Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hotel Empordà in Figueres, Spain

Two weeks ago I had some very dear friends come into Barcelona to visit me for the weekend. Sunday, we rented a car to drive to a very special place that they frequent every time they are in Spain, Hotel Empordà in Figueres. I trust their judgment. How could I not? They are two of the biggest foodies I know. Mind you, they frequent Catalonia a lot; probably every other month over the past year. And food writing is what brings them here. I did not know what to expect, definitely something good. Driving to the Costa Brava in the end of February on a quiet Sunday, the scenery was spectacular on the drive: snow-capped mountains and beautiful Catalan farms in their rustic character including the signature round stone storage huts.

Upon our arrival to Hotel Empordà for our lunch, about 1:30 pm, it seemed a bit quiet. Once we walked into the reception, the staff greeted up promptly and affectionately as if the had been expecting us. They asked if we would like to rest in the bar area first with a cocktail before heading to the restaurant. They promptly took out coats and made us feel at home. We decided to go straight to the chase and get a table in the restaurant. We figured we could just chill there and drink wine. The Pyrenees looks beautiful from the panoramic windows by our generous round table. This restaurant murmurs old school elegance with a quiet grace with the servers in white coats, service from wooden carts, even the chef coming to check on us between each course. I felt special. First thing, we communicated my need for gluten free foods and assured it was no problem. (Everyone in Spain seems to be educated on Celiac and gluten free.)

We were given two menus to choose from: their a la carte menu and prix fix menu. They told us we could pick and choose as we liked. They immediately brought out bread, olives, and they fried anchovy spines (1st picture), which is their signature gratis. No, unfortunately not gluten free. But my friends were more than happy to eat mine for me. How were these made? In case us GF-ers wanted to try at home to adapt gluten free? They start with salted anchovies, fillet them, and soak the spines in milk before coating in flour and frying them. Wonderful presentation.

My first selection came out: "Parmentier" potatoes w/ sweet wine reduction & black truffles. I asked my friend who is an expert in Catalan cuisine (& now Irish, too), "What is Parmentier?" He explained that is like a Shepherd's Pie. He had to twist my arm real hard, not. Currently it is black truffle season in Catalonia. They can be found at any market, usually from a mushroom vendor. Kept in tiny glass jars, the small ones sell for 4 - 8 Euros. This dish was divine comfort. The pureed potatoes hit the spot. The reduced wine had a slight hint of sweetness and acidity to compliment the potatoes. And the black truffles on top: how decadent, aromatic. I love how they drizzled olive oil on top of the truffles to infuse the intense truffle aroma and flavor into the dish.

My second dish was inch-long squid skewered & grilled with anchovy oil & fried potato and black salt. Wow. I mean wow. These small and extremely tasty, tiny calamari were just flash grilled to the point when perfectly tender. And to make even more flavorful, drizzled with an anchovy oil. The fried potatoes almost look like a work of art: carefully shaved and modeled potato simply pan-fried with a sprinkling of black lava salt. Simple and tasty.

After our meal, the chef presented us with the cheese cart. (This is the gluten free solution to a dim sim cart!) All of these carts were local and delicious. So many different textures, flavors, types of milk used. I think all five cheeses I picked were goat and sheep milk cheeses. Yum!

As our after lunch treat, they brought us these very fresh mint granitas / ice. They were perfect to cleanse our palate and to refresh us after a long meal. This granita leaned more towards the fresh herbal side as opposed to the sweet, candy mint.

Hotel Empordà proved to be a very special place on an otherwise quiet, late winter Sunday afternoon. As you can see, having to eat gluten free did not mean I have to compromise on the quality of the food I was served. Far from it.

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure

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