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

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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.

Polpetto

The press have been going mad for a tiny restaurant with just 28 seats. Today’s fourth most-viewed restaurant on Time Out London, and arguably this year’s most talked-about new eating place, Polpetto opened in August to an impatient crowd of media bods, foodies and tweeters, all eager to squeeze inside and feast on Venetian tapas.

This is the follow-up to Polpo, which has established itself as a Venetian-style bacaro in Soho, and whose website displays an incredible roll-call of praise, including huge compliments from Jay Rayner and A.A Gill. So far Polpetto looks set to replicate every ounce of its big sister’s success.

Having not yet tried Polpo, perhaps that’s where I should have started, but who could resist the description of Polpetto as ‘a tiny, jewel-box version’? Also lured in by a promising review in Stylist magazine and the clamour coming from Twitter, I wanted to get straight to the treasure.

Situated above The French House on Dean Street, Polpetto is reached by a narrow staircase that leads up into a small space cluttered with wooden furniture. A dark red banquette along the back is shared by four adjacent tables beneath a wall of exposed brickwork and three mock windows, shaped like openings onto the outside world but tiled with mirrors that reflect the inside of the room. With its wood floor, panelled ceiling, worn paintwork and naked pendant bulbs dangling from their wires, the simple, timeless decor might trick you into believing Polpetto has resided here for two centuries, rather than just two months.

The tableware is quirky and classic – miniature wine and water glasses in various shapes and styles; wine that arrives in darling half-carafes, patterned vintage dishes, and wide-format parchment menus printed with an old-fashioned serif type. The menu consists of ‘cicheti, small plates and classic Venetian osteria dishes.’ This basically means small snacks, which you can mix and match as you choose. We matched Duck & porcini meatballs with Chopped chicken liver crostino, Smoked swordfish, lemon and dill ricotta, Stracchino, fennel, salami & fig bruschetta, Cured pork shoulder & pickled pepper pizzetta and Zucchini fries (which were phenomenal; I’d go back just for those). The general approach seems to be just to keep on ordering until you’re full. The young, friendly staff didn’t mind at all when we flagged them down for the sixth time. Plates are small, prices are small, the place itself is small, but taste is big. Desserts (Pannacotta with blackberries and salted hazelnut praline; Tiramisu pot) were just a mouthful, but a delicious one.

This tiny place fills up fast. We were smart enough to stop by at 6.30pm on a weekday; by 8pm there was a snaking queue. Once inside, nobody wants to leave. Believe all the hype and definitely pay Polpetto a visit, but pick your time wisely: on a Friday or Saturday night not even those zucchini fries would convince me to bother.