“This one, honey, this one looks good.” I said excitedly to Shannon on our first night in Barcelona. We were standing in front of a small, lofted restaurant with windowed walls, wood furniture and an elaborate artistic white chandelier.
We had been walking through the city for hours and wound up here in Barceloneta, a triangular neighborhood which jettisons out from Barcelona proper and is famous for gorgeous beaches and trendy restaurants. It was a clear spring evening following a warm eventful day and we were starving and exhausted.
I have a romantic notion about food while on vacation. I believe that the most incredible meals will be found in restaurants on curvy, dimly lit side streets, run by generations of ego-free chefs who just want to cook incredible food for their family and whoever might be brave or lost enough to stumble down their road. This theory gets me into a lot of trouble.
We had walked down many a crooked street that day to no avail. The restaurant we stood in front of that night, Lonja de Tapas, was clearly not the place in my fantasy (a lot of money had been put into the décor and it was very crowded), but low blood sugar was fueling my optimism and I bounded through the door.
The menu had been carefully planned, listing many Catalan tapas classics -croquettes of both jamon and cod and patatas bravas- (fried potatoes with a spicy sauce), some more delicate small plates such as mojama (dried salt tuna with fried almonds), and high end items such as fresh duck foie gras served on gingerbread with a mango coulis. We had yet to splurge on a big meal and I was very excited to fearlessly jump in.
The croquettes were all dough, no taste; the potatoes seemed as though they had been prefried hours before; the mojama was extremely fishy, way too salty, and swimming in oil (come on people, if you’re starting with an ingredient like dried salt tuna, you have to counteract it with another taste – not salt it more! My German Shepherd could have told you that.) Sigh. I anxiously lifted a forkful of foie to my lips. This would be the test. When foie gras is cooked correctly, you are instantly struck by the caramelized crisp exterior followed quickly by the luscious, buttery insides. It is not like anything else on the planet- rich and sweet and completely satisfying. This was a disaster. I think they must have cooked it earlier, reheated it for service and then violently assaulted it with spices and sauce. It was slimy not buttery and had an old sock aftertaste that I can still kind of sense in the back of my throat.
I was furious.
Shannon was studying his menu and looked up at me. “It’s a chain, honey.”
Are you fucking kidding me?
Another evening in Europe lost to the mindless direction of a bunch of wealthy men losing control of their investments. (See “The Pride of England” for our first failed chain-meal story.) It was clear that someone from the Grupo LT, the force behind Lonja de Tapas, was passionate about great food. The menu was exciting to read. But what showed up to our table was the work of a team who had long since sacrificed quality for quantity. I would have felt less violated had I been swindled by one of the famous pickpockets of Barcelona that we had been dodging all day.
The following evening, we decided we would pay more attention to the guide books we had brought. We had spent the day at the Dali museum, which is a two hour train ride out of town, and returned to the city ready to right the wrongs of the night before. The first suggestion from our book took us to a place which didn’t exist. The second, was filled with Americans and British (sorry – I didn’t travel all this way to eat bad cheeseburgers) and the third- a mile away from the last- smelled so much like diarrhea that we could only stay in the place for a few minutes (I can testify that the smell wasn’t coming from the bathroom either). Heartbroken, we tossed the guidebooks in the trash and shlumped down a dark side street- certain that we had done something terrible in a past food life to be met with such hardships in this one.
And then it happened.
My dream came true.
It was a small place but not an empty one called Sensi. The owner had crazy corkscrew hair and a maniacal look in his eyes that I instantly connected with. He was working his ass off for something he truly believed in. Everyone could see it too. He ran from table to table, taking orders, refilling glasses and laughing with customers. We were seated right across from the tiny workroom that looked more like a food truck than a kitchen.
The chef worked mostly alone – with an occasional reach-in from the dishwasher who was knee deep in dishes in the sink in the corner. The chef methodically worked his way through the orders. His plates were gorgeous, the smells tantalizing, and the room buzzed with anticipation and satisfaction. It made me remember why I became a chef in the first place – how exciting good food can be.
I felt alive for the first time in days.
We ordered ham croquettes, which we had ordered at almost every restaurant we ate in in Barcelona. While anyone could argue that it’s hard to screw up a fried dough ball, it’s just as tough to make it really sing. These did – but not as much as the salmon croquettes- which were absolutely fantastic. The fresh fish was complimented by the fried dough, not overwhelmed by it. The duck timbals with potatoes parmesan and Pedro Ximenez reduction featured perfectly cooked duck – not stringy or gamey in the least. The boozy sweetness of the Spanish sherry reduction played well against the saltiness of the potatoes parmesan. I could have eaten it for hours. The seafood paella was an honest Catalan paella, featuring fresh prawns, mussels, clams and squid and just the right amount of saffron. The Thai curried mussel special had just the right combination of sweet coconut milk and spicy chilies, and I fantasized about swimming around with the mussels in the broth for a delirious moment. It was that silky.
Finally! A chef and owner who understood the importance of fresh ingredients cooked harmoniously without over seasoning, over saucing, or overdoing. Every bite danced in my mouth. I could have eaten the entire meal again – though I was stuffed to the gills by dessert time. Always a trooper, I pushed through and we shared the dulce de leche cheesecake – a perfect way to end the night. We rolled back to our hotel that night, satiated by food and victorious with our discovery.
That was, without a doubt the best meal of our entire vacation. I started perfecting my own dulce de leche cheesecake when we got home with the inspiration from that night.
Dulce De Leche Cheesecake
- 2 cups finely ground graham crackers
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 7 tablespoons butter, melted
- 3 8 oz. packages cream cheese
- 1/2 cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups sour cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- ¾ cup dulce de leche
- 1/2 cup dulce de leche
- 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
- Fleur de sel
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F.
- In a medium bowl, stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and cinnamon. Mix in the melted butter until the crumbs are evenly moist and clump together slightly. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch springform pan and press evenly onto the bottom and about 2 inches up the sides of the pan. Bake until the crust is fragrant and slightly darkened, 9 to 12 minutes. Let the pan cool on a rack. Lower the oven temperature to 350°.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar together for a few minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle frequently. Add the salt, sour cream,vanilla and dulce de leche and beat until well blended and smooth.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating just until blended. (Don’t overbeat once the eggs have been added or the cheesecake will puff too much and crack as it cools.) Pour the filling into the cooled crust and smooth the top.
- Bake for 50-60 minutes until just set in center and edges are puffed and slightly cracked. Turn oven off, prop the oven door open slightly, and allow cake to rest in the oven for 1 hour more.
- Cool cheesecake to room temperature.
- For glaze: Heat dulce de leche and 3 tablespoons cream in microwave-safe bowl in 10-second intervals until melted. Stir to blend, adding more cream by teaspoonfuls if too thick to pour (amount of cream needed will depend on brand of dulce de leche). Pour glaze over cooled cheesecake; spread evenly. Refrigerate until chilled, about 8 hours before serving. Sprinkle with Fleur de Sel.