Chef's Tour: Northern Spain
If you’re looking for some travel inspiration this spring, get thee to New York’s Boulud Sud, where Executive Chef Travis Swikard just launched a series of special dinners highlighting the global cuisines he’s obsessed with now—Israel, Greece, Sicily, the Cote d’ Azur, and more (get tickets here). In the meantime, I asked him to share the highlights of his recent culinary adventures in Catalonia and Basque Country.
I ate at the famous Arzak and Mugaritz, which were incredible, but I equally loved eating at pintxos bars in the city’s cobblestoned Old Town. Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter recommended a few spots, and my wife and I ended up trying 80 different types of pintxos in three nights. Each place has a specialty: La Cuchara de San Telmo is known for setas con huevo, or roasted porcini mushrooms with a slow-poached egg; Txepetxa makes house-cured Cantabrian anchovies; A Fuego Negro does a Basque-style blood sausage called morcilla. We also took a detour to the Axtondo valley for Asador Extebarri, a restaurant famous for grilling only the best regional ingredients—and one of the best meals of my trip.
We crossed the border into France to visit this quaint Basque village on the Atlantic Ocean. One of our best meals there was a hole in the wall we found called Pil Pil Enea–it didn't even have a name on the door. We ate soupe de poisson, a classic fisherman’s soup with a strong, flavorful broth, garlic, fennel, and tomato, served with big crunchy croutons and a side of saffron mayonnaise. The nearby Marché Les Halles is one of the most inspiring markets I’ve ever visited in my life: there was wild pigeon, duck, porcini mushrooms, Tomme des Pyrénées cheese, and shrimp so fresh that it was jumping out of baskets. This area is also the birthplace of gateau Basque, a thinly baked pastry filled with egg custard that we sell at Epicerie Boulud. It’s my favorite cake, and I sampled many different versions of it at the market.
Clos de l’Obac is a small winery set among beautiful rolling hills, located a two-hour drive inland from the seaside town of Tarragona. They make amazing wines using Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot among other varieties. We’re going to be serving their wines very soon at Boulud Sud. The owner, Carles Pastrana, took us to his restaurant in a nearby village, and we ate a five-course lunch that included tuna tartare from local tuna, pork with sweet potatoes and peas picked near their vineyard, and a spicy olive oil made from Arbequina trees bordering the winery. The restaurant faces a cliff and has views of the valley; you can still smell the Mediterranean Sea even though you’re an hour away.
The gambas al ajillo, or shrimp in olive oil and garlic, which I now have on my menu, was inspired by my time in Barcelona. I recommend trying it at El Quim de la Boqueria, a place with great traditional tapas located in an amazing food market. I also went to Tickets, where chef Albert Adrià takes his native Spanish cuisine and puts his spin on it. We ate Iberico ham, these little encapsulated olives, and chipirones tinta, or baby squid cooked in its own ink. Every table with kids had tiny trees with cotton candy leaves and skittles on top, and the kids would just sit there and pick at it. I loved that Albert’s restaurant was inspiring, but also really laid back. For me, eating out is all about having an experience where you can sit with your family and friends, enjoy each other’s company, and have a good laugh.
Jennifer Flowers is the Food and Hotels Editor at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @JennFlowers.