Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

The best croquettas in Madrid?

Dinnertime was fast approaching in Madrid. Never mind that we were still sat in 100 Montaditos after a novelty-but-actually-pretty-edible afternoon snack, it was already time to consider restaurant options for the evening ahead. Running my finger down the entries in Lonely Planet, I found a wealth of cuisine types at our disposal, with no shortage of local food: Tapas…Tapas…More Tapas…Thai (“No, we’re in Spain”)…Tapas…Tapas…Italian (“Ditto”)…Modern Spanish…Croquettas…Tapas…Tap—WOAH THERE!!!
A whole restaurant devoted to croquettas? This I had to visit.

So now, to satisfy my croquetta obsession, we were venturing into new territory, heading along Gran Via towards Malasaňa, a barrio (neighbourhood) that the book describes as “the stuff of Madrid legend … pushing hedonism to new limits.” Perhaps we were asking a bit much from a Tuesday night at the tail-end of December, but after reading such praise we had expected Calle Madera to be more than the dark and isolated alley on which we found ourselves. After some fruitless wandering, I was all for giving up. No way could there be good croquettas here. Muggings, more like. Or dead cats. Perhaps we would become croquettas? But The Warren had faith. “Let’s go a little further” turned out to be the wisest remark of the night (closely followed by “Dos mas, por favour”, a phrase that would be repeated a good few times). Suddenly, out of the darkness there was light, glowing softly through narrow, red, partially graffitied double-doors. Casa Julio. You could easily miss it or dismiss it, destined never to join the throng of happy Spaniards just visible behind the steamed-up glass.

Casa Julio's far-from-glamorous entrance

Casa Julio is a sweet and simple little bar, a family business, passed down the generations since 1921. We squeezed into the warm, crowded room, quite noticeably the only English in a sea of jabbering locals: a little bit daunting, but an obvious sign that the food must be good. Also very promising were the framed press-clippings on the wall and the photos of celebs who had deigned to rub shoulders with commoners in pursuit of the perfect croquetta. (Presumably these ‘celebs’ were all Spanish, as the only ones we recognised were U2; I guess Bono and I share a passion.)

Getting a spot at the bar was like an Olympic sport. The Warren proved very skilful at it (as one of five siblings, his mealtime reflexes have had a lot of practice) and after just one cerveza we gained an advantageous corner position. We were ready to do serious damage to the menu. And damage we did. Croqetta frenzy. Queso and jamón as standard. Then a couple of wildcards: atun con huevo (tuna with egg) and espinacas, pasas y gorgonzola (spinach with raisins and gorgonzola). The spinach ones took surprise gold. We also polished off a portion of albóndigas: chubby meatballs and hefts of potato in a delicious sauce, a basket of pane, and patatas bravas muy, MUY picante. I lifted that first chunk of potato in trepidation. Hmmm – one can only assume the Spanish are cowardly when it comes to spice, as I barely batted an eyelid, let alone broke a sweat. All of the above was washed down with the local cerveza – Mahou – and then, for just €9, a bottle of Spanish Cava (The Warren loves his Cava).

Croquettas a-go-go

We are definitely Casa Julio fans. The staff were friendly, the clientele was an interesting cross-section of ages and types, the place was cosy and welcoming. And the croquettas didn’t let me down. In true Walder-Warren fashion, we stayed on until closing time.

Gilgamesh: East meets West in North-London

To describe the restaurant Gilgamesh with any hope of accuracy, you must accept that it is neither one thing or another. It is a place of stark contrasts.
Take pairs of adjectives opposite in meaning and in every case you’ll need both: Ancient yet modern. Vast yet intimate. Ostentatious but somehow casual and effortless. These extremes are everywhere: in the decor, cuisine, atmosphere, flavours. The food is bold and brave, but never intimidating; dishes are spicy yet still somehow soothing. A place with so many attributes could easily struggle over its identity. But Gilgamesh knows itself, and its many sides meld nicely together: a place where East and West unite in a North-London market.

 

Gilgamesh Bar

 

 

Sited in the heart of Camden stables, amidst traders’ lean-tos and lurid Chinese food stalls, to reach Gilgamesh you’re forced to leave the grunge-cool high street and step fleetingly onto cobbles. It’s all part of the experience: that hint of ramshackle market simply highlights how distinct the restaurant is from its surroundings. The cobbles quickly become plush black carpet as you approach the suited security men and clipboard-wielding hostess who guard the door. If your name’s on the list – essential on a weekend; they can rarely fit in impromptu visits – you may pass inside, where an escalator transports you upstairs between carved mahogany walls. More staff and imposing glass doors still block the way: you just aren’t getting in if you didn’t book ahead.

When at last you take your seat – a throne-like brocade-upholstered monstrosity – in the cavernous dining room with its soaring glass ceiling, all your senses are bombarded. Feast your eyes on intricately sculpted wood, jewel-coloured fabrics shot with gold and silver, rich velvet flocking and rippling vats of water dotted liberally with floating flowers. Attractive bartenders shake exotic-looking cocktails; glorious smells and glimpses of food tease you from nearby tables. From the off, you can’t but be absorbed, so that it’s unnerving when you look up from your plate for a moment and suddenly recall where you are and how many, many people surround you.

Despite a special offer, the set menu didn’t tempt us. The à la carte is designed to snare. Food arrived fast, and thick; there’s no skimping, though it is still dim sum so don’t expect roast-dinner-sized portions. We chose Scallop and Prawn Dumplings, which sounded delicious but were disappointing, the beautiful scallops masked by a soggy, starchy coating. The Duck Spring Rolls were a better choice, but the real star of the starter show, without doubt, was the Sweet Potato and Avocado Tempura. Generous colourful wedges frosted with delicate pale batter, and three sensations – the potato sweet and textured, the avocado smooth and buttery, the batter light and crisp. All offset with a bowl of zingy Ponzu juice in which to dunk.

Last time I ate here, I came away singing about red duck curry with lychees, but sadly no sign of it on the menu a year later. With that curry in mind, we went straight for the Thai Green and a mound of Jasmine Rice.  I’ll say this for Ian Pengelly: he’s not afraid to whack a load of spices in his broth. Weaker women would have lain down their spoon and hollered for water.

As for dessert, a crème brûlée purist might turn up their nose at a flavoured version. Not I. The best approach to the Chocolate & Lemongrass Crème Brûlée is to treat it as an entirely separate dessert that just happens to replicate the texture of that oh-so-beloved French favourite. Like an incredibly silky milk-chocolate mousse, it slipped down nicely, with a sharp passion-fruit sorbet adding an edge, and the only negative being our difficulty in identifying the lemongrass: frustrating but not crucial.

You can’t do Asian food without the concluding tea ritual, and our Jasmine Pearls came in squat cast-iron teapots, the bulbous metal in heavy contrast to delicate china cups. Finally, a chance to digest: the food, the throng, the bill. Yes, all this glitz must be paid for, but luckily the prices aren’t quite steep enough to pale a colourful evening. (Though I imagine it’s a different story if you’re lured in by the cocktails.)

Verdict? Gilgamesh is a bright, buzzing, vibrant grotto, a glorious feast for the senses. It’s totally Camden – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll experience the true Orient – but it’s also welcoming enough to make anyone feel cool and current.