Thursday, May 31, 2012

Viva Gaudí!

I used to think Frank Lloyd Wright was my favorite architect ever, but I was wrong. It's Antoni Gaudi, whose insanely beautiful Palau Guell, the private house of Gaudí's biggest patron, is now totally restored.
Gaudí's work only looks insane, but it isn't. There is gorgeous harmony, expansive space, and absolute beauty. The Guell Palace is certainly a strange house, but it is a thing of genius. It reminded me of the prints of M.C. Escher.

The incredible wrought iron doors designed by Gaudí allow you to see the street from inside but prevent you from seeing the house from outside.

The horse stables

The Guells only lived there for about 15 months, because Mrs. Guell didn't like the house.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Foody Food Food

Because Cynthia asked for it:

Jersey tomatoes can kiss our Spanish ass. 

Fideua de la casa at Cervecería Catalana

I ordered half a ración of this noodle paella above and I soon regretted it. I could have eaten the whole thing.

Salteado de setas y calamares

Sauteed wild mushrooms and calamari (and fresh asparagus and jamón de jabugo). You bet.

Dinner: churros con chocolate
The hot chocolate at the Café de La Opera was so thick and intense, but not overly sweet, that it felt like I had five cups of coffee after.

La Chispa de la Vida

Today I did another Modernist pilgrimage of the neighborhood known as El Raval, which is still affectingly seedy in places. A spot on the walking tour is a bar called La Confitería, which used to be a pastry shop at the turn of the 20th Century and has been restored into a gorgeous bar. It's in the middle of a slightly down at the heels neighborhood and the two older gentlemen tending the empty bar were fun, crusty bohemians. Here's what transpired:

Me: A Coke please.
Bartender: Ice?
Me: Yes
Bartender: Lemon?
Me: Yes, please.
Bartender: Bubbles?
Me: That would be perfect.

Then the bartender, who I suspect was French and gay, helped himself to a piece of horrible cake, the kind they sell at supermarkets. He complained about the horror of the cake in detail until the other guy took a bottle of brandy from the display and poured a swirl of brandy on the slice. The bartender pronounced it much better.

That was fun.

La Confitería and if you look closely, the offending cake.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Serious Travel

Barcelona is such a haven of sophistication, that it's been hard to find hilarious stuff to make fun of, which after all is one of the great pleasures of traveling. So far everybody has been nothing but warm and welcoming, except a woman with a verbissener punim who served me a pork and cheese sandwich the day I did the Modernism pilgrimage. And even then she wasn't rude, just bitter.
I went to explore the beaches and happened into a choir recital in a tent as part of some Catalan cultural event. I should have suspected something was afoot when I noticed the director of the choir had hair like Paganini and a neck brace. There was a big audience of mostly elderly people, at a par with the mostly elderly singers on stage. The conductor gave a longwinded introduction in which he explained the order of the songs and what they were going to sing and why. He apologized that the songs were in Spanish, but quickly pointed out they were from Latin America, not Spain, as he is proud to have them in his repertoire. He could not remember exactly the name of the poet who wrote the first song, so someone from the exasperated choir shouted it out. A very beautiful song by Mario Benedetti, arranged, he explained, for four voices. I waited with delight, as I know the song well. After concluding his lengthy explanation of each song by saying that they were going to sing all the songs back to back to make things move quickly, he started calmly tuning the voices in each section of the choir. This reminded me of those bands that take longer to tune their instruments than they take to play their set at rock festivals. People who do this sort of audience torture should not be allowed on stage.
Finally, the song began. I could not recognize one note. Everybody was out of tune and the arrangement was some sort of baroque fugue that nobody could follow, a striking example of pretentious provincial atonality. I ran away, shaking my head, feeling sorry for everyone, and a little miffed at whoever was the cause of the neck brace. Clearly, they did not apply enough pressure.

Yesterday, as we walked in search of an open bar (it was a holiday, but never fear, in this city of bizarre opening and closing hours, you will never want for food or drink), we witnessed a theft. A guy on a bike swooshed by and nabbed something valuable off a tourist's arm. Brazenly, as the street was by no means empty. The couple gave chase on foot, screaming, but the guy pedaled away. Apparently, this is so common, that to make tourist lives' easier, you can now report thefts at the front desk of your hotel and avoid the snaking lines at the police station. Awfully nice of them, isn't it?

Barcelona is swarming with tourists. Doesn't anybody work? Not even June yet and everybody in Europe seems to be on vacation (or is it unemployed?). This includes young English lads and molls that either drink since morning or can't hold their liquor already early in the evening, Russians who stand in narrow alleyways as expansively as if they were in Red Square, oblivious to other human traffic; Italians, who in my experience, are people who tend to scream at each other; the French, who are rather discreet and well behaved, as if to atone for the punishment they unleash on the hordes that visit them; and drunken Visigoths of various northern stripes. I bet they come to Spain for the generosity with which the Spaniards pour a drink. In the puritan Anglo-Saxon world, a regular gin and tonic such as they serve here would be considered a triple, a bucket, God bless 'em. I also bet that if the waves of tourists continue swelling, by the time September rolls around, the natives may not be as warm and welcoming as they are now.

By the way, if I were Undisputed Ruler of Earth (I am currently volunteering for the post, you guys) the following would be banned:

• Buskers that don't move and then move
• Buskers in general
• Long haired Incas with pan flutes (these in particular gall me to no end)
• Homeless youth with dogs to elicit pity. You can be a homeless youth, but spare us the dog. 
• People standing in front of tourist traps trying to lure you in
• Tourist traps
• I am tempted to say tourists.

La Boquería

At the fantastic market of La Boquería, the majority of the fishmongers are women. And the majority of the fish are awesome.

Exotic fruits which are then turned into exotic jellies:

Or exotic juices:

Monday, May 28, 2012

En Barcelona

Here are some incredible monuments in this spectacular city:

Monumento a la Croqueta
This croqueta de jamón ibérico de bellota at Casa Leopoldo cannot possibly be bested. We also had a whole grilled fish which was perfection.

Today, I walked for about four hours following a self-guided tour of Modernist architecture. Heaven.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Your Worst European Nightmare... called Eurovision. This is where Europe (East, West, Israel and Turkey included) show what it's made of. And to judge from this pop music contest from hell, it is made of bad, cheesy, tacky, Europop and then some. It's a mighty important contest, as we found out last night when we went back to our hotel in Barcelona, turned on the TV and happened upon a recap of the final night of the proceedings by three experts of Spanish TV, all of which had at one point been contestants and who were discussing performances, attires and songs as if the fate of the world depended on them. They extolled the performance of the Spanish competitor, a woman called Pastora, who sported a hairdo out of the original Star Trek and decided to wear her bedding to the event, looking like a cross between a toga and a tornado. Her dress was horrible, she was horrible and the song was horrible, but the Spanish commentators thought she showed the world that she was capable and she was a número uno.

Then to our endless delight and astonishment, this play by play was followed by the most comprehensive recap of Eurovision through the ages (it started at the end of the 1950s) put together by an enterprising spirit that seems to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or some sort of genius autism. It was divided by segments per country, costumes, stage decor, men, women, duets, groups, the unheard of, the famous (Abba, Julio Iglesias, Cliff Richards, Katrina and the Waves and other international famouses who nobody knows), dances, ballads, versions, parodies, songs in English (many of which were not in English), number of victories won by country... it looked like it was never going to end. Most of the time our jaws were hanging low, our brows furrowed high in utter shock. This must be the greatest display of unintended hilarity known to man.

If you must know, Abba, which is to this contest like Bach is to Milli Vanilli, won with Waterloo, launching their now legendary career in pop. Waterloo is the quintessential Eurovision song, except that it is actually good. Peppy, buoyant, and utterly senseless. But whereas the guys in Abba were actually pop music geniuses, and their songs have a je ne se quoi that elevates them a notch up from classic pop garbage, the Eurovision song is the worst kind of song. Let's say that if Barry Manilow had entered with Copacabana, he'd have won hands down. Fake happy songs, the kind  that turn people into misanthropes. It's either that or treacly ballads that all sound the same, whether in Estonian, Uzbek or Turkish. The relatively recent inclusion of a bunch of former Soviet republics hellbent on showing who is king of bad taste and a relentlessly depressing enthusiasm, has upped the ante of garishness. Tackiness is a universal human condition that exists the world over to the delight of the observant traveler, but in my view, European tackiness is the gold standard; the most appalling kind, because there is no excuse for it. Underdeveloped countries can claim poverty, ignorance, cluelessness, but the cradles of the Renaissance and the Illustration? I mean, is there anything worse than German pop? I rest my case.
The best part is, playback is allowed.
You know who else came out of Eurovision? Two words: Celine Dion.
It's that bad.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vote For Pedro

As a good Mexican citizen, I took advantage of the new electoral law that allows Mexicans abroad with old voter cards to vote in the next Presidential elections.  The system has improved from last time around, when instructions were so arcane, it was clear they wanted to make it as hard as possible for the millions of us who are abroad to vote. Why we can't go to our local consulates or embassies and vote is beyond me. We will probably get there in the year 3000. Yet now, after minimal bureaucracy, and with no cost to me, I got my voting package in the mail. The dilemma this time is that the three main candidates are abysmal. The fourth candidate from a newly minted party, nobody knows him from Adam, and though he looks and sounds like an egghead, he is a protege of Cruella De Vil, aka Elba Esther Gordillo, a paleolithic mafiosa who runs the 1.5 million strong teachers' union and who nobody has been able to get rid of for decades. I can't vote for him.
I did not see the presidential debate but learned that the most conspicuous feature was that the woman who was handing out the questions to the candidates (why do we need one?)  looked like the vulgar version of a Playboy bunny. Which although sad and deeply shameful, should not be surprising. The political class in Mexico continues to treat Mexicans like retarded children. They think we are a bunch of ignorant, simple minded yahoos. It has barely noticed that Mexican society has changed at a par with the new facebook/twitter world order. Hence, they show their contempt for the Mexican people by picking a bunch of mediocre, incompetent losers. Mexicans are ready for a true democracy; not so their political parties and the media monopolies that have leeched on them for ages.
Only contempt can explain why the monolithic parties vying for the Mexican presidency chose their candidates so thoughtlessly. Like we say in Spanish, de los tres no haces uno. You can't make one by putting the three together.
The most egregious one is the PRI's guy, Enrique Peña Nieto, whose claim to fame is that he was governor of the State of Mexico, where he is accused of using violence to repress protests. But he is young and telegenic and, most importantly, married to a telenovela star, which also points to his party's unholy alliance with TV giant Televisa, a blight on the Mexican nation if there ever was one. As a campaigner, Peña Nieto has been a national disgrace. Unable to speak off the cuff at the most important book fair in the Spanish speaking world, he could not recall the name of ONE favorite book of his, which promptly launched an endlessly ingenious string of sarcastic memes that are still going on. People make fun of his ignorance, his inherited inability to speak normally (if you are from the PRI, you are genetically unable to be spontaneous. You speechify at the people, not talk to them), and his mini pompadour, also known as the copete. Most recently, in a very surprising development, he visited a posh private university, which his advisers undoubtedly thought a safe place, since the juniorcitos, the hijos de papi, the fresas and pirruris (all epithets that describe spoiled rich kids) who go there have never been interested in anything but their own well being. Lo and behold, he was chased out of the campus by a vocal group of students who, like any Mexican with an ounce of sense, do not wish to see the country revert back to the PRI and its corrupt, cynical, nefarious paternalism. If he had more backbone, perhaps he could have made himself heard above the racket. He chose to flee. Mexico being the country of mistrust, the country where no one is thought to have any purity or principle, soon the PRI spun the protest into what they themselves did for 70 years, accusing the students of being planted agents of the opposition. The 131 students,  promptly created a viral video stating their names and showing their student cards to the camera to show that they were not anyone's lackeys. The most surprising, and most wonderful thing is that this happened in this fancy campus (the fancy have always voted for whoever keeps them that way, but not anymore). It is encouraging to see youth in revolt, and I certainly hope they will take this revolt to the voting booth, from which they have been traditionally absent, if anything, to show the PRI it is not wanted back. There was an impressive march of young people against the PRI, which the media was trying to downplay. The pictures point at a hell of a lot of people down Reforma Avenue.
I keep hearing Peña Nieto is ahead in the polls, but I surmise these polls are as trustworthy as a Mexican politician. After his terrible public appearances, all I hear is utter disgust with him so I wonder who in that fictitious country of polls actually likes him.
Meanwhile the PAN, which has been in power for 12 years (after 70 of the PRI's perfect dictatorship, as Mario Vargas Llosa called it), and which has fallen from the public's grace mainly because of the suicidal war on drugs waged by President Calderón, chooses a woman who was Secretary of something or other, and who lacks any credentials to be the president. Not because she is a woman, but because if she were a man, she still would lack the credentials, the personality, and the acumen. Whose puppet is she? Because of the war on drugs, Mexicans want someone who is going to give them the impression he/she is going to deal with the violence. She represents somehow the worst aspects of the PAN, which is a right-wing Catholic party with an antiquated ideology about women, gays, and the rest of the enlightened world.
The third option, which many of the intelligentsia, the young and the eternally utopian endorse, is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, who was mayor of Mexico City and who lost the last presidential election and proceeded to orchestrate a disruptive, 6 month long hissy fit that paralyzed Mexico City and made me loathe him forever (even though I was not living there at the time). Sore losers cannot possibly be good leaders. This one, the oldest of the bunch by far, is a mix between old fashioned Mexican populist politics and tired Latin American lefty demagoguery. People are afraid that he will be Hugo Chavez Jr. I simply do not trust him. I don't trust people who promise to fix absolutely every injustice. They are liars. I was hoping that the candidate of his party, the PRD, would be the competent current mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, but the conventional wisdom is that he may be liked in DF but cannot win in the rest of the country (which tends to hate the capital). Mexico is a country where demagogic populism has been the norm for ages, hence they chose someone who connects more with the people. Pity, because Ebrard seems capable. Maybe six years from now?
I heard the recorded greetings the candidates made for us voters abroad and none of them said anything smart or sincere, but to my surprise, the only one who spoke about the situation with a broader point of view was Peña Nieto, even if it was fed to him through a teleprompter. The other two just pandered to the Mexican migrants to the US, as if the election hinged only on the immigration problem. And Quadri, the fourth guy, was just awkward.
The Mexican paper ballot leaves an open space to scribble an alternative candidate of your choice. Rather than abstaining, which is useless unless done by a concerted and huge majority, this is the only way I see to express my discontent with the candidates. I know who I am voting for. She is a very smart woman who is not a politician, but who is always reading Mexico the riot act. The vote is secret.

p.s.: Mexicans abroad, remember to send your ballots back before June 20!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mexican Ongepachket

This is what the nouvelle Mexican cuisine of some New York restaurants should be called. Some people just don't know how to leave well enough (or genius, in the case of Mexican food) alone. This is the case of Empellón Cocina, a super hyped, expensive new Mexican restaurant that has some critics raving. Not yours truly.
It's not that the food at Empellón Cocina is bad. Some of it is very tasty. But it suffers from ongepatchket-ness. This is a priceless Yiddish word meant to describe the overdone and over the top when it comes to food, furniture and fashion. For instance, Christian Lacroix: ongepatchket; Early Prada: not ongepatchket. Rococo: ongepatchket; Mid Century Modern, not ongepatchket.  You get the idea.
My mom used to couple the word when referring to overloaded fashions, foods, or decor with an expression of profound disdain.
I went to dinner with my good friend Seth. We started out with an appetizer of chicharrones with a wonderful warm green salsa of capers and tomatillo. No one ever heard of capers in tomatillo salsa, but this was truly delicious. The chicharrones were perfect and fluffy and almost ethereal, no hairs, stringiness,  hardness or burns of any kind, as you are wont to find in the big pieces of fresh chicharrón that are sold by the giant bag in Mexico. Here they were so perfect and airy they lacked a bit of oomph.
I ordered the margarita with mezcal, up with salt and it was a wonderful, wonderful drink, served in a classic margarita glass (not a fish tank), with what they called smoked salt.
We also started with the gordita with smoked plantain, chorizo and egg yolk (au cheval, as they say in French) and the sopecitos de lengua with salsa de árbol (tongue sopes). Here is where things started derailing a bit. There is no doubt that the quality of the ingredients is top notch and so is the preparation. The corn masa is very good. But chef Alex Stupak apparently never met an ingredient he didn't like. He uses five more ingredients in everything when five less will suffice. Hence, ongepatchket.
The gordita, for instance, comes garnished with two spears of romaine lettuce. This is out of Ionesco. Romaine doesn't add anything. If it's meant as a joke, it doesn't land the punchline. An actual gordita you may have at a market is a round, thick, fluffy fried disk of corn masa filled with beans or, if you are lucky, pressed chicharrón. This one had refried "smoked" plantains on the side, which were very yummy and looked like refried beans. But I don't remember the chorizo nor the yolk, because it was all rather dainty. The sopecitos were tiny chunky disks of fried masa with beans. The beans were good. They did not have the overload of cumin that is the mark of typical bad Mexican food in America. The tongue I could barely taste, because there wasn't much of it and the salsa de árbol tasted like a better version of the Valentina hot sauce that comes from a bottle. It's not that it tastes bad, but that it's the kind of tangy hot sauce you drizzle on raw fruits and carrots or jicama or cucumbers, not on cooked food. This is how much of a Mexican fineshmecker I am.
For entrees I had the Maine diver scallops with Surryano (?) ham and chilaquiles verdes. The scallops (all two of them) were cooked to perfection, plump and delicious. The ham with a weird name was chewy and bacony. But the chilaquiles were tiny squares of fried masa with a puny drizzle of green sauce. They tasted like good chilaquiles allright, and it is smart to do a mini version of them to avoid overpowering the seafood, but that may be why Mexicans wouldn't dream of putting scallops next to chilaquiles in the first place. A sense of proportion. In this case, the totally unnecessary ingredient -- you are never going to guess -- was peas. Peas as in English peas, mealy, bland and utterly out of place with everything else. The dish would be much better without them. This was served in a little cast iron dish and set us back $21. Which I find rather outrageous. This is the other thing that gets my goat about the precious new Mexican restaurants in NY. The prices look reasonable on the menu but turn out to be a bit of a ripoff when you see the size of the portions. A gordita, i.e. street food, for $8 is some sort of bad cosmic joke. Empellón charges $3 per salsa, whereas the humblest taco stand in Mexico gives you three or more generously sized bowls of different salsas for free.
Seth trusted my instincts, which at that point were to stay away from dishes with 29 ingredients, so he ordered the Estofado de costillas, a Oaxacan style baby back rib stew with plantains and pineapple, that was very bland and totally unsuccessful. Sorry, Seth. You are welcome to exact revenge any time. Boiled tofu should do the trick.
I couldn't believe that the dessert menu included a strawberry gaznate (gahz-nah-teh). Gaznates are the cheap Mexican version of cannoli. They are sold only on the street and they are always predictably awful. Maybe the original ones were made with real strawberry or vanilla cream filling, but the current version is made with industrial grade, petroleum-based whipped cream and pink food coloring. I was curious to see what would become of the lowly gaznate in a fancy restaurant. Well, it was certainly the best gaznate I ever had. The dough was crispy and tasted slightly better than the street version; the filling was superior to the authentic one, but basically strawberry fluff; sweet in a way that got boring quickly. I feel bad being such a bitch about it since I told the waiter the story of gaznates, he went and told the pastry chef and they comped us the dessert. If you told any Mexican that you paid $8 for a gaznate, however glorified, they would die laughing.
I had a wonderful time with Seth and some of the bites were very good, the service was crisp and professional, but in the end the overall effect was not as sublime as I'm sure the hardworking chef intends. He is quite gifted, but some ingredient editing may do him wonders.
Now get me two pastores con todo, asap.

Here's part of the menu. You tell me if it doesn't sound like the Rococo of Mexican food:

Monday, May 07, 2012