Restaurante La Luna de Júpiter, Barcelona, Spain

Some nights when traveling, you just need to stretch out and enjoy a long, satisfying meal in a relaxing and quiet atmosphere.  This adorable, tiny spot sits on the somewhat hidden Traginers Plaza – a real oasis of quiet and relaxation in the middle of the often wild and wooly Barrio Gótico.  Snag an outside table if it’s warm enough and you can.  If not, I’m quite fond of the first table on the left.

Don’t bother being in a hurry.  The server and the kitchen won’t be, and you shouldn’t be either.  I know I’d happily sit starving for a couple of hours right now if it meant sinking my fork into a plate of their house-made gnocchi.  This is yet another discovery that I can claim no credit for:  all praise to my native Catalan friends.

Restaurante La Luna de Júpiter, Plaça dels Traginers, 8, 08002 Barcelona, Spain

Sor Rita Bar, Barcelona, Spain

There’s a hilarious pun afoot in this convivial and wonderfully designed little drinking establishment in the Barrio Gótico.  I’m not going to unravel it here for you, though.  Just feast your eyes on the stiletto-heeled décor, Barbie doll chandeliers, and numerous homages to pop culture’s most gorgeous femme fatales adorning the walls.  But, wait!  What’s with all the portraits of nuns?

The locals are friendly, the bartenders hilarious and efficient, the music on point, and the space gorgeous.  What more could you ask for?!

Sor Rita Bar, Carrer de la Mercé, 27, 08002 Barcelona, Spain

Casa de Tapes Cañota, Barcelona, Spain

There is one specific reason to come here:  navajas.  But not the razor clams you’re used to.  Rather, Navajas!!Navajas!!Navajas!! 

This rather non-descript little spot, tucked away at the intersection of Sant Antoni and El Poble-Sec neighborhoods, is a semi-hidden gem.  Not exactly on the tourist studded path, you’ll be pleased you made the trek.  Serving excellent versions of many Spanish and Catalan classics, it’s the Galician-style navajas a la plancha (grilled razor clams) that will captivate your tongue and imagination.  My companion, who had recently spent a month eating her way through several villages on the Galician coast while on holiday, attested that the bright green garlic, olive oil, and parsley brine coating the clams was indeed at least as good as anything she had on Spain’s northern coast.  Probably better.

At a relatively friendly price point, including for the wines, this jovial and informal spot should be high on your list of places for a great meal.  And, yes, you should get that second order of navajas.

Casa de Tapes Cañota, Carrer de Lleida 7, 08004 Barcelona, Spain   

El Nacional BCN, Barcelona, Spain

Welcome to the amusement park of Catalan gastronomy!  One of the coolest places in all of Barcelona.  For such a large space, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find.  Built inside of a restored factory, it has all the gorgeous iron work and design details one imagines in the Barcelona of your memories and dreams.  Inside there are four distinct restaurants and four distinct specialty bars, all under the same roof:  Beer Bar; Wine Bar; Oyster Bar; Cocktail Bar; La Braseria (specializing in steak); La Llotja (fresh fish cooked your way); La Taperia (tapas); La Paradeta (deli and baked goods).  All of the bars serve exquisite renditions of traditional Catalan cold tapas.  Think the most gorgeous, upscale, high design food court that your brain can conceive of, crank it up two notches, and then you’re close.

The first couple of times that I went was with a Barcelona native who had been hearing the rumors and was dying to try it.  It was like getting a grand tour of Catalonian gastronomy – from the Costa Brava to Girona, Priorat down to Valencia, all under one roof.  Our first stop was at the beer and tapes (that’s “tapas” in Catalan, friend) counter, the first little island in the middle of the place.  My companion took the excellent and chatty bartender, Colombian by birth (friendly Colombians:  there’s a theme here), on a tour of his own wares, netting us fresh tins of anchovies L’Escala; a version of your grandpa’s favorite delicacy unparalleled by any other coast.  So much yum!

Honestly, I could swoon here for paragraphs.  But I’ll spare you.  Just do yourself a favor and go, and go hungry.  Everything is on point:  from the wine selections to the fish preparations, the balanced cocktails to the perfectly shucked oysters – just do it.

El Nacional BCN, Passéig de Gracia 24 bis (down an alley between Carrer de la Diputació and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes), Barcelona, Spain

Sushi Dokku, Chicago, IL

Get the oyster shooter.  Get.  It.  I know you don’t like them and I don’t care.  Really.  Perhaps it was the quail egg.  Or perhaps it was the sezchuan pepper tickling the throat as it went down.  Maybe the perfect balance of spice, umami, and salty oyster flavors.  Or I could have just been caught up in a moment with my awesome companion (hi, Doc!).  Doesn’t matter.  Everything we had here was great, from the ice cold Sapporo, to the delicious Hamachi preparation (me ecanta ha-MASH-iiii!!), to aforementioned oyster shooter.  Just go.  If you are sushi friendly at all, go.  And did I mention that you should order the oyster shooter?

Sushi Dokku, 823 West Randolph Str., Chicago, IL  60607

Dogtown Coffee, Santa Monica, CA

acaiSomething seems rather familiar at this place.  Perhaps it’s the bright airbrush paintings on the wall, the friendly hipster-cum-athleisure suited patrons, the sassy Sicilian guy taking my order, or all the years I spent hanging out with the X-gamer crowd.  Naaaaah, it’s the best açai bowl I’ve had since those two summers living in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro.  This is a great little coffee spot, rife with hearty breakfasty and snacky items – it really is tough to choose and I look forward to several more mornings’ deliberations.  But that açai bowl – the right balance of granola, strawberries, banana, and just a sprinkling of coconut shavings on top.  My old Polisucos guy in Rio would be proud.  Oh, and the coffee’s good too, served with a return smile.

Dogtown Coffee, 2003 Main St., Santa Monica, CA  90405

Bar Nestor, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain

I heard about this place from a friend who had recently passed through San Sebastián.  It had been a good twelve years since I’d been through the gorgeous Basque fishing town and its horseshoe bay.  But the food I remembered well.  Years ago I had my local spot where I would get a late breakfast of mussels and cava, before going to sleep for a bit out on the beach.  Sublime.

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Chuleta de buey

At Bar Nestor questions are kept to a blessed minimum, and the answer is always “sí!”  Do you want chuleta?  Of course.  Do you want tomatoes?  That’s not a real question.  Will you have peppers?  You’re no fool.  The only real question to ponder is what wine you will choose, and they do have a selection.  One thing to keep in mind for those inclined to order a bottle:  in English we might use the words “powerful” or “strong” to refer to a big-flavored or robust wine.  In the Spanish wine lingo of Spain, the word “fuerte” (i.e. strong or powerful) actually refers to the tannins.  A fuerte wine will have a lot of tannin.  I learned this the hard way by expecting a powerful and robust red to accompany my chuleta, but ending up with a wine so tannic that it felt like sucking on tree bark.  Please be advised.

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Perfection.

The first thing you will see is the most gorgeous hunk of meat you have ever laid eyes on.  Amazing, sea salt-coated slabs of chuleta de buey (a bone-in local grass-fed ribsteak), steaming and spitting on their flatiron grills.  They don’t ask you what temperature to cook it.  They already know what’s best:  sizzling medium rare, with an emphasis on the rare.  Whatever alchemy Nestor has wrought; the incantations you will never learn.  Just be happy he lets you enjoy the fruits of his magical labors.  The tomatoes come crudely sliced into uneven hunks, coated with olive oil, and generously heaped with more sea salt.  The peppers are fried and deliver only light heat every seventh pepper, or so the local grandmothers will tell you.

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Tomates!

Nestor won’t discuss opening another restaurant or expanding the one he has.  Believe me, I tried.  He laughed heartily at the suggestion that he open a spot in Washington or New York, waiving his finger and shaking his head all the while.  Whatever else you do while visiting San Sebastián, do yourself a huge favor and just go here.  The staff is magnificently friendly (particularly for Spanish speakers) and you will not be met with a bewildering array of choices:  just an amazing steak, cooked perfectly.  Get the tomatoes and, if you’re hungry enough, get the peppers.  You can thank me later.

Address: Bar Nestor, Pescadería no. 11, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain

Barceloneta, Miami Beach, FL

IMG_0002I had been trying to go here for a while. The last attempt I was rerouted to the sister restaurant, Pubbelly. It was a great experience (and where I first heard about la Guajira from the nice Colombiana bartender, nice and Colombian being redundant), but not on the same “wow” level as Barceloneta.

In case it isn’t already clear from the rest of the blog, I’m a Spanish food fanatic. As in, the kind of fatty that spends an entire summer eating and drinking his way through the country. There are many excellent spots along the Eastern and Western seaboards of the United States serving wonderful, and sometimes faithful, versions of many of my favorite dishes from Galicia, Castilla, Catalonia, Andalucia, and beyond. But only at Barceloneta have I been transported completely. A truly transcendent experience. I kept looking around the dining area wondering if the young models, rich yachters, and SoBe scenesters truly had a grasp on what they were undertaking with this menu. They couldn’t possibly – too skinny, the lot of ‘em.

I don’t tend to outline every dish here, but am making an exception this time. But first, and to out myself completely, the captain of the kitchen is Juliana Gonzalez, a cousin of one of my closest friends. For me, that means I would have gone here no matter what, and even returned if it was at least serviceable. However, I would not have become an evangelist for the place, which is what I consider myself now: a convert. I passed by initially to finally grab a tapa or two so I could report back to my buddy in DC that I had finally made it. I told the bartender to let Juliana know that her cousin’s friend stopped in and was surprised when she pulled herself free from the line to say hello. Puerto Ricans: classy, kind, and all about family – why was I surprised?

IMG_0004Things kicked off mightily when Gabriel, the Mallorcan bartender, made the best gin-tonic I’d had since leaving Barcelona this July. I ordered the pulpo grillada (grilled octopus tentacle) and boquerones. For the boquerones, I requested the slight modification of no truffle (the allergy isn’t just from my wallet, people). Both were exquisite iterations – the boquerones came with some type of salty gel, olive oil, parsley, and many blessings, and the pulpo with shaved fennel and a fine aioli. Juliana then sent me an order of croquetas de jamon iberico that, I must say, were the best I’ve ever had. Whoever she has manning the fry station could not possibly be making enough money – a perfect shell of light crispiness that just barely resists the fork, creamy and hot in the center. Amazing balls. Yes, I said that.

IMG_0005The esqueixada gets its own paragraph. The traditional Catalan dish esqueixada is sometimes compared to ceviche or a salad in that it consists of fish, vegetables, oil, and an acidic fruit marinade. For her version Juliana substitutes the magnificent, if somewhat a hidden South Florida gem of a fish, wahoo for the traditional salt cod. The results are stunning. As good as the dish sounds to a ceviche fanatic such as myself, it tastes even better. At the end, I requested bread to sop up the last of the oil and juices left on the plate. I may have licked the plate too – I can’t say for sure because my brain and taste buds were in another world-level state of nirvana and joy.

Do yourself a favor the next time you are in Miami and go to Barceloneta. Order the esqueixada and anything else that strikes your fancy. If you are missing Barcelona or Spanish food in general, it’s a cheaper trip to South Beach than across the Atlantic and you run a very good chance of getting a better meal.

Address: Barceloneta, 1400 20th St, Miami Beach, FL 33139

Cartagena Annoyances

Before going you need to know about a few annoyances that manage to only slightly mar the magnificent beauty of this jewel of the Caribbean. Prostitution is legal and rampant. Look no further than the Secret Service scandal; they got busted because they refused to settle the bill with a local service provider who simply phoned up the police. To each his or her own, but you really need to be able to tell when a woman is clocked in and don’t waste her, or your, time. Second, drugs are very illegal, you will be offered them, and you will get stopped and patted down by local police. Third, Cartagena and its locals have a reputation in Colombia as being so anxious to take advantage of visitors so as to actually damage its own tourist industry. In my experience, this is pretty accurate, but is a minor annoyance that you should just treat as a tax – pay the minimum you can reasonably get away with and get over it. Finally, beware Devil’s Breath: a flavorless, scentless knock-out drug that is sometimes used to relieve travelers of their hard earned cash. Make a pact with your travel buddies (whether you packed your own, or met others there) that you will look out for each other. This nasty stuff can be passed orally or by touch, can kill in excessive doses, and results in the victim becoming a happy-go-lucky party animal open to maxing out credit cards and emptying bank accounts just to help out their newfound friends. Yes, this is not Kansas, Toto, but Cartagena is a gorgeous new lover who will seduce you with her charms and reward you deeply for loving her.

La Boquilla, Cartagena, Colombia

Like many Latin American cities, Cartagena doesn’t have very nice city beaches. Blame it on the busy port or on poor sewage and waste management. In Boquilla you will find the nicest beaches available on the mainland near Cartagena. Locals compare it to Miami for the small strip of beachfront properties, relative security, and availability of water sports rentals and instruction. We rented a beachfront property here via AirBNB and it was an excellent decision. Beware the locals hanging around on the north end of the beach – the beach abuts against an old shanty town and not all of the locals get that stealing from beachgoers is less sustainable than selling them things of value. Not a good spot for night beach walks, but very secure during the day.

Address: La Boquilla, Highway 90A, Cartagena, Colombia