Saturday, April 17, 2010

The fierce urgency of lunch

One of the downsides of being a foodie is that, when you travel, lunch can never simply be lunch. That is, it cannot just be an intake of nutrition adequate to the task of carrying one through a productive afternoon. No. Lunch must be an event. There is nothing more disappointing than working up a good appetite then wasting one of your limited lifetime restaurant units on a so-so meal. After all, I might only have 5,000 or so more chances to eat out before I die.

So finding the right place for lunch takes on a fierce urgency when the Ajimi Team is on vacation, particularly in Spain where one is generally within a 5-minute walk of something delicious. We will bypass a dozen perfectly okay places in our quest for the superb.

Such was the case in Donostia in mid-March. Our St. Joseph’s day meanderings led us across the river from La Parte Vieja -- Donostia's tapas central -- to Gros, the rapidly changing working-class district near the Kursaal. By 1 pm we were peckish in a way that augured ravenousness in about an hour. It was early still for a Spanish lunch but we raised our restaurant antennae.

There were bars aplenty, filled to overflowing with contented-looking holiday patrons. But we wanted a sit-down lunch, nothing too fancy, just a chance to relax for an hour or two with some good food, conversation and wine.

We have a rule at these times: either party can reject an option for any reason and we will move on without a backward glance. However, if the hunger pangs start coming 3 minutes apart, either party can also invoke the 10-minute rule. That means we have to choose a restaurant within 10 minutes or risk tantrums.

We were on about minute 9.5 that day when we pulled up in front of a Galician restaurant, La Casa Galicia. It looked like a tidy but otherwise not very remarkable bar at first glance. But the specials board offered an interesting degustation menu served in the rear dining room so in we went.

The dining room was completely booked. But our host laid a crisp white cloth on a table near the bar. Families of various sizes were dining, drinking and chatting all around us. An elderly couple at the next table picked at a plate of patatas bravas sharing a bottle of rosado.

Although the prix fixe menu looked great we opted for the ala carte menu: several nights of tapas-hopping had taken their toll. The menu advertised a hybrid Basque-Gallician cuisine, which was reflected in the presence of more sauces and meat than one would generally find in a straight-up restaurante gallego. The artichokes with foie were served with a lightly garlicked béchamel. Everything on the plate was nicely crunchy - artichokes, leeks, deep-fried potato chips, even the liver. The layers in the milhojas de bacalao included ragout of eggplant and veggies, cod, a crispy cracker that tasted like the sea, and a topping of lightly sautéed shrimp. The meat course was cordero asado, roasted lamb shank with red peppers and potatoes with sprigs of epazote and a sauce that might have contained a splash of balsamic vinegar in a meat reduction. Oh my. We accompanied these magical items with glasses of the house Albariño. We passed up dessert, but the perfectly mellow sensation of wellbeing that followed the meal was better than a million cheesecakes.

Back in Nihon, we discovered that La Casa Galicia is affiliated with an organization of the same name that promotes Galician culture in Gipuzkoa, the Basque province of which Donostia is the capital. They offer gastro-cultural events throughout the year, including barrikotes – tastings of fresh cider out of the barrel – in March.

Casa de Galicia
C/Zabaleta, 28
Donostia - San Sebastián
tel. 943. 274.391


Photos: NV

Friday, April 9, 2010


The Ajimi team was out in the Alde Zaharra of Donostia with a few Basque music industry insiders. Between glasses of crianza and mandatory pintxos we brought up the recent collaboration between Fermin Muguruza, political punk/ hardcore/ ska/ reggae international musical activist, and the trendy local eatery, A Fuego Negro. The project in question was Pintxatu, a smartly designed cookbook highlighting the latest in A Fuego Negro's Fernan Adria-inspired postmodern tapas and an attendant CD of post-rock reggae electronica curated by Muguruza. A few eyes rolled. Questions about Muguruza's sanity and/or commitment to DIY aesthetics and political ideals jokingly made the rounds. But a grudging respect ultimately prevailed for an artist whose creative hunger and boundless energy for collaboration and community found new expression - in a cookbook.

Pintxatu punningly takes its name from pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, and Murguruza's legendary punk band, Kortatu. I'm quite sure that the man who penned the enduring anti-anthem, Mierda de ciudad, never expected to be creating a soundtrack for your dining pleasure.

The conceit of the cookbook is 19 different dishes with 19 different songs to complement and highlight each culinary experience. The food, largely crafted and designed by star chef Edorta Lamo is alternately, sometimes simultaneously, amusing and appalling. Under the spell of molecular cuisine and kitchen science 101, such flights of fancy as Sangre Crujiente - frozen blood sausage balls tossed into the deep fryer - are submitted for your approval, and take you into a culinary twilight zone. This metaphorical mix of revenge and passion also includes squid ink and leek ash, among a host of ingredients. Or how about a seafood Koktela surrounded by a foam of bitters and vermouth, topped with a lemonade foam? These are just the tip of the iceberg in a book filled with impossible-to-make recipes and often questionable combinations. And for every cook who's embraced the pretense of the molecular food revolution, Ajimi suggests spending some time with food scientists at General Foods or Kraft to see how the big kids do it.

Nonetheless, even though it's a perfectly useless cookbook (do you really want to burden your kitchen and your life with a whippit containers, obscure you'll-only-use-once ingredients or a shelf full of various gelatins and gums?) it's brilliantly designed, quite amusing and will certainly become an historical window on the ideas of the times.

There's even a specious introduction espousing a a rather quaint European philosophy of negritude. Connecting the innovative Basque cuisine and music to the development of black music in America is a rather big leap. And it's picked up by some rather embarrassing recipes in the book. Case in point is Afro Txipi, a variation on the tried and true Txiperones en su tinta (squid in its own ink), but this one creating a sepia-infused edible 'fro to anthropomorphise a cooked squid into something signifying a black person. But it's food for thought. Something to muse over while eating a grilled cheese sandwich - which technologically speaking is a pretty wild experiment with wheat, yeast and milk and rennet.

So, who are we to pass judgement on contemporary food trends?

As for the musical accompaniment, it's a mix of derivative electronica (isn't it all!) with a lot of reggae and ska. When not being downright embarrassing or unlistenable, most of the tracks seem a bit like afterthoughts by artists who are generally more thoughtful. Highlights include Muguruza's own offering, Kamakaze's nutty rap Cuenta Remix and Selector Matanzas' Latin groove Arroz con Coco.

Despite Ajimi's rather critical take on Pintxatu, for some reason we still love the book - whether its fleeting topicality, the fact that a good friend was involved, the genuinely great visuals and design of the book object or the magic of Donostia and all it represents musically and foodily.