Review: Martina Cocina, Madrid Spain

Is it embarrassing to admit that we didn’t have tapas even once during our stay in Madrid? To be fair, we were feeling a bit flat during our stay and not up to staying out for evening tapas, the reason for which became evident just a few days later when we got to Lisbon and both promptly got sick. This meant that we searched out restaurants and cafes that could offer us positive daytime dining experiences – the best of which was Martina Cocina located just south of the La Latina area.

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We walked past Martina Cocina on a Saturday, and were drawn in for lunch by the hustle and bustle inside, and the sounds of locals chattering away as they caught up with friends and family. Most people were at the cafe for brunch rather than lunch, so the tables slowly emptied as we ate our meal.

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One of the things I loved about Martina Cocina was their fantastic range of teas – hard to find in our travels as most cafes seem to concentrate their energies and efforts on coffee rather than tea! Wanting to keep it simple, I asked the waitress for a ‘green tea’, and she quickly delivered this little tea service to our table, with a fragrant and crisp jasmine tea inside. I particularly liked the little touch of having a speculoos biscuit on the side!

Saturday brunch ($12 Euro)
Saturday brunch ($12 Euro)

From what I could tell from neighbouring diners, it looked as though Martina Cocina was famous for their “Sabados Brunch” (Saturday Brunch), and so we decided to order that as well. For only $12 Euro, you get to taste-test six different dishes: Croissant con jamon y queso (ham and cheese croissant), Yoghurt con fruitas y cereales (yoghurt with fruit and cereal), Tosta con huevo, espinaca y bacon (toast with egg, spinach and bacon), Quiche, Ensalada (salad) and Tarta. Included in the price is a coffee or tea (I chose an iced tea for an extra charge), and a small glass of orange juice as well.

Despite the relatively simplicity of the first course of the brunch, everything was just that little bit off. The egg on the toast was a flat omelette, rather than a fried or poached egg which would have worked better, and the little slice of bacon wasn’t crisp. The Greek yoghurt topped with canned fruit and Cornflakes was a far cry from yoghurt & natural muesli. The croissant hadn’t been toasted, so the cold cheese wasn’t melted as it really should have.

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The second course of the Sabados Brunch was much the same as well. The flavour of the cheesecake with raspberry compote was a highlight, but the texture was a bit grainy. The salad was a bit boring – small slices of shrivelled roast vegetables with cos lettuce really didn’t do that much for me. The tart was unforgettable, with an overdone crust. Overall, the Saturday brunch was a bit disappointing!

Empanadas ($10 Euro for 4) - chicken, york ham & cheese
Empanadas ($10 Euro for 4) – chicken, york ham & cheese

Luckily, that wasn’t all we ordered! Travelling as a couple means that you get to order just that little bit more and try a wider variety of dishes, so we ordered the Empanadas which were on the menu and seemed very popular with locals who came in to buy them to take-away.

Empanadas ($10 Euro for 4) - 4 cheese and onion, meat
Empanadas ($10 Euro for 4) – 4 cheese and onion, meat

These empanadas (four varieties – chicken, ham and cheese, 4 cheese and onion, ‘meat’) were definitely the highlight of the meal with their super crispy pastry shells. My favourite was the chicken empanada which had a great depth of rich savoury flavour, and K enjoyed the gooey soft 4 cheese and onion empanada.

Despite their advertisement of their “Sabados Brunch” special, the highlight of Martina Cocina is definitely their variety of empanadas. I would definitely recommend going in for the empanadas as a take-away special, but I wouldn’t bother staying much longer than that for a ‘proper’ sit-down meal!

Martina Cocina is located at 11 Plaza Cascorro, Madrid.

Review: Restaurant Amarena, Bilbao, Spain

Arriving late in the afternoon in Bilbao, Basque Country, K and I were stuck for ideas for dinner. Having been fully engrossed in our travels at that point through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, we hadn’t really done any research into what Spain, and more specifically the Basque Autonomous Region, offered in terms of regional dining specialities.

Walking through the Old Town, we saw groups of people out drinking at bars and eating little bar snacks, but nowhere did we actually see anyone having a full meal. It wasn’t until later after doing some research that we realised it was normal to have drinks and pintxos (like tapas) at bars until about 9pm – 10pm, at which point you move onto a restaurant to have dinner.

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My stomach doesn’t agree with those dining hours though, as it demands satisfaction from an evening meal no later than 8pm! So with some difficulty, we found a proper sit-down restaurant serving up early dinners to tourists like ourselves – Restaurant Amarena.

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We steeled ourselves for the very worst in tourist dining experiences – high prices, generic menus, bland food. The lack of locals in the restaurant all seemed to indicate that we had a less than ideal foodie evening ahead. Luckily, it proved to be the exact opposite as you’ll see later on!

Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro
Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro

We started by sharing the Warm Seasonal Vegetable Salad as an entree. The whole salad was lightly dressed with a tasty tangy vinaigrette and a little cucumber and tomato salsa, but the highlight was definitely the charring on the winter vegetables in the salad. Nothing quite beats smoky chargrilled eggplant and capsicum, and sweet caramelised pumpkin.

Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro
Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro

K ordered the Braised Veal Cheeks – and didn’t expect too much from the description on the menu given it was listed with a sub-$10 price point. He was very pleasantly surprised when this dish was set in front of him – soft, tender veal that fell apart with a single touch. Served with some roast potatoes and a strong savoury gravy, this dish was a hearty meal that really hit the spot.

Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro
Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro

I chose to have a local seafood specialty – the Basque Hake with Prawns and Clams. The most disappointing thing about this dish is that it was only served with two clams and two prawns on top, as I would have expected a little more for the price. Still, the fish was cooked beautifully, and the herbed buttery sauce was absolutely delicious, especially when sopped up with the complimentary bread.

Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro
Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro

We shared a dessert to finish our meal – Pantxineta, a traditional Basque dessert. I had no idea what it was when we ordered it, as the waiter who didn’t speak English very well simply said, “It’s a traditional cake”. What it actually is is a puff pastry tart filled with custard, topped with nuts and icing sugar. This was served on a bed of thick and rich dark chocolate sauce, and a less impressive scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side. It was absolutely delicious in its simplicity, definitely a dessert that I’d like to try and replicate when we return to Australia!

Overall, our meal at Restaurant Amarena was an amazing start to our time in Spain/Basque Country. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of each dish presented, especially as we had walked in expecting to be gouged in a tourist trap. Further research after we left the area advised us that this level of quality is consistently maintained throughout all restaurants in the Basque Country, where food plays an integral part in local culture. A good reason to return to Bilbao?

Restaurant Amarena is located at 18 Calle Santa Maria, Bilbao, Spain.

Review: Meigas Cafe, Ballarat Victoria

On a recent trip to Ballarat with my father and brother, we spent a whole day at Sovereign Hill, exploring the ‘ye olde’ way of life at the time of the Gold Rush. My brother particularly liked watching the demonstration of how they made the boiled lollies of the time, and my father enjoyed the demonstration of pouring gold into ingots. Personally, I simply enjoyed spending the weekend away with my family – living in another city means I don’t get to see them as often as I would like. Thankfully, this will change next year when K and I move back to Melbourne and start saving in earnest to buy a house and start a family!

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Excellent reviews online combined with my ongoing quest to expose my father to cuisines that he’s never tried before meant that we had dinner that evening at Cafe Meigas, a tiny little Spanish restaurant down an alleyway off Ballarat’s main pedestrian mall. I highly recommend making a reservation – luckily I had made a reservation as I didn’t know how popular it would be on a Saturday night. In the two hours that we were there, we saw at least ten groups of diners being turned away due to capacity.

While perusing the menu, my eyes were definitely too big for my stomach. I ordered six dishes between three people and asked the waitress whether she thought it was enough food. “It’s probably a bit too much,” she answered honestly. “But what I can do is have all the entrees and appetisers served in tapas size, so you still get to try all the dishes you want.” What service!

Tabla de Embutidos (chorizo, serrano ham, salchihon, olives, manchego cheese)
Tabla de Embutidos (chorizo, serrano ham, salchihon, olives, manchego cheese)
During the day, Cafe Meigas also serves as a continental deli selling all manner of smoked meats, cheeses, imported tapenades, and more. No wonder then, that the Tabla de Embutidos was absolutely fantastic. I adored the subtle manchego cheese and tart plump olives, but Dad’s favourite was the thinly sliced chorizo which he had never tried before. He enjoyed this platter so much in fact, that I had to take him to the supermarket afterwards to show him where he could buy prosciutto, chorizo, ham, etc to make up his own platter in the future.

Ensalada Iberica (Lettuce, tomato, spanish onion, olive, cucumber, asparagus, serrano ham, manchego cheese seasoned with olive oil and red wine vinegar)
Ensalada Iberica (Lettuce, tomato, spanish onion, olive, cucumber, asparagus, serrano ham, manchego cheese seasoned with olive oil and red wine vinegar)
The Ensalada Iberica was my attempt at ensuring that we ate some vegetables but I was disappointed by the asparagus which wasn’t fresh. Rather, it looked as though it had come out of a jar or can as it was rather limp. The rest of the salad was lovely and fresh, but I simply couldn’t get over the disappointment of the asparagus.

Croquetas
Croquetas
The Croquetas were much more enjoyable.  The fillings change every day, and we were lucky enough to have the tasty seafood croquetas on the night that we were there. With a crispy crunchy shell and soft cheesy insides, the croquetas were simply to die for. The difficult part was figuring out how to split four croquetas between three people!

Patates con Aioli
Patates con Aioli
The Patates con Aioli were roasted well with that special kind of crispy skin that I love. I found the massive dollop of aioli on top a bit strange though. I would have preferred the dish had the potatoes been more evenly coated in a thin layer of aioli more like a potato salad.

Albondigas en salsa de almendras (Spanish meatball in almond sauce)
Albondigas en salsa de almendras (Spanish meatball in almond sauce)
I almost forgot that I ordered the Albondigas en salsa de almendras, as these meatballs came out quite a bit later than the other tapas. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise – the nutty sauce was extremely flavourful, and the meatballs were incredibly tender. I definitely could have done with a bit of bread to soak up the sauce, because it was just that good.

Paella Mixta
Paella Mixta
We finished off our meal with the Paella Mixta for two, a mix of chicken and seafood. Cafe Meigas were very generous with the servings – whereas some places might use cheaper frozen “assorted seafood” mixes for their paella, they use a great fresh range of mussels, prawns, scampi, clams and fish to make their paella. It made a big difference as well, as it meant that the paella was really infused with the fresh ocean flavours and aromas that made it a fantastic meal.

Churros
Churros
I was absolutely stuffed to the brim by this point, but I managed to convince my brother to share a dessert with me – the Churros. After all, how can you have a meal at a Spanish restaurant and not finish with churros right? These were absolutely piping hot and straight out of the fryer – but were surprisingly not too oily! Dipped in the rich melted dark chocolate, they were just delightful.

All in all, our meal at Cafe Meigas was really enjoyable. They were very accommodating in terms of their flexibility in serving things tapas style rather than full-sized entrees, and the food itself was really well done. Without knowing Ballarat very well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the best restaurants in the area!

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