Wine nights and Mediterranean delights
A foodie’s guide to a Mediterranean spring break
Over spring break, we had the chance to tour Spain and the French Riviera, gorging ourselves on sangria, chuletón, churros, and everything in between. We’d like to share a summary of four restaurants and bars that stood out to us.
Our first meal in Nice, France was at a seaside Italian restaurant called Di Più. With views of the pastel mountainside houses set against the azure Mediterranean waves, we expected a meal just as beautiful as the ambiance. Di Più did not disappoint. I ordered a chittara crevette and île flottante for lunch. The chittara crevette was a seafood pasta, about as twice as thick as spaghetti, with shrimp, squid, and Roma tomatoes and dusted with a spray of pistachio crumbs. The dish was served in a large, black ceramic plate that resembled more a shield than a plate. The pasta was perfectly cooked — al dente — and the shrimp and squid were tender and savory. The tomatoes ensured the pasta was not dry and provided a natural sweetness, while the pistachios added a slight crunch and uniqueness to the dish. The île flottante was a traditional French dessert consisting of meringue floating on crème anglaise. The meringue was extremely light, and the crème gave no hint of its egg origins. The meringue was also dusted with popcorn, which in turn was lightly drizzled with caramel. The île flottante was surprisingly not very sweet and instead very light, making it the perfect ending for a fulfilling meal.
Tai took a gamble on the plat du jour. Many French restaurants offer a special plate of the day depending on the ingredients they are able to source. His gambit was rewarded with a perfectly grilled, medium rare cut of lean steak accompanied by toasted gratin potatoes. The portion sizes weren’t as impressive as the other dishes at Di Più, but the flavor and freshness of the ingredients still made the dish satisfying. For dessert, Tai doubled down and took a chance on an ice cream and coffee dessert thinking it was affogato. What came out was a single shot of espresso and a mini, chocolate-covered ice cream bar. The homemade ice cream tasted like anything you could get from an American ice cream truck. However, the cup of espresso didn’t disappoint. Its richness and creaminess was something we got accustomed to in Europe, and our frequent visits to coffee shops across the continent kept us going.
In Madrid, we sampled a wide range of cuisines from across Spain. On our second night in the city, we secured a reservation at La Bola, a restaurant renowned for its traditional cocido madrileño, a chickpea-based stew with chicken, chorizo, pork belly, and pasta. The dish itself was an experience. First, the server brought one empty plate and another filled with soft white pasta. Then he presented a mysterious ceramic jar, whose golden stock he poured into the pasta plate. Finally, he removed the lid and all the meat and chickpeas inside cascaded onto the empty plate. The soup and pasta allowed the taste of the stewed meat to shine through the clean and simple stock. The meat and chickpeas were tender enough to fall apart at the slightest touch; they provided a comforting and filling end to the dish. The balance of the sangria at La Bola made it the best we had in Spain. We could taste the deep flavor of wine in this sangria but the fruitiness still mellowed out the expected bitter afternotes. For dessert, we ordered La Bola’s signature buñuelos con helado, or apple fritters with ice cream. The fritters were well fried and coated with caramel, with two scoops of ice cream on the side. The hot, crunchy shells contrasted well with the cold vanilla. This was Tai’s favorite meal of the trip.
On our last night, we dined on Andalusían tapas at Alhambra, a tavern in the heart of Madrid known for its raucous atmosphere and generous portions. Already stuffed from days of nonstop eating, we ordered three dishes to share: platazo de ibéricos, rabo de toro estofado, and tapa pisto con bacalao. The platazo de ibéricos was a board of Iberian cured meats, including ham, pork, beef, chorizo, and manchego cheese. Surprisingly, this was our first taste of jamón ibérico during our leg in Spain so we decided to try an assortment of jamón that night. The manchego cheese, creamy and not too salty, was a perfect complement for the savory jamón, our collective favorite being the ham. The rabo de toro estofado, or oxtail stew, was served with a side of French fries. The oxtail was covered in a savory gravy, and the tender meat easily fell off the bone. Finally, the tapa pisto con bacalao, a supposedly smaller tapa dish of smoked cod, topped off our last meal in Europe. The dish was technically a tapa degustación, which meant that the dish would be served on small slices of bread. The cod arrived atop pisto and bread and was drizzled with a sweet local vinegar. Pisto is a dish native to the region of Castilla La Mancha, where Madrid is located, hence the formal name pisto manchego. Similar to ratatouille, it consists of tomatoes, onions, eggplant, red peppers, and olive oil. The chilled and soft cod paired well with the slightly sweet pisto and was a smashing success among our table. The sangria here reflected the difference between dining at a tapas bar and the historic La Bola. The drink was fruitier and brighter than the more sophisticated one at La Bola. However, the sangria still paired excellently with the food and just one pitcher proved to not be enough.
Later that night, we decided to order cocktails to celebrate the end of the trip. After bar-hopping to find the best and most affordable drinks, we ended up at the Serafina, where we ordered the Cosmopolitan, mojito, and caipirinha, with croquetas jamón iberico, ham and cheese croquettes, to share. I ordered the Cosmopolitan, a cocktail of cranberry juice, vodka, and contreau. The juice was watery and not very sweet, so for my next drink, I ordered the caipirinha. The caiprinha is the national cocktail of Brazil and consists of cachaça, lime, and sugar. This drink was refreshing and mixed such that only a hint of alcohol could be detected, the taste blending well with the lime and sugar. Tai ordered a refreshing mojito; the mint, lime, and sugar did a great job masking the taste of the tequila. The salty and oily croquetas were the perfect thing to munch on while we enjoyed our drinks.
The food and drinks along the trip proved to be the perfect respite from traveling and sightseeing. While we rested our weary bodies, we still got to experience the sights, smells, and tastes of the locale. These four restaurants showcased the diverse experiences we had the opportunity to enjoy in Spain and France, and we’d love to hear recommendations for more trip-defining restaurants all over the world!