Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hungry Dog goes abroad

Hello, dear friends! Did you miss me? I missed you, although I confess it was tempered by consuming pain au chocolat along the Seine, sipping wine at cafes and watching the endless fashion show that is Paris, shopping for Iberian ham at La Boqueria, spearing bits of salt cod and smoked sardines at Barcelona's favorite tapas and champagne bar, devouring brightly-colored and exotic macarons (cassis! yuzu! genmaicha!), and eating way too much foie gras. (I'll pay for that one in karma, I suspect.)

We returned on Monday, and I've been trying to figure out how to write about the trip without boring you to pieces, while sharing some of the loveliest bits. It was a whirlwind of eating, walking, seeing. The apartments were both great, although the one in Barcelona turned out to be in the seedier side of El Raval and unfortunately close to the Ramblas, which was pretty touristy and junky. But once we got out of our neighborhood, we were amazed by the city's beauty. The apartment in Paris, located in Saint-Germaine-des-Pres, was ideally situated among all kinds of shops and restaurants, very comfortable, and a stone's throw from the river.

We got around both places largely on foot and by metro. Coming from San Francisco, where the subway system is a big piece of garbage, we were amazed by the efficiency and breadth of both systems. In Paris, we saw all the major sites and museums, our favorites of which were Musee d'Orsay and L'Orangerie (where we encountered Stanley Tucci admiring Monet's Water Lilies), but mostly we enjoyed walking along the Seine, taking in the sights, and whiling away hours, yes hours, at cafes, people-watching. (How French women navigate cobblestone streets and ride bicycles in four-inch heels I will never know nor replicate but I surely admired them, as did the husband, naturally.) In Barcelona, we saw as much Gaudi as we could, including Parc Guell, the stunning Casa Batllo, and La Sagrada Familia, which we both found deeply moving and magnetic, in spite of being unreligious. We were also struck, and impressed, by the Catalan pride we encountered at nearly every interaction.

And the food! In Paris, we were in awe of the breads, pastries, and cheeses and were surprised (I don't know why this should be, but we were) by how excellent the fish was. We had wonderful meals at Le Comptoir de Relais (which more than deserves its cultish devotion), Fish la Boissonerie (so good we went twice), L'A.O.C., Les Fines Gueules, and slurped two dozen oysters at Huitrerie Regis. Our most formal meal was lunch at Le Petit Bofinger (we laughed about the name but were not laughing while consuming rillettes of tuna, Norwegian salmon with shaved cucumber, duck and ratatouille, and grilled salmon with, hands-down, the finest mashed potatoes I have ever laid fork to.) We also enjoyed surreptitiously watching the elderly and elegantly-dressed French couple next to us, particularly when the woman slipped her uneaten roll into her purse for later and the man ordered a large beer to go with his chocolate mousse.

While I did not take too many photos of our food, I got a few shots. This was our very first snack in Paris: wine and charcuterie at a little cafe across from Notre Dame. I like how snacks in France simply must involve some kind of cured meat (or two) and a large wine.

Another highlight of our time in Paris was meeting Croque Camille and her husband Nick at Restaurant du Marche in the 15th arrondissement (where I had foie gras to start, then shoulder of lamb, followed by one of the stand-out desserts of the trip: madeleines served with a little jar of lemon curd and a small scoop of heavenly raspberry sorbet), then heading back to their place for cognac. Thank you, Camille, for welcoming us to your beautiful city!

In Barcelona, we had the best seafood of our lives, as well as incredible hams, olives like none I'd ever tasted before, and outstanding wines. We ate endless tapas: salt cod fritters, braised chickpeas with sobrasada and leeks (this was discovered at a small place near our apartment, Bar Raval, and was one of the finest dishes we had on the whole trip), fried sardines with red grapes, and croquettes of all types. 

As we also did in Paris, we had a few missteps, including an expensive and stuffy (though admittedly delicious) dinner at Comerc 24 and one or two average lunches. But we also enjoyed an impromptu and delicious lunch at the crowded Bar Central in La Boqueria...

where we had calamari with crispy potatoes, and perfectly grilled vegetables with flakey sea salt.

We had a wonderful dinner at Pla (a cozy restaurant tucked in the back of the smallest, darkest alley) and a leisurely session at Bar Zim, a tiny wine bar we stumbled across in La Barri Gotic, where we ate a bowlful of heavenly olives and inhaled a fabulous cheese plate, explained to us in detail by the bar's cheerful owner. We also pushed our way into El Xampanyet, a local favorite, which in addition to selling cava, makes their own champagne.

We stood at the bar and drank glass after glass of their home brew while eating anchovies, smoked sardines, roasted peppers, cured salmon, and raw salt cod with olives.

One evening, we popped into our neighborhood bar, Bar Aurora. It happened to be the night Barcelona played Madrid in soccer. The crowd went wild when Barcelona sealed the win, cheering and singing. I was hugged by an elated stranger. At that moment, we fell in love with the city and its warm people.

We returned to Bar Aurora the next evening and chatted at length with Claudia, the Italian owner, no small feat given that she speaks Italian, Catalan, and French, but no English. The husband muddled through in Spanish and I bumbled about in French. Not only did we enjoy the company of this lovely woman, she helped arrange for a cab to pick us up before dawn the morning of our departure. Apparently, calling for cabs in advance in Barcelona is very difficult if you don't have a Spanish phone number.

After saying adios to Barcelona, we returned to Paris for one final day, which was a quiet one, being both a Sunday and May Day,  a national holiday in France. Many places were closed, but we found a place bustling for lunch--or le brunch, which seems to be a big deal in Paris, based on the crowds. The husband ordered le brunch traditionel which arrived in its outrageous glory:

while I, breaking all Hungry Dog precedent, ordered something with a fried egg: a croque madame. When in Paris...

We spent our last day walking around, taking final stock of this charming city, and wrapped it up with a delightful dinner at Cafe Constant, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Over tartar of salmon, scallops, and oysters, more foie gras, and roast chicken with crispy potatoes and grilled Romaine hearts, we recounted our trip in full bliss. Post apple tart and profiteroles, we rolled homeward, stopping for one last glass of Bordeaux on the way.

These are just snippets of our trip--suffice it to say, we had a wonderful time. There were minor disappointments--we found the Louvre, Sacre Couer, and Parc Guell so jammed with tourists it was impossible to enjoy any of them. But there were infinitely more pleasures. The food, clearly, was outstanding, but more than that, this experience opened our eyes about traveling, languages, art, history, architecture, fashion, and national identities.

While we are pleased to be back in most ways (who can argue with sleeping in your own bed, drinking coffee made exactly the way you want it, and being able to speak without opening a dictionary?) we are already anxious to plan our next trip abroad. And, without a doubt, we plan to return to each of these beautiful cities.

On the roof of Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Barcelona.
P.S. Are we the last people on Earth to discover how awesome Air France is? From the moment we arrived at the airport in San Francisco, we were amazed at how helpful the staff were (and foxy, too, by the way: every single person Air France employs could double as a model), how civilized the whole experience was, how decent the food. We sipped champagne, helped ourselves to ice cream sandwiches mid-flight, and were surprised to be offered brandy at the end of our meals. Further proof, though none was needed, that the French know how to live. It seems their motto for flying is, "It doesn't have to suck." American airlines, take a cue.


  1. I enjoyed every vicarious bite of this glad that you had a wonderful time!

  2. Awesome post, great pics, sounds like a fabulous trip. I am so glad! We loved Paris, too, and marvelled at the efficient transit, as well. Have never been to Barcelona, but some day!

  3. Our dinner together was a highlight of my week, as well! And now I really want to go back to Barcelona. Great recap!

  4. Yes, we missed you!
    So pleased you had such a wonderful trip, Samantha. One thing I know...I never had a bad meal in Paris. Anyplace. And yes, I do remember the fabulous seafood in Barcelona. Spring is always the busiest time to go, but also the most lovely.
    Cute photo of the two of you....

  5. Oh my goodness, I need to get back to Europe, NOW. Loved reading all your observations and experiences which totally brings me there (I'm hoping some wine and charcuterie will magically appear somehow). Glad you guys enjoyed it!

  6. You are a chip off the old block! Dad would have savored all that salt cod, sardines every which way, raw fish and seafood! You and the husband travel and eat well together! Now that the "world is your oyster", do plan your next culinary/cultural adventure! Italy? MOM

  7. Jary: thanks!

    rebby: thanks so much. You & Brett would love Barcelona...

    camille: Next time, dinner in SF!

    Barbara: Yes, I have to say, we had no bad meals in France--at worst, some sort of average ones at touristy places we made the mistake of choosing. ANy place we put any real thought in selecting turned out great.

    Connie: Luckily you don't have to be in Europe for wine & charcuterie...

    Mom: Yep, I thought of Dad a lot in Barcelona. Wish I could have seen it with him (and you!) Yes, Italy next.

  8. Welcome back HD! So glad you had such a great time, I enjoyed every bite of this post, and you know my favourite bit? The really happy photo of you and the husband, you're both glowing.

    Have fun planning your next trip!

  9. I'm so glad you had such a wonderful trip!!

  10. France is an amazing place. Last year, we traveled to cycle through the Loire Valley. My post was all about how to eat 10,000 calories a day, and not gain weight (laugh). The food was indeed amazing. I want to know how the Parisians stay so thin (smile).

    This was a great post! Loved it. Thanks for taking us on the journey.


    P.S. I have made mental note about Air France. Spain is on my bucket list too.

  11. shaz: thanks so much!

    Jessica: I can see why you love Paris! I am sad to say I hardly made it to any of the places on the list you gave me. However we did by chance end up at the Japanese pastry shop (Something Aoki?) which was incredible.

    Velva: I can't wait to go back and see more of France. And the only way I can make sense of the skinny French women and the way I observed them eat is that they walk everywhere. We did too which is the only way I can explain that we did not come back pudgy.

  12. Ah! What a great summary of your trip! Loved reading this. And great pics. Hope to talk soon...xo

  13. I remember being in Spain one year during the World Cup. We were in Allicante, and it was like the whole town shut down. Nobody was walking around; everyone was glued to the TV to watch the game. It was so fun to feel all that national pride there.

  14. DS: Thanks, sweetie! Been thinking of you...can we get together soon and meet Zadie?

    CJ: I loved that energy--and I'm no sports fan!

  15. welcome back! it sounds to me like you did plenty of good eating (which is, as far as i'm concerned, what vacationing is all about). i've never really been tempted to visit paris until now--your descriptions are so vivid and enticing!

  16. Wow, wow, wow! Your trip sounds so wonderful. I'm glad you ate so well and were filled with the spirit and liveliness of both places. I'm with you - travel just breeds a desire to keep traveling!

  17. grace: thank you! I highly recommend a visit to's an amazing place.

    ash: I can't wait to hear about YOUR trip to Peru!

  18. I've never been to europe, and so enjoyed the vicarious thrills of reading about your travels and the delicious food! Welcome back, I'll bet Frances is glad to see you too.

  19. I don't know how you even managed to write this post! I would never be able to do it which is why I have never done a post vacation eats round-up. Wonderfully written, took me back to Paris and Barcelona. And of course, now I am hungry and I have already brushed my teeth for the night. Let's catch up in person soon for more details!

  20. foodhoe: you should go! As a foodie you would love it. (PS we don't have Frances anymore :( )

    Simran: Aw, thank you! It took awhile...there was a lot of ground to cover (and skip, in order to keep it from being even longer!). Let's get together soon for lunch and so I can return your books to you.

  21. I don't know that I've ever used this adjective to describe a vacation, but your trip sounds so DELICIOUS!! But I think it's a very accurate word to use and who wouldn't want a yummy holiday? - Pete

  22. Pete: I do believe it's the best kind!

  23. Welcome back! Sigh, sounds like you had an incredible trip! And you went to the same bar in La Boqueria that I went to! Still remember the squid.

  24. HD, we've been traveling and I"m just catching up with your blog. It looks like we just missed you in Paris! Next time you come to Europe let me know and we'll figure out a way to hook up. I'll bring chocolates!

    Didn't you love St Germain des Pres? It's our favorite neighborhood in Paris. We stay there whenever we go. I'd love to know more about the apartment you stayed in.

    And Barcelona. YUM, is all I can say. Lots of eye candy there (thanks to Gaudi) and lots of great food as well.

    Dan and I will be in SF in late Sept/early Oct. I'm hoping we can find a time to meet up with you!

    Hugs from Belgium.

  25. Ben: I still dream about that place, and that squid!

    Kate: So nice to see you here! I've missed you. Yes, we loved St Germain, it was absolutely perfect. And I would definitely recommend the place we rented--let's email offline and I'll give you the details. Definitely would love to see you in SF.

  26. Gaudi's city is one of the best parts I've seen in Barcelona, such a sophistication and style. We found a great staying thorugh holiday apartment Barcelona
    . I'm recommending all my friends to go, its a must see.