A Taste of Northern Spain – Part 6: A Fabulous Finish – Navarra, La Rioja and Madrid

IMG_2175Leaving a city like San Sebastián is never easy, but one of the things I love most about Spain as a travel destination, is that around every corner there is always something good to eat and drink and something interesting to see. Our trip was rapidly hurtling towards its conclusion, but it wasn’t over yet. We still had two full days where we would be together to experience tastes of Navarra, La Rioja and Madrid. While we did not have nearly enough time to fully appreciate all of the glories those areas offer, we still managed to make the most of the time that we did have.

Olite

Olite

Great food and drink was always foremost on our minds and our agenda for this trip, but that never precluded seeing the sites and experiencing other facets of the country. We were heading to Navarra for a vegetable focused lunch, but took a fascinating detour to stop in one of the most charmingly storybook towns that I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Just south of the much more well known city of Pamplona, where the famous “Running of the Bulls” is held each summer, stands Olite, a most well-preserved example of French Gothic architecture centered around its 14th Century Palace. While the seemingly haphazard array of towers and narrow streets begged for further exploration, we were content to stroll through the streets on a sunny and beautiful late morning, stopping for a beverage in the main square next to the Town Hall.

Olite main plaza

Olite main plaza

It may not have been the height of tourist season, but Olite appeared to be genuinely unspoiled and a fantastic place to relax and let one’s mind wander through the ages.

Olite

Olite

Amazingly enough, I was starting to feel a bit peckish as we re-boarded our bus to continue to the small city of Corella and the scene of one of the best meals of my trip with Gerry earlier in the year.

Yours truly with Gerry Dawes and Nabor Jiménez at El Crucero

Yours truly with Gerry Dawes and Nabor Jiménez at El Crucero

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Spain, Navarra, is known for its vegetables and what vegetables they are! It’s not that Navarrans are vegetarian or that the meat that they produce is any less than from elsewhere in Spain. It isn’t. The quality of the vegetables and the extended growing seasons, however, result in an exceptional area of quality vegetable product. Even better is that the chefs of the region know what to do with them to make them really stand out. Such is the case of El Crucero, run by chef/owner Nabor Jiménez .

Cardoons and pomegranates

Cardoons and pomegranates

Gerry and I had previously had a great meal at Crucero last winter and this one was very similar, starting with the wonderfully delicious and refreshing cardoons and pomegranates bathed in El Crucero’s own, fabulous olive oil. If I had been returning on a more personal trip, I would have liked to experience new and different dishes from my previous visit, but given that we were taking our travel party, Gerry and I wanted them to experience the same wonderful dishes that we had loved before.

Pimientos de Cristal

Pimientos de Cristal

A second go at El Crucero’s fabulous Pimientos de Cristal reaffirmed their position as my new reference point for roasted peppers, though the first time was slightly more astoundingly delicious with a savory sweetness that belied the relative simplicity of the dish.

Pochas

Pochas

Pochas were once again an example of how wonderful beans in Spain can be, second to nowhere else in the world in my experience.

IMG_2137 IMG_2141The roasted baby goat was again a demonstration of Spanish meat roasting prowess, proving that the meat of young animals is an extraordinary delicacy with subtlety, flavor and extreme tenderness.

Artichokes and foie gras

Artichokes and foie gras

Artichokes and foie gras was essentially a pre-dessert, albeit much more savory than sweet and just as I like it.

Aliaga, Lagrima de Garnacha 2014

Aliaga, Lagrima de Garnacha 2014

Once again, we drank the beautiful wines of nearby Aliaga, starting with the voluptuous and extraordinary rosado, the 2014 Lagrima de Garnacha.

Aliaga, Garnacha Vieja 2010

Aliaga, Garnacha Vieja 2010

The rosado was followed by the 2010 Garnacha Vieja made from old vines. This was decanted and just marvelous. The meat course was accompanied by two different wines, both some bottle age and we finished with a lovely Moscatel Petit Grain Vendimia Tardia dessert wine. El Crucero is a relatively unheralded restaurant that deserves serious recognition. This was another outstanding meal, the second that I had there in 2015.

IMG_2196From Navarra we returned to La Rioja, stopping along the way to admire a particularly gorgeous sunset.

IMG_2188We were on our way for a quick visit to Bodegas Lecea, a wonderful winery that I had visited with Gerry earlier in the year. After a quick tour of the spectacular underground cellar and a delightful tasting, we continued on our way towards our evening’s destination, the beautiful, wine-rich city of Logroño.

Logroño resident and wine expert, Tom Perry and his good friend, Gerry Dawes

Logroño resident and wine expert, Tom Perry and his good friend, Gerry Dawes

Like Barcelona, San Sebastian and Madrid, amongst other fabulous Spanish cities, Logroño is one I would be quite content to call home. It’s a pretty city with a nice climate, friendly people and great culinary culture. This is particularly manifest in its vibrant tapas scene, which is amongst the very best in all of Spain. On this particular evening, we had the benefit of being escorted by the congenial and knowledgeable American ex-pat, Tom Perry, who has made a living in the Rioja wine business for years, and members of his wonderful American/Spanish family.

Garlicky roasted mushrooms from Bar Soriano

Garlicky roasted mushrooms from Bar Soriano

A comfortable Friday night, the streets were awash with people eating, drinking and thoroughly enjoying themselves. I know that we were. Our first stop along the lovely Travesia de Laurel was at a little storefront tapas joint that specializes in garlicky roasted button mushrooms, each filled with a small shrimp.

IMG_2208Bar Soriano isn’t large, but fortunately they have a service window that opens out onto the street. The mushrooms are roasted, skewered and served atop a piece of bread to soak up the savory juices. These were the essence of delicious and the perfect opening to another night of superb eating and drinking.

IMG_2203Most of the party were washing down their mushrooms with cañas of beer, but I can’t get enough of Spanish vermut and so continued along that path with one spelled yet another way – vermout. Regardless of its spelling, it too, was delightful.

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Oyster mushrooms a la plancha at Bar Cid

Oyster mushrooms a la plancha at Bar Cid

Another location directly across the street from Bar Soriano offered mushrooms a different way. At Bar Cid the mushrooms were of the oyster variety and grilled on the plancha with a special sauce added to the grilling. These too, were absolutely marvelous and satisfying.

Matrimonios at Bar Blanco y Negro

Matrimonios at Bar Blanco y Negro

A bit further down the street at Bar Blanco y Negro, we had bocadillos called Matrimonios. These sandwiches consisted of boquerones (vinegar cured anchovies) with roasted green peppers. It was a surprisingly good combination.

Sepia a la plancha

Sepia a la plancha

To this point we only sampled one item per location, but as we meandered down Calle del Laurel, the main tapas crawl of Logroño, we stepped into Mesón del Abuelo, a relatively large restaurant offering a variety of tapas. We ordered two different tapas, both outstanding. The first was grilled sepia or cuttlefish, a squid-like denizen of the deep. This was served on a slice of bread and covered with an aioli and salsa verde.

Fried sweetbreads

Fried sweetbreads

The second were immaculately fried mollejas or sweetbreads. Crisp outside and creamy inside, these were perfectly seasoned and heavenly. I could have just stayed there and eaten these all night.

Puerros

Puerros

Instead we meandered on as there were yet more things to sample. We wound up eating in only one more place, however, as the comfort of sitting at a table finally surmounted the need to explore. Restaurante Entre Cepas provided the space for our respite and a few additional bites to assuage any additional hunger that we might have had. Puerros or leeks were steamed and served with a vinaigrette.

Piquillos

Piquillos

Pimientos de piquillo were of good quality, but a tad heavy on the garlic, which overpowered the inherent sweetness of the peppers.

IMG_2294Grill roasted lamb chops were satisfying, served with a side of papas fritas to soak up the juices.

IMG_2296Our appetites slaked, we finished the evening with a pacharan, of course.

IMG_2301 (1)The next morning would begin our last full day in Spain as a group. Before heading to Madrid, we took a ride over to the Marques de Riscal winery and it’s spectacular ElCiego Hotel designed by Frank Gehry.

IMG_2313 (1)We had hoped to enjoy the views overlooking miles of vineyards from the nearby beautiful city of Laguardia, but alas, the morning was full of fog and clouds with extremely limited visibility. While that was an issue for LaGuardia, it made the vistas from ElCiego more ethereal and moody, as we had sights both modern and ancient within our view.

IMG_2322As we continued on to Madrid, the sun got stronger and the fog began to lift.

Torreznos

Torreznos

We were obligated to stop for a half hour driver’s break along our way to Madrid. Spanish rest areas are unlike those in the United States, which are cluttered with various forms of fast food. In Spain they typically contain actual quality restaurants and food. During this stop some of our group had snacks, including these inexpensive and surprisingly good torreznos, an order shared amongst the group. These reheated fried chunks of skin-on, pork belly were crisp, meaty and totally delicious chicharrones with a full pork kick.

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Sobrino de Botin

Sobrino de Botin

We still had plenty of room for lunch when we arrived in Madrid, which was a good thing, as our destination was the ever wonderful Casa Botin. Founded in 1725 by a Frenchman, Jean Botin with the name, Casa Botin, it was subsequently inherited by a nephew of theirs and the name was officially changed to Sobrino de Botin, which technically is still the restaurant’s name. Regardless of which name is used, the restaurant has the distinction of being the oldest restaurant still in operation, in the entire world. As such, one might think that it may be touristy and resting on its laurels.While there may be restaurants that do particular dishes better than Botin, it remains a restaurant to be taken seriously. While its storied history is significant and adds much in the way of atmosphere, the traditional Spanish cooking, especially its cochinillo, suckling pig roasted in a wood-fired oven, remains quite delectable.

IMG_2354 (2)We ordered both the suckling pig and the lechal or roast lamb. They were superb.

IMG_2350We also enjoyed morcilla and nicely fried croquetas,….

IMG_2352…pimientos…

IMG_2361…and, in honor of our visit earlier in the day, a Marqués de Riscal 2010 Reserva Rioja. It was yet another memorable meal and the penultimate one of our trip.

IMG_2376 (1)After Botin, a couple of us decided to walk back to our hotel. We passed through the ever beautiful Plaza Mayor. This was a gorgeous day and it was filled with Madrileños enjoying the weather and their fine city.

IMG_2434 IMG_2437Our path took us by the famous Chocolatería San Gines, where, of course, we had to sample the churros and chocolate.

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The view from Palacio de Cibeles

We still weren’t quite done, though, as we still had our last meal together in front of us at Casa Lucio, the institution located on the famous Cava Baja. Before that, though, we stopped for a cocktail, snacks and a view at the restaurant and lounge at Palacio de Cibeles run by Javier Muñoz.

The legendary restaurateur Lucio Blázquez of Casa Lucio chatting with patrons

The legendary restaurateur Lucio Blázquez of Casa Lucio chatting with patrons

We eventually made our way to the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid and Casa Lucio. Lucio doesn’t necessarily have the very best food in Madrid, but the food is very good and like Sobrino de Botin, is full of history and atmosphere, and is always very busy. This has much to do with its legendary owner, Lucio Blázquez, who despite advancing age, remains a fixture at his restaurant and, along with his excellent staff, provides the additional charm that makes a visit to this restaurant particularly special.

IMG_2392The fare at Casa Lucio is not fancy, but the quality is high. Any meal there would start well with a plate of olives and boquerones, both as fine as one would find.

IMG_2441A plate of hand-sliced jamón Ibérico de bellota is never a bad choice and something I can never quite get my fill of, whether at the beginning of a visit to Spain or at the end.

IMG_2395Pimientos de padrón were pan-fried, salted and served atop a bed of fried potatoes.

IMG_2415Fried potatoes serve as bed for almost anything with juices or a sauce, in this case, lightly fried eggs that are broken and spread amongst the potatoes. These perfectly done huevos estrellados de Lucio are a signature of the restaurant.

IMG_2414Oyster mushrooms kissed the plancha much like we had in Logroño, though with the added twist inspired by our own Gerry Dawes, of a couple of raw yolks to act as a rich sauce.

IMG_2419Gambas al ajillo is a classic Spanish dish, yet this was the first we had on this trip. The firm shrimp are perfect vehicles for the garlic-loaded olive oil, parsley and guindillas.

IMG_2420Dessert consisted of a superb rice pudding or arroz con leche. This is soooo much better than it sounds if only familiar with American rice pudding.

IMG_2446Our final meal together of the trip came to a close with some more pacharan, a truly bittersweet moment. The following morning would see the majority of the group getting together for a tour of the Prado with a private guide, but I had an early flight to catch for home. Overall, the trip was a huge success as we had a great group of people, (mostly) beautiful weather (never terrible), spectacular, representative food, delightful drink, spectacular scenery and a truly authentic visit to meet the fabulous people and places of northern Spain. I very much look forward to the next time!


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2 Responses to A Taste of Northern Spain – Part 6: A Fabulous Finish – Navarra, La Rioja and Madrid

  1. Thanks for a wonderful trip. Your beautiful descriptions and photos make us feel like we are tagging along. You really need to publish a guidebook of Spain!

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