Far from the formality of Spain’s leading Michelin-starred chefs, Arzak and Adrià, Logroño’s Calle Laurel provides an inexpensive, accessible culinary adventure (writes Douglas Blyde).
“I’ll meet you in the bar,” said my friend casually. But which bar did he mean? I began to panic. Laurel boasts more than 40 hostelries along its 200m stretch. Then again, I wouldn’t mind getting lost while looking for him. Each smoky den, from dim cubbyhole to glaring canteen, dispenses a different delicacy, from Bodeguilla Los Rotos’ crispy baby eels in eggy bap to punchy anchovies further pepped by green chilli at the 100 year-old Bianco y Negro, to Bar El Cid’s supple funghi glistening in top secret sauce.
To assuage the speed of food greed, La Rioja’s capital ensures a fine selection of vinous collaborators. But beware, it is mightily easy to become carried away in the street’s convivial atmosphere; officials advise keeping tally of what you sip....
My recommendations are:
Bar El Cid
There’s standing room only in this cosy, tiled bar, where throngs of often singing funghi lovers congregate to scoop up magic mushrooms with wooden toothpicks. It isn’t hard to understand their enthusiasm. Golden from the searing plancha, the thin, silken, juicy oysters come marinated in a moreish blend of creamy, pureéd garlic butter.
While never taking her eyes of the TV screen propped high in the corner, a fleshy local lady insisted on giving me a comprehensive run-down on the sex life of Spain’s Big Brother contestants. Fortunately I was able to steal myself away to sample an earthenware dishful of lightly crisped, blonde patatas bravas smudged in moreish salsa piccante and seeping mayonnaise.
Bar Pata Negra
Named in honour of Spain and Portugal’s most prized black hooved pig, this bright canteen, complete with stained glass grape clusters, serves free range, acorn fed, gently aged jamón Ibérico. Made in a toasted sandwich with Galician Tetilla cheese, the silky fatty ribbons fringing this densely perfumed, ruddy coloured delicacy overflowed the clasp of a paper white, bocatita – gone in two bites. A strong selection of Rioja is impeccably kept in temperature and oxygen controlled dispensers.
Bar La Universidad
While perched at the speckled, granite counter of this Harley Davidson themed bar, I peered past the illuminated glass counter towards the splayed arms of a large, cherry blossom octopus. This is their speciality: diced, tossed in oil and dusted into colour with paprika. Our thoughts momentarily settled on Paul, unlikely star of the World Cup for his match predictions. In his honour, we raised a toast of cool Joven Rioja and proceeded to chew the plump suckers.
Bar La Méngula
Staff need to stay slim to work behind Méngula’s very tight counter. Most people flock to this bright purplish bar for a ‘zapatilla de jamón’, which dubiously translates as ‘ham slipper’. Intriguingly, the meat is almost ironed onto a thin slice of tomato spread bread, which you are then instructed, for some reason, to fold from the middle to form a sandwich. Everyone seems to obey a large sign which reads ‘Hay Tigres’ ('We serve Tigres'), rinsing away the crumbs of their slippers with the inoffensive beer. Also worth trying are the fluffy scented salt cod croquettas (bacalao).
Bar El Sebas
Although Sebas is best-known for its 100 bin strong wine list, partly visible in a small room at the back and covering every winegrowing region in Spain, its artisan Basque cider is also worth seeking out. Poured with precision from a great height to aerate it and excite you, this tart, funky and often potent drink is a deft match with tortilla de patata, dotted with what the locals describe as ‘angry’ sauce. I convinced myself that the rings of soft, clotted black pudding (‘morcilla’), textured with Bomba rice was a good way of replenishing nutrients lost by the dehydration of alcohol. But next morning, my assertion proved incorrect.
I ended, five hours after I embarked on this wine, beer, cider and olive oil drenched zigzag with that standby beloved of Brits, the kebab, only to find my friend scoffing the same. Famous for its pinxtos a la plancha, this alas, soberingly bright, modern bar has an enticingly illuminated fridge at eye level showcasing a range of refreshingly bitter ciders. Perfect for taming the aromatic, sweetly salted, tender lamb skewers...
For full listings: www.callelaurel.net