When I heard there was a tasting of more than 400 wines from 90 Ribero del Duero wineries at New York's Puck Building, I was really excited. Though Jay and I have been wine tasting in Spain twice now (most recently last summer), we've concentrated our visits in Rioja with brief excursions to La Mancha and Jerez, but haven't yet made it to the Ribera region, about a two-hour drive north of Madrid.
The restaurant is named after the crunchy, slightly caramelized rice that sticks to the bottom of the paella pan. Your server comes back at the end to scrap off the socarrat for everyone to enjoy -- and it truly is the best part, crispy with a yummy nutty flavor.
Bodegas Ysios was one of the first wineries to be completed in the Rioja region by the parade of starchitects - designed by Santiago Calatrava in 2000 and opened to the public (by appointment only) in 2003. Liz and I visited the winery grounds during our first trip to Spain in 2003 when the estate vines were just tiny clusters of leaves on the ground. We actually stumbled upon this stunning structure as we peered across the valley from the hill town of Laguardia and since we were rushing from one town to the next (as always) we didn't have time to inquire about a tour. We did drive up to the building - drawn in by the contrast of the glittering aluminum roof and the bleached cedar walls with the granite and green mountain range behind.
Jay had done a lot of research before our trip to find a table for our last night, in Madrid. He settled on Gastro for two reasons: one, the chef, Sergi Arola, had trained at El Bulli and apparently was one of his most promising disciples, and two, he was also a rocker.
The restaurant was also set up in a slightly strange way with visible and large prep stations for every few tables. Our table ended up being directly next to a busy station where the servers kept coming and going (though as we reminded ourselves, we probably deserved the worst seat in the house considering our late arrival!).
Jay and I had been wanting to go to Cal Pep for years. Seven years, in fact – since the last time we visited Barcelona. At that time, we actually wandered by the restaurant (one of the top-rated tapas places in the city) several times, but first were put off by the long lines outside of it, and then when we actually went in, totally intimidated by the lack of a menu. With our poor to non-existent Spanish, we weren’t sure how we would order beyond pointing at the glorious seafood piled in the cases behind the counter.
For our next dish, we ordered the Palamos prawns, very lightly grilled with salt on top. The meat was very tender, almost sushi-like, with a slight smoky flavor. We finished them off by sucking out the meat (and other assorted items) in the heads, which had more of a briny seafood flavor but still tasted nice and smoky. We could have eaten dozens more of these.
Just after we were seated and started to calm down, our server asked if we’d like to see the kitchen. Not really knowing what was going on, we were led back into the kitchen where the 40-something chef himself, Andoni Luis Aduriz, shook our hands and started chattering away in Spanish or Basque (we couldn’t be sure), translated into English by his sous-chef. He explained that his philosophy was to use pure, simple, and local ingredients, with nothing fancy like “foams.” (Interesting because Aduriz used to cook with Feran Adria at El Bulli, which pioneered the entire foam movement.)
Another change from any of the restaurants we’d visited so far: The server actually walked us through the menu (in English, also unlike any of the places in France where it was pretty much French or nothing), and gave us choices for several dishes (lobster vs. squid, as well as choices for the fish and the meat), and even asked us how we would like everything prepared – how progressive! And Jay and I didn’t even have to choose the same things, imagine! Our server also steered us toward a bottle of the house red, a 2001 Arzak Rios Alta Rioja, which actually turned out to be really good with most of the dishes – light with red cherry flavors.