Monday, February 13, 2012


I found out at the weekend that my favourite restaurant is closing. Juan, the owner, is retiring and with him goes the restaurant. My only hope is that Antonio, his long serving second in command, will be able to come up with something that is even just close, in the new restaurant he is opening round the corner.

As its name indicates ("Gamboteca"), it's all about the prawns... Of course there are other things on the menu, but the typical thing to order is a starter of grilled prawns and prawns al ajillo (deep fried in oil with garlic and chilli) and then to have slices of tenderloin which you cook yourself on a sizzling hot plate. Very simple but very delicious... The key is in the freshness of the ingredients which, as they do an almost wholesale trade in prawns and beef, you can be sure that what you are eating has not been near a freezer.

This is something I often ask my English friends: you see two restaurants, side by side, one has a long, elaborate menu and the other has only three or four items. Which do you choose? Most of my friends go for the one with more variety. But if you choose prawns from that menu, say, then how likely is it that those prawns have had to be frozen? How can they possibly anticipate that you are going to choose prawns that day, out of all the things on the menu? It's either that, or throw the unordered prawns out every night, which makes them very expensive. Which brings me to one of my gripes about food in the UK: prawns are considered to be expensive for this reason - but the thing that gets me is that they are thought of as a kind of "elite food" like caviar and so are just simply expensive whether or not they are fresh. Far better, in my opinion, to go to a restaurant that does a few things and does them well. In fact, I think the whole idea of ordering is bizarre: much better to just let the chef decide, as would be the case if you went to dinner at a friend's house. When I order in a restaurant, I think about how they are able to offer the food on the menu - are we far from the sea? Do enough people order for them to cover their costs? Are those fruits in season? Are they using sauces to hide the freshness of the food?

Unfortunately, the whole organic food movement has had a counterproductive consequence in that, in order to obtain organic food, it may be necessary to have it shipped from far away. Having said that, things are getting better. I've noticed in my recent trips back to London that there is a trend towards locally produced food, in season. On the other hand, probably the best (and most expensive) restaurant that I have been to in New York (Milos) has to go to the lengths of writing an essay in the menu to explain that, just because the food is simply prepared, it doesn't mean it isn't worth the shedload of dollars you are dropping on it. At the end of the day, food gets better as people's understanding of it gets better. It's a cultural thing.

There are so many good places to eat in Spain but Gamboteca will be missed. Not only is the food so good, but the service is how it should be. Only the second time we went, Juan recognized us and welcomed us back. Considering he's been working there for 20 years, that's pretty impressive, not just as a feat of memory but because he cares. Being the owner, he could quite easily leave the mundane task of waiting the tables to someone else. There is a tendency to hold professionals (doctors, architects - probably not bankers any more) in higher esteem than waiters, taxi drivers or supermarket attendants. For me it is not so much a case of what someone does but whether he or she has pride in what they do. A number of years ago, shortly after having moved to Spain, I went to the supermarket to buy some cheese. I explained to the man on the cheese counter that I wanted it to make a fondue. He spent about twenty minutes adding a dash of cheese here, a sprinkling there, sifting the concoction, smelling it - like it was a work of art. I watched, transfixed by the spectacle of someone who so clearly enjoyed and took pride in his work. If you stop and think about it, it is actually something quite rare. They say we should follow our passions but most of us stumble somewhere along the way and make do with what we have. I admire those people, like Juan, who love what they do and transmit that to you by doing it.

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