After a few years away, I returned to Seville for a week. It was a short trip, but I did have the opportunity to discover or rediscover a few wonderful places. I hope the following advice will be of help to anyone who decides to visit.
First, a word on restaurants. In some general comments that I had previously posted on this board, I declared that Seville isnt a restaurant town. Having eaten at one great restaurant on my last trip and sighted several others of interest, Im forced to reconsider. I suppose that I just wasnt aiming high enough during my college days. Less expensive neighborhood restaurants do seem to offer the same dull repertoire of grilled steak, grilled pork, and garlic shrimp. I guess that to the locals, buttery, leguminous stews and melting estofados are the stuff of home cooking, while expensive cuts of grilled meat make for a fancy night out. But the high-end places seem to be doing a much better job of representing the local culinary tradition.
My recommendation goes to Restaurant Enrique Becerra (c. Gamazo 2). Its a cozy, old-fashioned place in the Arenal. The menu is available in English, but the clientele includes a healthy sprinkling of local aristocracy for those who care about such things. For lunch, I had a miraculous garbanzo stew with lamb and eggplant. Alas, it was a special. An appetizer of anchovies stuffed with salmon served as a textbook-quality lesson for anyone interested in the art of frying a la Andaluz.
I was also delighted to find that the secret budget chowhound paradise that kept me in gourmet cookery in college is still operating. La Taberna del Albaradero (c. Zaragoza, 2-3 blocks from Reyes Catolicos, on the right hand side) operates a lunchtime dining room that is Sevilles equivalent to FCIs LEcole, only cheaper! 1700 Ptas buys a three-course lunch in a beautiful, beautiful tiled dining room redolent of old Andalucia. The menu used to be heavier on old-style Spanish cuisine and has become a little more nouvelle. Traditional dishes are still the best. Starters of salmorejo cordobes (thick gazpacho with hard-boiled egg) and lentils with jamon, bacon, chorizo, and morcilla were perfect. The more ambitious main courses were nice, but a little less polished. Desserts were the weakest point, but thats typical of Spain. My only advice is not to order dishes whose interest seems to pivot on a sauce, as they tend toward insipidity. Otherwise, enjoy!
Of course, el tapeo, or tapas-hunting, will still offer the greatest pleasures for true chowhounds, combining as it does the thrill of the chase with the sincerest regional cooking. However, if its done in a misguided way, its bound to be a frustrating experience for the tourist. For as many bars as there are serving up tiny dishes of grandmas best recipe, there are three more offering gluey croquetas, yesterdays alinos, and last months sardines en escabeche. Following these guidelines will help you sort the good from the bad.
1. Crowds of locals do not necessarily mean youve reached the source of great tapas. (Think of how many lousy restaurants draw crowds here.) Many natives who go out for an evening drink will pick at whatevers available to accompany it.
2. Look before you leap. The menu is often posted outside the establishment. Read it carefully for points of interest before entering. Then inspect the tapas on display at the barthere are usually several. Trust your instincts about dates of fabrication and quality of ingredients. Bad signs include excessive mayonnaise (youre not in Catalunya anymore, and thats industrial glue, not alioli). I would advise you to turn tail and run at the signs of cold meat dishes and fried foods set aside for reheating. But if thats too confrontational for you, order a fino and a safe-bet tapa (see below).
3. Safe bets: if you find yourself stuck in a disreputable establishment, the cheese will probably be acceptable and the indestructible montadito de chorizo frito (fried chorizo sandwich) will probably even be delicious.
4. See what everyones eating. Many places have one or two house specialties at which they excel. The rest is just fillerprobably lousyto keep drinkers with various tastes there. If you walk into a place and see everyone eating one thing, order it. It will almost certainly be great.
5. Restaraunts: many excellent upscale restaurants (including Enrique Becerra and Egana Oriza) have adjoining tapas bars, probably a great way to sample the wares of Sevilles best kitchens economically.
6. Seek out good tapas neighborhoods. My top picks are the Arenal (area behind the bullring) and Triana away from the river, around the intersection of San Jacinto and Lopez de Gomera.
Here are my picks for tapas, including a complete route for a Triana tapeo.
If youre looking for a place close to your Santa Cruz hotel (touristville), try Casa Robles. The tapas are more than adequate, with a bit of a nouvelle twist (tenderloin with duck pate, smoked salmon in a semi-sweet sauce). They also offer a most authentic culinary oddity: mojama. Its tuna, salted and cured until its quite hard and tastes quite like cana de lomo or jamon. Order it for a friend and see if they can guess what it is. Then have fun contrasting the Spanish treatment of tuna with the Japanese!
Meson 5 Jotas has several locations, including the confluence of Calles Garcia De Vinuesa, Federico, and Harinas in the Arenal. This place, affiliated with jamon producers Sanchez Romero y Carvajal, is the place to go for your jamon. They also serve my beloved pringa, a finely chopped and shredded mix of all the meats in a cocido (stew), including chicken, pork, chorizo, morcilla, and tocino (lard). Served on a sandwich. Theres creative stuff too, like the barbateno, toast with tuna, red peppers, and pickled garlic.
Triana tapeo: my route moves from very good to great. That means you should start early, to make sure that you fit it all in. Start on c. Lopez de Gomera, one and a half or two blocks down from San Jacinto. Find Taberna Alfredo and look it over. Its a little untidy and the kitchenone man flailing wildly over a sizzling griddle in a closetis dreadfully slow. But just when I was losing hope that he would ever produce any dish at all, much less an edible one, he came through with some lovely salt cod fritters and a great montadito de chorizo.
Proceed down a few steps to Bar Salomon el Rey de los Pinchitos. Now youre moving into serious chowhound territory. Want to know how this place decorates its walls? With little tiles with the names of house tapas lettered on them. Pimientos de padron and a very greasy but wonderful dish of cuminy stewed veal with almonds and raisins were excellent.
Now you backtrack to San Jacinto. Turn left on c. Santa Cecilia, one block down. If youre anxious to try snails (not that there arent more delicious things to eat), walk down to the intersection with Vicente de Paul and try Casa Diego Especialidad en Caracoles on the corner. Itll be packed with locals eating the snails in spicy broth. If you yearn to join them, I recommend this reputable establishment. Whats the difference between reputable and disreputable snail cookery? Heaps of sand!
Now find the little courtyard off Santa Cecilia just behind the apartment building that occupies the corner of Santa Cecilia and San Jacinto. There youll find my favorite tapas bar in all of Spain: Casa Ruperto de los Codornices. The specialty of the house is cumin-dusted deep-fried whole quail. There are newspaper articles about the owner, Ruperto Blanco, hung behind the counter. Im near-sighted and couldnt read more than one highlighted quote: Para mi, el mejor premio es que me pidan pan para rebanar. (For me, the best prize is that they ask me for bread to soak up the juices.)
By now, youre beginning to feel full, and your mind is certainly fuzzy from all the fino. But one more place of greatness awaits you. Take a left on San Jacinto, and at the corner of c. Justino Matute, locate Bar Oliva. You dont have any decisions to make here. The only thing to order is the ox-tail, stewed with a little cumin in a paprika sauce of the deepest red. Everyones eating it. Join them.
*** P.S. On Jerez:
The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Lustau bodega in Jerez de la Frontera. Reservations required: 56-34-15-97. After our personal tour, we were led into a room where 22 bottles were arrayed on a table, handed two glasses and some forms for tasting notes, and informed by our guide that we would be picked up in one half hour. Heaven. (By the way, our pick was Crema Solera Superior.)
And lunch at Gaitan on c. Gaitan was fantastic. The txangurro (crab) stuffed piquillo peppers and the lamb shank stewed with honey were superlative.
P.P.S. Thanks to Xose for the Galician bread photo essay. Next trip!