Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

It was April 2011 and I was on the road trip of all road trips, driving through vast green landscapes in the beautiful Carolinas with like-palated friends on a united quest for great food.  We were still riding high on one of the most sensational dinners ever, one hosted by Chef Sean Brock at Husk the night before, so filling and fulfilling that we needn’t have any breakfast that morning.  But by mid afternoon hunger struck and our GPS was honed in on Asheville, North Carolina for a quick pitstop on our way to Chilhowie, Virginia.
It was just our luck that a new 1 month old Spanish tapas restaurant called Cúrate was on our path, an attractive alternative to the numerous Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels along the highway. We were excited to eat Spanish tapas by a chef who was raised in the Ferran Adrià/José Andrés family through stints at El Bulli in Spain and The Bazaar in Los Angeles, a young chef named Katie Button who opened Cúrate with her fiancé Felix Meana.  Button couldn’t have asked for a better partner in Meana who runs the beverage program and the front of house at Cúrate, and comes with a wealth of experience- as chef de rang at El Bulli for several years and most recently as the Director of Service at The Bazaar.

It’s no wonder then, that the minute we walked into this bright spacious restaurant in downtown Asheville we were given the warmest welcome and the most attentive service imaginable.  How it came to be that this couple left the brights lights and big cities to settle in a quaint and somewhat removed part of North Carolina (albeit with an edgy artsy vibe reminiscent of Berkeley) is a mystery to me, but they managed to create a comfortable and inviting space where these 4 out-of-towners felt right at home.A glorious leg of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermín summoned to us from the marble countertop amidst a dizzying perfume of flambéed sherry wafting from the open kitchen, and we happily obliged with an order of España’s finest, shaved, with wedges of pan con tomate.

There were creamy croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, garlicky gambas al ajillo and pincho moruno (lamb rubbed with Moorish spices), among numerous other staples of traditional Spanish tapas on Cúrate’s menu, and plenty of chorizo and bacalao to go around.  With nearly 40 items on their menu we had to practice restraint, a difficult thing to do, for we were on our way to a 20 course tasting dinner in a few hours.  We had ‘chistorra & chips José’s way’, spicy little chorizos wrapped in sliced potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, on the brink of being too oily yet tasty nonetheless, a popular dish served at José Andrés’ Jaleo.

Roasted red peppers, onions and eggplant drizzled with a 30 year sherry vinaigrette were crisscrossed with salty and briny Spanish anchovies in the escalavida con anchoas dish.

Tender thick stalks of Navarran white asparagus, tossed with lemon zest and a tarragon vinaigrette, were arranged as vertical towers against a backdrop of fluffy mayonnaise espuma.

Thanks to Meana there is a great selection of beverages to complement the food, from imported Spanish beers and sangria made table side, to Cavas and numerous other Catalan wines like Montsant and Priorat.  Swirl Rioja in your wine glass or spill a drop or two of panaché on your face as you attempt to drink from a glass porrón with your head tilted back.  It will all go down well with setas al jerez, mushrooms sautéed with sherry, olive oil and a sprig of thyme.

The handful of dishes that we had that day were good- certainly shy of what we’ve had and could have in Spain- but extremely promising, with a solid grasp of the essence of Spanish tapas and the beauty of its simply yet intensely flavored cuisine.  Asheville is fortunate to have this new addition to its culinary scene, and with Meana at the helm to maintain its superb level of service, it’s a Spanish oasis that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody traveling through the Carolinas and anybody needing to ‘cure yourself’, cúrate, with a good time.

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

Random trivia: Did you know that the largest living organism known to man is a mushroom? There is single specimen of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, covering 3.4 square miles of land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, that has been growing for some 2,400 years- and is still growing.

Tapaç 24 – Barcelona, Spain

IMG_7831As soon as I arrived in Barcelona, I made a bee-line for Tapaç 24, Catalan chef Carles Abellan’s casual and hip tapas bar.  After working at El Bulli with the master Ferran Adria, Abellan opened his hugely successful restaurant Comerç 24 in Barcelona.  Although I would love to explore Comerç 24 some day, I opted for the more casual Tapaç 24 on this Barcelona trip.

IMG_7834They’re open Monday through Saturday from 8am to midnight, allowing  enthusiastic patrons infinite opportunities to enjoy Abellan’s soulful food.  I went for dinner on my first night in Barcelona, and the place was bustling with great energy from an even mix of locals and tourists.  As expected, there was a long line that spilled out onto the sidewalk, but the turnover was very fast and we were seated at the bar tables within 15 minutes.  Although there are a few tables on the sidewalk that allow for al fresco dining in this beautiful and vibrant city, downstairs inside the restaurant is where all of the action is.

IMG_7845 The regular menu is printed on a brown paper bag that holds the silverware (similar to Mozza), but there are more daily special menu items on the chalkboards that are at each table.  Although the regular menu was written in Catalan which I couldn’t understand, the daily specials were in Spanish and some of the servers spoke English.  Everybody working there was in a jovial mood and they were more than happy to help make our experience wonderful.

We started off with the Bikini Commerç 24 sandwich, toasted Iberico ham and manchego cheese sandwiches with grated black truffles.  These warm sandwich triangles oozed with that familiar satisfying richness that grilled cheese sandwiches deliver, with the added decadence of truffle aroma.  Although this was good for dinner tapas, imagine the possibilities of what it could do for those late night munchies.  This would really hit the spot.

Unfortunately, they were out of boquerones al limón, fried anchovies with lemon, but we had a plate of chugetas that were probably just as good.  These small deep fried fish were the perfect little snacks to enjoy with our jar of champagne sangria.  With the perfect saltiness, crunchy texture and enhanced flavor from a squirt of fresh lemon juice, these little morsels were highly addictive.  It’s the kind of food where your hand automatically keeps moving from plate to mouth, and it’s impossible to stop eating.  We also had the requisite pan amb tomaquet, toasted bread with garlic, olive oil and tomatoes.

The rabo de toro, oxtail and bean stew, was excellent.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that I can imagine somebody’s mother cooking for hours over the fire.  The tender meat and gelatinous cartilage melted in my mouth in the most pleasant way, blending well with the richness of the full-bodied sauce.  Here I was in Barcelona, silently and happily gnawing away at an oxtail bone with sauce all over my fingers.  Perfect.

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As if the Bikini sandwiches couldn’t be a more ideal snack to satiate those late night munchies, here came a plate of Ous Estrellats al Gust (Catalan),  Huevos de payes estrellidas con butifarra negra (Spanish), or scrambled eggs, potato fries and blood sausage.  For the meat, you can choose from blood sausage, Jamón ibérico or chorizo, but we opted for the blood sausage, or butifarra, which is a local Catalan special.  It seemed heavy and oily at first glance and taste, but it was impossible to put my fork down.  There was something about it that made me become a voracious and greedy eater.

Our favorite dish of the evening was the Gambetas al Andaluz .  These fried shrimp were so fresh, that we ate the whole entire shrimp from antennae to tail.  They were garnished with just the right amount of salt to enhance the intense sweetness of the succulent flesh.  What a joy these shrimp were, and this was the moment when it really sunk in that I was in Spain, I was in Barcelona, and this was real tapas.  This dish said it all- fresh delicious seafood simply prepared with nothing more than love, passion, and soul.

The sardinas en escabeche were a hit as well.  The oily and tender flesh was delicately seasoned with olive oil, tomatoes and black peppercorns.  Absent in any fishiness whatsoever, these sardines rivaled its counterparts from the Tsukiji fish market in freshness and quality.  These sardines were so delicious that we ate everything on the plate, including the bones and the tails.

Xocolata Amb Pa, Oli, i Sal (Catalan), Chocolate con sal, aceite y pan (Spanish), or chocolate with bread, olive oil and salt, was perhaps one of the most delightful desserts that I’ve ever had.  We ordered this more out of curiosity as I couldn’t imagine what the dish would taste like, but it ended up being an amazing discovery.  The sweetness and richness of the chocolate ice cream was nicely balanced out by the sea salt, and perfectly smoothed out by the texture and aroma of the olive oil.  I love being pleasantly surprised by new flavor combinations, especially when it involves flavors that we are very familiar with and use almost daily.

Our second dessert was something that tasted like a mix between a cheesecake and flan, with a rich sweet berry sauce on top.  Honestly, the chocolate dessert was such a star that this berry dessert didn’t really leave an impression on me.  I can’t remember much about this dish.

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IMG_7836Tapaç 24 is one of those magical places that instantly sucks you in and makes you feel both excited and mesmerized.  The happy vibe,  smiling servers, colorful decor and cheerful music really set the mood for a fun night out.  The whole time I was there I was grinning from ear to ear, and I frequently stopped myself to look around and think, “Wow, I’m really in Barcelona.  This is amazing!”  The music makes you want to get up and dance, and the food and drinks make you want to hug your server.  Everybody there was having a great time, and and the spirit of Barcelona was very much alive.  I’ve already recommended this place to a few of my friends, as I knew they would have a great time there.

Tapaç 24

Comerç  24

269 Carrer Diputació, Barcelona 08007

934 880 977

Random trivia:  Traditionally, oxtail referred to the tail of an ox, or a castrated male.  However, these days it may come from steer or veal cows.