Pepe Hillo – Sevilla, Spain

If you find yourself wandering around the Arenal district of Sevilla, near the legendary Plaza de Toros, and are in need of refreshment, there’s only one place to go:  Pepe Hillo.  This traditional tapas tavern has a mid-twentieth century inspired-décor with tons of old bric-a-brac, newspapers, and – yep – mounted noggins of famous fighting bulls that make you feel like Joselito himself is going to tap you on the shoulder any minute.  This is the kind of establishment that Spain’s meteoric rise in the period immediately after joining the Eurozone, and its population’s rush to embrace a future whose glaringly bright promise never quite arrived, placed on the endangered list.  Old men are serving you and old men are sitting nearby nursing their late afternoon or lunch drinks, though quick with that wit topped with feigned arrogance that the Spaniards of Andalucia are so famous for.

If your Spanish is up to the task, you can get a decent amount of banter out of the comically cranky barkeeps.  If not, you’ll still manage to lay your hands on fine examples of Andalucian tapas.  Pulpo (exquisite octopus, grilled or fried), anchoas (anchovies like nothing you’ve tasted), various tortillas (a type of omelet, primarily of egg and potato), gazpacho, cola de toro (succulent stewed bull’s tail), and all manner of lovely jamóns

Salmorejo Pepe
Salmorejooo Cordobeeeees!!

famously cured in the nearby mountains.  But the real star of the show, their virtuoso performance that you can scarcely find anywhere else, and, for my money, one of the most refreshing Summer treats around, is the amazing Salmorejo Cordobés.

Just what is this salmorejo, you might ask?  A shorthand might be gazpacho’s rich cousin.  Whereas a gazpacho might be made primarily of tomatoes and present almost like a refreshing vegetable drink, a salmorejo should be a rich, creamy, emulsified cold soup only capable of being taken via a bowl and spoon.  Boiled egg, Serrano or Ibérico jamón, and only the finest olive oil forms the holy trinity of delicious garnishes on the top.  I’ve had it with olive oil preserved tuna in place of the jamón, but only once.  I will go so far as to suggest that you not only order this rare and delicious beauty, but that you have it before ordering anything else just in case your taste buds drive you to order a second helping before moving to other portions of the menu.

As with many places in Spain, if you’re squeamish about bullfighting or a strict vegetarian, this may not be the place for you.  As with many of my most favorite spots, a friendly local told me about this place and I’m damn glad I engaged the chap.  You don’t have to be a fan of  tauromaquia to enjoy a stop in Pepe Hillo, but a sense of joie de vivre and an adventurous appetite will serve you well.

Pepe Hillo, Calle Adriano 24, 41001 Sevilla, Spain

Advertisements

Brasserie Georges – Lyon, France

If you’ve ever imagined yourself sitting in a sprawling French café next to the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and Edith Piaf in a scene torn from the pages of A Moveable Feast, this is your spot.  Originally opened in 1836 by Alsatian transplant Georges Holfherr, this Georges Dininggrande dame sits alongside Lyon’s old train station Perrache and features exquisite décor from the last two centuries.  I found it because it’s a mere five minute stroll from the law faculty of the Catholic University of Lyon, where I teach as a guest professor in an executive course once a year.  It’s a gorgeous space with substantial history, not all of which is readily discussed in polite company.

Unfortunately, I’ve only ever visited for one of the expansive lunches that the French are so well known for.  The daily menu is exquisite and changes regularly.  As to be expected, service is achieved with the crisp efficiency of a thoroughly professional staff who whisk away plates and crumbs, sliding into place the next course with the Georges Stewelegance of a well conducted orchestra.  The food – all courses – are tip-top brasserie fare, with less reliance on the typical local delicacies of organ meat and offal that one encounters in the city’s legendary bouchons.  That is, typically French, but not specifically Lyonnaise.  Regardless, you can’t go wrong by following the chef’s daily suggestions in this bustling open space – perhaps the largest restaurant of its kind in Europe.

Now to the bit of history that Georges doesn’t advertise, with the caveat that this is all still under investigation.  I was first told about this by a local who may or may not have been correct in pointing it out.  With that disclaimer, one cannot help but notice the flooring tiles featuring one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable symbols:  the swastika.  As it was related to me, during the World War II the Germans first took the southern portion of Lyon, with the northern portion continuing to fight on for some time before falling.  During that time, Georges Floorthe German army favored Georges, using it as a beer house and social center.  As with some parts of Europe, some evidence of the occupation survived the death of the “Butcher of Lyon.”  Hence, what you might notice today if you have the misfortune, as I did, of dropping your salad fork.

Consider this a lovely, reliable spot to haul a group for a delicious and lively meal with an exuberant atmosphere – Lyon’s true specialty.

Brasserie Georges, 30 Cours de Verdun Perrache, 69002 Lyon, France

 

 

Casa Guedes, Porto, Portugal

With apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends, I did not make this rule:  the name of the game in Porto is Pork-o.  Like, for real.  While true for most of the Iberian peninsula, this little rule seems to be magnified in Portugal’s second city . . . much to the disappointment of my travel companion who was excited to break his Yom Kippur fast Casa Guedes outdoorsoon after landing.  Our gracious AirBNB host gave us more great recommendations than we were ever able to hit, but his stories so frequently included roast pork and the local favorite francesinha sandwich (think Portuguese Hot Brown with ham, sausage, roast beef, coated in a cheese and tomato sauce) that we had to do a bit of our own searching.  Casa Guedes, however, had enough options on offer that we made it work.

This little family run spot sits at the corner of the pleasant park Jardim de São Lázaro.  As with most of Porto, the locals that have been going there for years seem fascinated by the trickle of foreigners that seem to be coming in ever growing waves.  (Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor.)  Still, it’s a mostly locals spot and the counter service staff gets a kick out of foreigners who can actually manage to order in proper Portuguese.  While the bolinhos de bacalhau (classic Portuguese codfish balls) and fresh country

Casa Guedes Sande de Pernil
The Star of the Show – pernil sande!

cheese are worthy companions to the Super Bock on tap, the real star of the show here is the pernil sande – slow roasted pork sandwich.  I chose the version with fresh cheese and it was to die for.  I say this, mind you, with many years of consuming Cuban lechón straight off the Caja China and 12-hour Kentucky-smoked pork under my belt.  But beware:  you will most likely end up getting two or more and having your friends roll you out of here in a wheelbarrow.  If you’re lucky enough to visit on a warm day, have an espresso or two on the terrace to recover.  Bom apetito!

 

 

Casa Guedes, Praça dos Poveiros 130, 4000-098, Porto, Portugal

 

 

Tapas Bar 52, Lisbon, Portugal

If you’re in need of a late-night bite to stand you well for the fun ahead, this is your jam.  They call it tapas, but they mostly mean delicious Portuguese small plates, with a few Spanish standbys blended in.  We ordered everything.  As in, everything, to the point that the hilarious waiter was afraid to actually order it from the kitchen for fear that we were joking.  No single dish or beverage blew our minds here, but all were well-executed and on-point.  You won’t have a mind-altering culinary experience here, but you will get good food at a reasonable price in a nice atmosphere.

Tapas Bar 52, Rua Dom Pedro V 52, 1250-083 Lisboa, Portugal

Pub Lisboeta, Lisbon, Portugal

We would never have found this place, if not for being summoned here by some locals.  This one-room spot in Principe Real has just the perfect balance of hip ambiance and the truly local flare that you were looking for.  A great jumping off point for a foray into the Bairro Alto.  You will see debauchery near, but can enjoy cocktails or wine with adults in this little oasis.  We were only here for a couple of drinks, but gained a great appreciation for its chill atmosphere shortly – after getting a taste of the just-a-little-much behavior in the nearby street parties.  And they won’t force you into the street.  Not really.  Sit outside by the door, greet your friends en route to the parties, and chill.  Small bites and great cocktails.  But if you leave, you best be strapped in for the wild and wooly student-fueled party atmosphere surrounding it.

Pub Lisboeta, Rua Dom Pedro V 63, 1250-096 Lisboa, Portugal

The Marlton Hotel Bar, New York, NY

I was first hauled to this spot by a crazy older man that went by the handle James-Jim-Jimmy.  But that’s a story for another time.  The bar off to the left of the entrance is a great little escape from the cold.  With a huge fireplace and welcoming sofas and chairs, you really can’t beat it on a cold New York winter night.  The bar itself, just a few steps beyond the fireplace, attracts an interesting crowd to its stools and booths.  We’ve meet some characters in just a few visits – enough to keep us coming back for more.  The barkeeps are affable and professional and we had a good time chatting with them on at least one occasion.  If you should find yourself hanging around Washington Square Park, in need of a warm up and possibly a new friend, drop into the Marlton for more than a slim chance at success.

The Marlton Hotel, 5 West 8th St., New York, NY  10011    

New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker 2016

I’m gonna swoon here.  First, allow me to establish that I’m no ballet expert.  Though I’ve been to more than a few, and generally make a point to take in a performance or two each year, I could scarcely tell you what plie means.  But greatness is something I pride myself on recognizing on sight.  And this production is simply stunning!

The very idea that there were empty seats at the Tuesday night performance is a travesty.  My companion and I spent most of the time wowing, slapping each other’s legs in excitement, and generally (at least in my case) being transported back to those giddy days of Christmas past when my chest could scarcely keep my bursting heart caged.  No, really.  The stunning pageantry of the sets and costumes themselves are a sight to behold.  With gasps, of course.  The dancers’ execution is impeccable, right down to the children executing silent, elegantly playful moves perfectly in character.

A few words on the individual dancers from a neophyte.  The character Coffee that night was simply ravishing (either Megan LeCrone or Claire Kretzschmar, says the playbill).  Her every move an exquisitely sensual expression.  Lithe.  Indelible.  The power and grace of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Sterling Hyltin) and her Prince (Andrew Veyette) made of itself a whole other character – a ballet within a ballet.  Each time Veyette landed a jump, or Hyltin, one got the impression that he possesses the power to negate gravity:  not even the hint of a thump, landing like a feather each time.  In fact, I caught myself leaning forward as if in anticipation of a critical play in a sporting event – straining the ears and eyes in disbelief at the gentleness of each landing.  I could go on, at least if I knew what all the characters and movements were named.  Suffice to say that soon after the curtain rose an elegant older woman slipped into the seats to my right and spent the night whispering comments to herself with each difficult move, punctuated with physical spasms of delight.  I watched for her outbursts out of the corner of my eye and am quite convinced that she knew the dances, dancers, and ballet personally and expertly.  Suffice to say she exploded in emotion at the end.  So, you need not rely only simply on my thumbs up.

koch-theaterA couple of hacks.  The ground floor bars will always have a line.  Go up one flight of stairs where there are many more bars, much more space, and more than a few displays of costumes from performances past worth perusing.  You can ask for an intermission pre-order form at any of the bars and have your champagne and cookies waiting for you.  Sip your champagne, toss your head back in a haughty laugh, and wink at all the poor saps wasting their intermission waiting in line.  If, like they were for us, neither the weather nor clock are cooperating, hop across Columbia and pay Patrick a visit at PJ Clarke’s for a quick, but lovely, serving of prosecco and oysters and to swoon and chatter over the magnificent spectacle you were so lucky to have just attended.  You are welcome.

A small part of me was bummed that no photography of any type is allowed during the performance.  At least until I realized I could rely on the pre-installed recording equipment in the brain.  In our rush to constantly document everything, it was nice to recall that the explosive images the dancers and musicians created; the sense of excitement that made the air nearly vibrate; the lighting and stage-craft (Ronald Bates, Mark Stanley); and, of course, dashing brilliance of the conductor (Andrews Sill) and choreographer (George Balanchine) all married together in a perfect cocktail of memories that only my companion and I have the privilege of ever enjoying.  But you, dear reader, can take this much away:  if it’s remotely of interest, go.  Go and enjoy one of the most gorgeous of holiday celebration activities that money can buy in the finest place on earth to do so . . . New York City Ballet will never fail you.

The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, Washington, DC

I generally avoid reviewing places in cities that I live in.  There are a few reasons.  First, I’m a jerk and don’t want my favorite spots to get so overwhelmingly popular that I can no longer get a seat.  Second, honestly, I still consider the mean quality level of offerings in DC to be so far behind other cities that there’s just no point.  There are exceptions, and consider this the first instalment of my reformation.

This is my new jam.  The owners Aude and François-Yann Buisine hail from northern France.  At this point, I have never seen anyone working the counter but the two of them.  Aude always greets me with a warm, smiley “bonjour” and does not reserve the warmth only for me.  The space lends itself well to the reading of books and the writing of things that do not require internet connectivity.  That translates to a blessed lack of laptop-clogged tables with clickety-clacking self-important millennial types doing their startup gigs.  Instead, you hear conversations, enjoy soft, elegant seating, and Illy brand espresso drinks made with care and a glaring lack of hollered, mispronounced names.

Jailed Croissants.JPG
Croissants so good they have to put them in jail

But what of the baked goods?  They make a range of exquisite-looking pasties and deserts, but I can only vouch for the non-sweets.  Listen:  the plain butter croissants are the best I have had since the DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market made the monumentally stupid decision to chase Baltimore’s Bonaparte bakery out of their market (I have never gone back since this move – anything else I ever bought there was simply by virtue of its proximity to Bonaparte’s luscious wares).  These croissants compare favorably to anything you will find in Paris, Lyon, Nice, or beyond.  The brioche has the dense but airy consistency that I want from a brioche.  In a word, both the croissants and the brioche are a perfect “A” note.

Epilogue:  after my summer away, there now is more counter help, WiFi, and a bustling trade.  At least I know they won’t be closing soon.  Thus far, the quality has not dropped off one bit!

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, 1361 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC  20036

El Club del Vino, Malaga, Spain

Sometimes you just get lucky.  I happened upon this place with only an hour or so to go in my visit to Malaga, having given up on having any singular food or drink experience to speak of.  (Yes, I tried to go to El Pimpi, Oleo, and several other places that were either closed or just meh.)  I noticed the promising signage and decided to take a swing.

The owner, Bernardo, is quick with conversation and background knowledge on his stock.  As with Nuno and his crew at Castelo in Lisbon, Bernardo communicates a deep-seated passion for the wines he offers, making a point to note that he sells nothing that he doesn’t first enjoy personally.  There’s no script here; Bernardo can riff on any of the wines, giving fascinating background on the vineyards, wine makers, and character of each bottle.  Like most Argentinians I know, Bernardo and his spot have a certain style and aesthetic that I struggle to describe as sleek traditional:  wood, leather, and metal come together in a no-nonsense design with clean lines and, like the menu, reminiscent of a time when simple was good.

If you want a good bottle, a copa of sweet respite from the Andalusian heat, or to fill up on down-home Argentinian bites (and bife!), this is the place to visit.

El Club del Vino, Calle Pedro de Toledo 2 Local B, Malaga, Spain

Restaurante O Murta, Faro, 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:

cataplana-2
Another angle

Cataplana!

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.

bacalhau-murta
The bacalhau wasn’t bad either!

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