Scrolling through the 9,000 photos I have of this past year I found myself grinning and giggling. The 31,000 feet of altitude and three glasses of cheap wine might have helped (I was flying over the Atlantic at the time). While most of the photos were of terribly lit food, they stood like a library of memories.
This year I’ve shared meals, tapas, drinks and picoteos with some phenomenal people. These people have challenged me, encouraged me, distracted me (in the best ways) and enabled me to drink unhealthy amounts of fabulous wine. Over the past 12 months I’ve tasted tapas in 15 cities, swirled wine (as unpretentiously as possible, of course) in 9 bodegas and delved into the culinary wonders of 10 states across 3 countries.
As I sit here now on my parent’s couch recovering from a four-day bought of terribly-timed stomach flu and looking back over this year, I realize that I am exceptionally grateful and abundantly fortunate to have had a year so rich in flavors, so full of stretching sobremesas and so ripe with bites of happiness. Of all the goodness that this year has brought to my tastebuds, there are some that stand a fork above the rest. Here are those best bites of 2014.
Best Tapa: Marinated Sardines with Spicy Guacamole
I thank my obsession for markets and all food-related events for discovering this one. On a Sunday night in October the most massive of all lines wrapped around the most massive of all Madrid buildings, the Palacio de Cibeles. Why? A tapas jubilee of course!
The Mercado de Sabores brought 21 of Madrid’s best chefs under the domed glass ceilings of the Cibeles courtyard to showcase the best tapa they could muster. For me, that meant an evening of downright marvelous tapas accompanied by crisp cañas of Mahou and a side of playing restaurant critic.
Perhaps it is my love for all things Mexican food or possibly it is because of my longing for the hard-to-find flavor of lime in Madrid, but the marinated sardines with “spicy” (it was not even the slightest bit spicy) guacamole from the Aspen de la Moraleja restaurant made my evening. Creatively plated atop half of a lime, the hugely flavorful guacamole complimented the rich sardine to create a fresh and original tapa. I’ll take 500 more please.
Where to find it: While this exact tapa is not on the menu, virtually the same idea minus the lime is! You’ll have to venture outside not just the M-30 but also the M-40 to get to it… Aspen de la Moraleja in Plaza de la Moraleja, S/N, Alcobendas, Madrid, Spain.
Best Wine: Bodegas Riojanos’ 1994 Monte Real Rioja
This wine shocked me in every way. First, it is a Rioja, a wine region I usually skip over for being unexciting and light. This bottle could not have been farther from those two stereotypes. Layers of flavor were stacked into every sip of this 20-year-old reserva. It was perfectly balanced, smooth and with just enough tannin to make it robust.
And we oh-so-almost did not order it. It was the bottle on special at El Rincon del Vino in Logroño, a restaurant with white cloth laid tables tucked under the arches of an ancient bodega. The wine list was huge, with Riojas ranging from this year’s harvest to grand reservas older than I am. And with such possibilities why would we choose the one bottle that the restaurant has on special, one they are possibly trying to clear from their shelves? Indecision was on my side and when the waiter came someone pointed to the first bottle on the menu, the special. If this was the bottle they were trying to get off their hands, please let me take every case there is left!
As we later found out, 1994 was one of Rioja’s best years in recent memory. If I ever see another 1994 Rioja I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
Where to find it: El Rincon del Vino, Calle Marqués de San Nicolás, 136 in Logroño, La Rioja, Spain.
Best Tortilla Española: Chef Senén González’ Sagartoki in Vitoria
Tortilla española deserves a category of its own. I’m on the constant hunt for the most marvelous tortilla and continuously attempting to create an even half-decent one myself. Most are so-so. Mine are, more often than not, disastrous. But in April, I struck tortilla gold.
We had been in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country, for two days before we finally decided to give in to the hype of the Senén tortilla. The restaurant was so tacky we had initially refused to go in. Huge banners with photos of the tortilla and Senén’s other famous creation, a fried egg yolk wonton sort of thing, bordered the doors and the interior walls were covered in awards, trophies and framed pictures of the chef holding said awards and trophies. It was the antithesis of cozy tavern.
Ducking into a table nestled along a mercifully bare stretch of wall, we ordered half a tortilla. We should have gone for the whole. The outside was marvelously golden while the inside was just the right amount of runny. Exceptionally caramelized onions wove through perfectly crispy potatoes and fabulously flavorful eggs. Miguel said it all: “This is better than my mother’s.” I never thought I’d hear those words come out of the mouth of a Spaniard, but they couldn’t have been more true. It was the best tortilla I’ve ever tasted.
Where to get it: Sagartoki restaurant at Prado, 18 in Vitoria, Basque Country, Spain.
Best New Food: Sobresada
I’ve tasted an uncountable number of new dishes this year, but only a handful of things that I can say, “Wow, I’ve absolutely never tasted this item in my life.” Sobresada fits that bill in the best of ways. This cured meat spread is typical of the Spanish island Mallorca and is typically served atop toasted bread and drizzled with honey. It’s kind of like a spreadable, smokier chorizo. And it is deeeee-licious!
I first tried it during a beach trip to Palma de Mallorca in April. Paired with a spicy glass of Spanish red wine, the smokey sobresada with that twinge of honey sweetness makes for one stellar tapa.
Where to get it: Casa Gonzalez on Calle de León, 12, in Madrid has a fantastic sobresada tosta, not to mention a stellar list of wines by the glass to go along with it!
Best Dessert: Apple Pie from Café Papeneiland in Amsterdam
Don’t tell my aunt, but for the first time in my life I’ve tasted a pie that is better than hers. To be fair, the Dutch pie makers at Café Papeneiland in Amsterdam have had about 430 more years of practice.
This two-inch thick monument of marvelousness is every bit as delicious as it looks. The crust hits the sweet spot between flakey and doughy. The apples are delightfully tart without making you pucker and they maintain just a bit of their crispiness. With the hefty dollop of real whipped cream that accompanies it, this slice of pie is, excuse the cliché, a slice of heaven.
Where to get it: Café Papeneiland on Prinsengracht, 2 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Best Meal: Texas BBQ in Madrid
Meals like this one are why I take so many pictures of food. If I didn’t have the photos it would be too easy to believe it couldn’t have actually happened. My two worlds collided in June when my mom and her best friend, JJ, came to visit me in Madrid. In her suitcase, my amazing mother managed to bring (frozen of course) two racks of my step-dad’s famous smoked ribs, pulled pork made from a wild hog he shot and the best barbecue sauce on the planet aka my mother’s.
My three Spanish and one Venezuelan roommates joined us for a true Texas barbecue, 5,000 miles away from Texas. We had American flags; we had red checkered napkins; and we had barbecue-sauce covered smiles. It was a true cultural collision and while I’ve had these foods many, many times, the people I was able to share them with this time made this meal not only the best of this year, but perhaps one of the best of all time.