January 23, 2010

My in--town vacation at Despaña with a serial eater/blogger




I took a trip to Spain yesterday via Broome Street in Soho. My portal to the Basque country and beyond was via the food emporium Despaña, which has a beautiful selection of cured meats, sausages, cheeses and assorted olives, spreads, piquillo peppers, and other specialty items, all imported from Spain. In the back of this handsome boutique there is a take-out counter and a comfortable white-tiled seating area.

I was there playing sidekick to a crazy food blogger named Hagan Blount, who goes by the handle The Wandering Foodie, and whose self-imposed mission is to try 93 different restaurants, diners, cafés, truck vendors and delis over 31 days in New York City. Nearing the end of his quest, his digestive system fatigued, Hagan told me he was looking forward to vegging out in a recliner, watch a mindless movie (a comedy, and one he had already seen—he was that unwilling to expend energy) and sip a glass of sparkling water. Seven more days, Hagan!

Lydia Sanchez, the boutique’s gracious manager, was our host and guide, carting out a cascade of Spanish delicacies, which seemed to arrive at lightning speed and threatened to overwhelm our critical faculties with its volume and deliciousness. First was a lovely, smoky estella red bean soup and Despañ’s signature blood sausage, morcilla, which the store’s owners manufacture at their Queen’s facility. The satisfying morcilla was gently spiced and bathed in a sweetish sauce of tomato, garlic and onion.

Lydia explained that the boutique likes to include in its take-out dishes products that the store sells. Eat-in customers reap the benefit of a fantastic condiment tray filled with boutique products, including imported sea salts, vinagre de Jerez and Spanish olive oils.

A selection of pinxtos, Basque-style small-bite sandwiches was next in the festive parade starting with brandada de bacalao, a mixture of salt cod, mashed potato and béchamel on a supercrispy thin wafer of country bread. There were two croqueta, or croquette pinxtos, one featuring Serrano ham and cheese, and another bacalao, both perched daintily on a round of Despañ’s crusty bread. A plate of imported pulpo (octopus), thinly sliced, marinated in Don Bocarte olive oil and resting on a bed of soft, thinly sliced potato did not wow Hagan, but won me over with its elegant simplicity. Like many of Despaña’s dishes, it was subtly seasoned, not the kind of bold, brash flavors that, say, Julian Medina of Yerba Buena traffics in.

If you like small plates, Despaña’s tapas and flautas will appeal to you. The latter are mini versions of the store’s made-to-order sandwiches (bocadillos), and are pre-made and ready for take-out or a quick sit-down snack. Among my favorites were the Castañas, an unusual layering of chestnut cream, goat cheese, salchichon sausage, and piquillo peppers, and another made of the morcilla, manchego cheese and a layer of quince cream.

We rounded off the feasting with Despaña’s rustic, delicious flan, made from Lydia’s mother’s own recipe from the Basque country, a blueberry cheesecake and some churros and thick hot chocolate.

I left with a jar of squid packed in ink, which Lydia advises eating over rice, and some quince paste, souvenirs from my in-town Spanish vacation.