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The Best Chicken Ever

Memories of a Spanish restaurant, and the fleeting pleasure of a perfect meal

By Stephen Leon

We scanned the intermittent glimmer of lights along an unfamiliar coastal highway for signs of food and drink. Not just food and drink, but a place to rest and relax, be attended to and fed and given a pleasant end to a long, long day. We weren’t simply hungry or tired. We were exhausted, starved and physically disoriented in that way that comes from long hours of travel with irregular (and not nearly enough) eating and sleeping. We needed an oasis and we needed it soon, and we had no trusted guidebooks or local friends to rely on, so when we came upon a sturdy-looking place with a large parking lot and a glowing neon sign, we decided to pull in and take our chances.

It took us about a day and a half to get from Albany to Marbella, Spain, back in November 1996. Traveling to a foreign place with our 11-month-old son, my wife and I had been anxious about all of the details involved in getting the three of us on and off two planes, halfway across the city of Madrid by airport shuttle and taxicab, and then onto the train that would take us through five hours of olive-tree-studded Spanish countryside to our brother-in-law in his waiting rental car. But the afternoon flight to Philadelphia and overnight flight to Madrid went remarkably well, and by late afternoon the next day, we arrived at the Malaga train station, where Tom was indeed waiting. About 20 minutes later, we finally arrived at our hotel in Marbella.

The plan was to go out to dinner, but of course it took a couple of hours to get out the door: Laura’s sister, Pam, her husband (Tom) and 4-year-old son, Tommy, lived far away from us in San Francisco, and so we hugged and greeted and chatted for the better part of an hour. Then there was unpacking, and showering, and getting the baby ready for another adventure. Finally we were on the road without a specific plan or reservation, at the mercy of geography and the hospitality of total strangers.

The restaurant we found, Portalon, was spacious and comfortable, with a wood-and-stone interior that reminded me of the old-school continental restaurants my parents liked, where they never felt threatened by contemporary trends and knew exactly what to expect, down to the perfect Manhattans and a salad included with every entrée. On this evening at Portalon it was not very busy, and we were immediately seated at a large table; within minutes, we were served warm bread with large bowls of assorted Mediterranean olives soaking in fragrant olive oil. When the wine arrived (red wine from the region, so good, and—compared to what’s available in most U.S. restaurants—so cheap!), we were well on our way to that rare sort of evening in which fatigue melts away into a sublime sense of satisfaction.

The piquant olives and crusty bread and several plates of tapas (OK, my memory fails me here: We sampled tapas everywhere we went in Spain, from grilled shrimp to fried whitefish to potato-and-egg soufflés to sausages to marinated vegetables, and I don’t recall which we had at Portalon) took the edge off our hunger, and we contentedly chatted as we looked over the menus. My recollection is that it was a simple list of hearty country dishes; in any case, three of four adults ordered the chicken, which was served family-style in a large bowl, browned pieces of the bird mingling with the juices of a savory pan gravy that filled the bowl about halfway. Maybe it was that my defenses and/or expectations were lowered from exhaustion, but oh my, chicken never tasted so good nor warmed body and soul so thoroughly. Sated with wine and delicious food, we drove back to the hotel and slept soundly until mid-morning the next day.

Over the next 10 days in Spain, we had many adventures, culinary and otherwise. We found a boisterous joint in Torremolinos that served a lunch featuring succulent fried strips of small fish (which Denis slurped down equally as heartily as did his elders) and glasses of good local red wine that cost about a buck each in U.S. dollars (yeah, we made a few trips back for refills). High above the valley in the walled-in outpost of Arcos de la Frontera, we found a small hotel that served us a simple late-afternoon meal that included the most delicious buttered sweet corn I’ve ever tasted. From roast suckling pig in a subterranean restaurant in Madrid to a fluffy-scrambled-egg-and-toasted-baguette breakfast in Marbella that put so many diner meals to shame, Spain was full of satisfying surprises for the palate.

And some not-so-satisfying ones. The dull English meal of leathery roast beef and lumpen Yorkshire pudding in a Gibraltar tavern (whose chief marketing strategy was the promise of Manchester United on the telly at two-thirty) was merely uninspired; the plate I ordered one night in Grenada was simply horrifying. Fresh fish appeared to be the specialty, and the seafood medley seemed a good way to sample the local flavors, but what appeared before me was a platter of scary fish heads, their prominent eyeballs daring me to dive in (I pushed the plate aside and dove into the wine instead to wash away the memory; the sight of it cost us all out appetites for about a day).

And then, there was the return visit to Portalon. Had I been paying attention, I might have noticed that the omens were not good: We had been joined at the condo by two of Pam’s girlfriends, and immediately the group chemistry was perceptibly off. Out-of-synch, we discussed and debated and finally settled on Portalon, spent too much time on details like who goes in what car, and finally arrived at the restaurant and sat down to the expected bread and olives. The chicken was still on the menu—it had been so good, how could I not order it again?—but the waiter informed us that there was no more that evening. So I settled on something less appealing, and this time my lowered expectations were met. Everything was different: The food tasted more pedestrian, the wait staff acted less friendly, the children were crankier. Even the bread and olives seemed a little stale. It was almost as if the first visit had taken place in a dream. Only the wine seemed the same. We drank lots of it.

There’s great comfort in the consistency of a reliably good restaurant, which is what keeps patrons of such places as Café Capriccio, Chez Sophie and New World Home Cooking coming back again and again. But sometimes the unforgettable pleasure of an unexpectedly fine meal is, sadly, a mere trick of chance, as much affected by mood or dining companions as by the artistry, or lack thereof, in the kitchen. And with Portalon, there were other factors: We were in a foreign country, we didn’t have any idea where we were going, and we were delirious with exhaustion. At the time, I wondered if Portalon had a regular local clientele (Marbella is on Spain’s Medierranean costa del sol, and its economy appears to rely heavily on tourism), and I concluded that the restaurant overall must have been better than my second memory of it, but nowhere near as good as my first. That’s the memory I savor; maybe I’ll have the dream again one day.

A few years later, I had the best steak of my life. I was in Memphis for a convention; it was late, I was hungry, and I walked into a blues joint on Beale Street that featured a bar and stage in one large room and a full kitchen and dining room in another. Bare wooden tables and grease-stained walls adorned with photos of blues heroes didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the food, but then, there were about a dozen cooks manning a series of open-pit charcoal grills that snaked from one end of the room to another. It smelled good. And again, I was exhausted, this time from a too-late previous night at convention parties. I needed a steak; the menu offered about eight different cuts; I ordered one (with steak fries), then nursed my beer, chatted with friends, listened inattentively to the guy in the next room growling out the blues, and waited.

Finally, one of the cooks plated up my steak and fries and brought it to my table. The steak was thick but not too thick, and cooked a perfect medium rare. The fries were a just-crisp golden brown. The steak and fries rested in a shallow pool of red juice from the steak, which I mopped up with the last of the fries after I had wolfed down every last bite of the most delicious, tender steak I had ever tasted. Notwithstanding the sighs and low moans of pleasure I uttered each time I sunk my teeth into the meat, when it was over I could have sworn that it had simply melted in my mouth.

And if I ever get back to Memphis, I swear I will not try to find that restaurant again.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Grab a taste of historic food, historic drama and a freshly crafted (but historically inspired) beer when the New Old American Company previews The Poor Soldier (George Washington’s favorite operetta) with food from Troy’s The Irish Mist and Poor Soldier Porter created by C.H. Evans brewmaster George de Piro. Wet your whistle as you whet your appetite for vintage musical comedy at 7 PM, Jan. 15, at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. Tickets are $30 and seating is limited, so call 377-3623 for more info and reservations. . . . Book now for a final dinner at JT Bakers “New Cuisine” (27 Main St., Greenwich). Chef Jason Baker ruefully announced that the place will close on Feb. 21, when he starts a new position in the kitchen of The Inn at Erlowest on Lake George. “We would like to thank everyone who has supported us and our business,” writes Baker, “and hope we can look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces in the next month and then to follow us to the Inn.” Call 531-2000 for that last reservation. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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