A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Aug. 23.



Madrid, Part Three - Supermarkets, supermarkets, supermarkets. That's the watchword for the budget traveler and it's certainly been ours. And with a Capabro located just up the block from our hotel, it couldn't have been easier. Thus, our third morning in Madrid started with another visit to the deli counter, and a hundred grams each of brie and turkey. Brie's among my very favorite cheeses and this one met the challenge. It really went well with our whole wheat baguette.

Newly energized, we set out for more sightseeing. The first stop was Chueca, which the guidebook called ¨bohemian,¨ but was closer to one part Soho, two parts Chelsea. We also wandered through an unending stretch of Chinese fabric and clothes shops. More interesting was the Plaza Mayor, the most prominent and beautiful town square, and the extravagant gilt of the Palacio Nacional.

As dinnertime neared, we looked for cheap alternatives to avoid the supermarket sandwich fate for one night. Vince froze in front of a pasteleria, or pastry shop, perusing all the alluring confections. ¨We could just eat dessert tonight,¨ he suggested, half-joking. I gave him a second to retract before eagerly agreeing. After all, we were young, crazy and on vacation. What better way to express that than dessert for dinner?

Luckily, Tahona San Onofre was fantastic. Besides a very friendly counterwoman, their pastries and cakes were all intricate and wondrous. One cake had a scene from Snow White sculpted on it in icing. We spent ten minutes vacillating between the rows and rows of sweet opportunities. Finally, I went with a coca de castaña, an apple tart and three mini-pastries. The coca de castaña was a thick sheet of baked dough topped with candied fruits. It was great and novel, though by the end, proved a little too sweet. The apple tart consisted of baked dough in the shape of an eye and about the size of a large soapdish, and layered apples that were cradled inside, sweetened with cinnamon sugar. It was magnificent, so soft and wonderfully seasoned. My mini-pastries were also uniformly excellent, almost at the level of a Financier or Payard.

Our last day in Madrid was a quieter one. We got a post-noon start and with no particular landmarks left, we just aimlessly drifted, choosing streets randomly. For lunch, I kept it light, getting a bottle of water, and a peach, plum and tomato. The produce in Spain has ranged from good to extraordinary and these three choices all tilted to the latter end. Around five-thirty however, we were both getting hungry again. We checked out the menus del dia at the restaurants circling Plaza Mayor, and most of them were around ten euros. That's pretty cheap for a three-course prix-fixe, but we wanted to see if we could do better. Vince had read in his guidebook that Chinese restaurants were very inexpensive and known to serve large portions. I hadn't had Chinese food in a while, and wondered if it could be any good in Spain. I doubted it but I didn't mind the prospect of large, cheap portions.

We found a place after some searching but it was closed. The menu was in fact quite inexpensive and we wanted to wait it out, but there were no hours posted. No problem, we reasoned. We'd hit upon another one soon. After an exhaustive effort, we turned up another one with comparable prices. Again, it was closed with no hours posted. We knew that Spaniards didn't typically eat dinner until eight and that most restaurants didn't pick up until nine, but we hadn't expected the utter desolation of earlier choices. It was also then in our quest that we noticed the dearth of other nationalities. We hadn't seen any other Asian restaurants-- no Thai, no Japanese, no Vietnamese, any other European-- no French, no German, no Italian besides pizza. I'm sure there were some out there, but for a capital city to be so inundated with Spanish food and doner kebab at the expense of everything else seemed strangely limited.

We weren't able to find any more Chinese restaurants, open or closed, but we now felt set on it. Vince remembered that we'd passed one near our hotel, so we headed back in that direction. it was nearing eight already by the time we approached, frustrated but hopeful. Sure enough, with the way our luck was going, a construction crew was stationed in front of the restaurants. Pipes were exposed, workers were carrying in pieces of sheetrock, and the owner was outside yelling at the foreman. ¨When are you serving food again?¨I asked him when he'd finished yelling. ¨Not till Friday,¨ he answered. We had waited this long. We had traveled this far. Now, we were sunk.
Our last resort was to ask at our hotel if there were any more Chinese restaurants in the area. Surprisingly, there was one. I did my best to translate the desk clerk's directions, and we ended up at Palacio Oriente, a remote spot I can't imagine many people finding on their own. We were just relieved that it was open. The place was huge, able to seat a hundred comfortably, but for the duration of our meal, we were the only ones there. Still, we ate on, each ordering an asparagus soup with crab meat, and splitting the pork with bamboo shoots and Chinese mushrooms and the chicken with almonds. The liquor list proved to be an even better bargain than the food, with options like sake and lychee liquor being only one euro. Vince got the former, while I got the latter.

The soup was pretty good with its pieces of white asparagus, but also nothing special. The chicken was unpleasantly salty and while the pork was better, it was still average and oily. As we ate, I wondered why we'd wanted Chinese in the first place. Unfortunately, it only got worse from there. Even though we were the only ones there, the owner mostly ignored us as she ate dinner with her family at a table out of view. She tried to pressure us into ordering desserts that neither of us wanted. But it was only when the check came that we were really bothered. She had charged us six euros for the sake and three for the liquor, nearly as much as the rest of our meal.

I went up to argue and she said that she'd asked ¨¿con comida?¨when I ordered. I took that to mean, did we want drinks with the food rather than before. She insisted that in Spanish, ¨con comida¨ meant, did we want enough alcohol to go with all of our food. I asked her to adjust the price somewhat and after some debate, she let us off at ten euros a piece. That dropped the total about four and a half euros. We felt better but still cheated, especially because the food wasn't all that good. ¨We should have recognized the bad omens,¨ Vince said. For the second time in a row, it was an underwhelming end to an otherwise exciting city.

3 Comments:

Blogger afp763389 said...

... :)

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Jon Robins said...

"It was interesting to see such traditional Gallic architecture against the backdrop of Lyon's modern sections"

Gallic architecture???? Lyon's modern sections??? BOOOOOOOOOOORIIIIIIIIING!
Dude, I'd rather watch a rabies inundated Chicken Feet pushing a sobbing Flanders off a cliff to awaiting carnivorous ponies.

- The blog looks great, though I have a LOT of catching up to do...
Jonathan "The Wise"

11:10 AM  
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