This spring 2016, The Travel Mob were invited to take part in the #MustSeeMenorca marketing campaign initiated by the Menorcan Tourist Board and the Spanish Tourist Office in London.
The month of May was chosen deliberately to help us discover a side of the island beyond its beaches (although we saw plenty of them too… and they are absolutely gorgeous!). And so instead of topping up our tans on the island’s pristine sands, we sought out more active leisure pursuits, like hiking, sailing and sea kayaking. After overindulging on the excellent Menorquin cuisine two or three times a day, we had to burn some calories somehow!
Valencia is famous for its paella. This is where Spain’s most iconic dish was first fried by the marshes of Albufera lake (although originally its main ingredients were rabbit, chicken and snails and not seafood, which is the type of paella favoured by most travellers today). Naturally you can still find the best rice dishes in Spain here in Valencia, but as local chef Bernd Knoller recently put it “Valencia has finally broken free of the slavery of paella” allowing the city’s gastronomic scene to flourish. With Europe’s biggest food market in the centre of town, the Mediterranean sea lapping the city’s shores and a rapid rise in the quality of wines produced in the region, a new wave of innovating chefs have had all the ingredients they need at their disposal to fuel this new culinary epoque. It’s no co-incidence then that in recent years five distinct Valencian restaurants have earned Michelin stars, offering diners an assurance of quality and creativity, whilst a new generation of gastro bars are putting the fun back in eating out, always at a very affordable price.
All six of The Travel Mob bloggers visited Valencia at different points over this December and January, and of course we took the opportunity to visit some of the most renowned restaurants in town to see what they had to offer. Here is a run down of the best of our eating experiences.
What if we told you that, somewhere in Valencia, you could enjoy dishes by a triple-starred Michelin chef for as little as €3 a dish? That’s the rather irresistible carrot that Mercat Bar dangles before the city’s food lovers, as it was none other than Quique Dacosta who opened this gastro bar with the intention of making great food casual, fun and accessible. Dacosta has been running his eponymous restaurant down the road in Denia since the late 90s, winning his third Michelin star in 2012, so it almost beggars belief that one can sample many of his favourite dishes in a tapas bar, the cheapest of which – a delicious Parmesan cream airbag and pancetta – vends at just €2.5. That certainly a lot easier to swallow than the €185 that a seat at his Denia restaurant commands. Amongst the many surprising tapas on offer, many of them reinterpreted from global dishes, that I tried were juicy Mexican tacos of pibill pig, lemon fish cerviche, presented with a foam, soft pieces of raw red tuna, marinated in soy sauce, oxtail stew toast (intense!) and a cubalibre of foie gras with hoarfrost lemon. The last is a classic Dacosta dish, although for my personal preferences it was a bit too rich, tasting almost like thick chocolate mousse. Still that’s half the fun of Mercat Bar… trying some of the improbable concoctions on offer and not having to care much about the damage done to the wallet. Review by Duncan Rhodes.
Probably my favourite meal of a Valencian visit that included nothing but great meals, Vertical is a Michelin-starred restaurant situated up on the 9th floor of the Confortel Aqua Hotel. Windows for walls offer an unobstructed view over the sparkling lights of the city by night, a vista which you can also enjoy al fresco at their “Sky Bar”, whilst an interior dominated by straight lines and white table clothes creates a formal atmosphere perfect for date night when your aim is to impress. The tasting menu starts with a series of tiny, often surprising morsels organised on wooden trays like chess pieces about to go into battle, my favourite of which is the skinned cherry tomatoes that explode in your mouth to release the flavour of a perfectly concocted Bloody Mary. Next a series of rabbit tacos are served up on a bed of stones in a wooden box. Other memorable moments include a melt-in-your-mouth serving of lamb with airbag and meat reduction that tastes like a pocket size portion of my mother’s Sunday roast, and a pre-dessert of lychee with passion fruit and meringue crumble. The service, from all the staff members is the right balance of cheerful, helpful and unobtrusive with a special word of praise needed for Mario the sommelier whose wine pairings hit the mark as sure as an arrow from Robin Hood’s quiver. Review by Duncan Rhodes.
If Casa Montana is a secret, it’s a poorly kept one… this unassuming bar in the up and coming Cabanyal district, out by the beach, is too far from the shore to benefit from any passing trade, relying instead on word of mouth to survive. And the word has spread far and wide, judging by the savvy locals, Scandinavian businessmen and scattering of tourists that say down for a late lunch on the day of my visit. The space, a former sailor’s tavern, will appeal to romantics, with its huge oak wine barrels, art nouveau tiles and antique bull fighting posters, but of course its the food and drink that gets the punters coming in. The dishes are almost rustic in nature, and certainly nothing fancy – highlights include ajo arriero: a simple but delicious garlic and potato puree, and michirones: fat fava beans that have been cooked with meat and spices. The emphasis is on the quality of the ingredients and even some of their bread, tomato and oil with have you licking your lips and relishing the basics of great Spanish cuisine. The wine selection is phenomenal, as you might expect give than the owners make prize-winning organic wine in their nearby bodega. Review by Duncan Rhodes.
There’s a members only vibe about this swish restaurant in the Eixample district, which is run by the German chef Bernd Knoller and has carried a Michelin star since 2009. You must pace the corridor first before the dining room opens up at the back, with just a handful of large round tables separated into “booths” by a curtain of fine gauze. As with most fine dining experiences in Spain Riff has gone down the tasting menu route, which at any rate is more or less an extension of the Spanish tapas culture of multiple small dishes. After some posh peanuts, diners are served canapes such as pork and apple on a wafer or dried smoke fish with an almond alioli. I’m more interested however in the Bloody Mary made of tomato water. Unlike the Bloody Mary spheres in Vertical this is an actual drink, with the appearance of cloudy Cava. I’m surprised that something that looks so different can taste the same as its ancestor, although I do miss the viscous texture that one associates with the drink. My tasting notes reveal a dozen more – at least – intriguing dishes, but the winner is clear. The pig’s ear with lentils is cooked 72 hours at 82 degrees in the oven (that’s some prep!) giving this fatty dish a soft and succulent nature with the taste of pork crackling. For dessert chocolate smear with wafer head dress and riccota cheese is paired with a divine Moscatel. Review by Duncan Rhodes.
Following a very similar concept to Mercat Bar, Canalla Bistro is one of the city’s much-hyped new gastro bars that has placed Michelin-starred expertise at the disposal of ordinary people. This time is the celebrity chef is Ricard Camarena, and if you can’t afford his lauded flagship restaurant then you almost certainly can afford to tuck into his cuisine just around the corner in this uberhip bistro. The interior is decorated with wooden brick-like panels, matt black furniture and finishes and egg-carton foam glued to the walls, creating a late night bar vibe and the menu consists of classic dishes from around the world, but especially Asia, in tapas form. A Beijing duck nigiri sandwich is a tasty morsel at €3.5 a unit, whilst larger dishes like the New York influenced pastrami sandwich is much more than a mouthful. For every steamed pork meat empanadilla with coconut white sauce and keffir lime there’s an honest to goodness chicken wings with sesame sauce, meaning you can be as adventurous or unfussy as you feel on the night. In the trendy Russafa district, this is a great way to start a night on the tiles. Review by Duncan Rhodes.
Set underneath the Hotel Caro, Alma de Temple is undeniably one for aesthetes. This spectacular space was designed by Francesc Rife around the ancient foundations of Valencia’s 12th century Arabic wall and was recently voted by German publication Taschen as one of the most stunning restaurants on the world. But Alma de Temple is more than just a looker and dishes like dishes like sirloin steak with cream of Stilton cheese and mustard have helped earn it a Michelin recommendation. The service is first rate and if you’re yet to try the famous Agua de Valencia concoction you’ll find it on their cocktail menu.
So you’re interested in travelling to Ljubljana, but you haven’t quite made your mind up yet to book those flights? Or maybe you’ve already printed your boarding pass and squeezed a week’s worth of clothes into your hand luggage bag, but now you’re looking for some guidance? In either case you’re on the right page.
As well as writing over 30 stories on all aspects of Ljubljana, from the fine dining scene to the street art, and recording these videos (so you can get a sneak preview of the Slovenian capital for yourself!), the diverse members of The Travel Mob also wanted to offer a little present to any would-be Ljubljana lovers out there.
In our free e-book to Ljubljana, each of the Mobsters has reviewed their favourite six hang outs in the city. From unmissable sights like the castle, Tivoli park and the City Museum, to avant garde galleries, the flea market and a range of hip bars, cafes and restaurants, you’ll be spoiled for choice whether you’re into culture or the more epicurean pleasures! The e-book comes with practical advice on getting there, accommodation and tours, as well as a story about Slovenian cuisine to get your mouth watering.
The name Taste Ljubljana is not just the name of our blogtrip, but the name of an initiative by the Ljubljana Tourism Board to invite locals and visitors alike to enjoy the traditional delicacies of the region, prepared according to authentic recipes, at restaurants all around the city.
The project’s launch day was the 26th June and of course we were on hand to witness this fun – and filling – event on Ljubljana’s Novi trg (New Square). As a traditional band regaled us with folk music, and speakers from the world of tourism and gastronomy introduced the concepts behind the initiative, some of the city’s best chefs were busy in the background preparing dishes like cottage cheese pancakes, boiled beef tongue, Ljubljana egg dish and fried chicken drumsticks all for the delectation of the audience.
Once the talking was over it was time to queue up for these snacks (they were free for all!) and sample some of the classic Slovenian fare that has been enjoyed for decades, or even centuries, right where we were standing! I myself made a beeline for kiosk serving cottage cheese pancakes with tarragon, which were light and fluffy in texture, sweet and tasty, and were once served both as a main dish or as a dessert. Next I jostled in line for the Ljubljana egg dish, a savoury pie of egg, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, herbs and lemon peel, that originated here in the Slovene capital and whose recipe was recorded by Magdalena Knafelj-Pleiweis in one of the country’s first ever cookbooks. Sadly I was too busy socialising to get my hands on the “Flying zganci”, the fried chicken wings, that were apparently much loved by the city’s hard-working dockers, who ate them in the Pri Zlati Ladji tavern by the port. Adam from Travels of Adam, however, assured me they were delicious.
The good news is that not only I, but anyone visiting Ljubljana, can sample all of these dishes – and many more – in scores of restaurants around the city any time we like. As part of the Taste Ljubljana gastronomic initiative 28 traditional dishes and drinks have been researched and recorded by leading expert Dr. Janez Bogataj, and currently 49 bars and restaurants are offering one or more of these very dishes/drinks as part of their everyday menu. When you get to Ljubljana just head to the tourist office and ask for the Taste Ljubljana book or magazine entitled “Long for Its Dishes, Ljubljana’s Been Known” (the title is a play on words of the opening lines of the poet Preseren’s famous ballad “Urska and The Water Man”), which details all of the plates you can expect to try – and in which restaurants you can find them. Just to get your mouth watering I’ll mention Kranjska sausage, Vodnik’s lamb lettuce salad, potica cake and Preseren fig pralines… but these are just for starters!
With its rich culinary heritage influenced by the Mediterranean, Austria, Hungary, Italy and even Turkey, and the abundance of great locally-sourced ingredients, every traveller should aim to sample some of these traditional recipes, now prepared in a modern way by the city’s best chefs. The Visit Ljubljana website has more information. Dober tek!
So we’re on our way to Ljubljana for our first ever trip together! Excited is naturally a bit of an understatement. I’ve only ever heard great things about the Slovenian capital, which is not only supposed to be alluringly beautiful, but also pack a tasty punch when it comes to culture, nightlife and gastronomy. In fact it’s the Slovenian food and drink that we’re going to be paying special attention to.
A small country of just over 2 million people, perhaps it’s not surprising that compared to some of Europe’s famous foodie countries (the obvious ones being France and Italy!), Slovenia has been overlooked, but when you consider that this is a nation that borders Italy, Austria and Hungary, and borrows heavily from all three culinary cultures – as well as others, then you can start to imagine that there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
From homely recipes, laid down back in the day by pioneering priest and poet Valentin Vodnik in the country’s first ever cookbook (they don’t get any more traditional than that!), to haute cuisine by some of the most avante garde Slovene chefs, we’ll be tucking into a range of great foods during our June visit… and not only food! Here’s a fact for you that you probably didn’t know. Slovenia has 216km-squared of vineyards… that’s over 10% of the country. Safe to say then, that we’ll be tasting a fair bit of wine to go with those frog legs, boiled beef tongue and cottage cream pancake delicacies. We’re also delighted to hear rumours of the worldwide craft beer revolution reaching Ljubljana, so expect some notes back from a hop-fest of a tasting tour.
The #TasteLjubljana theme of this blogtrip is not to be taken for just it’s literal meaning however… it’s also symbolic of our desire to “try out” and experience all of the Slovenian capital with all of our senses. We’ve heard about prisons converted into hostels, bike factories transformed into art centres, a lively bar scene, a wealth of green spaces, a rich summer programme of arts and culture (including the celebration of Ljubljana’s former Roman incarnation as the town of Emona – and guess what they’re celebrating 2000 years of Emona in 2014!) and plenty to see and do outside the city too… the most famous perhaps being the breathtaking Lake Bled up in the Alps, although there’s also the UNESCO listed Škocjan Caves, the Lipica Stud Farm (horses that is, not Chippendales) the Emerald river and the coastal resorts of Piran and Portoroz. Check out this list of day trips on Visit Ljubljana’s official website for more!