Postcard from Mexico City: Trolling for seafood in Roma Norte

We kept trying to find just the right seafood fit for our tastes while we were in Mexico City. The ceviche de atun with ginger at the reasonably priced Marlindo was among our favorite dishes, and the shrimp atop a tostada were beautiful. But Marlindo definitely is an ultra-casual neighborhood spot without much atmosphere, better for grabbing a quick bite than for lingering over a bottle of wine.

El Parnita is amazingly popular and bustling, but the dishes failed to excite us. On the other hand, we found ourselves the only ones in the dining room for lunch at Lucas Local. But the softshell crab sandwich at Lucas Local was phenomenal, and the pulpo and dried shrimp ceviche was refreshingly good and imaginatively presented in a coconut shell. Softshell crab is never easy enough for this Chesapeake Bay girl to find; wishing I had returned for seconds.

Our final week, we finally hit our favorite spot, Campo Baja. Casual, bustling rooftop with an open-kitchen concept, and it was not even a full block away from our apartment. The approach to each dish was distinctively different, making wandering through numerous shared plates feel as though we were venturing into new territory.

If you are visiting the neighborhood, hope our photos help you find the right spot to suit your seafood mood.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: More than goulash on the menus

If you are about to choose a restaurant to go to in Budapest, first click back on this link to our favorite, Fricska Gastropub.

The courtyard patio of Kazimir (featured photo) is a pleasant place to sit. Both the chicken with apples and brie and the parmesan-crusted chicken are excellent, and Kazimir’s bowlful of roasted vegetables topped with parmesan presents a welcome change from heavier fare.

Ultra-casual Jelen Bisztro is a major bargain, a spot to balance out your average meal tabs if you have been splurging. Couscous salad is fresh and light; layered eggplant with pesto is nice and rich; and zucchini fritters are perfect for weekend brunching.

Fried chicken and a mushroom risotto were the lunchtime offerings the day we went to La Tabla, the casual sibling to the more upscale Esca Studio. Both were perfectly prepared, but not inspiring enough specials to draw us away from Fricska. We probably should have tried again on another day.

Not recommended unless you need to lunch mid-sightseeing on the Buda side were Pater Marcus Abbey and Dunaparti Matroz Kocsma. Although we almost were tempted to return for Dunaparti’s mussels, both restaurants are heavy on the touristy side.

Normally, I try not to be too critical in these posts and just skip over a restaurant that turns us off completely, but…. Stand25 Bisztro in the Hold Utca market receives such high ratings and is touted by many as the absolute best place try goulash. We went, and we tried the goulash. It convinced us not to order goulash again during our entire month. The flavor of the lamb pate was unremarkable; the layered potatoes were merely heavy, not tasty; and the beef shoulder smothered with gravy and topped with a grilled round of bread was as unappealing as it appears in the photo. And this lunch was not inexpensive.

Our experience at Stand25 sent us scurrying for refuge in restaurants offering foreign foods, an advantage in visiting a capital city. Missing Spanish dishes, we ducked into Padron for tapas – seared padron chiles and eggplant with goat cheese, honey and walnuts. Cured.

We enjoyed exploring the Lebanese and Mediterranean offerings of Dobrumba. The harira soup loaded with chickpeas, the tender pulpo and potatoes and the squid cooked in red wine all make memorable meals.

Padthai Wok Bar is a chain, but the made-to-order dishes taste so fresh. The one in our Pest neighborhood has outdoor seating on a beautiful little plaza.

And, of course, there’s Fricska. Oh, and those sweet potato fries at Samu-Rice.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: More saffron and less of everything else needed in my paella pan

Ask a purely traditional cook from Valencia, Spain, about paella, and you are told there is only one. It contains rabbit, chicken and maybe sausage or snails.

But I realized after a month consuming rice dishes there, we never tried the classic version. Seafood lovers have corrupted many a restaurant kitchen, and experimental contemporary chefs led us into playful flavorful territory.

Two things I learned I have always done incorrectly: I am too stingy with saffron, and I put too much of everything else in the pan. Proper Valencian paella is shallow in depth to allow the rice to caramelize in the bottom and particularly around the edges of the pan. This crispy crust – socarrat – is key, and Valencians are not timid about vigorously scraping the dish, even when served in a communal pan. Of course, I’m not even sure we can buy the real Valencian rice at home – the rice grown specifically for its capabilities of absorbing the broth quickly without turning into mush.

Also, paella should be made only upon ordering. The broad pans are only set on the stove for at least two; you just are out of luck if no one at the table is willing to share. If your paella arrives on a plate dished out of a large deep pre-prepared pan in the kitchen, we’re talking by pure Valencian standards, it’s just wrong.

As the photos demonstrate, we violated tradition by ordering seafood paella, such as the one at Namua, and, horrors, even a verde, all-vegetable one at Viva Mascaraque. We weren’t disappointed at all.

Another rice preparation prevalent in the region adds more rich stock to the pan than the rice can absorb – arroz merloso. Mythos Tapas y Mas featured a different one daily on its comida specials, and we enjoyed a wild mushroom and bean one at Refugio. Foam-topped mussel-plump arroz at Seu Xerea fell into this category as well.

And then, there were the totally unexpected, on our part, arrivals in paella pans – fideo noodles, caramelized the same way as the rice. Don’t tell any of the traditionalists, but my favorite dish delivered in a paella pan was the black fideo filled with tender pulpo served at Viva Mascaraque. We greedily scraped up very bit of socarrat we could. Just wanted to save the kitchen staff some elbow grease.