Monday, September 17, 2012

#298 - Rioja

Getting away and coming back always leads to a state of precariousness. How do you maintain the sense of calm and exhale you find the moment you set down in a foreign land upon your return? Or more realistically, how do you conserve at least a piece of it? How do you stop it from too quickly transitioning from a feeling to a memory?

It's never a perpetual suspension. Never an enduring sensation floating weightlessly on the right side of that line. It's always merely a delay.

This trip, a trip to Rioja, wine country that has become so dear to our wine hearts over the years, left me with a sense that the feeling will stay a feeling a wee bit longer. It will float for a bit, holding steadfast for a period of time acceptable. Because Rioja has that thing, that Spanish thing making it so Spanish as we know and love it. A way of moving that tastes like the food and wine taste. More Spanish than Barcelona, even Madrid, more languid and wonderfully meandering, more something that took us out of life here to a restful there. To a place that became very "there."

And to our relative surprise, it was never really about the wine.

The highlights:

Hotel Viura - In the teeny-tiny town of Villabuena de Álava, 15 minutes from Haro, the capital of Rioja, sits this hotel shown in the picture above and to the right. Our fall trip this year was going to be New York after aborting the idea of Spain. Then we each saw this hotel. If the pictures even approximated the reality of this architectural wonder, we'd be just fine. Never in our booking-of-vacation life has something so lived up to our fanciful expectations. We'd return to Rioja simply to stay here and do absolutely nothing, it was that transporting and peaceful.

Go to the website and flip through the photo gallery. It's that in real life. All of it. Nothing is doctored or taken from a good angle. Frankly, the gallery doesn't completely nail the totality of its stupid greatness. In our hotel world, it's now the standard bearer and it's not even close (with a little of Vallado sprinkled in). I have never been to a place that understood the calming nature brought on by the superlative attention paid to light, shadow and everything in-between, inside and out. Transporting, indeed. With one of the best hotel breakfasts ever. This is free?

Price? We lived it up, taking advantage of everything they offered and it was still cheaper than a decent enough, bare-bones basic room in New York. Juan, Germain, you were wonderful.

Mugaritz - Pellegrino World Top-50/destination/foodie-type restaurants are dotted all over the Basque (Hotel Viura is technically in Basque Country). We did two. Mugaritz was one (#3 on Pellegrino's list), though I can't say we loved it. I can say we enjoyed it and I will say Mugaritz offered some of the best service we'd ever experienced.

Mugaritz stresses the emotion of eating and how food can create new emotions. Too often, stuff like that comes off platitudinous and I don't think, for us, individual components or the meal in its entirety touched that mythic realm. Few - if any, truly philosophically - do (I could argue that a handful of meals in my life did that and even those arguments may feel a bit strained).

Beautiful patio where half the meal takes place. Best bone marrow I've ever had. Very delicious at times with individual courses, but it never nailed that moment that can make tasting menus so worth it. We never got carried away by a trio or quartet or quintet of courses. No tasting menu we've had has sustained the 'pick me up and take me to a place' throughout the entire menu, but there can be segments/lengths/spots that can me you giddy. Mugaritz missed that. Just barely but a miss nonetheless. The connections or segues or touching of the 'emotion of food' it talks about didn't quite happen. The touching of 'emotion' in tasting menus doesn't happen in one course. A course can (and often does) tap into something primordially great, something transformative that plays with our collective history of what makes food great, taking us to a place where it's like we're tasting it for the first time all over again. To make the experience of a tasting menu 'emotional,' connections between courses need to happen. It has to go deeper. Mugaritz was very enjoyable. We just missed the connections. But oh, the stories about the guests! Like the gentleman in untied, black New Balance tennis shoes and basically sweatpants (taking dressing down to the extreme was the theme of this day) who wanted to change tables. Not move to another table, mind you. Actually stay in the same physical space but have the staff change the enormous (identical!) tables sitting next to each other. I don't know if I can actually describe the staff dance that ensued in making this move. My theory was that he found himself to be a modern-day eccentric artist and this was what eccentric artists do. "Make me a bicycle, clown!"

Wine: Two bottles of NV Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru (disgorged 1/12), about $130 each. Great balance that did a fine job keeping up with much of the menu. Most of the time, we simply wanted to guzzle it on its own. Price comparable to American restaurants (<--- that will soon be more relevant).

Etxebarri -  Where Mugaritz missed a bit, Etxebarri hit. #31 on Pellegrino's list, if that matters. Maybe it's a little bit of cheating to have such superlative char, such a unique use of custom-made grill to create the connections I just spoke about. Maybe. I can only say that the char, the does. One of the best meals of our lives, I believe. Top two, says Mrs. Ney.

They smoke the goat butter! I'll say less about Etxebarri than I did Mugaritz because when something is this good, there's oddly less to say. It's one of those things that just IS. It exists, we had it, I don't need to talk about it.

When I said we'd go back to Hotel Viura to do nothing. I mean Etxebarri and then nothing. Or nothing then Etxebarri. Either way. That's a vacation.

Wine: Two bottles of 2009 Didier Dagueneau Silex Pouilly-Fumé (about $150). See that price? It's $400 at Daniel, $375 at French Laundry and $575 at PerSe. Wine deal of the year! I thought it went merely well enough with most everything we had but I didn't really care; Mrs. Ney says that this wine was a perfect companion to everything but the beef [which was the most beautiful beef ever ever ever]. Regardless: great wine at a stupid-great price.

Las Tortillas de Gabino - We had two great meals in Spain. This along with Etxebarri was one. Tucked into a nondescript, more upscale part of Madrid, west of the city center, sits this. I have a particular hate for mid-range restaurants in the United States that dress up boredom with a swirl of supposedly delicious duo of sauces to hide the fact that what's underneath is rather uninspiring from the get-go (and your toothpick spiking of the sauce isn't helping - it's hotel food circa 1994). In Rioja, we had a couple of meals marching lockstep to that food meme, making us crave some of the realness of...honest food, food made and offered because THEY know it's good and nothing else matters. Food made for nobody but the people that made it. That's Las Tortillas de Gabino.

I booked a flight to Madrid knowing the three-hour drive to Rioja might be an issue. With Bilbão so close, that was the better option but a great meal in Madrid before flying out the next day would mitigate the weirdness of such strange travel planning and we got it. This was home food, right down to the kumato salad that tasted like we were sitting on our couch. Tortillas are, of course, the draw here and the integration, the completeness, the interplay between every essential ingredient put into making the perfect tortilla is on full display here. I'd never such silkiness in an egg-laden dish in my life. Escalope that hit such a homey place. Solid veal jaw. Such warm service. It's a place happy to offer all the happy, right down to Ekaite, our English-speaking server that we wanted to hug.

Wine: NV Raimat Brut Nature ($24) & 2004 Hacienda Monasterio Ribera del Duero ($45). Happy with both. No complaints over price, goodness or pairing. Utterly craved Ribera over Rioja after leaving Rioja. Wanted the smoke in Ribera desperately. Informing, that.


Aer Lingus joins Heathrow on our *%#@ list. Upholstery has come a long way since 1976, guys....United has to rueing the day they offered such an Explorer card deal. We're making out like bandits!...If you're in Haro and you like wine, it's imperative that you visit Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso. Frankly spectacular wine shop with a sister café down the street in Plaza de La Paz to match it. Snagged a Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial (2012) at a ridiculous price of 200 Euros (averages $450 here). And got a huge container of white asparagus as a thank-you gift for purchasing it. THAT's stuff you remember on vacation....My yellow shoes glowed in the black-light-lit hallway of Viura. I never stopped thinking that was just the neatest thing....Mugaritz, you know what not-cheese cheese is? Not cheese. It's like sticky mucus found on your shirt after a flu-induced nap. Mrs. Ney experienced new emotions about that....We pitied the people of Morocco last week. The couple heading that way, sitting in front of us on the way to Madrid, were a big bucket of recently-retired crazy....Mrs. Tom-Tom lady, you were nice, friendly and mostly accurate, but a word of advice. Sidewalks aren't streets in Laguardia. Just a thought....When you get gas and your gas station guy from Ghana tells you, "In Ghana, we say America is only a few meters from heaven," it makes you say, "Crap, now I have to like my country again."...

Newark airport, you are unbelievably beautiful! Didn't expect that....Dulles, you're not for many reasons but mostly because the smoking room dripped with sadness topped with a stale froth of desperation. Hey, American Airlines pilot. You. The guy spewing everything Rush Limbaugh and Orly Taitz told you this week. Nobody cares. Made me seriously contemplate quitting....These wine ice bags are kinda toilet paper at Mugaritz. We got some....Toothbrushes in the Mugaritz bathroom. Same....I love Armani. This could get expensive....Drank mostly white Rioja while in Rioja with very little red consumed outside of a few bottles. Went white because Chicago doesn't get a lot of Rioja white, mostly viura-malvasia blends. It will be a major taste of this vacation with the Contino just shimmering with tasty goodness. We loved it and now don't need it for a good long while.... Hotel Viura shower. Showers begin and end here....I've come to accept and love the idea of roundabouts. I still routinely said, "They put a roundabout here?"...Los 4 Arcos restaurant in Briones was regretfully on break. Felt like a missed meal that could have been potentially great. Lamb cooked over wine vines recommended by Elvira at López de Heredia. Next time....

On Heredia, the real impetus for this trip because, well, it's What We Like. On the north end of Haro is an amusement park of Rioja wine houses without being tacky. La Rioja Alta, Muga, CVNE and Heredia are all bunched together. We're not wine tour people. Seen one, mostly seen them all. Heredia is mostly different in that respect. This is interesting stuff here, completing a picture, an understanding of scope that we have compiled over the last few years falling in love with their wine. Heredia has a personal place in us and the tour, our only tour on this trip, helped draw a more total picture in ways. Elvira, our tour guide, was so open, so warm, so wonderful, and so patient given the three Austrians in our group who think the world is always only talking to them. They started off idiotic and didn't get better. I'm not a violent man but...

I'm neutral on NH-Hoteles. I wouldn't not stay there....But if it meant being able to experience the El Corte Inglés and Hipercor mega-shopping extravaganza right across the street from our hotel to kill time before dinner, sure, why not? It's like Nordstrom, Macy's, Target and Whole Foods had a baby and then they put it on steroids. Not a bad way to end a trip....

Mrs. Ney will tell you this because it's traveling truth. Happy fabrics are the way to go, always and forever....And happy is the way to describe this trip. Happy because it was easy. Happy because it was mostly always relaxing. Happy because the second we walked into Hotel Viura after 17 hours our door to their door, we palpably felt a real sense of calm wash over us. I think we're getting good at this travel stuff.  

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