Restaurant Review: TragaTapas, Ronda, Spain

TragaTapas, Ronda, Spain

Calle Nueva 4, Ronda ✆ 952-878-640
Hours: 12:00 to 15:30 & 20:00 to 23:30
Open daily
Average Price: €18 per person
All major credit cards accepted

I am by nature a grazer.

Given the choice, I will eat all day long, consuming small, bite-size amounts every now and then rather than sitting down at set times for a large meal, so the Spanish tradition of tapas fits right in with my typical eating pattern.

-- little, bite-sized morsels served on small plates -- originated in Spain as a way to keep flies out of your drink. When you ordered a glass of wine or beer, a tapa (literally a lid), would be served along with the drink and set on top of the glass. Today, tapas are an essential part of any visit to Spain.

On a recent visit to Ronda, one of the white-washed hill villages typical of southern Spain, I paid a visit to TragaTapas. This wine and tapas bar is an off-shoot of Tragabuches, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Ronda that offers some of the best Nueva Spanish cuisine in the country. I've had the pleasure of eating at Tragabuches several times, but dinner at Tragabuches is a multi-course eating event, one for which you need to prepare yourself financially and physically, as well as one which requires reservations well in advance. Most of the time I'm looking for something a little simpler -- and cheaper -- so I was happy to have a chance to try out TragaTapas on this trip.

Marinated Artichockes & Taboule, TragaTapas

I was there when they opened, at a typically Spanish 8:00 pm, and took a seat at the bar. I started off with a glass of the house red, a Rioja that turned out to be excellent and a great value. For my first round I ordered a tabbouleh and a marinated artichoke. Since these are both cold dishes, I expected they should arrive quickly and I was not disappointed. I had read some on-line reviews that complained of slow service, but that certainly was not my experience. I was greeted as soon as I walked in, and service throughout my time was relaxed and informal, but always prompt.

Asparagus & Manchego

Once I got past the initial shock of these items being served in cat food cans, I dug in. The tins are actually probably sardine cans, but they just looked like cat food tins to me. As you can see from the picture, I inhaled most of both of them before I even remembered to take a picture, so the tins obviously didn't put me off too long.

Next up was asparagus and Manchego cheese. Served on a stone slab, the two spears of asparagus had been sautéed in olive oil to perfection, and covered in finely grated Manchego. I'm not a huge asparagus fan, but this was good.

Curry Chicken, TragaTapas

Since I had been eating lots of traditional Castilian food over the previous days (read --> jámon) with not much more than salt for flavoring, I jumped at the chance for something a little spicier for my main course. Here I chose the Curry Chicken, with a side of Patatas Bravas. The Curry Chicken was just one example of some of the Asian-influenced flavors I found on the menu. One of my favorite tapas, and one you'll find in tapas places all over Spain, Patatas Bravas is boiled, slice potatoes lathered in a spicy garlic mayonnaise sauce. The heat level can range from very mild to sweat inducing, depending on the tapas bar.

Patatas Bravas, TragaTapas

This one leaned toward the warmer side, but was not uncomfortably spicey. Again service was warm, prompt and relaxed.

TragaTapas has taken tapas taken to a new level, with interesting combinations and twists on classic Spanish dishes, mixed with some Asian influences. This is a low-key, low cost way to experience some of flavor magic that comes from the minds at parent Tragabuches. Overall, TragaTapas was a winner, and one I'll happily return to next time I'm in Ronda.

Restaurant Review: Le Fleury, Beaune, France

Restaurant Le Fleury
15 Place Fleury, Beaune ✆ 03-80-22-35-50
Hours: 12:00 to 14:30 & 19:00 to 21:30, Open daily
Average Price: €40 per person All major credit cards accepted

With the outward appearance of a rather run of the mill brasserie, this is a place I had passed by on numerous occasions without much thought. Big mistake. When I finally sat down and tried it, it turned out to be one of my best meals in France.

While I looked over the menu, the waiter recommended a glass of nice rosé wine as an aperitif. I'm not normally a big rosé fan, but he gave it very high marks -- something quite exceptional were his words -- and since it was quite hot out, a chilled wine sounded nice. I gave him the go ahead and was not disappointed. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Gazpacho at Le Fleury, Beaune

The menu has enough Burgundian classics to satisfy the first-time visitor to Burgundy, along with some foreign elements like pastas and risotto. Having eaten my fair share of Boeuf Bourguignon, I opted to go "foreign" with a starter of gazpacho, followed by risotto with spring vegetables, and tiramisu for dessert. I also ordered a glass of chablis, to follow when I was done with the rosé.

My gazpacho arrived quickly. Not just a lazy bowl of red soup with some crusty bread, it was a work of art and included a few greens dressed in olive oil and balsamic, plus a crispy wafer of baked parmesan cheese. The gazpacho was perfect. Fresh tomato taste, nice texture and just enough garlic to give it some bite without being overwhelming.

Next up was the risotto. I had by now finished off the rosé, and the glass had been cleared away, but my chablis was no where in sight. The waiter who brought the risotto was not the one who had originally taken my order -- common in European restaurants, where they're not working for tips and nobody "owns" a table. The system works wonderfully if you have a well-trained staff and diligent management, but can quickly fall apart if someone gets lazy and expects "the other guy" to pick up the slack. Pretty soon they're all lazy, and there's no "other guy" left.

Risotto with spring vegetable, Le Fleury, Beaune

After setting down the risotto the waiter spun off to another table before I could say anything about the wine, but not ten seconds later the original waiter glanced at my table from half-way across the restaurant, crinkled his brow, and then dashed out of sight. He soon appeared at my table with the glass of chablis. I hadn't needed to say a word, and Le Fleury was quickly winning my heart.

The risotto was a revelation. Creamy, with just enough tooth. Each of the vegetables, though they all would require different cooking times, were fresh and tender. Nothing mushy or over done.

Tiramisu at Le Fleury, Beaune

Last of all the tiramisu. I fear ordering tiramisu in a restaurant I don't know, even in Italy, because so many restaurants put out a slab of semi-thawed, store bought mush on a plate, figuring most patrons are over stuffed and half drunk by this point and will never know the difference. Fortunately, this was not the case at Le Fleury. It wasn't exactly a classic tiramisu -- more of a tiramisu and berry parfait, but obviously from scratch. And it was delicious.

Everything was beautifully presented and brilliantly prepared, but the service was what really won me over. Top notch attention, without being intrusive.

The restaurant has a large indoor dining room, plus a small terrace when the weather is nice. A definite keeper.

Restaurant Review: Osteria Oliva Nera, Venice, Italy

Osteria Oliva Nera, Venice Italy

Osteria Oliva Nera
Castello 3417
tel. 041-522-2170
Hours: 12:00 to 15:00 & 19:00 to 22:00
Average Price: €70 per person. All major credit cards accepted.
Finding it: Located in a residential area, midway between the Bridge of Sighs and the Arsenal. Head down the waterfront, then turn left at Calle dei Pieta, just before the Metropol Hotel. Go straight for about four blocks, and the restaurant will be on a corner to your right.

Firmly focused on quality over quantity, Oliva Nera is a gourmet delight in what is otherwise a pretty bleak restaurant landscape. They are especially known for their zucchini flowers, stuffed with cheese and fried, the best I’ve ever had. The rest of the menu changes throughout the year. I’ve enjoyed the breaded shrimp with cold cauliflower cream sauce, and the ricotta and orange ravioli with tomato.

Portions are small, with a subtle blending of flavors not often found in the tourist mills so common in Venice. Each person should expect to eat two or three courses, at €15 to €20 per course. Service is warm, yet prompt and professional.

Reservations recommended.

Restaurant Review: Restaurante Arrayanes, Granada, Spain

Restaurante Arrayanes, Granada, Spain

Restaurante Arrayanes
Cuesta Marañas 4, Granada
✆ 958-228-401
Open: 13:00 to 16:30 & 19:30 to 23:30
Closed: Tuesdays
Average Price: €20 per person

Granada, Spain was the last Moorish stronghold in Europe, a center of Islamic culture for almost 800 years. It wasn't until 1492, fairly recent by European standards, that the Moors were driven back across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco. Today, tens of thousands of people flock to see the Alhambra, the most visible remains of this time. When you visit Granada indulge your sense of taste, as well as you sight, with a visit to Restaurante Arrayanes.

Up a steep, narrow alley behind Plaza Nueva, Arrayanes serves excellent Moroccan cuisine (tajines, couscous, pastel) with superb service. Try the tasting salad (babaganoush, hummus, sweet peppers, onions). The tajine of beef kafta is very tasty as a main course. No alcohol served, but the lemonade (mixed with a little mint) is very refreshing. It's a very popular place, so arrive early or make reservations.

Restaurant Review: L'ecailleur, Honfleur, France

Interior of l'ecailleur

1 rue de la République

14600 Honfleur

Tel: 02-31-89-93-34

Open: 12:00 to 14:00 & 19:00 to 21:00
Closed: Wednesdays and Thursdays
Average Price: €40 per person

L'Ecailleur (scaler, as in fish scaler) is one of my favorite stops in all of France. To start with, the location is marvelous. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a small building on a corner of the Enclosure area, with views of the old harbor. The interior is smart and modern, with little to distract you from the view and the food.

I have always been greeted warmly and graciously at the door, even when they have had to inform me that --
malheureusement -- they are fully booked for the night. Make a reservation, so that doesn't happen to you. Once seated, you'll find a few items listed on their a la carte menu, but you're far better off considering one of their fixed price menus. At €27 to €39, a meal here is not cheap, but it's good value. The four-course meal includes an appetizer, main course, cheese plate and dessert.

Once you've ordered, and while you're enjoying the view, a little
amuse-bouche will arrive. Literally a "mouth amusement", this will be a small and always interesting something to tickle your palate and keep you busy while your appetizer is being prepared. It won't be long, though, before your courses begin to arrive. The presentation is a work of art, and you may feel like it's just too pretty to eat. Fortunately they pay as much attention to the quality and flavor as they do to the visuals.



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