That Bacalao al Pil Pil at La Parisien in Cádiz

Our best meal in Andalucía was a lunch in Cádiz at a pretty Paris-bistro-style restaurant named La Parisien with its terrace flooding out onto the pint-sized Plaza de San Francisco. Located in a slightly less touristy area of the historical center, the plaza offers a great place to sit and admire the 16th century San Francisco church and convent towering over it. There´s something so peaceful and inviting about this particular plaza that we felt the need to stop, even if just for a coffee. It was just our luck that there was also a very nice restaurant already serving their full lunch menu at 1 p.m.

We had rushed, that morning, to Cádiz from the horrid little commuter town of Puerto Real after spending a not-so-great night holed up in a vastly overpriced child´s bedroom we had found on AirBnB and sharing a desperate, shameful meal at Burger King (the only thing open in this neighborhood after 9pm). We got the first train out of there and, needless to stay, did not stop for a BK breakfast sandwich on the way. After buying our bus tickets to Sevilla (the next stop on our trip) we had a few hours to kill in Cádiz and we knew exactly how we would be killing them – by having the delicious seafood meal that we did not have for dinner, for lunch instead. We stumbled upon this traditional Spanish “Freiduría Marisquería” with a French café terrace (though the chairs were facing each other instead of the street) and French name (though misspelled) and it charmed the pants off us right away.

As we finished placing our order, our very authentically sweet and attentive waitress recommended trying out some of their gambas too. We did, to snack on with bread and oil before the hot dishes came out. They were absolutely phenomenal, very sweet and clean in flavor, with beautiful, bright white flesh bearing vibrant orange stripes. The heads twisted off easily and flooding forth from under the carapace was plenty of delicious brain juice to suck on or smear on bread. Cádiz is known for its wide variety and excellent quality shrimp, prawns and langoustines, and before this meal I had only tried the very small shrimp in a cone and in tortillitas de camarones. But these shrimp at La Parisien were a whole different thing… Succulent, juicy, meaty, but also very light in flavor and texture. No oil or grilling necessary to hide the quality or improve upon it in any way. When the raw ingredient is so flawless, boiling is enough.

31We ordered another salmorejo, a dish I fell head-over-heals for on our first night in Córdoba. This is a thick, chilled soup/purée of tomato, bread, garlic and oil, often compared to, but actually having nothing to do with, the thinner gazpacho. Each spoonful is voluptuous, creamy, smooth and cool in texture, with a sharp sting of garlic diffused slightly by the sweetness of the ripe tomato and vegetal taste of the luscious olive oil whisked in. The soup is dense but incredibly light and frothy at the same time, perfect for spooning directly from a bowl or spreading onto crusty bread, typically served on the side. Salmorejo is also usually topped with ham or egg, or ham and egg, or dried and rehydrated bacalao cod, and always a drizzle of good olive oil.

At La Parisien the salmarejo is wonderfully balanced. The flavors are light, the puree extremely frothy. The toppings too are very carefully applied – juicy ribbons of quality jamón Serrano and tender slivers of hard-boiled egg, clearly sliced by hand. This dish is heaven on a sunny day, especially when paired with a glass of dry white wine, and my boyfriend and I fought silently for each spoonful. Feigning interest in what the other was saying, we´d try to act as casual as possible when scooping up massive globs of the stuff with very small chunks of bread, hoping the other wouldn´t notice. I´m still not sure whether this version or the version we had at Bar La Cávea in Córdoba was my favorite of the trip. I would still maybe choose the later, just because it was so unabashedly garlicky and I prefer extreme flavors. In the category of well-balanced, still pretty garlicky, but slightly lighter, fresher salmorejos La Parisien´s version is a total winner.

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And then the boquerones fritos came, the little fried anchovies that I had been looking forward to so much on this trip. They´re fine in Barcelona too but there´s something about having them in Cádiz, in the city whose locals go to the Mercado de Abastos (most impressive fish market I´ve ever been in) as part of their weekly routine. Sure, boquerones are not the most exotic fish in the sea, but they´re still expertly prepared, because the culture of treating fresh seafood the right way is alive and well in this town. Here they´re wonderfully light, free of the heavy batters I´ve seen suffocating chipirones and pescaditos in some Barcelona restaurants. They´re dusted very lightly dusted with flour and flash-fried to a wonderful texture. The flesh is almost creamy, bright white and very clean in flavor, while the exterior gets a nice golden brown color and crunchy, sandy texture. A fresh wedge of lemon to squeeze over and 0 excess oil. In fact, they´re served on a bed of napkins so that even if there were excess oil, it would be pulled out by the time you got to the bottom of the pile. This is such a simple and cheap dish, but one with which it is so easy to be impatient and careless. I very much appreciated the attention that went into preparing it right. Again, fantastic on a plaza with a crisp glass of white.

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As our waitress listed off the daily specials and the signatures of the kitchen, it became quite clear that bacalao (salt cod) was a must-order here, in at least one of its several available forms. They had it in a tortilla (Spanish omelet), grilled, and in various sauces. We chose bacalao al pil-pil, which is a traditional Basque preparation of cod, widely popular around Spain. Our waitress tried to convince us it was actually Andalucían… The star of this historic dish is, of course, the salted cod, which is de-salted in water for about 2 days prior to cooking. Pil-pil sauce is an emulsion made with just four ingredients: cod, olive oil, garlic and hot peppers. It´s a testament to the skills of the home-cook or chef, as the sauce is very tricky to thicken. You heat oil, throw in some garlic slices and remove them when browned, then allow the oil to cool, add the cod to the oil, allowing the juices released from the fish to interact with the oil. When this happens, small white bubbles of fish fat appear in the oil, making the “peel peel” sound from which the dish gets its name. The white stuff is removed from the oil and heat, and then whisked up with some oil added back in slowly to form a thick emulsion. Then you add the garlic and peppers for flavor. Some cooks cheat and thicken the sauce by adding milk or cornstarch, or whipping it additionally with a blender.

La Parisien´s bacalao al pil pil was nothing short of extraordinary. The beige blanket of sauce was hopelessly creamy and smooth but very, very delicate and frothy in consistency. When the dish first arrived at the table I was worried that it would be too rich, too heavy. I wanted to be light on my feet for the rest of the day, not weighed down by thick, starchy sauces. As it turned out I had no reason to worry. The cream had a wonderful flavor too, the salty, marine flavors of the salt cod balanced nicely with the natural, green flavors of the olive oil. Underneath its velveteen cover, the filet of cod was also very nice, perfectly seared to a flaky, soft texture but with a thin layer of crust on its exterior. There were some sharp fish bones to be removed, but this is to be expected from cod.

While the fish itself was exquisite, I also really appreciated the careful garnishing of the plate with a side of boiled and sautéed potatoes and a colorful line of veggie escabeche spooned over the top. On the other side of the fish were some fresh tomatoes dressed in what was some of the best olive oil I´ve maybe ever had, mixed up with a bit of herbage for a pesto-y feel. The dish demonstrated how seriously the kitchen felt about quality – the perfectly airy-soft puddle of sauce, the beautifully cooked fork-tender potatoes, lots of vibrant colors, and the huge difference between the quality of the oil with which they dressed the tomato and the oil (though also, no doubt, extra virgin olive oil) in which they cooked the potatoes. My mouth still waters when I think back on this dish, something that pretty much never happens when it comes to fish dishes.

3536And for dessert, some torrija, a dessert typically eaten during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain. A slice of bread is soaked overnight (or at least a few hours in advance) in milk with tons of honey and spices, and then dipped in egg and fried in olive oil. The interior becomes creamy smooth while the crust maintains its firm, slightly crunchy texture. In La Parisien´s version, I´m pretty sure the torrija was coated in honey a second time after being fried, because it was saturated with it. And the flavor of that honey was absolutely divine – far from the plastic, bear-shaped squeeze-bottle kind. This honey was floral and fresh. Its brightness combined beautifully with the warm, comforting flavor of the cinnamon sprinkled on. A delicious dessert to split with coffee. A perfect last bite of a fantastic last meal in Cádiz.

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