Year of Grace, Day 236. Only in L’Ametlla

On our penultimate day in L’Ametlla de Mar two weeks ago, I was at the bank, where there was a fairly long queue. Before me were 5-6 people. Luckily 4 stepped up to be served as a group, one woman doing the speaking and interpreting from Spanish to German. Without any hesitation whatsoever, the bank manager switched from Spanish to German. And very good German it was too, with no discernible accent. The group spokeswoman, strangely enough, persisted in speaking Spanish to him.

Next up was a woman, obviously a long-time customer as she was greeted by name – this time in French. And the manager’s French was, similar to his German, untouched by a Spanish accent. Absolutely amazing.

When my turn came, he switched to Spanish, asking me, “¿Estas bien?” I hesitated before I replied; his query was rather odd, as we’d not met before. Then I remembered, of course I’d been ill all this while, and he’d only met M. “Más mejor, gracias,” I replied. Whereupon he said, “Your language is English, yes?” And he went on with the transaction, all in fluent English. I do hope the bank values this treasure and pays him accordingly. As I left, more customers had crowded in, and I closed the door on a merry babel of tongues. How harmonious the world would be if we could speak and understand each other’s language as effortlessly as that polyglot banker!

That concluded, we rewarded ourselves with a farewell meal at our beloved Restaurant Mestral – named after the chilling northwest wind – but the atmosphere in it is anything but. It was as well a pre-Valentine’s meal. Fortuitously, a gastronomic festival dedicated to the mantis shrimp, la galera in Catalan, had begun that very day. This is the third year running that 4 fishing villages of the Baix Ebre (Lower Ebro) – L’Ametlla de Mar, Alcanar, Sant Carles de la Rapita, and Amposta – are honouring this locally caught delicacy.

Mestral’s special mantis-shrimp menu began with three starters. Our hostess very kindly offered to explain in Castellano, if we didn’t understand Catalan, but having lived for 4 months in L’Ametlla, we managed. When it comes to food, we become almost as polyglot as our banker ☺. (Btw, the regular menu is translated into English, French, German, and Russian.)

The starters:
Aperitiva de la casa amb vermutet — home-made vermouth of local herbs with home-cured unripe olives.
Torradetes de brandada de llagosti i galera – brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp on toast.
Crema de galeres amb xips de carxofa i cruixent de pernil – a bisque of mantis shrimp with artichoke chips and crisp (Serrano) ham.

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

Brandade of crayfish and mantis shrimp

 

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

Mantis shrimp bisque with artichoke chips

For mains:
Arros melos de galeras i ortiques de mar amb algues – rice with mantis shrimp cooked in a broth enriched with sea urchins and seaweed.
Suquet de galeres i peix de la Cala – a light stew of mantis shrimp and locally caught fish (seabass, red mullet).

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Rice cooked in mantis shrimp and sea urchin broth

Stew of mantis shrimp and fish

The mantis shrimp proved challenging to eat; its shell isn’t amenable to peeling. Eventually like the locals around us, we cut off a manageable section with knife and fork, then brought it to our lips and sucked with no inhibitions the sweet flesh with its crunchy red coral in the middle of the white meat, coated with delectable sauce. We were among the first guests at opening time at 1 pm, and in no time at all, all tables were taken. Beware the sharp spines – we’d been warned at the outset by our cheery hostess, who called me “Lady”. The mantis shrimp comes by its name justly, and M wore evidence of the encounter (cuts below his lips) for days afterwards. Dessert was a subtle mint sorbet on a piña colada jelly, and chocolate-walnut cake (home-made) with whipped cream. Well-chilled limoncello, also home-made, rounded the repast.

It had been almost a year since we first ate at Mestral; it was just after our first day of house viewing. As we parted from the agent, we realized it was 2 pm, and asked if he could recommend somewhere to eat. He pointed just behind us – there’s a good place, he said. Mestral’s location – in a residential neighbourhood (except for a bakery) – and its unprepossessing facade did not call to mind anything out of the ordinary. (And frankly I’d much rather a restaurant paid more attention to its food than its décor.)

Both M and I were all the more impressed then when the food turned out to be outstanding. And there was such a warm welcome from the hostess and the youthful chef (a new father — his wife and baby were there for a brief visit). That memorable meal over, we strolled to the beach just minutes away, where we sat contentedly on a bench under palm trees, looking out to sea. We could very well see ourselves living here, we mutually agreed. And indeed we did return to do so, eight months later. And only then, having eaten at other restaurants in L’Ametlla, did we realize that our agent, a Gallego, of course would know where good seafood was to be had when he’d recommended Mestral that very first time a year ago.

Year of Grace, Day 223. My second worst* meal in Spain: Chinese and Japanese food in L’Ametlla de Mar

Had I been a campesino, and had, as my first assay into Asian food, the Chinese and Japanese dishes in L’Ametlla de Mar’s Restaurant Asiàtic, I might have concluded that Chinese and Japanese food are fine in their own way, and quite likely good enough for Chinese and Japanese people, but they would never, ever be a match for Catalan food. Nor, would they do for discriminating Catalan gourmets. It would be a great pity indeed, if the curiosity of caleros (as the inhabitants of L’Ametlla de Mar call themselves) about Chinese and Japanese cuisine stopped there because of their one experience of dining at L’Ametlla de Mar’s one and only Asian restaurant.

Fortunately, not only have I enjoyed excellent Chinese and Japanese food in their home countries, but can assert that they rival the best of Catalan cooking. And thus I consider myself in a position to judge the poor excuses for Chinese and Japanese dishes that we had today for lunch. Much dismayed at the substandard offerings, I can only say with regret: never again! Nunca mas!

Now I don’t consider myself a food snob. As long as what is served in front of me is made of honest and good quality ingredients, cooked without any pretensions, and served with welcoming grace and charm, I am well and truly grateful. My food does not have to be presented with foamy froth (shudder!) and my plate squirted with streaks of sauce for me to rate it as excellent. As a matter of fact, I find these abhorrent.

But when the menu says tempura de mariscos, and it comes out looking anything but tempura, then I have to conclude that the cook has never in his whole life eaten tempura at all. This is what the tempura de mariscos looked like. There were only 2 prawns; the rest were vegetables.

"Tempura" de mariscos

“Tempura” de mariscos

The cook looked Chinese, but I didn’t bother asking any questions. I just was too disheartened to make any kind of conversation, let alone any friendly overture. He had not smiled once in all the time we were there.

I would not normally say anything, if all I could say was something negative. However I believe that I have a duty to defend, if not uphold, the integrity of Asian food — not only Chinese food which I venture is the cook and owner’s native food, but also Japanese food — against this travesty of two of the world’s most exquisite cuisines.

The most tactful way of describing the tempura at Restaurant Asiàtic was that it was a rather amateurish attempt at fish fingers. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions at fish fingers, because made honestly from quality ingredients, they can be very good indeed. The prawns had been flavoured with five-spice powder, wrapped in wonton pastry and fried till crisp. The five-spice flavour was the only saving grace of that “tempura.” It could not be further from tempura than English fish and chips. As a matter of fact, English fish and chips when made well would have actually been a closer kin to tempura than those wonton-wrapped prawns. The vegetables (meager onion slices and soggy string beans), as well as the salmon fingers in the previous “salmon tempura,” had been so thoroughly coated in stodgy brown batter that one could not tell what they were.

Salmon "tempura"

Salmon “tempura” with sriracha

There was no dashi-based sauce with grated ginger and daikon to dip them in either. The sauce that was served with the salmon “tempura,” was a Thai sriracha sauce (!?!) As I said, the “tempura” appeared to be a far from convincing distant relation of camaron rebosado. (In Manila’s Chinatown, camaron rebosado are prawns dipped in a pale-yellow batter and fried to a crisp, accompanied by a sweet-sour-slightly chilli-peppery sauce. They are invariably excellent.)

All food is meant to be restorative. Someone once said that cooking is the subtlest of all arts, one that induces the most personal satisfaction. But the food at Asiàtic was far from being that. I am relieved that my birthday celebration had not been at this Asian restaurant. (My favourite resto in L’Ametlla is on holiday till the end of November, so we’re waiting till then.)  I would have been so much more sorely disappointed had it been.

Lest it be said that I don’t have a kind word to say about this meal or this restaurant, two things come to mind. I must say their choice of house white wine was all right. It was dry but fruity and went very well with the starters and the “lacquered” duck (yes, that was far from lacquered as well. Sigh). The other is that the sushi rice that accompanied their norimaki of salmon and tuna was not too sweet, in contrast to the cloyingly sweet rice in the nigiri sushi. I wonder why it is that sushi rice outside of Japan is invariably too sweet.

sashimi

A bit more effort at slicing and presentation would have been nice: there was enough time, as we were two of only 4 customers at the resto.

I have to question moreover the raison d’etre of this restaurant in L’Ametlla de Mar that puts Asian cuisine in an unfavourable light. Barcelona and its authentic Asian restaurants are not that far away and, much closer to L’Ametlla, Tarragona and Tortosa as well have their share of places where genuine Asian food can be had. In this day of global travel and the internet and the availability of information about international cuisine, it is foolhardy to foist this farcical “tempura” and “sashimi” and definitely unlacquered duck on what this restaurant’s owner assumes to be an unsuspecting and ignorant public. This presumption on this restaurant owner’s part is all the more surprising given the high quality of food in this part of Catalunya.

Why not serve only Chinese food? There is nothing wrong with Chinese food. None at all! It does not have to be haute cuisine Cantonese or anything that aspired to Imperial Court cuisine. Let it be the cuisine of whichever region the owner comes from. Why bother serving fake Japanese food or fake Vietnamese food (yes, they had that on the menu as well)? I would rather have simple, honest, unpretentious, but well-made home cooking any day, from any region or any little village of China. (But please forgo the “lacquered” description for the duck — what’s wrong with simply writing “roast duck”?) Even better if the cook smiled and looked as if he was enjoying himself, and was happy to share with others the delicious food of his home town or his own family. There is no gesture of international goodwill more endearing than that liberally sprinkled with simple, honest food served in a pleasant manner.

Perhaps if his wife (she was there in the back of the restaurant serving lunch to their two children just come home from school) had been doing the cooking and serving, just perhaps maybe… it may have been just a bit more palatable. Or pleasanter.

There was, additionally, a separate menu card featuring Chinese tapas, in other words, dim sum. Before the meal, we had considered sampling them. After that parody of a Chinese and Japanese meal? I don’t think so. I don’t believe we would even consider going there ever again. I repeat, nunca mas! I have to question why someone would open a restaurant, who, from beginning to end, had not a smile nor any vestige of welcome or bonhommie to show on his face. Why indeed?

 

*The worst was in Ronda.