Dining out in Andalusia is a social activity with friends or with your local bartenders and neighbours
For some reason, Spanish cuisine is not as popular and as ‘recognised’ internationally as Italian cuisine. Perhaps it has something to do with its cooking varying a great deal from region to region, and that authentic Spanish restaurants outside of Spain were hard to come by until a few years ago. The rise of Michelin star restaurants like elBulli ( due to reopen as a creative centre in 2016) finally brought the spotlight back to Spanish cuisine again. And in cosmopolitan cities like London, New York and Hong Kong, a sudden surge of contemporary tapas bars and restaurants are also changing people’s perception of Spanish cuisine esp. on tapas. The ‘makeover’ seems to be working as tapas bars are now becoming more popular than ever outside of Spain.
I love the concept of tapas, humble food served in small portions shared among friends paired with wine ( or sherry in Spain) is my ideal night out. I did a cooking holiday in Italy 2 1/2 years ago, and although the food was fresh and delicious, after a week of cheese, pasta and multi-course meals, I felt rather bloated and it was reflected on my weighing scale back home!
Main: Bar El Comercio; Bottom middle: Bar Manolo
This trip though, I tried out many dishes at each meal and yet I didn’t put on any weight afterwards. OK, it wasn’t a cooking holiday but overall I found the food less heavy and the portion sizes more acceptable. I was eager to try as many different dishes as possible, but by the end of the trip, I still had many that I wanted to try but didn’t quite manage…
I was equally impressed by the quality of wine (and the prices), the house wines are usually excellent ( which doesn’t always happen in other countries) and even for a red wine lover like myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the few occasions when I ordered white.
Food and wine aside, ambience is a key part of dining out in Andalusia and it is more of a social activity as you often see people hanging inside and outside of popular tapas bars with friends drinking and nibbling in late afternoons or evenings. I rarely saw fast-food or coffee shop chains, people there love their local restaurants and bars, which is a far cry from the chain-dominated London! When I travel, I try to look for authentic restaurants that the locals love, these places I believe reflect the local culture and they are the best for people-watching.
Top left: deep-fried aubergine; top middle: artichokes; top right: cod ceviche with peppers with crispy artichokes (surprisingly yummy); bottom left: Pimientons de Padron (one of my favourite tapas dishes); bottom right: paella and grilled tuna with roasted vegetables (tapas portions!)
Here are some of the places that I tried during my trip, some are recommended by locals, some via the internet and the rest… simply by chance…
Casa Morales (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11) – Founded in 1850, this bodega located near the Cathedral is often recommended in guidebooks. Yet it was packed with only locals when I was there, could it be partly due to their Spanish-only menu ( which I often view as a positive sign)?
I love the old-style and rustic decorations here, the front room is bar area and the seated area is located in the back, which is filled with enormous tinajas (stoneware sherry/wine barrels). The prices here are reasonable and the food/wine quality is good, but it is the vibe/ambience makes this place charming and unique.
El Rinconcillo (Calle Gerona, 40) is the oldest tapas bar in Seville (since 1670), but due to its location ( away from the touristy Santa Cruz), it is more of a local than a tourist attraction! Like Casa Morales, this place feels authentic and even more rustic with service that is slightly abrupt ( but not rude). It was fun to eat standing and sharing a small table with a local, sometimes it is not the food that matters the most but the experience ( luckily, the food here is not too bad either)…
Top, 2nd row left and middle: Casa morales; 2nd row right, third and last row: El Rinconcillo
After trying out the traditional places, it was time to try the contemporary restaurants to see how the cuisine has evolved, and one of the most highly rated place is La Azotea, which has several branches in the city.
La Azotea (C/ Mateos Gago, 8) – although this branch is located on a street full of touristy restaurants right off the Cathedral, it is not that touristy and the standard is a cut above the rest. The dishes are creative and beautifully presented, yet the prices are surprisingly reasonable for what you get. The vibe is relaxing and not overly trendy, I certainly would have returned to try out more dishes if I had the time.
Los Palillos (Calle Huelva 22, esq. Plaza de la Pescaderia) – I stumbled upon this small sushi/ jamon bar while looking for food in the area, the minimal and contemporary decor is rather inviting. I was curious to try some Spanish/ Japanese fusion cuisine, and the waiter was friendly and eager to help me with their menu. After trying a few dishes, I felt that some worked better than others, and the fusion was not as obvious ( which may not be a bad thing). However, the ingredients are fresh and the dishes are well cooked and presented, so it was a pleasant discovery ( as I later discovered that the restaurant is very popular with the locals because it filled up within 1/2 hour after my arrival).
Top left, right and main: La Azotea; Bottom left and right: Los Palillos
Breakfast, dulces and helados
I am not a morning person and I don’t usually eat a lot for breakfast either, but coffee is essential to me, so café con leche (coffee with milk) became my staple in Andalusia.
When I travel, I tend to get up earlier and would have breakfasts before setting off. The problem I discovered in Andalusia was that not many cafes would open before 10am, so I had to wander the streets to search for my morning staple. And by chance, I discovered a cafe in Seville’s Santa Cruz which offers buffet breakfast with coffee and fresh orange juice for only €2, what a bargain! But my favourite breakfast is some good coffee with a simple but delicious tostada con tomate ( toast with tomato), which I thought was the best way to start my day.
In general, I find Spanish pastries slightly too sweet, a friend recommended polvoron to me before my trip, so I bought some from the famous and historical Confiteria La Campana (since 1885) but was not fond of the strong cinnamon taste. Later though, I discovered that the most authentic and fun way to buy dulces ( pastries/ cookies/ sweets) is from local convents via a rotating tray/lazy Susan from some invisible nuns! The sweets are usually made by the convent’s nuns from traditional recipes, unfortunately, with fewer nuns and convents these days, the trade is slowly disappearing… I managed to buy a box of almond polvoron from Convento de Santa Ana in Cordoba with the help of someone working there. Although the experience was delightful, I would find it too daunting to do it without help due to my limited Spanish vocabulary!
Top right and 2nd row left: A €2 buffet breakfast in central Seville; 2nd row middle: my favourite breakfast: tostada with tomato at Gaudi Juda Levi in Cordoba; 2nd right: buying dulce at Convento de Santa Ana in Cordoba; Main and bottom right: Confiteria La Campana in Seville; bottom left: Tejas Dulces de Sevilla
Tejas Dulces de Sevilla (Plaza de Jesús de la Pasión 13, Seville) – I walked past this small shop in the city centre and was offered to sample their homemade and natural almond biscuits. These crunchy biscuits are delicious and not too sweet, so I bought a small pack and asked the shop lady about the beautiful blue glassware on the shelves. Apparently, the hand-blown glassware were produced by Crystals La Trinidad, a traditional glass factory that started in 1900 but ceased production in 1999, and these were the remnants from their former factory ( see above).
Helados (ice cream) is popular in Seville, and there are several famous ice cream parlours here. However, being in January meant that many were closed, yet I managed to try a few scoops from Helados La Abuela (Calle Larana, 10) and 1929. The ice cream at 1929 was a bit too sweet for me, the latter was better though not particularly outstanding, I guess it had something to do with the season too.
Left: 1929; Right: Helados La Abuela
With many reputable restaurants closed during my stay in Cordoba, I was left with some overpriced and touristy choices, but thanks to the recommendation of my hotel’s concierge, I visited El Mercado Victoria ( Paseo de La Victoria), an indoor gourmet market housed inside a 19th century building just outside of the old town. There are about 30 stalls selling tapas, seafood, wine, olives, and other cuisines like Japanese and Italian. This is not fine dining, it’s more like an upmarket food court, but it is fun, relaxing, clean and it attracts mainly locals. If you want to get away from the touristy restaurants in the old town, this place is definitely worth visiting.
With the limited cafe choices for breakfast in old town, it was a relief when I found Gaudi Juda Levi ( Plaza Juda Levi s/n), a contemporary cafe that offers good coffee, breakfast, relaxing atmosphere and friendly service.
While I was walking around the town, I came across an artisan bakery ( since 1880), Horno de la Cruz ( Gongora, 2)with a short queue of locals outside, so I decided to join and try it out… Although their pies looked very tempting, I went for some bread and almond cake instead, the bread that I had was ok but the cake was moist and soft, and tasted even better than I imagined, so it was a pleasant surprise.
After eating Spanish/tapas for days, all I wanted was some salad and something slightly different… I noticed that salads in tapas bars seem to be pricier and ‘fancier’ ( with not much green), so I opted for the Moroccan tea house near my hotel, Salón de Té ( Buen Pastor, 13). The place is decorated in Moorish style with a lovely courtyard, and it was almost empty when I was there. I had a mixed salad with pita bread and mint tea, it was what I wanted, so I left the place fairly satisfied.
Top left, right, 2nd row middle, 3rd row right: El Mercado Victoria; 2nd row left: Horno de la Cruz; 2nd row right: The bar at Círculo de la Amistad; Third row left: Gaudi Juda Levi; Bottom left and right: Salón de Té
Two of my favourite eateries during my trip happen to locate in Granada, and one of them is only a cafe hidden in Albayzin. Although I was staying in a hotel nearby, it still took me a while to find Café 4 Gatos ( Placeta Cruz Verde, 6), but it was definitely worth it! Since there aren’t many cafes for breakfasts in the area, this cafe already has its advantage, but it offers much more than that. I love the relaxing and friendly vibe here, the clientele is mainly local and seem to know the owner well. Their coffee is great and they offer a wide variety of tostadas, though the downside is that since it is rather small ( basically a L-shaped bar with some outdoor tables and seating), you can’t linger for too long as it gets busier after 11am. I was so charmed by it that I went back the next day before heading off to the airport, and the owner was able to recall what I had the day before, which was rather impressive. This is not a fancy or trendy cafe, it is friendly, down-to-earth, reasonably priced and utterly charming.
Tapas used to be served free with alcoholic drinks, like in Italy, drinking on an empty stomach is not encouraged ( I wish the Brits would understand this). But these days, not many places would offer this, I was served free tapas about 4/5 times during the entire trip, and this occurred mostly in Granada than in Seville. One of the bars that served free tapas is a wine bar hidden in an alley near the Cathedral, Taberna Más que vinos (Calle Tundidores, 10). The quality of food and wine here is good, but it’s probably best for a drink and nibble than a proper dinner.
With the strong Moorish influences and ties, I was eager to try some Moroccan food while I was in Granada. There are plenty of them in the city, but I picked a small, non-touristy family-run restaurant, Tagine Elvira (Calle Elvira). Not only did I almost missed it from the street, I hesitated slightly before walking in as it was completely empty on the night. The meal was cheap and tasty, but I did find it more on the salty side. Perhaps the chef was having a day ‘off’ as I was the only customer, meanwhile, I also felt like I was eating at someone’s front room because the TV in front of me was broadcasting some American soap with the chef/owner sitting on one side playing with her phone. The experience was definitely an ‘authentic’ one.
Top left, right & 2nd row left: Cafe 4 Getos; 2nd row midde & last row left: Tagines Elvira; 2nd & last row right: Mas que Vinos.
I spent my last night in Granada/ Andalusia at the paella restaurant/ bar, La Parrala ( Tendollas de Sta. Paula, 6), which was one of my favourites of the trip. An elder English couple left as I entered the restaurant and so again, I was the only customer there (a theme throughout my trip)! This restaurant has 2 branches in the city, and I picked this over the one nearer to my hotel because it has live music in the evenings. While I was wondering if the live music would take place or not, the lovely waitress ( who I later learned is the wife of the chef and are both Argentinians) assured me that she would try her best to ‘persuade’ the guitarist to perform for me! And he did… although he spoke little English, he wanted to know if I liked a certain music style and while playing, he completely immersed himself even though I (and the waitress) was the only audience.
Finally, my paella with squid ink arrived and it was delicious, it also went very well with the wine recommended to me. I then spent much of my time chatting to the friendly and warm Argentinian lady about Spain, Argentina, tango etc, and eventually leaving the restaurant extremely ecstatic and satisfied. I believe that when it comes to dining out, no matter how excellent the food and wine is, it needs to be accompanied by the ambience and service to enhance the overall experience. Without the latter factors, the meal is slightly ‘soulless’, which is a bit like cooking, i.e. fresh ingredients do not necessary make the best meals, it is the passion of the chef that is the key to elevate a good meal to an outstanding one.
Like always, when I travel abroad, I would visit local food markets, delis and supermarkets to get an idea of what the locals eat. Throughout the trip, I was attracted by the greengrocers that sell fresh and colourful fruits and vegetables, the butchers and fishmongers that sell fresh meat and fish and the delis and jamon specialists that sell jamon, olives and anchovies etc. Here are some of the specialists I found on my trip:
Flores Gourmet (restaurant/ deli/ winery) – C/ San Pablo 24 (continuacion de Reyes Catolicos)
Jamones Calixto (Jamonerias) – Alfonso XIII, 6
San Nicasio is an award-winning brand from Cordoba that makes handmade crisps with extra virgin olive oil and Himalayan salt. It costs just over €1 in Cordoba for 40 g, but in the U.K., you can get 190g for £3.99 at Waitrose! Honestly, €1 is almost justifiable for a small packet of crisps, but £4 is just ridiculous and not worth it in my opinion.
Jamones Casa Diego (Jamonerias) – C/ Santa Escolastica, 13.
1st row right: Luxurious and ‘healthy’ crisps by San Nicasio; 2nd row: Jamones Calixto in Cordoba; Third row left: Jamones Casa Diego; Third row right: Bacallao in Cordoba; Fourth and fifth row: food market in Granada. Last row: Souvenir from my trip… food for myself, friends and family!