Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Restaurants of Cartagena

Restaurants of Cartagena
In February 2008, the city put on its first tapas trail for 16 days. 27 different bars or restaurants were competing. Each put forward a 2 Euro tapa. Locals or tourists picked up a coupon with pictures and addresses of all the establishments and a map to show where they all were. It´s a great idea that has been done by several other Spanish cities in the past. There has been a similar event in the last half of March, 2009. I have recorded all the 2009 dishes in two blogs, one in Spanish, one in english. The tapas route is now a yearly festival. In 2010 even more restaurants competed  and the price is  now fixed at 2.50 a tapas with the drink included.

I tried all 27 tapas of 2008, a few of them alone, but most with my son. I tried most of them also in 2009. In the case of the best few we went back for seconds or even thirds on other occasions. Three of them I didn´t like at all and felt the restaurants concerned were shooting themselves in the foot by their particular choice. The rest of their food looked okay. The majority of the tapas dishes in other establishments were good. Casting our votes was a hard decison. We passed in two forms in the end – on one we voted for Tasco del Tio Andres, on the other for Meson Las Viñas. That being said the tapas in several other places came very close. A few were top class. I will certainly be visiting those restaurants again. It was interesting to see how all the competing establishments handled the competition. Some went out of their way to be charming, others were clearly harassed by all the extra business! Probably those that were competing with a regular tapa from their menu handled it best. Some owners resented the fact that one or two restaurants that weren´t exactly tapas-orientated were competing alongside.

Interestingly, the three restaurants that won most votes were also three of the easiest to find for tourists who don´t know Cartagena inside out. Here´s the official report in Spanish from the local newspaper, El Faro:

Here are my own thoughts on the best and worst places found on the tapas trail.

La Tasca del Tio Andres – Paseo Alfonso XIII 44 (This is on the main road that the AP7 joins in the city. Tel. 968509712) Their salmon and scorpion fish in pastry in an almond sauce was a truly gourmet tapa. We liked the look of the other tapas there plus the restaurant also. It has won awards and many Spanish eat there.. Eventually we went back there for a meal. We had the same tapas for a starter for 3 Euros each, salad and some melt-in-the-mouth steak. They have another restaurant in La Manga and a snack bar for workers in Escombreras also.

D´Almansa (Calle Jabonerias 53) is in the Michelin guide. They produced a very delicate lasagne with prawns, scrambled egg and leek for the tapas trail. It´s more of a regular restaurant than a tapas place. We ate dinner there on subsequent occasion and it was good. It´s at the dearer end by Cartagena standards. We shared a lobster salad followed by stuffed lamb for myself, angler fish for my husband, oxtail for my son. He said the latter was exquisite. He was (as usual) the only one of us who could manage a dessert as well - a hot chocolate madeleine and ice cream.

We also spotted another Michelin Guide restaurant in the same street – El Barrio de San Roque. This street is quite near the military arsenal buildings and Teatro Circo. It can also be accessed by taking a stroll up Calle Mayor and staying with the left hand branch when the road divides. We subsequently went back there for birthday lunches and dinners. It is probably the best restaurant we have sampled in Cartagena. One of the pricier restaurants, but definitely worth it. Their duck and suckling pig are particularly good.

La Taberna Galega (Calle La Palma 23, Tel. 968527074) is a bistro-style small restaurant specialising in Galician dishes. Pleasant decor in the way of peasant tools, scallop shells, nets, etc. Their tapas was a fry of scrambled egg, kale and chorizo.Best chorizo we have had. They served some delicious Galician rye bread alongside. The fish and shellfish dishes that others were eating looked superb. They had chunky pottery dishes with paintings of fruit on them. It´s tucked away in a small street near Plaza España.

There are  10 Euro menus del día, Monday to Friday.  I had a clam and bean soup and my son had a plate of freshly-cooked ham drizzled with walnut oil and sprinkled with cayenne. For the main course we had steak bruschettas and chips. Definitely a high quality menu del día. The ordinary menu is mid-range pricewise. On another occasion we had a pleasant meal for 3 on a Sunday - salmon salad with artichokes, cheese and asparagus, cuttlefish, scallops, turbot, almond tart for the only one of us who had much room left and coffees. They threw in a free extra beer and a liqueur.  Probably best to book at times it might be busy - Sunday lunch etc. - as it´s a small restaurant.

Bars for a tapas meal:

Alameda Tapas (Alameda de San Antón 40)
Good tapas bar on the road between Corte Ingles and Plaza España. They provided a very tasty thick ham tapas on baked potato covered with rich gravy and a basket of freshly-baked bread drizzled with olive oil. The other tapas looked good too – stuffed tomatoes, baked cheesey aubergines, etc.

This is very close to a more ordinary-looking tapas bar – Bar Saray. They had a vegetarian tapas option – leek pudding with onions and other vegetables alongside. It was very tasty and filling. Nice unpretentious place for a cheap lunch.

Meson Las Viñas (Calle Carlos III 49). This small restaurant is next to the Carlos III hotel. They produced an unusual tapas that was my son´s favourite – a triangular pancake filled with flakey rich ham and deep fried (tasted much better than it sounds) with a garnish of lamb´s lettuce. They gave us free olives while we waited for it to be cooked. The tapa we had was on the regular menu so wasn´t just cheap for the promotion. We have tried their pinchos of bread under beef, chicken, ham, salmon, etc. with unusual sauces and they are good. They also do bocadillos and simple platters like sword fish, chips and salad. Everything looks freshly prepared. Again, this would be a nice place for a cheap meal. They also have local Campo de Cartagena wine which is quite hard to get as not much is produced.
From the 2009 tapas trail we particularly liked the newish La Vagoneta in Alameda San Anton with its mining related decor. They did a simple but good tapa of deep-fried cheese cubes with a sweet roast pepper sauce. We were also impressed by the Musola gallega - dogfish in a cumin sauce from Rincon Gallego. They boast of being in the octopus business for five generations!
The tapa in La Tartana (Puertas de Murcia 16 at the top of Calle Mayor) came third in the final vote. While it wasn´t in our personal top few we did have a nice meal there on another occasion. The tapa was a caramelized foie gras.

It´s one of their usual dishes but is normally served in a much larger and dearer portion as a starter. We had attended a concert by the Hilliard Ensemble in a church in Calle Jabonerias nearby. My son got their autographs and managed to charm his way to dinner afterwards with them and ten of their fans, mostly Spanish. They are top singers and top guys so it was a great night out. La Tartana looks like a narrow bar from the outside but spreads out into other rooms behind which explains why the waiters were completely unfazed when 16 hungry people turned up unanounced at 9.45 begging for a table! I was impressed that they managed it. We sampled an array of starters or tapas - chipirones (small squid), Iberian ham, potatoes mixed with bacon and egg, cod in tomato, the foie mentioned above, salads, a variety of desserts and cheeses all washed down with an excellent Jumilla wine (or in my son´s case water and coke). It all worked out at a reasonable price apiece.

Cerveceria Principal (Plaza Vergara 2, just off Calle Mayor). I give this recommendation with some reservations although it won second prize. The first time we tried their advertised tapas it was pure bliss and a clear winner – a large piece of steak sitting on bread covered with cream cheese with caramelised peppers, toast and other vegetables alongside. We went back for seconds another day and it was much more ordinary – less steak and the vegetables more steamed than caramelised. Seems like you might have a brilliant meal or an ordinary one in this restaurant depending which cook is working!

La Patacha (Muelle Alfonso XII) won first prize in 2008. Their tapa was a generous portion of fish in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. It´s a converted boat on the port. There´s a fish tank full of ugly bastards to watch while you eat and some unusual crabs and other crustaceans in another tank by the tables. Well-thought out decor throughout the boat. Easy to find – right at the end of the main Marina. They sometimes do a menu del día on weekdays for 11.90 at other times a buffet. In the evening it´s at the dear end by Cartagena standards. International cuisine with good fresh fish dishes.

The tapas featured at Corte Ingles wasn´t particularly good but it might be a nice spot for a drink and a salad at a table outside in the summer as the cafeteria is on the top floor and has a good view of mountains in the direction of Mazarron. They also do a special Ancient Roman menu when the Carthaginians and Romans festival is on.

Bottom of the twenty seven tapas on offerin 2008 were some memorably awful meat balls. Neither I nor Beastlet could eat them as they were all cold in the centre. Being part Scots I slippped them in a paper bag and took them home for my ex feral cats. Even the cats were too discriminating and I bet the rats wouldn´t eat them from the bins either…

Enough of the tapas trail:

Here are some restaurants we tried plus some other possibilities:

Two for ambience:
Las Rejas, Calle Saura 9, (Tel. 968082006 – must book)This one is very posh and pricey but good for an ocasional treat. My husband took me there for a birthday. An old house once owned by the university has been converted into a restaurant. The house must be 200 years old or more.  The house turned restaurant is furnished imaginatively – mostly glass tables of different sizes for different numbers – 3, 4, 6, etc., antiques, paintings of Cabo de Palos, photos related to the family history of the house,the university, etc. Every table has a different theme around it. They also own a university snack bar. We went in there to book (you have to book). They opened up the nearby restaurant and gave us a long tour of the house and let us choose our table. The menu is a work of art – hand-made paper, etc. You can pre-order dishes, if you like. The food has some unusual and interesting flavours. The menu is primarily meat.orientated – quail, ostrich, etc. Our son picked a particularly good beef stuffed with fig – nice combination of flavours. The starters are huge so you are advised to share one between two or three people. Probable their only failure is the desserts which are extremely rich and not to everyone´s taste. There´s a good wine list including local wines. They decant the wine before serving. I´d certainly give this restaurant top marks for ambience and service.
Portonovo served a marvellous scallop tapas in 2009 which persuaded to try it for my husband´s birthday dinner. It´s at the pricey end but uses very good ingredients - local lobster, etcetera, so it´s worth it.
La Marquesita close to Taberna Galega and Bodega Nicolas is another restaurant in the Michelin Guide. We found it excellent. Their duck was particularly good. Good Spanish cuisine.
Bodega Nicolas is good for cheap tapas. It is sufficiently close to Teatro Circo to be good for a snack before a play or concert there. I like their "tigre" mussel made into a sort of gratinated fish pie served in the shell and also their bacalao balls - buñuelos. 
Carrots (Alameda San Anton) and Carrots Real are both owned by the Carrots music shop. They are good for simple tapas and have a vast variety of montaditos (half bridge rolls) with interesting toppings. The aim is to provide some music alongside simple eating. 

Varadero at the Santa Lucia end of the port does good tapas. We had dinner there once also but that was nothing to write home about. Unfortunately they shut the bar with the lovely tapas and push the blander lunch menu once it´s that sort of time of day and in the evening most of the tapas has run out. I suspect you could have a lovely meal of assorted tapas if you were prepared to dine late morning! The best item we have tried from there was the gulas - baby eels the size of bean shoots. They cook a mass of these with garlic and other seafood - clams, etc. - in a huge paella pan. You can buy a ración to share for about 5 Euros.

I also like jie-ichiban, C/Plaza del Rey 6, near the Arsenal and Calle Mayor (Tel. 968508740) for delicate flavours. There are menus of the day for 10 euros, Monday to Friday - miso soup, salad or spring rolls, noodles or rice plus a main course, tea, coffee or dessert. Nice in a light sort of way. We have also tried a meal for 2 for 26.85 in the evening - sushi, salad, marinated fish, noodles, steamed dumplings. I love Japanese food but have yet to find the real thing in Spain. It mostly comes in altered form and is frequently cooked by Chinese chefs. This was definitely better than many though as they have some unusual items on the menu. Sea urchin eggs were a first for me. We had an exceptional 2002 Rioja for 11.95 also which made the meal.

Not exactly a restaurant but Valor can provide a treat for the sweet-toothed. It does gourmet hot chocolate, ice cream, herbal infusions, etc. It is perfectly placed on Calle Mayor opposite the old ayuntamiento. We visit it when there is a free concert or procession alongside. It´s a pleasant way to listen. I shared a chocolate fondue with fresh fruit with the son while we listened to a Mariachi band from Mexico, one day, and a huge ice cream sundae on another when a Trinadadian steel band was playing alongside.

Not strictly Cartagena but as El Algar comes under its administration I´ll include Hotel Campomar. It´s only a 2-star hotel but the food is good. We were involved in the annual mineral fair at La Union over Easter and went to dine there with mineral dealers from all over Spain. They did a fixed price menu for 14 Euros. (First day - salad, cold meats, vegetable paella, chocolate tart. Second day - salad, calamari, roast lamb, coffee tart. Third day - salad, ham, salmon and bacalao carpaccio, caldero and chocolate tart.) My favourite dish of all was the salmon and bacalao carpaccio. Everyone loved it and it vanished in seconds. I definitely want to drop by for some more of that.

I haven´t tried Mare Nostrum on the front where the cruisers land but the upstairs part also looks good in terms of ambience. (We have had tapas outside which was okay.) I was about to go for a meal in the upstairs part once but there were half a dozen British drunks inside effing and blinding which put me off. The menu looks expensive but good and they have interesting paintings on the walls. We may well return if there are no British drunks in there.

I haven´t yet tried the San Valentin restaurant in the outer district of Santa Ana (towards Murcia) but this has been recommended to me by a member of my mineral collecting group who lives nearby. It specialises in meat dishes from Salamanca. He said the quality of the meat was particularly good.

Another on our list to try at some future date is La Cerdanya which is Michelin starred and has a good reputation for Catalan dishes. It is tucked away in the suburb of Dolores.