Dateline: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
By Sofia Perez
[Published by Epicurious.com, April 20, 2006]
When Americans think of traditional Spanish food, they usually picture Andalusia’s iconic paella and gazpacho. The region of Galicia, which forms the country’s northwestern corner, is miles away from southern Spain in both distance and spirit, and these differences are reflected in what people eat.
In many ways, Galicia more closely resembles Ireland and is known as Spain’s Celtic corner because of the strong cultural mark left by the Celts who lived here centuries ago. The regional cuisine is decidedly rustic and features the kinds of substantial meals that gallegos make at home to stave off the chill of a damp day: Typical dishes include lacón con grelos (salt pork with mustard greens), hearty soups and stews, and pulpo a la feria (octopus boiled in large copper pots, dressed with olive oil and smoked paprika, and served with starchy boiled potatoes). Most of Spain’s leading restaurants source their seafood from Galicia’s cold, tempestuous waters, and you can sample the ocean’s marvelous bounty at any of the bars along the boardwalks of the quaint coastal villages.
Though Galicia’s heart is in these seaside towns, its medieval soul lies in Santiago de Compostela, a destination for religious pilgrims who walk there all the way from the French Pyrenees. There is no shortage of seafood restaurants (marisquerías) and tapas bars along the city’s restaurant row, the narrow Rúa do Franco. Most are acceptable though unmemorable, but Casa Sixto is worth a stop for its satisfying, uncomplicated fare such as delicious, bite-sized fried Padrón peppers, dusted with coarse salt (Franco 43, 011-34-981-584-504).
Just outside the old town perimeter is La Bodeguilla de San Roque, a popular tapas place frequented by locals. Enjoy a glass of wine from their excellent list while you nibble on charcuterie and regional cheeses such as the smoky San Simón. (San Roque 13, 011-34-981-564-379, www.labodeguilladesanroque.com).
For a grander taste of authentic Galician food, it’s worth visiting La Tacita D’Juan, where you can sample traditional dishes such as empanada (a large bread pie filled with assorted ingredients, including the classic combination of eel and onions), and wonderful seafood options such as centolla (spider crab) and small scallops known as zamburiñas (Hórreo 31, 011-34-981-563-255, www.latacita.com).
There are fewer innovative dining establishments in Galicia than in other parts of the country, but two of the best are in Santiago. At Toñi Vicente, the chef reinvents classic local dishes with a refined touch, as in her monkfish dusted with black olive powder, served with a purée of baby peas and topped tableside with a ham broth (Rosalía de Castro 24, 011-34-988-594-100).
Near the city’s main square is the intimate Casa Marcelo, where the open kitchen allows you to watch chef Marcelo Tejedor in action. Tejedor, who has worked with legendary chefs Juan Mari Arzak and Jacques Maximin, offers a single tasting menu that changes daily, depending on what’s available from nearby markets. Although all of his dishes are thoughtfully executed, this native of Vigo (Galicia’s biggest port) has a special knack for fish. Even though the restaurant is in the heart of landlocked Santiago, when you try his ethereal hake with an emulsification of lemon and green peppers, you can practically taste the cool ocean air. (Hortas 1, 011-34-981-558-580, www.casamarcelo.net)