Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Restaurant Botin, Madrid: The OLDEST Restaurant in the World

Restaurant Botin 1725
Restaurant Botin Old Entrance
Guinness World Record, Botin Oldest Restaurant in the World
Olives at Restaurant Botin
Fried Aubergine at Restaurant Botin
Roast Baby Lamb
Roast Baby Lamb
Roast Suckling Pig

What do Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Johann Sebastian Bach have in common? They were all alive to see, if they fancied a trip to Spain, Restaurant Botin, the world's oldest restaurant according to the Guinness Book of World Records, open in Madrid in 1725. Imagine if they had all been present during the opening of Botin. It would be the 18th century's answer to Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's new London joint. But unlike the restaurant and celebrity chef explosion that grips us today, Botin, as far as I can tell, opened without fanfare. It simply opened. And has been pleasing diners for almost 300 years. Longer than any other restaurant on Earth.

I am not normally a fan of tourist traps, and believe me, Botin is like Disneyland in restaurant form. When we arrived at 7:50pm, 10 minutes before the restaurant opened, there was already a line of, and I'm not using hyperbole here, at least 80 people. Most of them clutched Rick Steve's Guide to Spain in their sweaty hands. And most, if not all had Birkenstocks, those pants that turn into shorts with a quick undo of the zipper and giant backpacks with large tubes of hand sanitizing wipes. As you can tell, I am not a fan of the Rick Steves does Europe crowd. His cronies were pushing their way into Botin and the polite maitre'd had to explain in his best English, "we no open 'til 8 'clock. Fank you." Reading that, you'd think it was an Asian restaurant. Just imagine the maitre'd speaking broken English to the Rick Steves bunch and you'll get what I mean.

As camera flashes went off in my eye and the crowd grew, we were finally let into the restaurant and it was like Moses had parted the Red Sea. A throng of Rick Steves devotees pushed and shoved their way threw the narrow, ancient doors, nearly toppling the poor bastard in charge of seating everyone. When it was our turn, that is, after the Asians cut in front of us, and it was once again our turn, we were led upstairs to the less crowded, less touristy section of the restaurant. We were seated between a table of 20, mostly Spanish, and a table of Germans. If ever you wanted to see a contrast, this was it.

There is really only one thing you come to Botin for; the Roast Suckling Pig. Cooked in the same oven Newton would of had his Pig cooked in had he eaten here. But first, an order of Fried Aubergines with Salmorejo, an Andalusian dish, similar to Gazpacho to accompany our dark, delicious Olives and a bottle of Rioja. The Augergines were brought out at the same time as the Suckling Pig. That's right, the entire Pig is brought out, head and all, and then it's dissected. Large pieces of Pig are gingerly placed on plates, with Potatoes and then the juices of the Pig are ladled lovingly onto the skin. Truly a magical sight to behold.

But man does not live on smells and sight alone. How did it taste? Exquisite. So pure and fresh. The Crackling was one of the best I have ever had. No doubt, a result of perfect cooking temperatures and a well seasoned oven that comes from being nearly 300 years old. How many Pigs have been cooked in that oven? Enough that Botin knows what they're doing when it comes to Roast Suckling Pig.

But what restaurant review would be complete if all three of us had Roast Suckling Pig? Knowing that no one else would give up the opportunity to try this coveted dish, I had the Roast Baby Lamb. And I have regretted it ever since. As far as Lamb goes, this was top notch. But it isn't Suckling Pig now is it? Still mouthwatering and succulent, it lacked the deep, intense flavor that the Suckling Pig had. And at the same price, there's really no reason to get the Lamb over the Pig.

Botin is a tourist trap. It is crowded, expensive and in Spain, there are better meals to be had at every corner. But, to dine where Hemingway, Greene, Fitzgerald and untold others have eaten, in this small nook just off the Plaza Mayor, on Calle de Cuchilleros in Madrid, is a privilege that I wouldn't trade for the fanciest Three Star Michelin restaurant.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile: More Michelin Stars on the Horizon

Entrance to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Stairs Leading Down to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Kitchen L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Foie Gras Mousse and Parmesan Foam at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Pigeon at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Foie Gras at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Beef Tongue at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Spaghetti at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Spaghetti at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Steak Tartare at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
Steak at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile
With 26 Michelin Stars, master chef Joel Robuchon is definitely in a class of his own. In fact, no chef on Earth even comes close. So, when my wife and mother surprised me with a weekend trip to Paris, I made reservations at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon as quickly as I could. But, I didn't make reservations at the newer L'Atelier on the Champs Elysees. I made reservations for Joel's Two Michelin Starred L'Atelier in Saint-Germain. However, when we arrived we were told we hadn't made reservations there and to go to their sister restaurant, the NO Michelin Star Etoile. As my wife would say in her Queen's English, "one was not amused."

Being the upbeat, positive souls we are, we brushed off the defeat and staggered up the Champs Elysees cursing under our breath and hoping the woman who turned us away hadn't made a mistake. But if she had, my God, there would be emails flying into the inboxes of every executive in Joel's company. And indeed, that is exactly what happened. We did get an apology, but nothing else.

Beaten and weary, but looking forward to L'Atelier Etoile we clambered to our barstools and began the arduous task of translating the menu from French to English. With a little help from our waitress, we ordered and prayed that nothing was lost in translation. And nothing was. The meal that followed will be seared into my memory and imprisoned on my taste buds for a very long time.

Our palates were cleansed with a Foie Gras Mousse, topped with Parmesan Foam, that was light, refreshing and intense. My Beef Tongue starter was more of the same. It was accompanied by small Green Bell Peppers and mild Japanese Peppers. My wife's Spaghetti was, and I want to try and say this as eloquently as possible, stupidly, insanely tasty. Unlike any Spaghetti I have ever had. The Aubergines tasted like a thick Filet of Beef and it was topped with a Ricotta that was so vibrant I nearly stood up and Riverdanced. Rounding out the delicious appetizers was my mum's Foie Gras. It was light, creamy and delicate. Lots of care was put into creating this dish.

If the meal had ended there, we all could have walked away sated and ready for the long drive back to England. But there was more. My main course, Steak Tartare with Frites was a classically prepared example of this French bistro staple. Just the right amount of acid and tart to round and bring out the the raw beef flavors. My mum's Quail, which rested on a mound of Foie Gras, nearly gave me a coronary, but it would have been worth it.

But, the real champion of the meal, was my wife's Steak. Why is it that she always orders the best thing on the menu? At 45 Euros, this was also one of the most expensive on the menu. Maybe I just answered my own question. It was, without question, or reservation, the best steak we have ever had. Huge, tender, flavorful and apparently, German. That's right, the steak used at L'Atelier Etoile does not come from France, but Germany. The chef had clearly only shown the flame of the grill to the steak, because it was raw, raw, raw. Exactly how it should be. I wonder how many people, seeing how raw it was, have sent it back to be charred. Poor chefs. As raw as it was, there was no blood. Just clear juices and red, raw meat. The fat was charred slightly on the edges, which produced explosive flavor. I will compare this steak to every other steak I eat from now on.

Too full to eat dessert, we left L'Atelier, still upset about the nasty woman in Saint-Germain, but bellies sated and happy. In fact, I wouldn't of done it any other way. L'Atelier Etoile was delicious, friendly and vibrant. There will no doubt be several more Michelin Stars on the horizon for Joel. Highest marks!

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography