The Holiday Hangover

I hate the holiday hangover. It feels like shit to go back to work after the completion of an amazing trip abroad. Recently we spent a month going around the world, visiting fantastic places, seeing incredible people, and eating some of the best food of our lives. We spent time in Hong Kong, Milan, Rome, Positano, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona, Zurich, and Boston. We ate at Bo Innovation, Tim Ho Wan, Cracco, La Pergola, Imago, Akelarre, Mugaritz, and Arzak with many others in between. Now that’s one hell of a trip!

But once we return home, face the reality of regular life, the enormity of the credit card balance, and the growing expanse of my waist, a sinking feeling sets in. Wouldn’t it just be easier and much less expensive to simply stay at home? Why do we have this insane obsession with seeing the world?

And then we reflect. We spend an afternoon gazing through the thousands of photos we took on the trip. We open the gorgeous cookbooks and remember some of the incredible dishes we tasted. We read some of the tweets from the new friends we made around the world. And then it hits us – these are the reasons we travel.

It’s the so friendly and helpful people of Hong Kong, who not only helped us find Tim Ho Wan (1 Michelin starred dim sum madness) but spent time translating the full menu into English for us. It’s chef Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation) sitting down with us and giving us tips on the Spain part of our trip.

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It’s seeing the Alps for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Milan.

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It’s standing on our balcony next to the Duomo in Milan, Nastro Azzuro in hand, watching the world go by.

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And it’s standing in the middle of the Colosseum, right where the gladiators walked into the arena thousands of years ago. It’s talking ourselves into spending a couple hundred Euros each to visit La Pergola and being seated outside in time to see the sun set over Rome and the Vatican. And it’s the look on my wife’s face when she sees the dessert surprise. It’s also another amazing sunset at Imago, above the Spanish steps, and having the most incredible ravioli we have ever tasted.

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It’s arriving at our room in Positano and having our breath taken away by the view. It’s listening to my in-laws (they crapped on about it for years) and taking the little-red-fish boat to Da Adolfo and having one of the best seafood lunches on earth. And it’s growing some balls and climbing up to a little rock arch and jumping off into the Mediterranean. It’s also about spending the night on our balcony, eating luscious prosciutto, and drinking fantastic Italian wine.

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It’s seeing a pinxtos bar for the first time in Bilbao and diving right in.

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It’s checking into our room in San Sebastian and realising that not only do we have a gorgeous balcony but it looks right over the sea. Not only that but realising that it’s festival time in the Basque country and that we’re smack in the middle of a weeklong party! It’s the sunset at Akelarre and then having some of the best food of the trip, top that off with meeting Chef Pedro Subijana!

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It’s being complete idiots and booking the #4 and the #8 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz and Arzak, on the same day… for lunch and dinner. Yep, that’s thirty-nine courses, and seven hours of eating later! But it’s having simply the most enjoyable meal ever at Mugartiz. It was the food, the kitchen tour, scoring an authentic apron, enjoying dessert outside, buying a copy of Mugaritz BSO and then being lucky enough to have Chef Aduritz sign it in person and then thank US for coming.

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It’s meeting both generations (and genders) of Arzak chefs the moment we walk into the restaurant for dinner. And senior Arzak telling us he loves a “little restaurant in Sydney called Tetsuya’s”.

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It’s making the best decision of the trip and spending an extra 60EUR a night to get a balcony in our room at Hotel 1898 in Barcelona. And then eating mammoth amounts of tinned seafood with cheap-ass sangria each night. It’s also having the best sandwich on earth – nothing but tomato smeared bread and jamon Iberico.

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It’s being convinced to hire a car and visit Dali’s house in Portlligat. And being greeted by a freaky stuffed polar bear as we walk in the front door!

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It’s being bummed that we couldn’t get into El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, no matter how much I harassed them by email and Twitter. But it’s then finding an amazing gem in NU Restaurant, where we sat at the bar and the chef cooked a mind-blowing degustation menu for us.

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And then him loving our Spanish attempts so much that he started ad-libbing dishes for us, taking a photo of us together, and plying us with shots of an alcohol available only in Girona.

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It’s finding out that Zurich is fucking expensive. No, really. Really.

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It’s seeing my parents and best friend for the first time in two years and my mother putting on her annual luau. And it’s my best mate looking like a complete dumb ass.

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It’s $12 lobsters in New England.

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It’s taking my mom, dad, and wife to a Red Sox game and my dad wearing his Australia hat for the whole day. It’s dad and my wife pissing themselves with laughter during the sixth inning. And it’s the Sox winning and my dad smiling like a little kid.

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It’s finishing our trip with a freaking cool ice cream sandwich at Coolhaus LA...

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and then having what some consider the best burger in the world at Fathers Office.

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And it’s giving each other a kiss on the cheek on the flight home.

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Guess all that travel is worth it after all.

Victor Montes - Pintxos, Beautiful Pintxos

Back in 2009 we were traveling through Europe at the same time as my friend. He was able to make it to the Basque Country where we couldn’t and he was lucky enough to encounter Victor Montes, a wonderful Pintxo bar in the middle of Bilbao. It’s not hard to find in the middle of the town square and it wonderfully designed.

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If you have any trouble you can easily locate the place by their friendly waiter.

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Locals have one or two bites at a place, wash it down with beer, wine, or Txacoli (highly recommended) and then move on to the next place. But we were enthralled and stayed for a while. We had a mixture of bacalao (salt cod), a traditional Basque dish, some olive and anchovy on toothpicks (called a Gilda), sardines, marinated anchovies, octopus etc. All washed down with a couple beers and white wines. What was amazing to us is that we are very familiar with tapas but the pinxto experience is so very different. A key component is the artistry and elegance of the dishes and each bar tries to outdo the others.

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You order on the honour system, picking what you want and telling the bartender at the end of the session how many you had. One of the prettiest dishes we saw on the day was the marinated octopus. Just an incredible amount of work and artistry on a piece of bread!

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By the time we were well into it I was a bit concerned as I could only see one price wall and it seemed to say each pinxto was well over 10EUR! But no, silly me, each were 2EUR and the beer and wine was about the same. Less than 30EUR for an amazing meal!

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What’s beautiful about this is that the Basque believe that the pintxo culture perfectly matches theirs. Freedom of choice, frequent movement, and honesty are all key parts of their society. It’s a microcosm mixed with their intense love for food. When you’re in Basque country you must try the pintxo bars – if that brings you to Bilbao make sure Victor Montes is on your must-visit list!

BTW, I even snagged a top Spanish Pintxo book!

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Baita Gaminiz - Amazing Food & Value, But Service?

When we were planning the Basque Country portion of our trip we had two choices. Should we fly into Bilbao and immediately hop a bus to San Sebastian (which is where were focusing our attention) or should we spend one of our precious nights in Bilbao and see what we could find there? We knew that Azurmendi was within a reasonable distance but we wanted to save our time and dollars for San Sebastian. So we hopped onto “Where Chefs Eat” and found a recommendation near our hotel at the Guggenheim, Baita Gaminiz. It looked pretty interesting so I made a reservation for a river-side seat at 8:30pm.

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It soon became clear that our best hope for a great experience here was with the food. We walked by earlier in the day and thought it would be worth checking that our booking was ok and that everything was in order. But when I asked if we were good for 8pm I was quickly cut off and told, “You said, 8:30pm. It’s 8:30pm only.” Well, simple mistake on my part! No problem, we said, we would return at the correct time looking for a great meal. Unfortunately, when we arrived to an empty dining room (it was quite early for Bilbao) were sat inside, not outside by the river. When I asked why I had been told our table had been confirmed I was simply told that it was booked out. By the time we finished at 10:45pm there was only two of six tables with guests.

In any case, I’ll get to the service later but let’s focus on the food. It was incredible! We chose to do the chef’s suggested menu, which comprised four primary dishes with a couple desserts. At 45EUR it was amazing value as the standalone dishes were over 80EUR on their own. We started with “Tuna and Gilda salad (olive, anchovy, and chilli pepper) with roasted bell pepper”, which is a play off the famous Basque pinxto of the same name. It was familiar and fresh but also unique at the same time. A good start for us as we are massive Gilda fans. BTW, if you ever want to read an interesting story look up the birth of the Gilda – it’s a funny combination of pop imagery and the blending of cultures.

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Next was our favourite dish of the night, “Creamy rice with cuttlefish and Norway lobster served with crispy bacon”. This was part of their turf and surf options and was one of those dishes that you walk away thinking you can recreate as it appears simple but it is extremely complex. The deep purple hue from the cuttlefish ink matched with the crunchiness and saltiness of the bacon created an incredible contrast.

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Next was a traditional dish of “Thin sliced cod in pil-pil sauce with leeks and crab cooked in garlic, onion and peppers”. To be honest, the way the Basque take a rock-hard piece of salt cod (bacalao) and transform it into a flaky and tender piece of fish amazes me. This dish was smooth, rich, and soft. Pure Bilbao on a plate!

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Our last main was “Golden brown magret of duck with foie gras and cocoa salad”. We saw a number of different cocoa plays on this trip and this one didn’t disappoint. The foie didn’t overpower and they didn’t let the cocoa play first actor – the duck was front and centre.

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We finished with a couple light and fresh berry desserts. They were just the right size to complement the prior dishes. It would leave us perfectly satisfied.

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Now, I said earlier that I would get to the service. It was extremely poor, to say the least. Our tattooed female waitress would literally drop our plates on the table and then dash away. No real explanation as to what we just were given, no smiles and no warmth. I honestly believe we are very friendly and polite travellers but no amount of smiling and broken Spanish on our side could elicit any change in her mood. And once the place got busy around 9:30pm, forget even getting service. We had to wait for ten minutes to ask for our bill and then another ten to pay. This just compounded the other rough spots from the night. It’s incredibly unfortunate as we now look back on the night unfavourably – but have to remind ourselves just how good the food was.

If you can put rude and slow service to the side this place is quite a find. I would go back now, but with very different expectations.

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