Botin - A remembrance

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This is a review I wrote about Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world. It originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel November 18, 2001. The Miami version of Botin did not last but a few months.

When you’re a restaurant critic every vacation is a busman’s holiday. While others use their annual leave to get away from their workaday routines, mine follows me wherever I go. When I take a break, I’d just as soon avoid restaurants altogether, but as they say in the little ditty on some fast food commercial, “Ya gotta eat.”

And I always feel some sense of duty to try to find something wonderful, some place that defines an area’s cuisine. So before a big trip – and all along the way – I plot and plan for places to eat that will give me a taste of the region’s culinary culture. So every trip becomes another edition of “How I Ate My Summer Vacation.” Work, work, work.
I’m not getting any sympathy here, am I?

Truth be known, I’d much rather grab quick bites here and there from street vendors than sit still for a full restaurant meal. I usually compromise with my traveling companion and strive for a balanced combination of both.

That was the case during a September vacation to Spain and France, a trip that was filled with exceptional food, some merely simple bites that cost a pittance and some extravagant multi-course meals that cost hundreds of dollars.

And in the middle of it all was an old restaurant with a Florida connection that provided a most memorable meal, a meal more memorable than I could have imagined.

The trip began shortly after Labor Day in Barcelona. There I recall a particularly satisfying lunch at an outdoor cafe on the Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare that runs from Placa Catalunya to the port, where I nibbled on mellow manchego cheese and sipped glasses of vino tinto. Then later that evening we dined at another Ramblas cafe where we ate thin slices of  jamon serrano while watching a con artist (and his four confederates, including one who stood near our table watching for the police) bilk naïve marks with games of three-card monty. And a breakfast of omelets and cheese in the Placa Reial under the appropriately regal palms listening to a man in dirty and torn dungarees play his accordion for tips.

At the other end of the trip was Paris, one of my favorite cities. I had always wanted to dine at Jules Verne, the Michelin-starred restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, and this time I was able to finagle a much sought-after table (they’re booked months in advance) for a luncheon. We had appetizers of liver pate and fois gras with scallops, entrees of veal in a cream sauce and sliced breast of duckling, followed by a melange of cheeses, plus a very modest bottle of wine. Lunch for two: $350 U.S. (Was it worth it? No. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.)

The last meal in Paris was at a neighborhood cafe in the Marais where we had steak tartar – damn the mad cow disease, full courses ahead – and steak frites, an inexpensive cut of meat served with fries piled on top. It couldn’t have been more enjoyable if I’d paid $350 for it.

And along the way there was a wonderful meal in Tours, France, at a cafe called Grand Marche where a gracious hostess served us some of the best coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon I’ve ever tasted. And a meal of steamed clams in the town of Bayonne, just north of the Spanish border and the Pyrennes mountains.

And Sitges, Spain, a resort town on the Mediterranean, where I had a meal of paella negro, a seafood and rice dish made black with squid ink. And a feast of tapas in a small tavern where we pointed to too many dishes and felt a sense of duty to eat them all -- sausages, cheese, precious ham, anchovies, and little crispy fried fish, baby hake, that were the best of all.

And there was a shack on the beach that sold cold drinks, and every time I ordered a beer the vendor gave me a complimentary tapas, a Spanish tortilla (a cakelike potato and onion omelet) one time or an anchovy wrapped around an olive and drizzled with oil another. Those tiny tapas and the cold beers enjoyed at the edge of the cool sea on a hot and sunny September afternoon are some of my fondest memories.

And then there was Madrid.

We arrived in Madrid on a Sunday and I wanted to go immediately to Botin to see if I could secure a reservation. Botin is the oldest restaurant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (and who am I to argue with them?), established in 1725 and in continuous operation ever since. Francisco de Goya is said to have been a dishwasher here before he gained recognition as a painter.

Ernest Hemingway was a regular customer and immortalized it in the final pages of The Sun Also Rises: “We lunched upstairs at Botin’s, it is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drunk rioja alta. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drunk three bottles of rioja alta.”

And in Death in the Afternoon: ''I would rather dine on suckling pig at Botin's than sit and think of casualties my friends have suffered.''

The history alone makes it worth a visit, but for a vacationing critic from Florida there was another compelling reason: In 1998, after almost 275 years, the current owners decided to branch out and a second Botin was opened in, of all places, Miami. How could I not go?

I arrived at the restaurant during the crush of the evening meal. The harried host was shrugging his shoulders at a man who complained to him that he had been waiting a long time for a table. There were lots of people waiting. And the host simply told the man who had walked through the door ahead of me that it would not be possible to get a table the rest of the evening.

As best I could without speaking Spanish, I asked the host if I might be able to make a reservation for another day. We were taking a day trip to Toledo the next day, Monday, and already had reservations for another restaurant Monday night. Tuesday night, our last night in Spain, we had planned a tapeo, which roughly means to go tapas bar-hopping, so the only option was for lunch on Tuesday.
Almuerzo martes? I pidgined out of my phrase book. Si, he replied. We agreed on a late lunch at 3. Madrilenos eat dinner quite late – if restaurants had early bird dinners they would start around 9 p.m. We found that late lunches help stave off hunger until the restaurants reached their dinner stride.

Botin is on Calle de Cuchilleros off the Placa Mayor through a stone archway and down a long stairway. At the bottom of the stairs you pass a restaurant with a sign that reads – in english for the benefit of tourists – “Hemingway never ate here.”

The façade of Botin is wood paneled with gas lights under a simple sign with the restaurant’s name. Inside, you have no trouble believing it is nearly 300 years old. The tiled floors are worn down from so many shoes. Overhead the exposed beams, rough-hewn and nearly black with age, add to the rustic ambience. What portions of the walls that aren’t covered with azulejos, colorful ceramic tile mosaics, are blanketed with framed paintings. In one room the arched ceiling is bricked, giving it the look and feel of a bodega.
In a cubby hole of a room behind the stairway was a charcoal oven whose glowing embers illuminated row upon row of roasted piglets, each in its own little roasting pan.

We were shown to a room upstairs, just like Hemingway’s characters. We figured that’s where they stuck all the American tourists. But if we originally thought we were getting the foreigner’s rush, the gracious servers who waited on us soon made us feel welcome.
I started with a bowl of gazpacho, which came to the table as a simple tomato broth. Then the waiter brought over a tray of finely chopped vegetables for me to add as I desired.

For our entrees, my friend had the roast baby lamb, one of the two house specialties. The other specialty is roast suckling pig. Although it sounds silly – as well as a little pigish itself – I had just had suckling pig the night before at the nearby Casa Lucio, so instead I ordered the chicken casserole with vegetables. All the while I was sipping on the soup, I stewed that I had made the wrong choice and would be disappointed that I’d ordered the chicken. After all, it was the cheapest item on the menu at 1420 pesetas, or about $7.50.

I wasn’t disappointed in the least. It was a huge portion of chicken, still on the bone and sitting in a pool of juices surrounded by huge chunks of carrots and roasted potatoes. It was too much to eat.

But as satisfied as I was with the chicken I still coveted my friend’s leg of baby lamb, which cost all of $14.99. The outside of the lamb was seasoned and crisp from the hot fire. The meat itself was moist and had just the slightest hint of gaminess.
Instead of rioja alta, we washed our meals down with the house sangria, a fruity red wine with bits of oranges and apples floating in the brightly painted ceramic carafe. We looked to see if the carafes were for sale when we waddled out of the restaurant, heading back to our hotel at Puerto del Sol for our siesta, but apparently marketing is not as big a thing in Spanish restaurants as it is in American.

Less than six weeks later I was dining at Botin again, this time in Miami’s Coral Gables. There is an unmistakable newness about the place, but many decor touches from the original have been imported to Florida. The façade is similar to Madrid’s though the traffic of Coral Way is heavier than on Calle de Cuchilleros. Indeed, in Spain there was no need for the valet parking attendant that Miami requires.

The tiled floor of the entryway was familiar, but the room is more spacious and even includes a long bar. At the far end of the bar is an igloo-shaped wood-burning oven so that the restaurant’s signature items could be roasted in the same fashion. But here there were no rows of roasted pigs, at least not in plain sight.

Miami’s Botin is tri-leveled. There is an upstairs that appears to be used mainly for private banquets; a sublevel room, we gathered, is the smoking section. The main dining room on the ground level is fashioned after the bodega room in Madrid with curved ceilings lined in bricks, albeit much newer bricks. A tiny balcony with a table for two, accessed from the private area upstairs, overlooks the dining room.

While the Botin in Madrid serves mainly Castilian foods, Miami’s features dishes from other regions, including Galicia and Catalonia. But the roast suckling pig and baby lamb are still the stars of the show, and this time we had both.
The pig featured a large slab of meat with a hard crackling crust under which was tender flesh. It was bathed in pan drippings and served with roasted potatoes.

The lamb was just as wonderful as it was in Madrid – and just as huge a portion. Prices are much higher -- $ for the pig and $38 for the lamb because the meat is imported – but the lamb could easily have served two very hungry adults with leftovers for another meal.

The sangria wasn’t quite as full-flavored as it was in Spain, though the difference in taste may be explained more by location than actual quality. The wine was served in ceramic carafes similar to those in Spain but with the Miami address painted on. And, as expected, the carafes are clearly available for sale at the restaurant’s front counter.

It isn’t Spain but Botin of Miami will give you a taste of it. It certainly rekindled the memories of my meal in Madrid for me.
But my meal at Botin in Madrid was memorable for another reason. We arrived early for our lunch on September 11, getting there at 2:45 p.m. local time, 8:45 a.m. back home. So while America was being plunged into chaos I was sipping sangria and cool Andalusian gazpacho and stealing hunks of juicy roast lamb from my friend’s plate.

I wouldn’t learn of the events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania for three more hours when I walked into a tavern and saw all the faces there staring up at a television suspended from the ceiling with an image of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center towers.

The next several hours were spent in the hotel room where I thanked the heavens – quite literally – for the satellite feed of CNN. Eventually we wandered out into the streets of Madrid and went searching for our tapas bars.

Ya gotta eat.

But every meal after – the tapas, the restaurant in Tours where the owner tried to express her sympathy to us by running her fingers down her cheeks tracing her tears, and the impossibly expensive meal high up in the Eiffel Tower (another target, perhaps?) – was dominated by our own sorrow and the frustration of being so far away.

So now whenever the inevitable question comes up, whenever someone asks “Where were you when…?”, I’ll think of Botin, and I’ll try to remember what those last moments of blissful ignorance were like before I was forced to join the rest of the world in the horrible reality.

''I would rather dine on suckling pig at Botin's than sit and think of casualties my friends have suffered.''