Best Chicken Ever
of a Spanish restaurant, and the fleeting pleasure of a perfect
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.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
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.