Tapa Thursdays: Yakitoro, a Chicote-run Dining Concept in Madrid

Faced with a lunchtime dilemma in Madrid, I was thrilled to get a message at the very moment my stomach rumbled from my friend Lauren, a self- and media-professed foodie and an insider in the Spanish capital chow scene (jo, she’s one of the co-founders of Madrid Food tour. When I say expert, I mean it!).

Though we were trying to find a time for a drink, I had to ask: We’re in Chueca. Where do we eat?

Lauren offered up a few choices, but we were closest to Yakitoro, Alberto Chicote’s newest restaurant. Much like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey, this madrileño chef is riding a wave of immense popularity after appearances on Spain’s version of Top Chef and Nightmare in the Kitchen, called Pesadilla en la Cocina.

Welp, our minds were made up on that rainy Saturday afternoon – we’d be wannabe foodies and celebrity stalkers. I came into Yakitoro with high expectations and left slightly let down, to be honest.

Let me start with the good stuff:

Concept

Yakitoro is a Japanese-Spanish fusion restaurant (with food reminiscent of Nazca in Seville). The kitchen prep area is behind a large glass wall, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw Chicote himself making the food. The first question we were asked upon sitting down was Chopsticks or a fork?

I’ve been mildly obsessed with concept restaurants since a sixth grade project where we were asked to plan a restaurant, from decor to menu to price to sustainability. Ours? OJ’s Cyber Cafe, where the 1995 trial took center stage in our menu and chalk outlines were the hallmarks. Morbid.

The tapas – an eclectic mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes – are then cooked over a fogón, or a large stove, in the middle of the restaurant in plain view. Polished wooden tables spiral out from the central stove, meaning patrons are grouped together, sharing a cooler in the middle with bottles of beer and chilled wine.

We were sat at a low, steel bar next to the window and filled with succulent plants. The servers wear flight suits that reminded me of the Communist theatre I went to in Harbin, China.

Food

There were easily 50 dishes on the menu, glued to wooden boards, and a small but thoughtful wine list. We chose an entire bottle of rosé to detox from copious amounts of tinto during the week and I ordered for Laura.

The sardines in tempura with a sweet chile sauce were up first. Laura was put off by having to peel them, so I dug in. Those that were cooked were exquisite, and the sweet ñora sauce was an excellent touch, though a few of the fish came undercooked.

I’m not a mushroom fan, though Laura raved about the cooked-to-perfection shiitake mushrooms with dried mackerel shavings and a garlic sauce. The smoky taste of the dried mackerel added depth and distracted me from the texture of the mushroom. The portion was rather generous, as well.

The grilled shallots – a signature dish in Catalonia – were browned on the fogón and crowned with tangy romescu sauce, were a nice break between our heavier dishes. They came speared on a brochette, thus the basis of Yakitoro’s menu.

We chose two meat dishes to finish off. The chicken in tempura was delicious, particularly with the thick and sweet Pedro Ximinez reduction for dipping.

The braised short ribs were cooked to order, glazed with a sweet sauce and a perfect ending to the meal. 

The tapas, while small, were an excellent price – from 2,50€ and up – and we ordered an entire bottle of wine and five tapas for well under 40€.

Service

I mistakenly thought that the less-than-desirable service at Yakitoro was due to it being a brand-new venue – pues no, Yakitoro has been open for business since June. When we arrived just after 3pm, the place was packed, so we got our names on a list for an hour later. 

The kitchen didn’t close midday, which is more common in Madrid than in Seville, but the restaurant wasn’t nearly as buzzing when we arrived at 4:30. We were sat right away, though it took nearly ten minutes to get a menu and another ten for our bottle of wine to be opened. Thankfully, we weren’t in a hurry and enjoyed the sobremesa on Laura’s last day in Spain.

As we left nearly 90 minutes later after a long lunch, Chicote was standing at the door and said goodbye. I fibbed a little and told him the sardines were exquisite – they would have been, had they been cooked for a minute longer. Every restaurant has its kinks to work out (haven’t you seen his show?!), so I’d be willing to try Yakitoro in the future.

Yakitoro is located on Calle Reina, 41, just steps off of Gran Vía in the Chueca neighborhood. The kitchen is open daily from 1pm until midnight, and reservation are accepted. You can check out their website for more.

Learning Photography Basics with Sevilla Photo Tour

How many times have you been on a trip and you hand your camera off to someone, only to get this result?

Dude, I put it on auto for you. How could you have messed that up?

I sadly have pictures of myself in some gorgeous places – Beijing, Romania, Morocco – that have turned out less-than-stellar because asking a stranger to take my photo has resulted in a simple click without considering composition, light or even where my body was in the photo.

And then there’s the traveling-and-not-always-knowing-where-to-look factor. At breakneck speed on trips, I often forget to slow down and seek out details in photos, opting instead for macro shots of famous sites and landscapes.

As a professional photographer, Alberto began Sevilla Photo Tour to help visitors to the Andalusian capital discover the city’s most beautiful rincones, have professional photos taken in such rincones and receive a personalized photo album to take home.

We met Alberto in Plaza de América one sunny October morning – not optimal for photos, perhaps, but one of those mornings where it’s pleasant in the sun, chilly in the shade and the blue hue of the sky still fools you into thinking it’s still summer.

Alberto gave us a mini-tour through María Luisa park, a historic part of the city he jokingly calls “el despacho,” or the office. We sat in a shady plaza dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s literary mastermind, which had ceramic bookshelves with a few tattered paperbacks for loan.

Alberto explained the various parts of the manual functions, something I’d toyed with from time to time before settling on automatic settings for sake of time. I was familiar with all of the terms – f-stop, white balance, aperture – but haven’t quite worked out how to make them all fit to get the result my own two eyes did.

Then, he gave us a series of tasks around the park to practice what we had learned. First up was a formidable challenge: freezing the water of a fountain located in the center of the park while allowing the colors of the blue sky and lush gardens come out.

Easier said that snapped, as it took me three tries to get it kind of right!

I’d considered shutter speed for making the water not blur together, but couldn’t get the aperture, or the amount of like that gets let into the lens, and the ISO to work together. Essentially, the lower the ISO, the clearer your pictures are but the less sensitive they are to the light coming into the camera.

Next, I worked on taking a portrait of Laura on a bright day while experimenting with depth of field. Without Alberto’s help, I fumbled through the settings to be sure Laura’s face was in focus and the backdrop of the Museo de Artes y Costumbre’s mudéjar facade a bit blurred, taking into account all of the light that would be in the frame.

Fail. I’d need to work at this.

Once I’d reset and looked for a place with less light, I snapped another picture of my friend with better results:

The pigeons at the western end of the plaza were our next challenge. I’ve long tried to capture them in flight, but had never gotten the shutter speed fast enough to have their wings fully outstretched. But that had an easy fix: shutter speed. I set my shutter as fast as it would snap – 1/3200 of a second – and waited for the birds to fly.

Even when the pigeons weren’t flying, I experimented with depth of field and closing the aperture to focus the photo.

Alberto then led us through the lush gardens of María Luisa, constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American Fair and full of hidden fountains and busts. Apart from tutorials, Sevilla Photo Tour also takes photos of families (which eliminates the more-than-likely chance that you’ll have a photo like the one above of a rooftop rather than the Giralda).

Like any good tour, we ended with a beer and a few tapas before I jetted off to work. Laura spent a good chunk of her afternoon in the park and Plaza de España testing out her photography skills. When I met her at 10pm that night on a ceramic bench in the picturesque half-moon square, I tried to remember what I’d been taught.

Yeah, add a tripod for Camarón to my registry wish list!

Alberto graciously offered Laura and I the tour free of charge, but all opinions are my own. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with Sevilla Photo Tour and tell them that I sent you! 

Have you ever been on a photo tour, or any sort of out-of-the-box tour while traveling?

Spain Snapshots: Setenil de las Bodegas (and why I never need to return)

The eternal question I get from my visitors is: Ooooh, where should we go on your days off? I’m not the type of person to sit still on the weekends so long as there is sunshine, half a tank of gas and someone to watch the ever-changing highway signs for me.

Tobes works in the travel industry, so when we went down the list of obvious choices (Granada? Nah, was just there. Portugal? Let’s skip it because of the holiday weekend.) Nothing really stuck out at us.

It was time to get Señor Google involved, and the page rank spoke: Pueblos Blancos.

The white villages, known as pueblos blancos, are a string of whitewashed villages perched on mountains and in valleys in the Cádiz and Málaga provinces. Many, like Ronda and Grazalema, are quite well-known. There are two dozen of them, and I can count the number of them I’ve been to on one hand.

Once she’d recovered from jet lag, we hopped into my car and drove south out-of-town. Once you hit Puerto Serrano, towns begin to pop up in the distance as small white blips on a mountain, reached by snaking roads over hills and through farmland.

In a last-minute decision, we stopped in Ronda for libations and to stretch our legs, and while we could have spent the entire afternoon callejando, I had been intrigued by a village I’d seen on Trover – Setenil de las Bodegas.

Believed to have been around since the Roman times, the river gorge on either side of the Trejo has been exploited for shops and homes that are built into the overhanging rock. The result is something that kind of twists your mind:

Could you imagine going outside to see if it’s raining but come face to face with this rock? 

Tobes and I arrived at the merienda hour, when people were beginning to wake up from a Sunday siesta and head to the streets. The road that leads into town immediately shoots you onto a one-way street that winds through homes and uphill. Seville is as flat as Illinois, so we had several small scares as I tried not to stall or roll down the hill.

I found a parking spot at the highest point in town, right next to the city’s main attraction:

Setenil has just over 3,000 residents, though very few of them actually have houses built into the rocks. Apart from this alleyway, calle Jabonería and calle de las Cuevas de la Sombra are the only evidence of that this village has a claim to fame. You can drive under some of the overhangs, but we found that people weren’t willing to corral their dogs or small children or move out of the street for you.

We did climb to Calle Cerrillo, home to the San Sebastian hermitage and the supposed place where Isabel I of Castille (the most badass women in Spanish history) gave birth to a stillborn child of the same name. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the gorges golden and the buildings a dreamy off-white.

For a town with a rich history (Romans! Arab fortresses! Catholic Kings!) that’s known for its gastronomy, we left pretty disappointed with Setenil. The town was shabby, the locals indifferent to visitors and I saw very little encanto.

The town is a mere 20 minutes from Ronda and 20 more from El Gastor, so don’t go too far out of your way to visit – hit Vejer, Olvera and Arcos de la Frontera instead.

Like small towns in Spain? Tell me about your favorites or read a bit more on ones I love: Garganta la Olla (Cáceres) // San Nicolás del Puerto (Sevilla) // Carmona (Sevilla) // Osuna (Sevilla)

The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

How Greek Life Made Me a Better Expat

I am a member of Alpha Delta Pi and came home to ADPi more than ten years ago to the Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Iowa (my chapter turns 100 next January!). As trite as it may sound, Greek life made my college experience for more rounded, fun and significant – and it’s helped me to adapt to expat life in many ways.

source

My dad, former president of local fraternity Sigma Nu Chi at St. Norbert’s College, encouraged me to rush. Indeed, all of his cousins joined him at ENX, as well as his middle brother. Joining a sorority could make a big school seem more manageable, he claimed. Is Greek Life right for me? was never a question that crossed my mind – the social, leadership-craving me wanted it.

Choosing to go to college with several of my high school classmates could have been a big disaster, but as several of my WWS classmates and I sat on Beth’s futon after our first day of recruitment, I had already narrowed down by choices to three houses. As the week went on, my choice was clear: I wanted to go ADPi. I pledged in 2003 after recruitment week.

I have wonderful memories of playing tricks on one another in the Pi house, of coordinated dance routines for Greek Week and Homecoming (please, I got to play Peg in a Napolean Dynamite routine), of volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City. Several of my sisters have come to visit me in Spain, and thanks to social media, I still feel involved in their lives.

And it was my sister Aly who encouraged me to study abroad! On my first day of university classes, she called me from across a lecture hall in Spanish class, and we became instant friends, both studying abroad in Valladolid.

While speaking about Greek Life to Spaniards, it’s a hard concept to fully explain. It’s like subtracting the religious part of an hermandad and adding kalimotxo to some degree, but it’s so uniquely North American that most shrug it off as another thing we Americans do, like tractor pulls and fireworks on the 4th.

But despite all of that, Alpha Delta Pi has been a significant part of my life as I served many positions – including Membership Education Vice President on the Executive Board – and sought out the advice and shoulders of my sisters. 

As I prepared to enter the real world, I knew that Europe was my path, and that my leadership training with ADPi had given me a solid kick in the pants when it led to starting a life abroad.

Conversation Skills

My birthday always fell during recruitment week, which was as awesome (100+ singing you happy birthday all at once) as it was not. For hours, we’d spend time getting to know women interested in Greek life, telling them about our sisterhood and finding ways to connect with total strangers. Through those countless informal chats, I’ve found that having well-honed conversation skills is a must for any professional today.

Now that I live in a different country and often travel by myself, I have a constant turnover of friends and acquaintances. Aspiring expats and new arrivals reach out to me through my blog, and I’m often out meeting someone for a coffee or caña. The one thing we have in common is usually Spain, so I read up on what’s happening in my adopted city and country and always have a story on hand to ease into those awkward first moments. Just as transitions into conversations during recruitment can be unnerving, so can meeting people.

It was then that I also realized how much first impressions count, and that intuition can go far. Sure, there’s the aspect of recruitment which means telling a woman she’s not right for your group of friends (in the most stripped-down sense of recruitment, that is), but following your gut is really what it’s all about. And the same goes for choosing a sorority to call home.

Moving abroad to teach in a program like the auxiliares de conversación is a lot like going away to college – there are other people just like you who are uncertain, homesick and looking to make friends. Just as you’d leave your dorm room door open, life as an expat means leaving a figurative puerta open to tapas, drinks and weekend trips.

In those blurred first weeks in Spain, I felt I really didn’t connect with a lot of people. Most of them had studied abroad together, so I was the one left feeling like the transfer student who didn’t understand the local lingo. It wasn’t until I had an easy conversation with two other American girls that I got that gut feeling that I had found new friends.

My intuition served right – Kate, who lived around the corner from my aunt in another Chicago suburbs just as she lived around the corner from me in Triana, introduced me to the Novio a few weeks later.

Social Responsibility and Philanthropy

On the third day of recruitment, we learned about ADPi’s national philanthropy, the Ronald McDonald House. As someone who volunteered throughout high school, I knew that I wanted service to be a big part of my college years. Apart from weekly volunteering, fundraising and participating in other philanthropic events at other chapters.

One of the best ways I volunteered my time in college was by joining Dance Marathon, a student-run philanthropy that raises money for the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. A good number of hours went weekly into fundraising efforts, into visiting kids at RMH or the hospital and into the logistics of running an event with more than 1,000 people. Along with Alpha Delta Pi, it was one of the better decisions I made in college, and something I was happy to make time for.

Now that I’m abroad, I found it impossible to not work with kids, and not just because that’s the easiest profession to get into in Iberia. I never thought I’d say it, but teaching is a perfect fit more my personality. What’s more, social responsibility is ever-present in my mind. I work to teach values to my young students, from recycling to manners to animal care. I encourage my older students to volunteer or spend time with their grandparents when they could be whatsapping.

It was also for a one of my Dance Marathon kids that I chose to walk the Camino de Santiago. I completed 200 miles on the Northern Route in memory of Kelsey, spreading the word about pediatric cancer care in the US and handing out purple and orange ribbons – the colors of leukemia and sarcoma awareness. I even raised $500 that was earmarked directly to an organization I care deeply about. In fact, many families I came into contact with through Dance Marathon used the nearby Ronald McDonald House while their child was undergoing treatment. It was like everything came full circle.

Now back in Spain for the school year, I hope to find more volunteer opportunities.

(if you’re interested in learning more or even donating to the University of Iowa Dance Marathon, please click here)

The Importance of Taking Care of Your Friends

ADPi’s motto sums it all up: We Live For Each Other.

Living under one roof with so many friends certainly bred strong friendships, and my sisters were there for me when I needed it the most. Most notably, when my maternal grandfather died during finals week, a few of my closest in the house took me for a midday Dairy Queen and kept me company while I sobbed through “Elf” when they should have been studying. I had people to advise me on everything from classes to take to job searching tips just a few feet away. My best memories of Iowa City were usually with “the girls from my house.”

The longer I live abroad, and now that I’ve made a decision to buy a house and make Spain my permanent home, the more I realize how important my friends are to me. With my family so far away, I lean on the Novio’s family and my group of guiri girlfriends to gripe to, to share Thanksgiving with.

Alpha Delta Pi taught me the value of friendship, the kind that goes further than hanging out for a coffee or a bite. With my Spain girlfriends, we’ve endured engagements and break ups, promotions and being laid off, the struggle to decide if we’re doing the right thing or if we’re with the right person. I know I could call up my closest friends in Seville if I ever needed something, even if they don’t live down the hall in the Pi house. Making time for them means sometimes having to shut out other guiris, but cultivating those friendships is far more important.

I joined a sorority for, above all else, the camaraderie, and perhaps that’s what I most got out of my four years in college.

I always knew it, but it became more real when I took the Novio to my chapter house and recounted the stories of pranks, of late nights studying or talking and showed him our composites and where I used to sleep in Third Quad. Many aspects of my life had been shaped through my Greek experience at Iowa through more than just socials, date parties and philanthropies.

Somehow, I ended up in Spain, far away from my sisters and their growing families, but I felt just as close to them as I did when we were all in school.

Were you Greek? How has that experience impacted your life? If you weren’t, was there any significant aspect of your college years that shaped you?

Tapa Thursdays: Taifa, Seville’s Answer to the Craft Brew Craze

Leave it to me playing on my cell phone to uncover something new in the Mercado de Triana. As we went for takeout sushi, I led the Novio down the wrong aisle in the iconic food market and ended up right in front of a craft beer bar.

I’d heard rumors of Spain upping their hops ante, and even though craft brews had caught on in Madrid and along the Mediterranean coast, sevillanos has remained pretty loyal to their local brand, Cruzcampo.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Cruzcampo, but more than the taste, I love what it means to me: sharing a sunny day with friends and stopping to take a break once in a while – but it doesn’t hold a candle to the midwestern beers I drank all summer. Taifa is more than an adult beverage – it’s the dream its socios had to bring a new product to the market, and one that surprises in a one-beer sort of town.

The Novio grabbed a 5€ snack of chicarrones, or fried pig’s skin, while I chatted up Jacobo, the founder and half of the bilingual pair who own and market Taifa. He told me that they brew close to twelve thousand litres of beer each year and have two varieties – a blonde and a toasted malt – with a third, and IPA, on the way.

The beers are reminiscent of those from the Sam Adams family, an intermediary between the mass-produced brands and the over-the-top flavored brews, all made from natural ingredients and brewed within the Triana Market. Jacobo and his American-born socio, Marcos, have plans to start pairings and tastings as soon as their new beer is out.

For more information about Taifa, visit their website or stop by the shop at puesto number 36. One bottle costs 2,20€. You can also read about Spain’s craft beer movement on Vaya Madrid!

What are your favorite Spanish beers?

 
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