Wednesday, 28 September 2016

On Málaga, and Solo Holidaying

I turned 30 last week. It seems like one of those big milestones in life, one of those really important birthdays that everyone celebrates with real gusto, though I'm not really sure why. I get 18 - legally allowed to do all the fun things, like buy booze and vote, and see smutty films. I sort of understand 21, it's that American ideal of being a proper, proper adult. But 30? 30 feels like one of those ages that at least, as a woman, people put upon you that feeling that you'd better get on with it. But when it comes down to it, 30 is important. 30 is the age I got to where I felt like I could really do what I wanted, without judgement. I can eat coco pops for dinner whenever I damn well like. No I don't want to do that. Whatever. 

I had a few days off in between jobs and I wanted to do something with it - it's all too easy to sit at home in your pants watching Narcos and eat pizza - so I decided to go away by myself. I know it doesn't sound like much, but the number of raised eyebrows I got was surprising. "You're so brave!" 

"But won't you be lonely?" was a common question, or "can't someone go with you?" Both fair points, but I didn't want to. I'd had a pretty intense period at work on over-lapping projects, so actually the thought of waking up in the morning and just doing whatever I wanted made my mouth water a bit. Being alone doesn't make you lonely. 

I went to Málaga. Actually, when I booked it I managed to book my flights to Málaga and my accommodation in Majorca. Anyway, Málaga is the dream place for an easy few days. It had everything I wanted; decent flight options, easy transport if you don't want to drive, city, beach, weather. It's a bit like Barcelona, on a much smaller scale. I bumbled around cycling down their wide boulevards, lazing on their beaches, a mere 15 minute walk from my apartment. I ate at market places, tapas bars, chiringuitos. I read books on the beach in between napping, I climbed hills to viewpoints across Málaga, and I stared down pitying gazes from couples in their geriatric years (only really them, weirdly) as I asked for tables for one. I slept for HOURS and I discovered I don't much like Picasso, but I found Jackson Pollack quite entertaining. Anyway, I'd hugely recommend Málaga, and here are some of the places I ate, with thanks to @thaneprice and @sevilla_tapas for their enthusiastic recommendations. 

Casa Aranda is THE PLACE for churros and chocolate while you watch the world go by, and they are delicious; the churros are just the right side of salty, and the chocolate thick and sweet, but I challenge you to go and Do Stuff after a day started like that. I prefer a gentler beginning, like the breakfast at La Recova, a tiny little ceramics shop that doubles as a café. For something ludicrous like 4 Euros you get coffee, bread, tomatoes, a sobresada (spicy, spreadable sausage), and confit chicken spread, as well as honey and banana spreads so you can have mains and pudding. This guide has all the deets. 

My parents, bless 'em, did a 6 hour drive round the coast to come have lunch with me (they moved to Spain last year) and we had a seafood extravaganza at Andres Maricuchi, in a lovely traditional seaside town of Pedragelejo. I cycled there and flopped on the dark volcanic sand in the morning, watching the restaurants build barbecues up in raised boats, for their signature sardines-on-a-stick. Grilled squid with potatoes could have done with a little more oil basting and a little less time on the heat, but prawns, liberally sprinkled with rock salt, were easily some of the best I've had. Sweet, sweet seaside. And they peel their tomatoes for their garlic-heavy salad. I don't know why they peel them, but damn it felt luxurious.


Back in Málaga proper, Taberna Uvedoble was one of my favourites. The menu offered tapa portions of everything even if you're sitting at a table outside, so I got to try lots of lovely little bits, like this squid ink fideua, with tiny baby Málaga squid and aioli. 

I have a total obsession with Salmorejo - which is a Andalucian gazpacho, made creamier with the addition of bread, and the exclusion of peppers and cucumbers. Every time I visit Spain I buy it in cartons in supermarkets, though they're much fancier with chopped garnishes, here with egg and jamon. Smoked swordfish loin too is rolled in paprika and cayenne, with a loose tomato sauce. Lunch was barely a tenner with a beer. 

In the evenings I wandered around the cobbled streets and stopped off in tapas bars for a little beer or wine, sampling a dish here or there. The prawns at Wendy Gamba were the first time I considered maybe having that again, they were so good. I love the Spanish tapas culture, especially since I'm the kind of person that finds it difficult to stay still - the idea that you can just snack around is heaven to me. I also went to Los Gatos, which was fun to sit at the bar and snack on stuffs on bread, especially since they gave me a glass of cava after I paid my bill. I also enjoyed El Refectorum Catedral, which was one of the more upmarket tapas places I found myself in, though their croquetas are greasy and quite frankly, a bit rank. 

I LOVED Meson Cortijo de Pepe; mainly because after trying to squeeze into El Tapeo de Cervantes and basically being shooed away (apparently one must book) they were very welcoming, and they served lots of nice little plates of tapas that you could just point at. Also, vegetables! Lovely vegetables. If you find yourself there, get the avocado salad. I particularly enjoyed a totally bonkers Japanese lady who spoke perfect Spanish and sidled up to me. She raised an eyebrow and told me that many single women go to tapas bars to pick up men but she, she assured me, was only interested in the food. I smiled sweetly and told her I was there to pick up men. 

Atarazanas Market, open lunchtimes, is a great place to wander around to look at produce and eat some lunch. It also happened to be practically under my apartment. It was here I learnt to be more assertive. Often when I'm on my own I become a bit meek, trying to be as polite as possible, not to get in anyone's way, avoid drawing attention to myself. If you did that here you simply wouldn't get fed. Fuck it. I elbowed my way in, shouted GAMBAS! BOQUERONES! and I was rewarded. It was fine. It was very fresh. The waiter behind the counter was indeed dreamy. But these are plates made for sharing and the amount of variety I crave means a lot of wastage, or over-eating. I went back to Taberna Uvedoble. 

I came back to London, refreshed and perky, ready to face 30. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Manhattan In a Weekend

My trips to New York are becoming more and more audacious; everyone I told that I was going just for a weekend responded with incredulity. It's a touch longer than a weekend; we went over the bank holiday, leaving work at 1pm on the Friday, to arrive back in London on Monday evening. Obviously it isn't enough time in My Spiritual Home, but it would have to do.

Our last odyssey had us there at the beginning of January 2015, a frigid time filled with freezing winds, snow and a lot of woollens. This time, it couldn't have been more opposite, the balmy weather hitting the early 30s Celcius. Due to our shortened timescales, we decided to stay at Hotel Chandler, a lovely little hotel right in the middle of K-Town, to allow us good access to Newark Airport - definitely, definitely fly to Newark over JFK. It is dreamy, in comparison.

We dumped our bags and headed straight to Gramercy Tavern, which has been on my list for years. We slung a bucketful of martini down our necks, and were taken aback by the deliciousness of the cornbread with lamb sausage and green tomato. It's not the Deep South cornbread I thought it was going to be; the crisp flatbread was embedded with corn, topped with minced lamb patties, and the green tomatoes were apple-like in crisp sweetness. For days afterwards we still debated if this was the best thing we ate.

A tomato salad with stone fruits and basil was light and summery, refreshing and served to us in individual bowls, divided so we didn't have to fight, as they knew we were sharing. That is service. I don't think I really knew good (casual) service until going to New York.

Grilled corn, shrimp and dumplings in miso was richly flavoured, bursting with sweetness and seafood. We both zoned in on this one the minute we opened our menus, being the Asian-lovers we are, and it was everything I wanted out of a bowl.

Roasted tomatoes, macaroni and cheddar cheese was comforting goodness, without being too rich and sleep-inducing. We had just come off a nearly 8 hour flight and we were wary of cutting our evening short with a carb-hit to end all evenings, but we needn't have worried. Just the right portion size for two, the extra crunch of the breadcrumbs on top ensured each mouthful kept our attention till the end. We forewent dessert, and I regret not trying the wild blueberry pie, but cocktail bars required our attention. Of all the meals of the weekend, it wasn't the cheapest, at $170 total but it was worth each one of our hard-earned Brexit-fucked pennies. I can't talk about the exchange rate right now, it hurts too much.

The next day we bounded out of bed to meet a dear friend at Jack's Wife Freda, a restaurant that has branches in SoHo and the West Village. The latter is larger, so we only had a short wait for a table as my hangover kicked in with ferocity and I was only able to muster the orange blossom and honey pancakes. The green shakshuka and the Madame Freda, made with duck prosciutto were well received by my friends, though a little more care on the egg cooking may have been necessary to be rid of that dreaded egg white flob.

Root & Bone was the venue for lunch, where we met up with Rej of Gastro Geek fame, and reminisce about the good old days of food blogging in London. Well, I imagine we would have done more of that if we weren't so bewitched by her utterly gorgeous two little boys who ran us ragged with their cheekiness and boundless energy. Parenting is hard. Anyway, we bimbled around for a while until our table was ready and dang (to use a localism?) that place was packed, but you can book.

The waitresses were harried, but efficient and soon enough, a half bucket of the crispest fried chicken arrived, along with a watermelon salad dressed with jalapeno buttermilk. Around us, people were having fried chicken with waffles and eggs benedict, brunching hard and enjoying the shaded outdoor seating.

We stopped for a drink at The Frying Pan, a big boat off Chelsea, along with a lot of New York's younger revellers (top picture). I'll freely admit I felt a little old there, but the sun was shining and it's nice being on water. We plotted our course through the afternoon and decided to stop off at Momofuku Nishi in time for Happy Hour (5:30pm). When The Impossible Burger was on the menu, we had to try it.

Made entirely from plants and plant-based products, it's meant to mimic the flavour of a hamburger. It does, and I think it's largely down to the condiments. The burger comes with a McDonald's-esque burger sauce, strong in pickle flavour, and the lettuce, tomato and slappy cheese go along to help that. The bun is squishy and sweet, and there is a hint of a meaty char. It's a decent attempt and I think if I were a vegetarian I might enjoy it more, but it definitely doesn't have the same mouthfeel or satisfaction of a normal cheeseburger.

I had to convince my friend to order the 'butter noodles - chickpea hozon, black pepper' - "but Lizzie, we were only coming for a snack!". Well, if it isn't the best bloody noodle dish I've had in a while. It's like cacio e pepe, except somehow richer in flavour, and lighter in feeling. It had intense savouriness from the hozon - a term invented by chef / owner Chang for making miso out of non-traditional ingredients (soybeans being the most common). The noodles were cooked to almost too al dente, but only almost. I know I'm a David Chang fan anyway, but seriously. (Also, for $19, I'd hope so too.)

We ate in Korea Town more often than we'd intended to, but that's no bad thing. After going to my friend's incredibly beautiful and fun wedding, we found ourselves hammered and hungry at 4am. K-Town was still up an at it, and we wobbled through the doorway of BCD Tofu House down to the basement for some late-night booze-soaker-upper-supper. It. Was. Rammed. At 4am, packed to the rafters. We were agog; truly, it is the city that never sleeps. They brought us banchan (Korean pickles) of kimchi, marinated beansprouts, pak choi, a strange mayonnaise-y potato salad, a freshly fried salted fish and various other bits before we'd even ordered. I think I had a soondoobu jjigae (spicy seafood and tofu stew) and I'm pretty sure my friend had the pork bulgogi but what I do know is we left stuffed and happy, $30 all told (though we were all boozed out by then, so that's just food). I love you, New York.

On our last night too, we went to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (say that after a few) for Korean barbecue; the place is open till 6am EVERY NIGHT. Two floors, and packed at 10pm on a Sunday night. Mental. We feasted on their beef combo of bulgogi, prime rib and other cuts, while omelette poofed and cooked on the right and corn cooked down with gooey cheese on the left. A vast array of pickles and lettuce and sauces accompanied the meal and they also brought us a fiery kimchi stew. A teeth-achingly sweet carafe of yuzu sochu cocktail made us giddy. I was in heaven.

I wanted to try some ramen in New York, so we headed to Ivan Ramen's Slurp Shop in Hell's Kitchen which is housed in a pretty helpful food court. It's a bit Westfield in feeling but as it has tacos, tapas and decent coffee, it would suit the most diverse of cravings amongst a group. The breakfast ramen, with cheesy dashi, ham and omelette (top) was pretty mega; too much for me to handle, but my friend went in with gusto. I opted for the Shio ramen with extra toppings of enoki mushrooms (weirdly plonked on raw), a soft egg and toasted nori. It was a decent bowl of noodles, but we do it better in London. Spicy miso-buttered corn on a stick was a nice touch, though the cabbage salad was uninspiring. It is not the crisp, crunchy sweetness of our very own Bone Daddies.

We walked 17 kilometres around New York on both days, enjoying the sunshine and avoiding the subway - as well as working up our appetites for more food. Harry & Ida's Meat Supply Co. was an oasis of calm, shaded and bedecked in wood, reminiscent of a film set though I'm not sure which. We'd squeezed in some cheeky dumplings from Tasty Dumpling (I wouldn't bother again; they were roughly hewn, and overly doughy) as well as crammed in some tofu and noodles from Xi'an Famous Foods, a must if ever I'm in the city - so this sandwich wasn't one I was hugely enthused about. I was positively lethargic. "Can we get Ida's?" I bleated. Ida's is the 'light' version of the pastrami sandwich. (Something something female stereotypes huff huff something). 

It is wonderful. The bread is light - no roof of the mouth scrapings here - and spongy, and the inside is smeared with wholegrain mustard that has a strong hint of the American about it (you know the type, French's). The meat is warm and fatty - and actually the American 'pastrami' is our salt beef - and full of fatty, juicy flavour. The cucumber pickles are crisp and sweet, though we plucked out some of the over-generous fronds of dill. If I lived in New York I'd buy that pastrami by the pound, which they sell there in bulk, along with smoked eel, bluefish salad, smoked chicken etc. 

We waddled off to get an ice cream at The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, and went for the Salty Pimp; soft serve vanilla with salted caramel, dipped in chocolate. Holygod. 

Diet time.