I think that one of the highlights of travel is exploring different flavors and styles of cooking. They all seem to taste better when consumed in the environment from which they come, and following the local culture as far as eating times and methods adds to the overall experience of a trip. And then add the people you meet — in the service industry, the local residents, and other tourists — and the reality takes on a deeper meaning.
One of our favorite local restaurants in Bergen is Escalón, a Spanish Tapas Restaurant. We were excited and hopeful to enjoy an even better understanding of tapas during our recent week in Spain because of Spanish surroundings. We did! Not just tapas, but modern cuisine and (Andalusian) Spanish Paella too.
La Sala Puerto Banus
The house in which we stayed was only about fifty meters from a well-known restaurant in that area, La Sala Puerto Banus. Popular, trendy, crowded, reservations recommended … not the type of place we would normally go to, but staying so close we got there early enough to have the indoor seating area mostly to ourselves. And I’m so glad we did! The three times we visited we sat at the same table, next to the visible (behind glass) kitchen where we could watch the experienced chefs prepare the intriguing food. The wine, the atmosphere, the servers — we visited for our first and last meals in Spain, plus one in the middle because it was so enjoyable. Our servers were all fluent in English, and Rudy and Mikel in particular helped introduce us to the warm Spanish welcome, seemed genuinely interested in us as first-time visitors to their country, and suggested wines to try as we weren’t as familiar with them. And after our first visit, Rudy remembered what we both liked for our pre-dinner cocktails. They also knew how to serve a warmed after-dinner cognac! It was a personal and delicious experience.
(Here is where La Sala is located on the map.)
Our local “people” connection in Marbella knew we wanted to try different tapas, and recommended La Venencia. We took a taxi to the old section of Marbella and walked on the pedestrian-only section towards the Mediterranean to reach it on a beautiful early Sunday afternoon. Another popular place, we arrived early enough that we could be seated immediately outside under the umbrellas. We people-watched as people walked by dressed for the beach or for church, or for souvenir shopping in the numerous shops. And there we enjoyed our first “true” Spanish tapas, accompanied by a wine we know from finding it here in Norway — except this one was from 2006, probably not found any more in very many places outside Spain, and was utterly fantastic! I was so involved with eating, savoring, and enjoying, I almost forgot I had my camera … but did remember to get it out and capture photographic evidence of **that wine** to prove to ourselves we’d really had it.
One interesting observation about this section of old Marbella — the businesses and shops on the street level have many apartments and living areas throughout the upper floors. This particular restaurant has a garage right in the middle of it; the restaurant itself wraps around the garage, and the outdoor seating area is set up on either side of the garage door. While eating, an older couple slowly drove up the pedestrian street, pulled between the two seating areas, opened the garage door, and carefully pulled in. Old Marbella, meet older Marbella … a wonderful (if different!) exposure to tourism and tradition coexisting side-by-side. A few days after our visit, I captured a shot of La Venencia, with our server busy and efficient … and the bright yellow and white garage door sharing the spotlight.
(Here is where La Venencia is located on the map.)
Andalusian Spanish Paella!
Another fantastic meal — Andalusian Spanish Paella! — was enjoyed here. Small, down a side-street off the main pedestrian area, it looked like just the place for us, as we like to find those out-of-the-way places. Local residents were sitting in groups under the outdoor umbrellas, enjoying coffee and conversation, and others from the neighborhood would stop by to say hello. We’d first stopped about 6:00 pm and been told the kitchen didn’t open until 7:00 (a cultural aspect that took getting used to for us — many places enjoyed that long afternoon siesta, and it’s certainly something that I could also get used to!). So we wandered around Marbella for a while, but although there were many restaurants that catered to tourists that were open, we didn’t find another place that offered the Spanish Paella that (by its menu description) looked as good. So back we went to this little gem that I, unfortunately, forgot to write the name of. We sat at an outdoor table, ordered a bottle of wine and our “Spanish Paella recommended for two” at 7 pm, enjoyed the olives and air and conversations around us …
… and about forty-five minutes later had the most delicious meal placed in front of us.
It was a feast for the eyes and the palate! We were the only ones ordering food that early; the owner/chef probably opened the kitchen promptly just for us, and it was the most flavorful paella I’ve ever tasted. Fantástico!!
One more restaurant experience to share from Marbella, and I’ve saved the best for last. CasaLola! We’d seen it in our walks on the pedestrian street, a charming and cozy small structure among the high-rise buildings around it. A welcoming home environment and vivid shade of red is the first thing you notice … and then you take in the delightful flowers, tables, upstairs seating, and overall atmosphere.
Being our (typical by Spanish standards) early selves, we walked under the umbrellas to see if they were open and serving lunch, and were greeting by a vivacious woman who, of course, spoke Spanish to us, motioning for us to sit anywhere. Jan and I said about three words to each other along the lines of “…. where do you ….” and she immediately switched to flawless English, helping us find the most comfortable seats, chatting about our visit and experiences in Spain and Marbella, answering our questions of her. Lola is our generation, spent lots of time in England to perfect her English, came home to open her restaurant, and seemed genuinely delighted to welcome us. I saw her offering that same personal attention to every diner who stopped by for lunch. Such stamina she and her equally energetic waiter have!
When she brought our wine, I asked if she’d be willing to pose for a photo for my blog. Like me, she prefers to *not* be in front of the camera … but she did it to please a customer.
(Lola, I know you won’t see this until after the tourist season is finished … but I think your photo turned out beautifully! Your joy in what you serve and give your guests is evident in your smile, and your warm personality shines.)
AND THE FOOD. Oh my. Homemade tapas that are better than any others I’ve experienced. I had my first gazpacho. Jan and I shared many other small dishes. We consumed wine. We got another bottle of water. And we allowed ourselves to be convinced to try the homemade desserts. And I remembered my camera for some of it, most images cast in the warm red glow of the Spanish sunshine through the CasaLola umbrellas.
(Here is where CasaLola is located on the map.)
There are so many areas of Spain we want to explore and I’m not sure we’ll get back to Marbella next time … but I’d take a side trip there just to eat at CasaLola’s again.
How about you? What memorable restaurant experiences have you enjoyed during your travels? I’m so hungry for Spanish food after editing these images and writing my thoughts, I’d love it if you’d distract me with your *own* memories of yummy experiences!