Category Archives: Travel

Sometimes you bite the bear….

Back from Chi-town, I felt pleased about how I planned my meals and stuck to them.   I was really looking forward to doing the work. Mack scheduled four workouts for the calendar week, and with the diet modifications we were slowly implementing I was able to break the sound barrier (300 lbs) by July 4th.

I started to settle into a rhythm between working out, a modified diet, and living a normal life.

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The $1,000. Steak

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New York is renowned as a premier destination for a classic steakhouse. Whenever foreign winemakers come to visit the Big Apple on wine business, I usually field requests for the best beef restaurants. While it is true that the home cook now has access to a variety of top pedigree beef, ranging from naturally grass fed to dry aged, the options at restaurants are much more problematic. Aside from the exorbitant costs, especially comparing what you can get for the home kitchen versus what you are actually paying for at a steakhouse, there are other pitfalls to consider as well.

Wine lists are generally unimaginative and rocket juice oriented. If there are gems on the list, they are too far and few between, creating a dilemma of agony over the correct wine pairings and strategy. Stylistically there is little imagination or variation, often a who’s who of cult cabernets or expensive super Tuscans, Burgundy or Bordeaux wines that are nowhere near ready to drink.

Continue reading The $1,000. Steak

Las Terrenas – Playa Portillo

In the restaurant business, January is generally the worst month of the year sales wise, and I often take advantage of the slow down by traveling to reset and think about strategy for the new year.  The bitter cold has not helped any, except for prompting me to head south rather than to another cold weather city.

I looked at many an island for deals, until a tip from a friend steered me toward the Dominican Republic.  My father hails from La Patria and still resides there, raising roosters for cock fights, the subject better left for a therapist than blog exploration.

I spent many summers, semana santas (holy weeks), carnivals, and Christmas vacations there, but admittedly have fallen out of love with DR since the rapid modernization and North American influences.  I prefer the third world pace, the lack of technology, no internet feeds, no fast food franchises, and especially am distressed over the amount of mopeds, traffic, tourists and the resortification of the land’s most pristine beaches.

The last time I stepped into Dominican waters was for the turn of the century, spending part time in a resort area and time at my father’s farm home near Palenque, the beach I spent so much time on as a boy.  Our family would sleep on the beach over night for several days, eating locally caught snapper and pressed fried plantains, drinking Presidente beer by day and Ron Brugal  rum by night, sleeping under a blanket of stars and moonshine.

Jetblue has direct flights to Samana, in the north, leaving just a taxi ride (albeit expensive) away from some of the island’s best beaches.  I was hooked up to a beach house rental at Residencia Portillo in Bahia Portillo, near the French and Italian habitated town of Las Terrenas, just modern enough to get to the outside world, and remote enough to be secluded and relatively untouched from it all.

The beaches are relatively private, untraveled save for the curious beachwalkers from the nearby resort, the only one in Portillo, leaving long tracts of untouched white sand and calm waters patrolled only by the adopted stray dogs who beachcomb and make friends as if out of a Disney film.

On my first day on the lounge chair a black dog came to me and gave me his paw for a shake, while his two furry friends burrowed behind my lounge seat back for the refuge of cool shade. 

The house I rented belongs to a sports agent, ranch style comfort with mosquito screens for windows, complete with pool, bbq pit and doorway to a two minute jaunt to the beach, making the decision of pool vs. beach the daily chore.  There is a wrap around porch with various sitting and lounging stations, including my favorite the mesadora (rocking chair), and an open kitchen.

What made the trip, as if all of these other factors and the 80 degree weather weren’t enough, is the availability of a Dominican cook and her sidekick who takes care of the house and any needs.  Belkis made Dominican dishes for a week straight, and the food was so delicious, it brought me back to all those meals my mother and our live in cook used to prepare for us when I was young.  The simplicity of criolla cuisine, the marriage of Spanish and European techniques with the bounty of island ingredients, cooked with love and care, is what no resort can ever produce.

The woman with great touch is named Belkis, a local who has been cooking for people at their homes for years.  I studied her techniques, how she should would add a chinola to this recipe, why she would not flour her fish, etc. and learned a great deal.

I went out with Margarito (house caretaker and our guide) on the second day to do all the shopping for the week. We hit the Euro supermarket for butter, olive oil, jamon, queso and water.  Also some rose and white wines (not a great selection) and rhums, what DR is known for.  Of to the fruit market, and for 20 bucks, I was able to but a lot of fruits and vegetables, pineapples, grapefruits, chinolsa, zapote, lechosa etc.  All made breakfast so complete and balanced.  Eggs, mangu, and onions, longaniza, coco bread, and pastries from the French Boulangerie rounded out the morning 10 am desayunos.

For lunch we made fruit shakes, from pina coladas (fresh coco and pina) to mamey and papaya shakes, and noshed on cheese and jamon.

Then 7 pm would roll around. and Belkis would arrive in her moped, in order to prepare one of many outstanding home cooked Dominican meals.

Belkis made sancocho, a kitchen sink soup, that lasted for days and seemed like a bottomless pot.  One night she cooked fresh caught lobsters, with a garlic, ginger butter sauce.  The next night snappers, fried with green plantains and rice.  One night pigeon peas, the next red beans, the next black beans. No tiring of beans and rice and plantains.  One night Margarito manned the bbq pit with entrecote, and marinated adobo chocken, and longaniza sauasgaes.  Shrimp criolla sautéed and stuffed into plantains shaped like baskets, a stew of different parts of pork products mixed with rice.  Seven days, 14 oustanding Dominican dishes.

We went out on the Friday night before our flight, and the only thing the restos had over the house was that they were situated on the beach.  We visited a wine bar called Cave across from La Bodega(Town Discotech) in la Plaza, and had some good wine listening to French driven tunes the likes you might hear out of the old Pere Pinard on Ludlow St.  Some bachata and merengue at Mosquito bar, where watching the locals get picked up by the retired cougars and tigers respectively made for some great entertainment, enough to drum up some appetite for pica pollo and chimchurri, late nite Dominican street vendor fast food to knock the edge of the rum.

There was just enough left over sancocho to get rid of any resaca (hangover), and to fortify us for the breathtaking ride into the airport gazing at mountain and ocean vistas of La Patria, panaromic snapshots that endured the delayed entry into JFK, the snowstorm, and the complete transportation disaster that awaitd us back in chilly, homey, New York City.

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Low Country

Charleston, SC

If you are a foodie, or just get regular Eater blasts, it is hard to ignore all the hype Charleston has been getting with their food and wine festivals and James Beard accolades and restaurant kudos.  The same praise is bestowed on New Orleans, and is justified.  I decided to see what all of the fuss is about, and sought advice from a food critic in Charleston as to the great places to experience what I learned to be “low country” cuisine.

After a very pleasant and short two hour flight from JFK, my partner in all things wonderful and delicious, Michelle, and I headed over to Cru Café (a tip from one of my clients, Kevin), and arrived just as they opened their doors for service. From the hotel on King Street (King’s Courtyard Inn), the trail led us through the market for some shopping and by two carriage houses (of which there are many) to a charming house with a porch.  Many restos are housed in charming houses, and the word charming cannot be too redundant in describing Charleston.  Just walk through the Battery and around the southern peninsula and it will feel like an extended version of NOLA’s Garden district, with great trees and lots of peace and quiet.

The menu at Cru Café is American bistroish with a bit of the south.  We split a poblano and bell pepper soup, duck confit and onion ring arugula salad, and a play on General Tso’s chicken in a wrap with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.  The wine list is short and sweet, an international medley but all reasonably priced. We chose a 2012 Richter Riesling from the Mosel that paired well for the entire meal.   Honest cooking in a nice setting with friendly service sums it up.  Great start.

We walked through Market Street to find dessert, and ended up at Kaminsky’s for coffee and pecan pie.  The place looks like a bar save for all the baked pies and cakes in the display cake as you enter.  The slice was generous and dense, the coffee sub-par.  No off for walk-about to work it off.

There are several establishments that promote a happy hour, and it is wise to do a little research as to what is the best deal.  As we are oyster fiends, Charleston is a good place to be.  Gulf oysters can be had many places for under ten bucks a dozen.  All other coastal oysters can be as high as two bucks apiece, but still reasonable as compared to NYC.  We walked into a jam packed Pearlz a little to late, anh had to settle for some oysters and clams at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar.  The drinks were average and the shellfish fine, but overall the atmosphere was lacking and we hurried over for a serious cocktail at the Gin Joint.

Aside from being a bit too bright for a cocktail bar, the Gin Joint was a solid hit.  Pimm’s Cup, Mint Julep, Manhattan, the classics were executed well.  The house cocktails were also creative and well balanced. We could tell the patrons expected good cocktails too.  A very good sign for things to come indeed.  Patrons were not well dressed, and that was unfortunate.  Something is wrong with ladies dressed well and gentlemen in shorts, polos and tivas. We then headed to the rooftop Library bar, which yielded some lovely breezes, a must to offset the slight humidity even in late October.  The view was lovely, what with all of the low buildings, but the drinks were weak.  It started to rain, and that was our cue to exit.

We hid in the Gin Joint again until the rain died down, and made it to a 9:30 reservation at Husk unscathed.  Husk is also housed in a townhouse, but of a much larger scale.  The porch is long, and the resto sports high ceilings and different rooms.

The strategy was two glasses of white wine and a bottle of red, having felt the effects of the Gin Joint.  I found a gem, Roagna Rosso 2005 for fewer than eighty dollars, and felt that the light nebbiolo would holdup for all the dishes we planned to order. Kentuckyaki glazed Pig ears lettuce wraps with salt fermented cucumbers and peppers were crunchy and addicting.  Wood fired clams could have used a kick but were smoky and good.  More Hog Island Bay oysters with sorrel berry mignonette and preserved honey ginger please.  Then cornmeal dusted NC catfish with smoky bean Hop-n-John and Bean lacquered NC duck leg with Napa cabbage and English Peas for main courses.  There is no jealousy or animosity between NC and SC; they share their best ingredients alike.  The duck shredded like pulled pork and the catfish was cooked perfectly.  Both dishes more southern by their accompaniments, southern home cooking done at a higher level with better-sourced ingredients.  We squeezed in one desert, a buttermilk pie, and then I tapped out. No mas.

After breakfast at the inn, lunch at S.N.O.B., Slightly North of Broad.  The wine list was extensive, and we found a 1991 Richter Riesling for $74.00,  drinking fabulously.  We split two soups, butternut squash bisque and white clam chowder, both creamy and proper and excellent with the Riesling.  Then came the Maverick shrimp and grits.  The grits on most menus was Geechie Boy yellow, and this was the first exposure and wouldn’t be the last by a long shot.  The dish was accented by Tasso ham, sausage, tomatoes, green onion and garlic broth, yet somehow the grits stayed firm and true to form.  I went for the local drum fish which was seared nicely on the skin side, moist and flaky on the inside.  Before the trip I had set my mind to taste much of the local fish to get a sense of the types of fish and the respective cooking techniques.  We finished with a banana cream pie.  Who can resist?

After an extensive peregrination through the Battery, we made it back to East Bay Street for happy hour at Pearlz, which was too crowded the night before.  The bar was bustling, and we ordered many oysters and clams, but I kept returning to the peel and eat shrimp, jumbo sized and dusted with Old Bay seasoning.  After a medley of pretty decent cocktails it was time for a siesta, which I try to plan on every trip between happy hours and late dinner reservations.

This time we took a cab to The Grocery as it is located just off Upper King Street.  We had been walking to every place, but did not want to run past 10 pm, and in addition it was raining again, and Charleston streets do not hold up well in the rain.  The Grocery was the kind of place you would find in NOLA, with lots of space, a separate bar area, open kitchen, reclaimed wood and interspersed with metal etc.  When you enter an old used vault safe greets you, and you like the vibe instantly.   The Firehouse is located just across the street, but it was the police who gave us a disco show pulling over a cab going the wrong way on a one-way street.

We had some fried oysters on top of deviled egg cream.  I asked our server Walt for some bread to sop up the remnants.  He told me that was the “country” thing to do.

The two cocktails we ordered were delicious, mine a dirty tomato martini, zingy and tangy, the other all rhubarb and herb like.  I found a nice bottle of dry furmint form Heidi Schlock, a female winemaker, and I do adore a feminine touch in my wines.  My partner Michelle was feeling a bit stuffed, (Why?), and barely got through her scallops and pork belly (clean-up hitter to the rescue), and I went out on a limb and ordered the market fish whole snapper for two for myself.  The fish was wood roasted and so fat and fleshy I thought it was an oversized puffer fish.  I put that dish down inspiring awe form Walt, who said I was “low country” having completed that feat.  No dessert, onto Upper King Street, where we found out is where the hip bars and college kids hang out, a sort of mixed blessing.  Nothing against south of the market and East bay St. restaurant row, but the clientele is a lot of old money, and the average age is the NY state speed limit.

Upper King was crowded as forecasted, even with the rain keeping the masses at bay.  We stopped into the Cocktail Club, which was more nightclub than cocktail, and promptly walked out.  We caught a drink at the Belmont Lounge with a sleek Miami sort of vibe.  The drinks were proper but the clients were University, so we moved the party to Rarebit, straight out of Williamsburg. It too was a bit clubby, but the music was groovy and the drinks were rolling.  We ended up at brunch here the next day for chicken and waffles.

Perhaps the best of the seafood places was The Ordinary, also on Upper King, which looked like it used o be an old bank.  High vaulted ceilings and a tasteful maritime design splits the restaurant in two, with replica game fish, wooden mermaids and underwater diorama.  The bar yields twice as much room as is necessary, and yet when all of the thoughtfully crafted seafood plates pile up you become grateful.  A battery of pristine oysters at NYC prices makes me feel at home.  A civilized dirty Plymouth Martini with extra olives made me feel like it was Saturday night.  The selection included Blackberry Point, meaty Belons, fab Honeysuckles, Beach Blondes, Otter Island, and Caper Blades, the elixirs of the ocean.  The local little necks were no second fiddle either.  P & E Gulf shrimp was meaty and addicting. But the show stopped when the razor clams hit the bar, lightly poached and plucked from its shell, presented in a glass bowl above decorative seaweed and ice, mixed to be a ceviche with fennel, cilantro, green apple, jalapeno and lime.  We ordered it twice and became the dish’s spokesperson for the bar.  We topped it all with an oyster slider, cornmeal crusted with deviled egg cream, a perfect bite.  All the while the bartender was concocting the perfect daiquiri, the straight up version with three simple ingredients of Angostura rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup.  What a revelation.  We would have stayed if it were not for a 9:30 res at FIG, who happens to be partners with The Ordinary.

After another siesta and a quick change, we walked to FIG (very close to inn).  It is housed in a regular setting rather than a house.  The bar was bustling and the room very contemporary with warm earthy tones.  However, the artwork seemed out of place, and the light fixtures gaudy.  Only SNOB was more disjointly designed, and we were afraid the food might be dated.  Au contraire, with excellent service and advice from our server Ashley, we had two great cocktails from the make your own Negroni list, and went to town. Painted Hills Beef carne cruda, razor clams, Keegan-Fillion Farms chicken liver pate to open things up.  Then the oft ordered ethereal ricotta gnocchi and Appalachian Highlands Lamb Bolognese and a John’s Island tomato tarte tatin.   An enormous portion of Eden Farms pork schnitzel with heirloom tomato farotto was demolished.  All washed down with a Vajra Rosso, which was being given away for sub forty dollars.  Again we wish we had room for more.  We squeezed in a Meyer Lemon Pudding with NC blackberries and aged balsamic for sweets, and glad that we did.

Pre-flight the next day we hiked out to the Butcher and Bee, a sandwich shop that is worth any trek.  Housed in a garage, the lovely ladies just serve finely crafted sandwiches.  I was upset not to be able to try the banh mi, as it is a nighttime option (they are open until 3 am), but was extremely pleased with the roast beef sandwich and the BBQ beef and cheddar.  No Po boys here, but it the quality and creativity gives Nola’s Parkway tavern a run for its money.

Overall, I was impressed with the dining scene in Charleston.  I would like to explore the outer Island for some down low country cuisine, some more BBQ and fried chicken, and some island fishing.  It was great to see the quality of the cocktails, the composition and selections offered on the wine lists, and the local sourcing for ingredients.  I did find it strange that almost no one dressed up to go out, ala Seattle.  Most men wore the standard uniform of a plaid or checked shirt (gingham) and a pair of jeans.  The ladies’ fashion was all department store driven.  Come on, with cooking this good, show some class.

The only other comment I will make is a social one.  There was a definite division of patrons as it refers to age from Upper King to Lower King Street.  I witnessed a much older crowd on Lower King and a mixed and often university crowd on Upper King.  And, as a person of color, I rarely saw any person of color dining out or in the cocktail clubs I visited.  Even the kitchen staffs were primarily Caucasian, at least on appearance.  I did not feel segregated, and received great service by all accounted, but coming form New York it felt a bit strange to me.  I just wondered where all the people of color were dining and why they hadn’t been spotted at these places where I thought there was some solid cooking going down.

Ultimately what I take from Charleston, are people who are passionate about food and beverage as a way of life, and when you ask for extra biscuits to sop up the sauce, that is downright low country.

 

Paella, anyone?

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and the normal anxiety of what to do for my dear mother is intensified because she always wants to go out for a simple, delicious paella.  She doesn’t want me to make one at home, rather she wants to be taken out be her two sons to a Spanish restaurant reminiscent of her trip to Spain many years ago.

New York City is home to many successful genres of ethnic cuisine.  Every one loves a great pasta joint, taco truck, or French brasserie.  Inexpensive Asian food has made a very successful transition to high-end gourmet preparation, and it seems that tapas can be found on many menus, Spanish theme not a requirement.

When I think about the available Spanish food in New York, I am usually underwhelmed. Why am I so disappointed?  Isn’t Spain the culinary center of the universe?  All those Michelin star restaurants like Arzak and Mugarritz, El Bulli and its modernist legacy, and El Celler de Can Roca, the #1 resto in the world.

I don’t long for linguine vongole from Rome, or steak tartare from Paris because I can find veritable versions here.  Perhaps authentic tacos are harder to find too, but Tex-Mex reigns in this town, and real tacos are slowly arriving.

Over the past five years, several Spanish restaurants have opened, and I have been excited every time, only to come home scratching my head, especially at what could have been.  With so many Spanish ingredients readily available to us in the U.S., and so many Spanish chefs wishing to make it here, what gives?

Recently I dined at Manzanilla, a sprawling restaurant managed by the people who brought us Boqueria and a known chef from Marbella.  Spanish menu.  Check.  Décor. Demi Check.  Wine list with sherry. Still improving. Spanish Chef in the kitchen.  Check.  So why on all the green grass on the Great Lawn does the food fail to impress? Where is the spirit I left in San Sebastian? Or Madrid for that matter?

When I planned to open Pata Negra in 2008, the most important part of the business model was sourcing quality product.  In 1990 I visited a tiny sliver of a bar in Barcelona whose name I have long forgotten.  I was impressed by its simplicity.  Good wine, cheese and the best jamon.  A cozy place that didn’t scream Spanish but evoked that vibe that was most discernibly La Patria.  Not only did the feeling stick with me for 18 years, but the quality of the product, and then of course the style of service, casual, friendly, yet professional, relaxed, and neighborly, well informed, and informative, learning through consuming, magical and simple all in one.

In 2008 the ban was lifted, thanks to Chef Jose Andres and successful lobbying, and true jamon iberico de bellota became legal to import. The cheese and wine had already been improving drastically compared to 1990.  No more waxy manchego, table Rioja, and jamon serrano.  Welcome pata negra, torta del casar, and mencia.

As for décor, garlic on the walls? Bulls? Flags?  No, the vibrations dictate the décor and mood.  Let the product and service do the talking.

Which brings me to the first point on why these restaurants have failed to hit the mark.  Product.  If you have ever been to Spain, the first thing that should have made an everlasting impression is the market.  The freshness and simplicity of the best sourced ingredients.  You walk into La Boqueria in Barcelona, or  the markets from Valencia to Madrid or Cadiz, and the product jumps out at you.  Proud vendors selling their wares as their reputation, forming relationships with their customers.  Oh, and the proof is in the arroz con leche.  You can have a bite in the market at the various kiosks in the market place, just to make sure those langoustines are up to snuff.

This is one reason why Essex Street market trumps Eataly.  Whether I stop at Anne Saxelby’s CheeseMonger shop, or Heritage Foods, I am dealing with small business owners who take pride in their work and foster relationships.  At Eataly, there is no relationship with the owners.  It is just a hyper supermarket sans soul.  Compare Eataly to the Mercat de San Anton in Chueca, Madrid, for example.  Compare rooftops.  No contest. A European market place extraordinaire is what it should have been modeled after.

I was fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli before it closed, and what jumped off the plate was not only the technique of the master chef, but the quality of the ingredients.  Upon further research (and reading from A Day at El Bulli), a major reason why El Bulli was so successful, had much to do with the product, which Chef Adria and his staff spent a painstaking amount of time acquiring for each and every service.  It is the same in any good Spanish restaurant, as well as any great tapas bar such as Cal Pep in Barcelona worthy of its name on the door.

What I find in Spanish restaurants in the New York City of today, is the classic restaurant dilemma.  How can we serve the masses and maintain quality by sourcing the best ingredients?  When tapas or Spanish dishes miss the mark, look to the pantry, and having worked with many Spanish chefs in New York City, corners are cut way too often.

The second problem facing a successful Spanish restaurant is technique.  It is obvious that modern cooking fathered in Spain and spearheaded by the master chef is inventive, intriguing and often delicious.  I feel Chef Adria tried to surprise the diner, create a playful relationship with food.  Some dishes were fun and forgetful, and others have lingered with me to this day.  So many chefs are applying modernist techniques in such a way as to forget about traditional good old-fashioned home cooking, taking the soul out of the food, and falling short of authenticity and ultimately pleasure.  This is partly why Romera closed, and why Chef Dani Garcia at Manzanilla has not hit his stride yet.  A play on pulpo a la gallega arrived to the table smoked in a box, very appealing until you bite into a tepidly temperatured octopus, potato and foam. The novelty of the technique failed to elevate the dish as memorable in a good way.  Back at home in Galicia, the ingredient would pop, so that a little love and attention produces great food, especially in the hands of such a talented chef as Dani has proven to be in Marbella.

I don’t mean to single out Manzanilla.  I could fill in the names of so many Spanish restaurants over the past ten years. It’s just that it is new and being reviewed by many critics now. Despite the corporate décor, which I tried to block out, I enjoyed several dishes there, but ultimately did not feel any closer to Spanish shores than Long Island.  Down on the Bowery at Cata, the people behind Alta have spent a pretty penny on making the place look old world Spanish, then throw a monkey wrench into the whole program with the most out of place, uncomfortable, red metal, cut off your circulation stools.  You can’t help but want to stand or leave.  An aggressive menu with several grilled items selected from a tapas case at the bar feels authentic, just short of a marisqueria.  I almost wish the marisqueria business model was singled out and followed through more thoroughly.  Cata is simply trying to cover all bases and do too much.  The concept is unfocused, the dishes are many, and Spain is lost in translation.

Part of this has to do with target audience.  I can’t count how many people pass through the door telling me their stories of their time in Spain, either studying or vacationing.  I get the feeling that the only thing they ate was croquetas, patatas bravas and paella.  After gently explaining to them that Spanish cuisine is much more than that, they look at me with perplexed visages if the veracity of their authentic Spanish experiences has been compromised.  And in a way it has, because pulpo should be eaten in Galicia, just as paella in Valencia, and not on the streets of Madrid.  A real pulpo a la gallega should only be made with Galician waters, which a real cook would carry across the Spanish terrain, if necessary, to ensure the right balance and flavor.

If Spanish restaurant owners and chefs want to showcase Spanish flavors, then they should do just that.  Not try to make money, be gimmicky, or trendy, or aim to receive three stars from the New York Times. One does not have to be a critic to know when a restaurant is trying to hard to be something it is not.   Too many people have been to Spain and have experienced Spanish flavors.  They can spot a place that looks cool but misses on flavor a mile away.  But in this town, often, if the restaurant gets the right press and is a place that a patron wants to be seen in, then the food is secondary and survives.  Who cares if you can’t get a proper tortilla in this town?  Well, I do, and I suspect others do too.

As for the old school New York establishments that serve watered down sangria, whose paella come out of pots without a smidgen of arroz bomba, smothering seafood in sauces and greasy fries dressed in ketchup/mayo, they are just as guilty as all those peddlers on the Gran Via trying to shovel the worst of what Spanish cuisine has to offer, their version of fast food.  Instead, isn’t it just easier to shop for the right stuff, cook the stuff with care, and be gracious throughout the whole process?