egg “tortilla” filled with squash (really light and flavorful), and we shared an order of fried squid. This was nothing like the heavy, over-battered calamari we’re used to in the States. This version was much lighter, and, of course, fresher. Outstanding.

It would be unfair to not expand on the market itself, and if you’re into food, it’s one of those places you need to experience before you die. I’ve never seen anything like it, and even though we visited 3 times, I noticed new things on each trip. Most noticeable was the ubiquitous, expensive Iberico ham, which was being sold by numerous vendors. Some of them only sold Iberico – that’s how popular it is in Spain. In addition, there were vendors of everything else imaginable. Seafood straight from the ocean, brightly-colored produce, every kind of meat product you can think of, fresh squeezed juices – the list goes on. Sensory overload, for sure.

We didn’t want to leave without having one fine dining experience, so after much research, we settled on Gresca, conveniently located near our hotel. Rather than pick and choose off the menu, we went for the multi-course tasting, and it was well worth it. Easily as good as any fine dining experience I’ve had, and the menu featured an interesting lineup of modern spins on traditional Catalan cuisine. I won’t describe each course in detail, but standouts included a delicate piece of salt cod with shaved cauliflower as well as an egg “omelette” wrapped in Iberico ham. The preparation involved with the “omelette” still mystifies me.

Day 3 found us back at the Boqueria for lunch (again). Why mess with a good thing? This time, we tried El Quim de la Boqueria, another lunch-counter style joint. As usual, scoring a seat involved some uncomfortable hovering behind people getting ready to leave, but it was always well worth the wait. Of course, the meal was amazing, and we tore through a grilled artichoke, patatas bravas (fried potatoes topped with a spicy romesco sauce), and some insanely fresh grilled asparagus wrapped with Iberico ham. Wow.

Despite leaving each Boqueria lunch experience totally stuffed, we still managed to stumble through the market and marvel at all the other food. One of the vendors was selling some awesome-looking candies, so one day we picked up a few of those to bring back to the room for dessert (we liked the “bombas,” especially the ones filled with liqueur). Don’t expect to have much room left for sweets if you visit Barcelona, though.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the coffee – it was impossible to find a bad cup. They take their coffee seriously, and it seemed that every establishment we visited had an espresso machine and/or coffee bar. The coffee shops and cafes all had a beautiful selection of pastries – some of the best I’d ever tried. They put Starbucks and the like to shame.

There’s much more I could discuss about the trip, but doing it here would be difficult. Obviously, there’s much more to the city than food, and trying to cover the food in one blog post is really hard. If you’re thinking about going to Europe and want a food-centric destination, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Barcelona. I’d go back in a minute. Highly recommend.

From the Land of Oz…

I know I mentioned writing a part 2 of my trip to Barcelona after my last post (it’s coming, I promise), but I tried something today that I’d been curious about for a long time. The GF’s parents recently returned from a trip to Australia/New Zealand, and they brought me back some samples of the ubiquitous Vegemite. I’d heard about this substance for years, but due to its reputation (and rather high price here in the States), I’d never gotten around to trying it. I was curious to find out if it was really as bad as everyone claimed it to be.

I wasn’t sure how to eat it (it was described only as “yeast extract” on the packaging), but the GF’s parents advised that I spread some butter on a piece of bread, then add a layer of Vegemite. Was the butter supposed to make it more palatable? I had no idea, but I went for it anyway.

Once I had the bread buttered, I opened the Vegemite. It had the look and texture of Nutella spread, only darker. Based on the description, I was expecting something completely different. I scooped up a generous portion onto the knife, added it to the bread, then took a bite.

Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The flavor reminded me of soy sauce, only much more salty and intense. Not exactly a flavor that I want to spread on bread, but it wasn’t awful. I’ve eaten plenty of things that made me dry-heave into the kitchen sink (hello, natto), but this wasn’t even close to that bad. The texture was creamy and smooth, but given the extreme saltiness, I don’t plan on trying it again. They also included a sample of a similar product from New Zealand called “Justmite,” but to my palate, it was identical to the Vegemite, which hails from Australia.

I’m glad I finally got to try the legendary Vegemite after all this time. That sandwich Men At Work sang about suddenly sounds much less appealing.

Paella in Barcelona

When I first started this blog, I hoped that I’d be able to one day expand my search for new foods into other countries. Even though Atlanta is great for finding interesting eats, one can only visit Buford Highway so many times before the options are exhausted. Anyone who kept up with my previous project probably remembers me complaining about that, especially towards the end.

Fortunately, all that changed last week. Me and the GF were lucky enough to visit Barcelona, Spain for a few days, and it was a life-changing experience – especially in terms of food. I’ve never seen a city as food crazy as Barcelona, and we couldn’t walk a couple feet without seeing a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop. Rather than try to recap everything I ate in one post, I decided to focus first on one regional dish that blew me away: paella. It’s available in the States, of course, but I’d been told that I had to experience it in Spain. I’d never eaten it anywhere, so I figured Barcelona was a great place to start.

Thanks to a recommendation from Atlanta food blogger Jimmy Sobeck, better known as Eat It Atlanta, we made a reservation at Pez Vela, located right on the beach behind the W Hotel. Based on his review, I knew the paella was going to be good, but I wasn’t at all prepared for how good.

The menu featured 4 or 5 varieties, but we chose one featuring clams, shrimp, and squid. I figured seafood was the way to go, considering the proximity to the ocean. After an appetizer of pan de tomate (grilled crusty bread topped with olive oil, salt, and fresh tomato) and some excellent local wine, the massive pan of paella came.

After digging in, I immediately realized what all the fuss was about. Paella is a relatively simple dish, with rice and seafood being the 2 main components here, but the flavors were anything but simple. Even though the seafood was cooked perfectly and tasted amazing, the real star of the dish was the rice. The top layer was chewy and buttery, with a wonderfully salty, ocean-y flavor that I couldn’t get enough of. The bottom layer was just as good, but it was crunchy and caramelized from being stuck to the bottom of the pan. In this case, a little burnt is a good thing. I’m not exactly sure how paella like this is prepared, but I could tell a lot of time and effort was put into it. Amazing.

Despite the immense size of the dish, we didn’t leave a speck of rice or seafood in the pan – it was well worth being stuffed. Unfortunately, now that I’ve experienced paella this good, I doubt I’ll be inclined to order it anywhere else. I’ve been spoiled, for sure.

Part 2 of my Barcelona eating experience to come soon…

“Buffaloaf”

Anyone who’s followed my blog knows that I’ve tried a lot of different types of meat. Some were kind of scary (brains, tripe, etc.) while others were a little less intimidating. Today’s post definitely falls in the second category. Well, at least for me, anyway.

While doing some recent shopping, the GF found this package of ground buffalo on sale. It sounded interesting to me, since I’d always wondered how it compared to beef. Rather than take the obvious route and make burgers out of it, we decided to make meatloaf (buffaloaf?). I love meatloaf, but was only familiar with the ground beef version, so I hoped this was just as good.

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After finding a simple recipe online, we prepared the mixture, then threw it in the oven to roast along with some Yukon Gold potatoes. When it was done, I was surprised at how little grease/oil it produced. As a kid, I remember being grossed out at the viscous pool of grease floating in the bottom of the pan whenever my mom made it with ground beef, but this didn’t have that at all.

Given the absence of grease, I was worried that it was going to be too dry, but fortunately, it was tender and moist. The flavor wasn’t much different from ground beef – maybe a bit milder, and definitely less oily, but good. The other ingredients (tomato sauce, garlic, egg, spices, etc.) definitely added some much-needed zing, and overall, it was a success. I’d recommend using ground buffalo in place of ground beef if you want to cut back on some fat and calories, but make sure to season it well.

I can’t believe it’s (cookie) butter!

Today marks my first post of 2012, and even though I tried a lot of new foods last year, I’m always ready for more. Like everyone else, I ate quite a bit during the recent holiday season (turkey, stuffing, etc.), but only one thing really stood out as new.

On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s in Midtown, the GF found something that she’d heard of but didn’t know existed in the east coast TJ’s stores: “cookie butter.” It sounded awesome; how could you go wrong with those two ingredients paired together? However, I had a feeling there was more to it than just cookies and butter.

Cookie Butter

After reading the ingredients, I still had no real idea of how it was going to taste. The contents were a dark brown color, and the main ingredient was something called “speculoos.” I wasn’t familiar with that word, but after some research, I learned that it’s a type of sweet biscuit popular in several European countries. From what I could tell, the “butter” was a blend of speculoos cookies and several different oils (canola, coconut, rapeseed, palm). Much like peanut or almond butter, this wasn’t actually butter, but a sweetened spread that can be used to put on fruits, toast, ice cream, etc.

Rather than spread it on something, I decided to try it alone. I scooped about a teaspoon out of the jar, and it had about the same consistency as Nutella. This stuff was pretty awesome, I must say. The texture was a bit grainier than Nutella due to the blended cookies, and the taste was sweet with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was basically like eating a holiday cookie in paste form, and I could see where eating too much of it could probably make you sick.

Rather than OD from eating this alone, I’ll use it as a spread or topping in the future – maybe on a toasted bagel. It’s much too sweet and rich to be consumed by itself, but if Nutella isn’t rich enough for you, I highly recommend trying it.

A new twist on hummus at Empire State South

First of all, let me apologize for taking over a month to get a new post up. I know that’s quite different from the frequency of my past blog, but to be honest, I haven’t been eating adventurously as of late. Maybe nothing is adventurous to me anymore since I ate everything under the sun during my last project. That, of course, isn’t true, but sometimes it sure feels like it.

Luckily, it doesn’t take being adventurous to experience a great meal. Last week, me and the GF made our inaugural visit to Empire State South. Despite hearing great things about it for a long time, we inexplicably hadn’t gotten around to going. I’m sure most of you know the background on ESS, but if you don’t, please do yourself a favor and check it out.

As we started perusing the menu, I spotted something that I’d been wanting to try: boiled peanut hummus. I’d had traditional hummus a million times, but I was extremely curious about ESS’s version, made with mashed boiled peanuts instead of chickpeas. I like raw peanuts, but have never been crazy about the boiled ones that are popular in markets and roadside stands all over the south. The mushy texture always turned me off, but I was willing to give this “hummus” a chance.

Boiled peanut hummus

The hummus was served in a little Mason jar as part of their “in jars” starter plate, which also featured a lineup of trout mousse, pork rillette, house-made pickles, and pimiento cheese with bacon marmalade. All were excellent, but the hummus was my focus for this post. It looked just like traditional hummus; light brown in color with a bit of olive oil and seasoning. However, I suspected that the flavors would be quite different.

I scooped out a portion and spread it on a piece of toast. My best possible description would be that it tasted like fresh peanuts. I know that sounds simple, but it was the first thing that came to mind. The olive oil and spice added the traditional element that I was used to, and if it weren’t for the other jars on the platter, the hummus would have disappeared much faster. The flavors were clean, light, and really tasty.

If you like fresh peanuts (or boiled peanuts, I guess), definitely give this dish a try if you visit Empire State South. Be warned: the “in jars” plate including the hummus is much bigger than a standard starter plate, so you might want to bring some friends to help.