Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Great Gourmet Surprise - Chef's Dinner at Casa Pedro in San Juan de Parres, Asturias, Spain

Whenever we go on vacation I typically spend a good deal of time researching hotels and restaurants in the area.  I want to make sure that we find a comfortable place to stay, and good food and great wine to help make sure we have pleasurable and memorable leisure time.  Even if we are going to a place we are very familiar with like Chicago, I still look for any new spots, any change of ownership or new chefs that may provide an opportunity to try and enjoy a new food and wine venue.

I put in the time to do this research because in my experience, you don't typically stumble across a good restaurant. Depending on where you go, there may be a few or a few hundred to choose from - but without any additional information than the name on the sign - you are just rolling the dice.  Your hotel may be able to help you, but will a hotel concierge point you to a true winner of a restaurant, or to a place his brother-in-law, neighbor or high school buddy just opened?  Or will you be pointed to the hotel's restaurant - which are often very expensive, without the quality to justify the cost.

Very rarely though, you may happen upon a culinary experience more by chance than by spending hours combing through restaurant reviews and travel guides.   My wife and I did have one great surprise culinary experience on our recent vacation to Spain and it happened in a small village with a population of less than 100 people, San Juan de Parres in the province of Asturias.  

I had done my usual research to find what turned about to be an absolutely gorgeous vacation apartment to rent in this village - La Senda Apartamentos.  To say that we loved staying here and that we experienced incredible hospitality would be a complete understatement.  This part of Spain isn't as famous a vacation destination as Madrid or Barcelona, but the beauty, the ocean, the mountains, and the warm, wonderful people have no equal in my humble option
La Senda Apartamentos

The View from the Picture Window of our La Senda Vacation Apartment - Gorgeous!

The directions to get to the La Senda Apartmentos are to drive up the hill from Cangas de Onís until you come to San Juan de Parres, where you will see Casa Pedro - a restaurant and tourist apartment, and you turn right just before Casa Pedro.

Casa Pedro in San Juan de Parres, Asturias, Spain

Having just driven from San Sebastian, we had not eaten since breakfast and needed to have our late Spanish lunch.  In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and happends during the "siesta" time (around 2-3p), and dinner is a smaller meal later in the day (around 9-10p).  So, after unloading our luggage to our awesome Apartment, we headed back to Casa Pedro for lunch.  It is very typical in Spain for restaurants to offer a menú del dia (menu of the day) for the lunch time meal.  At Casa Pedro, this menu included a choice of several hearty starters, from which we chose the Asturian specialty of Fabada.  Fabada is a hearty and rich bean stew that typically includes spanish chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and bacon cooked in a saffron and paprika spiced broth. 

My wife and I were served a huge pot of Fabada to share. Absolutely delicious - with chorizo and morcilla that were most likely made by the family that owns the restaurant.  A nice jug of simple house wine and some delicious bread on the side and it was a great start to our stay in this part of Spain.

The choice of entrees typically include a fish, a chicken, and a beef or pork dish. On Saturday one of the specialities of Casa Pedro is their Escallopines with Cabrales sauce - and I could not pass this up. It is a thin cutlet (think scallopine) of beef, breaded and fried, and topped with a cream sauce flavored with Cabrales blue cheese.  If you are a fan of blue cheese I highly recommend finding a way to get your hands on some of this stuff. It is so delicious, and is fantastic with wine, especially a bolder Rioja or Ribera Del Duero.  I know it is available at La Tienda - a great online store for a ton of Spanish products.

Escallopines with Cabrales sauce

Casa Pedro version was like the ultimate chicken fried steak.  Absolutely delicious, with a perfectly balanced Cabrales sauce, served with french fried potatoes that were nicely crispy - not underdone as you will often find in Spain.

At this point, I am ready for a full blown, multi hour siesta as I am very full and very happy.  But there is one more treat left on the menu - dessert!  Again there are several desserts to choose from, but I was intrigued by the name of Casa Pedro's Tarta de la Abuela (Grandma's cake) so had to give it a try. This dessert is also known as Tarta de Galletas (cookie cake) and is made by layering a flan-like custard, thin cookies dipped in flavored milk, all topped with chocolate.  Grandma definitely knows her stuff - as this dessert was absolutely phenomenal!  Over the course of our vacation we had Tarta de la Abuela at least 10 times, and since our return have been searching for a recipe to try and duplicate it. Top this off with a cafe cortado (espresso "cut" with a bit of milk) - and my wife an I were happy travelers.  The price you ask for this delicious multi-course lunch? The price tag is a fixed 11 Euros (about $14)... an absolutely amazing value for a meal that feels like it was served at home. Oh now I get it ... Casa Pedro!  

Tarta de la Abuela

Cafe Cortado

The title of this post is a Great Gourmet Surprise - and although this meal was great it is not the surprise. Read on - you will not be disappointed!  As we were leaving Casa Pedro's beautifully rustic building in a gorgeous part of Spain guess what we saw hanging on the wall?  Yes! - a sign that said follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.  As my wife and I went back to our Apartment to relax and enjoy a bit of siesta time, we wanted to hook up with Casa Pedro on both Twitter and Facebook. 

After reviewing some of the tweets and Facebook posts - we learned that Casa Pedro was indeed a family restaurant - including the owner's son and Casa Pedro Chef Cristian. It turns out Cristian has spent time cooking in various places in the world, including Germany, Madrid, and in San Sebastian, Spain at a fantastic restaurant where I had a very memorable birthday dinner - Mugaritz. Casa Pedro also delivers food, so as we perused their full menu Cristian's influence became apparent with more imaginative and modern dishes alongside the offering of traditional Spanish dishes.

One night we decided to try Casa Pedro for dinner delivery and enjoy some of the wine we had purchased earlier in our vacation in the comfort of our Apartment.  When the food arrived, it was none other than Chef Cristian!  We mentioned his background cooking at places like Mugaritz, and as part of that conversation he graciously offered to prepare us a special dinner while we were in town.  Not an offer we receive every day (or ever) so... yes let's make this happen!

The Gourmet Surprise (La Sorpresa Gastrónoma)

We called back the next day to arrange a night later in the week.  When the night arrived, we strolled down the one lane road from the Apartment to Casa Pedro - chatting about what was in store for us as we had absolutely no idea what would be on the menu for our meal.  The incredible level of personal attention began with Chef Cristian acting as our Chef and Server for the meal.  First I was led to their wine cooler to pick out a wine for the meal.  Here was a bit of a conundrum for me - picking a wine without knowing anything about the menu.  The best choice in this situation is typically to ask for recommendations - so Chef Cristian showed us what they had, which included a 1984 Marques de Murrieta Rioja, plus he pointed out some of his other favorites. I was intrigued by a 29 year old Rioja, but was afraid that the flavors of the wine, which would have matured away from fruit flavors over the years may not be a good match for a Chef's tasting menu, so I opted for a Crianza Rioja that the Chef pointed out - one that I had never heard of or tried, Bai Gorri. In Rioja, Crianza wines spend at least in year in oak barrels and another year aging in bottle.  

Crianzas are a great choice for food pairing as they are typically fresh and fruity tasting, with just enough complexity from the oak aging to be an interesting companion to food.  Bottle number one for the night was a 2008, and was fruity, nicely acidic and delicious.  Armed with a great wine, we are ready to eat - let the feast begin!

The first component was a standard part of every great Spanish meal - great bread. This was freshly baked, still hot from the oven and served with a nice Spanish olive oil.

Course #1 - Croqueta de Gamonéu (Croquette of Gamonéu Cheese)
Croquetas are a fairly common dish throughout Spain, usually filled with either mashed potatoes or a thick béchamel flavored with ham, cheese, salt cod, crab or other seafood. Our Casa Pedro Croqueta however, was very far from common.  Piping hot, with a super crisp coating, and a super soft, super flavorful filling. I don't usually take pictures of food after I started to indulge, but with this one I know I would not be able to describe the filling, so hence the picture with a missing bite.  Gamonéu is a Spanish cheese made exclusively in Asturias that I had heard of in the past, but had never tried until this dish.  The taste is slightly smoky, buttery, with a nice level of acidity. The acidity and fruitiness of our Bai Gorri Rioja paired very nicely. What a great first course!

Course #2 - Terrina de Foie con Dulce de Manzana y Pan Casero de Pasas (Terrine of Foie Gras with Sweet Apple Preserve and Homemade Raisin Bread)
At some point my wife may have mentioned that she is a big fan of Foie Gras, which may be have been the inspiration for our second course.  The delicious richness of a Foie Gras terrine, complemented by the acidity and sweetness of the cubes of sweet apple preserves. The homemade raisin bread added a bit of dried fruit and spice flavors to create a delicious balance of flavors.

Course #3 - Ensalada de Cigalas con Cítricos (Salad with Lobster and Citrus Fruits)
The influence of a gastronomic temple like Mugaritz was apparent in the next course. A great light and refreshing course after the rich Foie Gras, this course was included a plastic bubble filled with a green salad with lobster meat and citrus segments.  The lobster claws were also included for a very interactive dish. The plastic bubble served as an artistic salad shaker so we could combine the salad ingredients ourselves. 

Course #4 - Yema de Huevo Trufada con Chips (Truffled Egg Yolk with Potato Chips)
Next up, Chef Cristian's creativity really shined through.  A truffled egg yolk served over a classic French potato puree, topped with Serrano ham bits and potato chips.  A deft hand with seasoning was used here, as the chips and the ham provided the saltiness for the dish - any added salt would likely have been overkill. The egg was farm fresh and local - a different taste than you get from your standard store bought eggs. The ham - world class Serrano. A hint of truffles and a decadent potato puree.  Overall - a delicious gourmet dish topped with good old Lay's Potato Chips - it just doesn't get any better!

Course # 5 - Torto con Tomate Concasse con Menta y Sardina Marinada (Corn Cake with Chopped Tomato with Mint and Sardines
I have long been a fan of various forms of fried dough. On this trip to Spain I have added another variety of fried dough to my favorite list - a Torto or corn cake.  For our meal, our Torto perfectly fried, obviously made with excellent quality corn flour, and topped with delicious fresh tomatoes, a hint of fresh mint, and wonderful sardines.  These sardines are nothing like the canned, mushy version we have in the U.S., instead they are meaty, and nicely salty. Again, a dish with a great balance of flavors - the richness of the corn cake, the acidity of the tomatoes, the freshness of the mint, and the saltiness and meatiness of the sardines.

Course #6 - Rodaballo Asado con Tallarines de Trigueros y Café (Grilled Turbot with Wild Asparagus Noodles and a Coffee Sauce 
The proximity to the ocean provides access to a nice selection of fresh fish. For our dinner, Chef Cristian selected a Turbot, which was perfectly grilled, and served with "noodles" of wild asparagus - cooked just enough to maintain a perfect al dente texture, and - to continue with the wonderful surprises of the night - it was served with a coffee sauce.  I was very pleasantly surprised how well the bitterness of the coffee sauce complemented the fish and asparagus. This is a dish I will try my best to recreate at home, I only hope I can do it justice.

Intermission - We have an Empty Wine Bottle!
To this point the meal was proceeding absolutely perfectly - a great gourmet surprise in progress!  But now we had a small crisis (if you could call it that)... our wine bottle was empty!   Luckily this problem was easy to solve, and I decided to stick with the same wine as it paired very nicely will all our dishes so far.  I didn't pay much attention as the Chef opened our second bottle, but upon my standard sniff and swirl I noticed that this wine was a bit different, a bit less fruity and a tiny bit more full bodied than the last. It turns out that our first bottle was a 2008, and the second bottle was a 2007. Perhaps because of the vintage, perhaps the additional year of age - but whatever the reason it could not have worked out better as the lighter, fruitier 2008 was a great pairing for our courses so far - and we had just one more course which could have used a bit heavier wine.  Purely by chance, but another element of the night that contributed to making this a perfect meal. 

Course #7 - Taco de Vaca con Pesto de Beyos (Cube of Beef with Beyos Cheese Pesto)
With our second bottle of wine poured and ready to go, we were served a beautiful "taco" of beef, accompanied with a pesto made from the Spanish cheese called Beyos.  When I first heard "taco" you can imagine what I was expecting, but in this case taco was used to describe the cut of meat - there were no Mexican corn or flour tortillas involved!  Asturias is known for its beef, and its easy to see why. A nicely charred, perfectly medium rare cut of beef, accompanied by a delicious and rich pesto.  The pairing with the Rioja was fantastic, with the acidity of the wine nicely cutting the rich cheese-based pesto.

After Dinner Hospitality
After such a great meal, thankfully there was no dessert planned, as my wife and I were both stuffed. Chef Cristian offered us an after dinner drink (or Chupito to use the Spanish term). My wife was still enjoying her Rioja, I asked for a glass of Scotch (neat of course!), and left it up to the Chef to choose the brand. Chef Cristian joined us at our table with a giant Gin and Tonic for himself (well deserved!!!) and a glass of The Macallan he had poured for me.

We sat, talked, raved about the meal, talked about Spain, and laughed and laughed. My glass of Scotch seemed to keep getting refilled - and it seemed to fuel my ability to speak Spanish (I can understand Spanish fairly well, but I am still working on speaking).  Our dinner started at 9:30p and took about two hours. Time breezed by, and before we knew it when my wife thought to check her watch it was 3:15a!!! We had all had such a good time, that time literally flew by!  As if the great meal, fantastic hospitality, and after dinner hang out time wasn't enough, we even got a lift home from our Chef.

The End of a Perfect Gourmet Night

My wife and I have travelled great distances, and paid high price tags for great meals - but none of them have compared to the overall experience we had at Casa Pedro.  Artistic food, great wine (and Scotch!), hospitality, laughs, friendship - all we could ever ask for in a night out for dinner.

If you find yourself in Northern Spain anywhere near San Juan de Parres - you need to make it a point to eat at Casa Pedro. If you choose either a traditional lunchtime meal from the menú del dia, something more adventurous from Chef Cristian's expanded menu, or if you arrange a Chef's dinner of your own - I guarantee you will enjoy the experience and will be anxious to share the secret just like I am!

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