We have a new favorite restaurant.
Full disclosure: Chef-owner Brett Emerson is a personal friend and fellow blogger. And his restaurant is two blocks from our home, in an area where there is a relative dearth of good restaurants. So, we have a vested interest in seeing Contigo succeed. But I can say, having grazed our way through the ever-changing menu four times in as many weeks, that we would be enamored of this restaurant under any circumstances.
Loyal readers and friends know that DPaul and I spent a month in Spain back in 2001. We began our journey in Catalonia, first with a few days in Sitges to cleanse our palates, and then on to five days in the magnificent city of Barcelona. We had little experience with Spanish food, much less Catalan, and happily delved into it expecting it would be much like our trips through Italy.
While Spain and Italy may face each other across a vast sea and have shared roots going back millennia, their similarities, certainly on the culinary front, are few. We adapted quickly to this new diet of oily fishes, crispy fried croquetas and, above all else, pork pork porkity pork pork pork. But by the end of our month were desperate to eat anything other than Spanish food.
In our first week home, we indulged in all the pleasures endemic to San Francisco. Burritos! Sushi! We traipsed through our regular haunts, reacquainting ourselves with the food addictions we had established here.
And then, on the fifth day or so, the craving struck. Evening came, and the tapas, they were not there. Has anyone noticed my glass has no sherry in it? Where, for the love of all that is good and beautiful in the world, is my jamòn? We were faced with a void that needed to be filled, and would not be satisfactorily for a long time to come.
All right, kids, I’m gonna finish this dinner party if it kills me.
During our month in Spain, despite traversing many regions with distinct culinary and linguistic dialects, a few dishes were constant. Tapas were of course an everyday occurrence, and we easily fell into a routine of a handful of favorites: croquetas, tortilla español and above all else pimientos rellenos. I’m a big fan of bacalao, the salt-cured cod, under any circumstances, but mixed into a creamy filling inside a sweet red pepper is perhaps the most enjoyable application. I knew I wanted to reproduce this for the party.
A couple weeks beforehand, I was thrilled to see muy autentico piquillo peppers appear in their explosively colorful glory at the Happy Quail Farms booth at the farmers market. I had assumed I would end up resorting to either tinned piquillos or roasted bell peppers. Eagerly, I asked how long they would have them on hand, and was assured they’d be appearing in abundance for weeks if not months. The Spanish sun was shining on my dinner plans.
I roasted the peppers, blackening the skin under the broiler for easy removal. This is my normal method of roasting peppers; in this case, however, the thin-skinned piquillos might perhaps have benefitted from blanching instead of roasting, as the flesh of the peppers became too fragile and lost their shape. Live and learn.
Salmorejo was another regular item on our table in Spain. This emulsion of tomato, bread and olive oil appears as many things — sauce, dip, soup. I figured it would make a pleasant counterpart both in flavor and texture to the pepper.
The recipes I used as foundation came from a tourist-grade cookbook we bought in Spain called, simply, Classic Tapas. We were assured by a friend in Marbella that the recipes in the book were in fact quite authentic, and indeed we saw many dishes that we had enjoyed throughout our journey. But by virtue perhaps of poor translation, many of the recipes lack precision or even omit key steps, so it is at best a guide and not a bible. Fortunately, I am comfortable enough with basic techniques, like making a béchamel, that I was able to navigate successfully.
In 2001, DPaul and I spent a month traveling and eating our way through Spain. We began the trip in Sitges and Barcelona, meandered our way through Andalucía for nearly two weeks, then wrapped things up with a quick jaunt to Toledo and finally nearly a week in Madrid. It was a life-changing trip on many levels.
Andalucia was the unqualified highlight. Being the last holdout of the Moorish kingdoms until the advent of the Catholic Monarchs at the end of the 15th century, it remains a place that speaks of cultural connections to the Islamic world in a way otherwise unseen in modern Europe. To this day, the whitewashed streets of Granada sport signs in Arabic, and you’re more likely to encounter a tea house offering strong, tooth-achingly sweet mint tea than a Starbucks.
Our last stop in Andalucia was Córdoba, once the Moorish seat of government of nearly all of Iberia. The site to be seen is the Mezquita, a former mosque-turned-cathedral, famed for its forest of columns spanned by candy-striped arches.
Traveling with our friend Kate, we descended upon Córdoba by train from Sevilla, having already spent some ten days in the region. The Mezquita was our destination, but first, lunch beckoned.
We didn’t really have a plan, just stumbling into the first place that looked nice nearby the Mezquita. Not uncommonly, this restaurant was nestled into an older building, occupying an al fresco courtyard, almost a cloisters. We took our seat, and were immediately presented with a glass of sherry poured directly from a cask in the middle of the floor. Good start.
I don’t remember everything we had that day; in fact, I remember only one thing: A white gazpacho. It had never occurred to me that there was any kind of gazpacho other than the tomato-based variety, and I was entranced.
I knew it was made with almonds, but nothing more. For years it haunted me, and until recently I could find no recipes or even reference that such a thing existed. But then, just as it once again began to knock about in the dark corners of my memory, it presented itself to me. Catherine had beaten me to the punch, and posted a recipe. Such timing.
Similar to the classic ajo blanco, utilizing the same ingredients but with a lighter hand on the garlic and more grapes, this dish is everything I remember: The richness of almonds, sweetness from grapes, coolness from cucumbers and an unctuous texture. There’s nothing like it.
A major part of planning is shopping, and a major part of shopping is knowing where to shop. While the grocery list for our Iberian dinner contained plenty of items that were easily gathered in one morning's visit to the…
For the past couple days, I have been cogitating and scheming, figuring out how I was going to play out my final evening meal in New York. Make another stealth attack on Babbo? Try to nab one of the four bar seats at The Little Owl? My foodie coworker Ramona had also sent me off with a list of suggestions, mainly in the west Chelsea/Meatpacking District area. I was armed with an embarassment of choices.
But first I had arranged to meet up with my friend David for a drink. We arrived at the bar within seconds of one another, at which point he asked whether I had dinner plans. I was delighted to have the opportunity to share a meal and some quality time with him, but it threw me at first into a bit of a quandary. One person scoring a bar seat at a place like Babbo can be dodgy enough, but for two the odds are exponentially inverse. I didn’t want to be bossy or demanding (or as he says, play top daddy), so I asked whether he had any suggestions. He mentioned Tía Pol, and my heart lifted. It was at the top of Ramona’s recommendations. Corroboration inspires confidence.
It’s not to say that landing a seat at Tía Pol is any less challenging than at other popular spots. The restaurant is teeny weeny, long and narrow with roughly 10 seats at the bar in front, a handful of two-tops lining the wall opposite the kitchen and, I think, one sole four-top in the very back. They don’t take reservations. By the time we got there, right around 6 pm, the place was already full. At first we were told a 30-45 minute wait, though we could vie for a seat at the bar. And then, as if by magic, they got us onto one of the two-tops within minutes. Score.