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A Tapas Tour of Spain

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Photo: David Nicolas

After breakfast—La Flor de Toranzo again—we’re back on Calle Gamazo for lunch. Two vacationing Catalan ladies are swooning over almond gazpacho and fabulous minted lamb meatballs at Enrique Becerra, whose owner researches old Moorish recipes. For northerners, Andalusia is the same exotic, Orientalist Spain it is to us, but these Catalanas are also thrilled by Seville’s new spiffy-clean image. We have other thrills in store, and move on. Then disaster strikes. Casablanca—source of the legendary whiskey-spiked tortilla—has vanished! After two hours, we finally locate its new digs, near the Cathedral. To our relief, the tortilla, the seafood noodles, and the dreamy crushed-potato salad drenched in olive oil are better than ever. Since the owner’s son took over and moved the bar here, the place has snapped into focus. Like Seville itself, resplendent in its coat of fresh paint, the classic bar fare in the city has taken on a new luster.

For the sine qua non of a Spanish tapeo—jamón ibérico—it’s Jaylu. Deep in Triana, the Gypsy quarter across the ­Guadalquivir River, the place is actually a pricey seafood restaurant where one can—and should—eat at the bar. Behind the counter, owner Enrique Caballero Baños wields his rapier-thin knife like a high-speed lapidary sculptor. Not content to carve his prized cured legs of black Ibérico swine from Jabugo into the usual lonchas (long slivers), Baños has invented jamón en texturas: julienned, diced, triangled—each with its own distinct nuance of musky-sweet porcine brilliance. The succulence isn’t over yet. Out comes a velvet-smooth salmorejo (thick gazpacho) of white tomatoes, then an awe-inspiring lobster-scaled carabinero prawn grilled over sea salt. Eating more now would be sheer insanity, but who can resist the siren call of the ethereal lacy fritura of baby squid at La Albariza?Or the messy, spicy, tomatoey snail casserole at Sol y Sombra, which is wallpapered with faded bullfighting posters?(We’re still in Triana.)

It isn’t gluttony, but sheer sentiment, that draws us back for a nightcap to La Flor de Toranzo. A great tapas bar is like your soccer team or your favorite matador. If you truly love it, you’ll come and show your devotion.

Madrid

The great clearinghouse of countercultures from all over Spain, Madrid has Galician shellfish joints, Asturian cider bars, and modern-Basque pintxo spots. It is also rich in macho taverns that haven’t changed since the mid 1800’s, when Andalusian entertainers began to flock to the capital via the newly built railway. The southerners set up smoky dark haunts where aristocrats came to rub shoulders with gypsies over glasses of Manzanilla and small plates of batter-fried bacalao and sizzling garlic shrimp. The city has been hooked on tapas ever since. The time-burnished ambience of Old Madrid’s tiled tabernas still can’t be beat, yet finding that perfect bite in each place can be a challenge.

Come the hora de aperitivo—pre-lunch cocktail hour—I follow the blue-haired ladies who stream into Lhardy, an 1830’s bar-deli downstairs from the historic restaurant of the same name, to help themselves to dry sherry and cups of cocido broth from a silver samovar. Meatballs?I love the saucy albóndigas with a glass of vermú de grifo (vermouth on tap) slid across the antique onyx counter at Casa Alberto, in a building where Cervantes once wrote. Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) has been a specialty at the tiled Casa del Abuelo for some 100 years. Batter-fried bacalao is crispest at Casa Revuelta, a tatty dive frozen in time off the stern, arcaded Plaza Mayor, the heart of Hapsburg Madrid. Over on Calle Cava Baja—taberna central in this city for more than three centuries—Casa Lucas lures us with the latest emerging vintages (try wines from the Madrid region).

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