We’re staggering through the Barri Gotic in Barcelona, lost, hot, exhausted.
The place is a labyrinth, the buildings old, medieval if not ancient, the streets narrow, twisting and turning, opening into small placas.
It is mid afternoon and we have been walking for six hours. We walked from the top to the bottom of La Rambla, from the high end to the low end, literally and figuratively, seeking out a maritime museum that, when we arrived, we found closed. There are times when a pedometer would be a blessing, providing a numerical confirmation of one’s suffering.
We’re hungry and when Kathy and I get hungry, when the blood sugar plummets, trouble is the order of the day. To make matters worse, the fat guy has developed a bit of a chafing problem, what with the heat.
We are at each other like a pair of rabid wolverines fighting over the last bunny in the burrow. But for lack of a blade, someone would die a slow, gruesome death on a deserted cobblestone street.
We have grumbled our way past a number of cafes and bars, past stands and storefronts selling food, but nothing looks good, or reasonably priced.
We stumble around a corner and into the light in a small square: Placa George Orwell. There is a bar on one side of the placa, with tables out front. We look at the menu and find it offers standard fare, at high prices. I am ready to capitulate, to give in to the need for fuel and rest — at any price.
“Look, over there,” says Kathy, pointing across the square “There’s a place.”
On the sign of the restaurant is the word “vegetarian.” In fact, the name of the joint is “Vegetalia.”
You gotta be kidding.
“Let’s check it out.”
You gotta be kidding.
Kathy crosses George Orwell and I follow, figuring she is suffering from heat stroke — not because she would opt for vegetarian fare, but because she thinks I might.
I am not a vegetarian. I sit proudly atop the food chain, willing to eat nearly anything that swims, walks or crawls. I have developed serious reservations in recent years about the manner in which the animals we eat are treated and about the practices and processes that bring meat to the market, and I pay attention when at the market. I have cut the amount of red meat we eat to the minimum. But, I enjoy flesh. Even though the critter might be given a name and called across the yard prior to making its way to the plate, I am not the least bit deterred when it is time to pick up the knife and fork.
So, I have a mild ideological aversion to a vegetarian regime, a major aversion to the vegan program, and an unswerving, negative reaction when confronted by an all-too-strident disciple of same.
Further, I have never eaten at a “vegetarian” establishment and enjoyed the fare. I have been forced to enter a number of these jointss over the years and each time I was rewarded with relatively tasteless items. If the food was edible, it was not interesting.
A waitress walks out of Vegetalia, carrying a meal to a customer seated at a table on the placa.
Hmmm. Looks interesting.
“Wow,” says a hunger-crazed Kathy, “that looks great. Let’s go in and check it out.”
I no longer have the strength to resist.
We are at a table near the back of a long, narrow space. It takes a while before a waitress arrives at the table — a young, blond, predictably healthy-looking woman. She delivers menus and, after we have had time to peruse the offerings, she reappears.
Kathy (fluent in Spanish) asks some questions about menu items. The young woman has a bit of trouble with Spanish, so we switch to English. She has a bit of trouble with English and, in adorable fashion, shorts out while searching for the word “onion.” Her eyes cross, her mouth falls open, her head tilts, her circuits pop and she freezes.
Turns out, she is from Latvia.
And a vegetarian. A vegetarian whose first language is Latvian, whose second language is Russian, whose third language is German, whose fourth language is Spanish … you get the picture.
We somehow make sense of the menu and, pointing at photos, we order.
Kathy (flush with an “I’m gonna be so healthy” glow) orders a couscous and mint salad, a brown rice, mushroom and green bean “risotto,” and a fruit and oatmeal smoothie.
I (with great trepidation) opt for a salad and the “vegetable/pesto fajita.”
To blunt the expected trauma, I order a very large and delightfully cold beer. It arrives almost immediately and I get to work on it.
The salads are delivered.
Kathy’s salad is light and bright, the mint lifting a simple dressing to a higher level, the couscous perfectly chewy, the mix flecked with bits of shallot and parsley.
My salad is excellent, the greens as fresh as possible, small tomatoes ripe and juicy, cucumber snappy, olives dense and salty. The Spanish olive oil drives the dressing to the stratosphere. A basket of bread accompanies the salads, the selections a far cry from the expected leaden lumps.
The mains make their way to the table and it is revelation time.
My “fajita” is what we in Siberia With a View might call a “quesadilla.” A freshly made tortilla (gluten free?) is covered with grilled vegetables — onions, peppers of all sorts, thinly sliced carrot, sweet potato — and a cheese that resembles emmental. A healthy dose of pesto (basil, walnuts, garlic, oil) is slathered on the mix, the tortilla is folded and grilled.
It is great: the vegetables are slightly crispy, bearing the flavor of the grill; the pesto thrusts the flavor forward in masterful fashion. And there is that Spanish oil. Oh, that Spanish oil.
For a moment, I try to talk myself into believing my reaction is the result of fatigue and beer but, no, the stuff is superb.
But not as good as Kathy’s “risotto.”
The rice arrives at the table in a perfect disc, an inch thick. Brown rice, of course, doesn’t have the characteristics of an Arborio, i.e. an abundance of starch that makes a traditional risotto so creamy. This rice is tender but toothsome, and the creaminess is provided by cheese. The disc of rice bears an abundance of sautéed mushrooms as well as thinly-sliced and sautéed green beans. It is seasoned with a light hand, the flavor of the mushrooms and cheese predominating. The mouthfeel is amazing, the flavor deep, umami rich.
It is one of the best things we have eaten in Spain.
I can’t believe it.
I turn into a blabbering idiot, unable to cease with the superlatives. I have eaten in a meat-free restaurant and, not only have I enjoyed what I’ve eaten, I am impressed!
We call our Latvian darling to the table and, with difficulty, ask her about the chef.
Turns out the chef is also the jefe — the boss, the owner. We ask to meet him and, in no time at all, he is at the table. He is young, 35 to 40 years old. His name is Pablo and he is from Argentina (the center of the beef-eating world). We talk for a while, we take Pablo’s photo, he gives us his card, I promise I will write about his restaurant and his food and send him a copy of the article. He can’t read English, of course, but if he works at it, he can find his name and the word “Vegetalia” in the text.
I have another beer while Kathy polishes off her (surprisingly good) smoothie, and a fine experience is complete.
It’s fairly certain that, when you travel, and you avoid programmed tours and wander on your own, you will fall into an unexpected situation that bears fruit, that provides a memorable moment. So it is with Placa George Orwell, with Vegetalia and Pablo.
On the verge of a meltdown and a disaster, going against my grain, I emerge with a wonderful, attitude-changing experience. It’s not that Pablo obliterates my memory of run-ins with mundane vegetarian cuisine (and he certainly doesn’t alter my opinion of the holier-than-thou element in the veg community) but he proves that the meatless option can be spectacular.
I intend to produce my version of Pablo’s “risotto.” I am sure it will take some serious experimentation and numerous versions before I hit the mark, but I know how I will start.
I will thinly slice mushrooms — button, cremini, shitake. I will sauté them in olive oil, adding a bit of salt, until they give up their moisture and begin to brown. I will toss in some minced shallot, a wad of minced and smushed garlic and some basil (make a chiffonade and slice into thin ribbons). I will cook the mix over medium heat for a couple minutes then remove it from the pan to cool.
In the same pan, with additional oil if necessary, I’ll sauté some thinly sliced green beans, adding a teensy bit of salt. When cooked, the beans will join the mushrooms.
For the rice, on the first go-round, I will attempt to cook it in the traditional risotto fashion. I will sauté the rice briefly in olive oil. I’ll have a pot of hot vegetable stock at the ready and I’ll add stock to the rice a bit at a time, waiting until the stock is absorbed before I add more. I will continue on the path until the rice is ready.
If it gets to that point.
I am not sure if brown rice can be cooked this way so, as a backup (I don’t want to waste the vegetables) I’ll have a batch of rice cooked the regular way, with stock instead of water.
I’ll mix the vegetables with the rice and add some cheese, allowing the cheese to melt. I am thinking about a mix of cream cheese and freshly grated parmesan for the first try: just enough cheese to provide a creamy mouthfeel and a bit of a salty, sharp edge (thus, the parmesan).
When the cheese melts, I’ll pack a 6-inch shallow ring mold with the rice mix, give it a couple minutes to set up, then pull the ring and garnish with halved grape tomatoes , strings of basil and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
It’ll go well with beer.
All we’ll need is a young Latvian to stand next to the table with her eyes crossed.