Postcard from Cordoba, Spain: Regional flavors dominate menus

Torching of seafood atop paella at Al Grano Arroces y Mas

The distance from Cordoba to Seville is less than 100 miles, but the cuisine distinctions seem much greater. The regional favorite tapa is flamenquin. A slice of pork loin is topped with a slice of jamon and a piece of cheese and then rolled up and deep-fried. Fried eggplant drizzled with dark honey is found everywhere. The traditional salad consists of wedges of romaine topped with fried garlic with vinegar and oil for dressing. Sephardic-style preparations are abundant, and oxtail, rabo del toro, reigns.

A by-the-book traditional Cordoba menu removed from the main Mezquita tourist zone can be experienced at Restaurante Sociedad Plateros Maria Auxiliadora. Nothing trendy. A place where large family gatherings are held to celebrate First Communions or high school graduations.

Bodegas Mezquita, of which there are several, proved a popular spot for sampling Sephardic dishes. The warm garbanzo salad was wonderful, and we enjoyed a hardy lamb stew and fried merluza, hake.

Following a delicate appetizer of red tuna carpaccio atop a wispy crust, the Mister got his rabo del toro fix at La Fuente 12.

Restaurante Campos del Mar was far off the tourist grid, and it was well under-populated during its fixe prix lunch hour. The chef was so disappointed we did not order his habas (giant lima beans) con chorizo, he brought us a healthy portion to sample. I sometimes am blood-sausage-challenged, but, in his richly flavored broth, it was wonderful. The goat cheese salad was overdressed, a regional tendency, but the dressing was so good we managed to polish it off.

Reservations are needed to sample the rice specialties of the small Al Grano Arroces y Mas. Grilled apples were a nice change on our salad with the usual generous portion of goat cheese. Rather than try to replicate Valencian paella, the chef throws out the rule book. Seafood is placed atop the cooked pan of rice and dramatically scorched tableside.

In addition to the Mercado Victoria, our favorite spot to eat was the somewhat funky laid-back El Astronauta. A plate of grilled vegetables, always welcome. Perfectly cooked grilled tuna. Moussaka. And a luscious preparation of Moroccan savory-sweet chicken pastilla.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Sorry, you must be starving by now

Seems too long since this blog made a food stop.

Fresh red tuna was running while we were in Spain this spring and summer, and the above photo represents an upscale presentation of it from the kitchen of chef Gonazlo Jurado of Tradevo Centro. The name represents a fusion of the words tradition and evolution. An avocado roll, or canelon, filled with shrimp is particularly luscious.

Like Tradevo, ConTendor Slow Food Restaurant is a little more upscale than we tend to frequent, but neither results in particularly high tabs at lunchtime. The long and varied daily menu is written on a large chalk board, and the server reads through the entire thing with you to see if you have any questions. It can be parked on your table briefly for consideration, but on a two-top it is awkward to read and we quickly found ourselves forgetting what some of the dishes were. Everything is presented artfully, such as an unusual deconstructed dessert of eucalyptus ice cream with creamy meringue and basil hazelnut paste on the side.

The winner for our favorite people-watching patio is Quilombo. The casual spot is on an intimate plaza on a mainly pedestrian narrow street frequented by locals. The mussels and salmon burgers are good, but it was the patio that really drew us back.

While one Arte y Sabor Tapas is located on Plaza Hercules, there is an overflow one about half a block away that attracts more locals. The prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and the falafel are welcome changes. Artefacto Grill & Beers is just off the plaza as well, and, as a result, snagging a table at lunch is much easier. Love their cheesy rice-filled zucchini and croquetas filled with spinach and pine nuts. Burgers, from veggie to retinto beer, are their specialties.

We did not realize when we stumbled across Vida Loca that it had only been open a week. The neighborhood evidently was keenly aware, so it was packed. The traditional garbanzo stew and boquerones are spot on, and the plate piled high with fresh vegetables and slices of jamon is uncommonly varied. Tucked away on a side street and seemingly undiscovered by many tourists, tables in Estraperlo are wedged between shelves holding fresh vegetables and other “ecological market” items for sale. We shared a lunch of artichokes with jamon and a stir-fry with shrimp.

We tried more than one Morroccan/Arab restaurant but were shocked to find our most successful meal in that vein right smack in the middle of one of the areas most congested by tourists – a Halal restaurant, Al Wadi. The chilled squash with a pomegranate, honey and lemon sauce is a pleasant starter, and lamb arrives atop the most flavorful savory rice ever entering my mouth. And then, right under the landmark visitor magnet Las Setas, was Malavida Tapas. I almost left it off the list, but the photos rescued it at the last minute. We went on a rare rainy day, so it was empty instead of overrun. The vegetables, the seedy avocado salad and the beef panes are all much better than one would expect to find in the location.

The final stop offered for your meal consideration in Sevilla almost reminded me of the old Europe on $5 a day (pretty nigh on impossible even in the olden days) guidebooks; it was that much a bargain. A simple neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, El Enano Verde offers ridiculously low-priced freshly prepared vegetarian fare. Both our wok-style vegetables and black rice with snow peas resulted in clean plates. I am including this because it is an ideal conscious-clearing spot to balance your budget and your calories after indulging in too many splurge meals.

But, you might ask, where is the pizza? Anyone who knows us is aware we don’t travel for long without pizza. We tried several in Seville but failed to find one we would recommend. But our Spanish options were so abundant we survived easily.

Postcard from Xativa, Spain: Socarrat good for paella but not for a town

In Valencia, the crispy caramelized socarrat around the edges of the paella pan is a cook’s goal, but scorched is far from ideal when applied to your town.

Spaniards have referred to residents of Xativa as socarrats since the early 1700s. Flush with victory at the Battle of Almansa securing Spain for the Bourbons, the vengeful Phillip V (1683-1746) ordered the town taken and set ablaze. Felipe has not been forgiven, his portrait condemned to hang upside down in the city’s Almodi Museum.

The twin peaks of Monte Vernissa above Xativa have been fortified since Roman times. Himilice, the wife of Hannibal, gave birth to a son there in 218 B.C. Although the fortress appears difficult to conquer, sometimes alliances place one on the conquered side because of battles lost elsewhere.

While under Moorish control, Xativa became the 12th-century European center for production of paper. Most of the walls stretching across the two hilltops today are preserved from the Islamic and Gothic periods. Portions of the castles and fortifications were rebuilt more frequently, including the upper Santa Fe Tower – destroyed by a gunpowder explosion in 1563, an earthquake in 1748 and the French in 1813.

Xativa was home to the powerful Borgia family, known for their Machiavellian political maneuvers. Two of the Xativa-born Borgias became popes, Calixtus III (1378-1458) and Alexander VI (1431-1508). The city also takes great pride as the birthplace of the painter Jose de Ribera (1591-1652).

Out of respect for possible remaining scorched sensibilities, the Mister opted for rabo del toro instead of socarrat-crusted paella. Translated literally, this means bull’s tail, making one think this was one way Spain took care of the remnants of bullfights. But it is oxtail, slowly cooked to an extremely tender stage and served with the resulting rich broth.