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.

Year of Grace, Day 122. On Tortosa: pondering places and sushi

The sun is out today, but overnight there’s been a hard frost. Winter seems determined to hang on by its chilly claws, a sharp reminder that there are still a good two months to go before the Ice Saints (Eisheiligen) declare in mid-May that its frosty breaths are, officially at least, no longer welcome.

I’m reading a fascinatingly engaging book on Jewish history by Simon Schama, and in it he mentions a scribe, Menahem ibn Saruq, eloquent assistant of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the trusted right-hand man of the Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abdalrahman III. Menahem was born and raised in Tortosa. Now Tortosa is the provincial capital of Tarragona, on the lower Ebro River, and over the past two weeks most of our wanderings have been in the towns along the Ebro. It is this kind of serendipity in what I am reading about and experiencing that enthralls me – the links that bind the immediate to the ancient. And Menahem and the “minister” Hasdai and the Caliph lived in the 11th century!

Menahem penned the letter that the minister Hasdai sent to Joseph, king of the Jewish kingdom of Khazar in Western Asia (a vast one –extending from the lower Volga to the Caucasus mountains). It was among the documents in the Cairo Geniza collection, now stored in Cambridge. It described Spain as:

“[a] land rich, abounding in rivers, springs and aqueducts, a land of corn and oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies, pleasure gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind including the leaves of the tree on which the silkworm feeds of which we have great abundance.” (Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, page 264).

Had I not been there, Tortosa would have remained a mere name. Just as Trier and Cologne and Bonn, also mentioned in Schama’s book, would have been, had I not been resident here and experienced being in those places. But having once been in a place and lived in it, or even spent just a few hours in it, one comes to place (pun intended) a town in one’s mind map. Not simply in the geographical and morphological sense, but the psychological as well. I had written earlier about the spirits of place, and I do feel that places – whether houses or villages or cities – possess not only a structural form, but an emotional content as well.

It’s a pity that we did not have time to explore Tortosa. We might have made the effort, if it weren’t for the quasi-sushi that we had in the Restaurant in Tortosa Park. We had expected quality sushi. There’s the Mediterranean and the wonderfully fresh catch of all manner of marine ingredients, right? And there’s the Ebro Delta, where rice flourishes with overflowing abundance. (And I digress here a bit, but the agronomist in me suspects that rice, much like coconuts, might relish a bit of salt intake from brackish water or the rainclouds that form over the sea). Put these local treasures of seafood and rice together, and of course the local specialty has got to be none other than paella. But hang on – what other food combines, so exquisitely, that inimitable pairing of seafood and rice? But of course, what else but the globally and gastronomically fashionable sushi. Naturally our Tortosan gourmet restaurant offered sushi as the day’s special. And we — naïvely assuming that with such abundant and good-quality local ingredients, no chef worth his or her salt could bungle such a simple dish — took the bait.

Big mistake! For a start, the rice was too decidedly al dente, as so often happens with paella. And it was unflavoured. I could go on about the underwhelming quality of the ingredients – why use fake crab when fresh is so easily available, and most likely cheaper than kamaboko masquerading as crab? Oh, and they also offered a set meal of “tempura” squid. (Our neighbours had it.) It turned out to be none other than calamares fritos. The dish was not even remotely presented like tempura: the sliced tubes of squid were just piled on a plate, indistinguishable from the less-pretentiously named calamares fritos at less-pretentious eateries. A gratis bottle of cava accompanied the sushi and tempura sets for two. On a positive note, on taste alone, I would imagine that the “tempura” squid might just be a tad more palatable.

Sorry to be such a sushi and tempura snob, but it’s a crime to foist such blatantly inauthentic food on Tortosans. On top of it all, the waiter was obviously not having a good day – he was surly and rude, and scowled throughout. Evidently, being around food and customers who enjoy food is not his niche.

Lesson learned: the exquisite meals we had enjoyed all along the coast of the southern Catalunya had been in simple eateries. The Tortosa Park restaurant was aspiring to be – trying too hard to be — in the gourmet category, with the waiter dressed head to toe in modish black and the artful cobalt blue glassware and matching (plastic) water containers. Those who appreciate food – good, honest, well-prepared food – are not fooled by faddish frippery. This is one Tortosan restaurant I would never contemplate going back to again.

Seriously, sushi is more – oh, so much more — than just raw fish and rice. Let me sweeten this with a gracious end note: the mandarin and orange curd served with the almond-citrus pie was lovely. (Yes, this area is justly famed for its citrus.)

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie