So Georges dos Santos explained to me that Cotes Blonde is an indication that the winery chose only the best of the best fruits to produce a selection. I have to take his word for that, and you should too. Red fruits and thyme (yes, thyme) on the nose. Light peppery notes, more red fruit, and a strong tannin finish. I could have let this one lay down for a while – wish I’d known (OK, 2013, I should have known, but was too excited and jet-lagged to think about it please stop picking on me, thanks). Spice, white pepper, and green herbs on the finish. A lovely full bodied wine that, yet again, belies France’s reputation for almost exclusively producing finesse wines.
Name: Gilles Barge Cote Blonde 2013
Winery: Gilles Barge
Varietals: Rhone blend, certainly including Syrah?
OK, I’ve kept this place semi-secret long enough. Put simply, this is my favorite wine bar on the planet at the moment. Why, you say? Though the location, ambience, and stock selection are definitely critical pieces of the puzzle, it is the style and quality of the service you will get here that truly sets this place on a pedestal.
Nuno Santos, the driving force behind it, takes enormous pride and care in ensuring that patrons have an unparalleled experience on their visit. Whether Nuno takes care of you personally or one of the several other highly trained and passionate servers here is your guide, you can expect to be led toward the perfect selection with passion, knowledge, and an attention to detail that’s rare these days. Unlike so many wine bars where you are greeted by a service professional who has memorized the most recent tasting notes from Robert Parker or James Molesworth, the staff’s love and intimate knowledge of the stock here is evident.
Reminiscent of how a guitar player feels about his different axes and each of their own quirks, imperfections, and sublime notes, no matter who takes care of you, you are going to get the straight dope on all of the wines you care to ask about. On at least one occasion, when asked about a bottle in his stock, Nuno didn’t hold back his true opinion, and in the process educated the hell out of us. The team is so dedicated to honesty in selection that, in fact, they steadfastly refuse what would be a very lucrative revenue stream in guiding winery tours. Why? It might create a conflict of interest; they don’t want to find themselves sending clients toward the highest bidder.
I could blather on here. But just do yourself a favor and go visit Nuno’s team. You will find yourself joining their legion of fans, and becoming so much smarter in the meantime.
Winebar do Castelo, No. 13 Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmão 11, 1100-000, Lisbon, Portugal
This place was a very lucky find and a huge treat. We dug this one out of an old guidebook and, after much arguing and discussion with the cab driver, who had no idea it existed, we were happy to arrive. You need one word and one word only to dine magnificently here: cataplana. I freely admit to not previously being aware of this transcendent dish:
O ye of fishy savor
Of all the salt and wind of the sea
Of all the earthy flavor of plant and seed
Of all the dreams I’ve yet to dream
Cataplana, “oh, sim!”
I’ll have the Cataplana, please.
I just made that up, but you should follow the instructions and order Cataplana and be happy to wait for such perfection to be delivered to your table. It is a traditional dish of assorted seafood and vegetables such as peppers, onions, and potatoes. And, like many traditional dishes, one that is far too overlooked lately. As a huge paella fanatic, I must admit that if the Portuguese ever figure it out, they’ll give the Spaniards a run for their saffron-flavored money with Cataplana.
The owners here have been doing this for a long time: thirty-plus years, as the patriarch of the family told me. The service is very homey – they only serve dishes that make them proud to smile, and generally eat exactly what you do. As in, you will see them around the corner chomping away on their own portion, if you, like us, go too late. For my money, Murta runs like a well-tuned instrument: each note is perfectly tuned with each inch and you almost cannot go wrong ordering any combination on the menu.
I already wrote a poem here. What else do you want to know? In the last several months the Cataplana is probably the best meal I have had, whether Barcelona, Sevilla, Lisbon, New York, LA, Zurich, Geneva, DC, Chicago, or Miami, this little granny-ran hole in the wall in the south of Portugal beat them all. So, go!
Rua Infante Dom Henrique 136, 8000-256 Faro, Portugal
I stumbled upon this place a few times, always finding the doors securely locked and the lights out. The French; they hate money. Or at least that’s what I had come to think over the course of a month spent locked out of every service or shop imagineable by the time the class I was teaching at the University let out around 6pm each day.
I finally got lucky one night while meandering around the old town: Georges dos Santos, the owner, happened to be inside, doors open, drinking wine with a friend. Georges was welcoming, engaging, and funny as hell. His pal, the owner of ultra-luxury brand Zilli, was also fun and friendly, poking fun at his own label. Amen. Georges and I had a nice chat, he got a sense of what I was into, and he started pulling wines from his shelves, including the tough-to-get Clos Signadore from Corsica. That bottle came with a nice story of what he had to do to get his hands on a few cases.
I’m sure that with enough time, Georges and I could find plenty to disagree on. Of the things we have discussed, we mostly see eye-to-eye: Washington wine (glad they like it), Empordá (the style keeps on changing), Portuguese table wine (great to explore), Virginia (no thanks). The list goes on. Thus far, Georges has turned me on to six different wines I would not have otherwise encountered. The results, for me, range from “incredible value” to “holy holy!!” The second time I visited Georges he actually remembered me from the prior year. Since I’m not particularly difficult, I’d say he has an eye for his clientele. All told, I highly suggest paying Georges a visit if you find yourself in Lyon.
This is the kind of place that causes you to continue giving hyped spots a chance. Each time you think you’ve had it with what the crowd tells you, there’s a Romiro.
Famous for its seafood, that is what you will eat. The waiters come around with digitized menus in several languages on iPads. Items are listed by kilo weight, but you don’t order that way. You just tell them what you want and for how many humans, and they do the estimating for you. And don’t worry, they actually estimate perfectly. Unlike with American spots, which I’ve found tend to constantly over-estimate in an attempt to run up the bill, Europeans (at least Portuguese, Spanish, and French) tend to value your experience over that of the house. I don’t recall being asked how I wanted things prepared, which is fine because the chef chose “perfectly” as the cooking method.
Will you wait in line to get in here? Yes. Even the footballer who thought he could game the system was shuffled back into line. But that line will move quickly and there is a fine reward at the end of it, rather unlike most lines I’ve tolerated. You will be pleased.
One final note: apparently I did it wrong by failing to order a “prego” at the end of the meal. Don’t fail me. Make up for my error and get one of these tiny little beef sandwiches that are said to be exquisite.
Cervejaria Ramiro, Avenida Almirante Reis No. 1-H, 1150-007, Lisboa, Portugal
I never would have found this place on my own. Many thanks to a group of locals that invited my friends and I along to watch the Euro Cup final match, pitting Portugal against France. And a hell of a time, it was!
This is along the lines of the many food markets you see around the world that mixes fresh items with stalls or bars that cook/prepare food. Something like Barcelona’s Boqueria or New York’s Chelsea Market. For the Euro Cup final, they set up several televisions, including a huge projection screen. We sampled many of the wares – from slow roasted pork reminiscent of Cuban lechón, to sushi, burgers, and a gorgeous Portuguese charcuterie board – everything was on point. The wine purveyor had a great selection from several regions of Portugal and nifty little vinyl bags he would fill with ice to keep things cool.
Needless to say that after Portugal triumphed, there was much dancing, singing, kissing, and the beer flowed and flowed . . . free of charge of course. Having had a great experience here during a very hectic, overly-packed moment, I would highly suggest any gastronomy fan to pay it a visit.
Mercado do Campo de Ourique, Rua Coelho da Rocha 104, 1350-074, Lisbon, Portugal
Go here. Wine shops are not all created equal, nor are they equally endowed with knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and patient owners that are happy to have an actual exchange about wine, rather than rush to sell you on whatever bottle they are getting margin on at the moment. I knew I’d found a kindred spirit when we stumbled upon the subject of the prevailing wine rating system – Javi and I shared our mutual disdain for the commercial, silly 100-point system and how certain wine illuminati manage to warp the market with high-ranking reviews of often pedestrian offerings.
Yet I digress. At Vinalium you will find a focused selection of wines from all regions of Spain, including some commercial favorites, all at friendly prices. However, it’s in the sections devoted to regional offerings and smaller producers where you’ll find some exciting stuff. From Cava to Penedés, Empordá to Montsant, Javi and Karen, his American partner and wife (whom I did not get to meet) have your number. To top it off, they run a thriving online store that will deliver cheaply and quickly in Barcelona, as well as abroad.
So what are you waiting for – go!
Vinalium, Carrer de Casanova 33, 08011, Barcelona, Spain
The Argies are coming, the Argies are coming!! And here you thought Messi was the only Argentinian of note in Barcelona. Not so! The Argentinian community in Barcelona should be proud to have Arcano as one of its standard bearers.
Sometimes you just need a steak. I was feeling a bit run down from some intense workouts and non-stop travel, walking (and walking, and walking), and just feeling the general travel malaise that pops up after you’ve been mostly talking to yourself for days. So I decided to go for the Palermo cure: a perfectly cooked bife, served as only Argentinians can.
Now, I don’t normally recount my full experience in this space. Rather, I prefer to just talk a bit about a place and tell you whether, and why, to go. But Arcano is an exception. Tucked away on one of El Born’s tiny, unassuming side streets, Arcano was a gorgeously appointed revelation, making grand use of its namesake Arches. I walked in, solo, on a busy Friday night and without a reservation. I’ve found that in Barcelona, not having a reservation is often an issue. Not so at Arcano. The staff asked my indulgence in taking one of their fantastic house beers at the bar for a few moments (a US-style summer ale, no less), while they prepared my table. All the while, respectful, cordial, and expert in their attention to detail, as Argentinians often are.
As I said before, it was time to indulge. So I went for the solomillo finished with a Pedro Ximenez reduction, topped with mushrooms and accompanied by a mushroom “cupcake.” It was as extravagant as it was delicious. It should be no surprise that the steak was a perfect medium rare, but the ballet of sweet, salty, and umami flavors created by the reduction and the mushrooms was just amazing. A truly decadent experience worth every Euro I paid for it. For the service, the gorgeous cave-like setting, and truly exceptional food, I highly recommend you pay Arcano a visit the next time you’re in El Born.
Arcano Restaurant, Mercaders 10, La Ribera-Born, Barcelona
This is one bustling spot for lunch, and for good reason: the service is excellent, the staff cordial and fast-moving, the pulpo (grilled octopus) and navajas (grilled razor clams) excellent, the beer cold, and the salads taste as if they were cut and prepped just before you ordered.
A great little stop off popular with the locals, it has an expansive, mostly, but not exclusively, seafood-based list of tapas to choose from. If you are in the neighborhood of the Arc de Triomf or Parc Zoológic, it’s worth checking out.
Bar Celta Pulperia, Carrer de la Princesa 50 08003 Barcelona
Family run boutique hotel the Yard is a nifty little treat right next to the happening Naviglio Canal area. I’m a sucker for balanced design + function combos and the Yard gets it right. The moment you enter the front door, which takes you through the immensely stylish lounge the Doping Club on your way to check-in, the amount of love spent on every detail is apparent. We happened to have arrived the morning that the Olympic Commission barred the Russian athletes from the 2016 Olympics for, well, doping – the joke was not lost on us.
Each room is uniquely decorated with a theme. We stayed in the antique-themed suite (no. 15), which included a well-equipped private terrace overlooking the Doping Club. The beds were comfortable, the bathroom (and hot water) well-equipped and in great working order (though I will admit here that I was disappointed to see toiletries from NYC’s C.O. Bigelow, only because I had hoped for some exotic Italian toiletries), and the décor entertaining, at the least. Unfortunately, none of the fascist-era jack boots displayed as room decoration fit. Yes, I tried.
The Doping Club is a plush lounge rivaling the nicest spots in Manhattan. Although I never saw it very full (most likely due to only passing through during the post-dinner, pre-party shoulder period and after closing), I imagine it to be a popular venue with stylish locals. The opulent throwback décor, cushy velvet couches, and fascinating artifacts throughout make for a great place to grab a cocktail, chat, and people watch.
As if the staff were not friendly enough, the breakfast included in the room rate is simply outstanding. You’ll be greeted with a sunny “buongiorno” the moment you enter, along with a cheery tail wag from the resident principessa puppy. The standard continental breakfast includes fresh juices, fruit, yogurt, granola, a selection of pastries and prosciutto croissant sandwiches, and cheeses. Everything is supremely fresh and delicious, and you’ll be offered exquisitely prepared cappuccino, with or without chocolate (don’t be daft, get the chocolate) and as much additional fruit as you can handle. Really, a fantastic way to start the day.
For its ambience, charming décor, attention to detail, quality appointments, and cheery service, I can’t imagine doing better than the Yard Milano. I will be back.