Culinary mission 

What Europeans got we ain't

I leave Spain in two days to return to the U.S. and while I won't miss sleeping in a bed the size of a cheap casket, I'm going to miss dining here. A few observations:

One of the biggest shocks to me, coming back to Sevilla after seven months, was to realize that all of the waiters had remained in the same restaurants. I know it's a cliché to complain that table service in America is, with few exceptions, a transitory occupation, whereas it's a significant profession in Europe. But it's shocking nonetheless to walk into a cafe after seven months and be greeted and welcomed back.

Like so much else in Spain, the simple question "why?" simply doesn't compute in this case. If you try to ask people about the status of waiters and chefs, how it is that they stay in the same place for so long, they speak about loyalty, profession and learning.

I met a young man who works in a pasteleria, a pastry shop, who wanted to try his English on me. He was quite well read, spoke French and Portuguese as well as English and Spanish, knew a huge amount about surrealist South American literature and his great passion was cake making.

"In America," I said, "someone as smart as you might work in a restaurant or bakery while studying or between jobs. But, with the exception of some very high-end pastry chefs, it's not a career that commands a great deal of respect."

"But, but," he sputtered. "It's cakes I'm talking about! Pasteles!" He then produced a rhapsodic explosion of words punctuated with tastes of his work. "Now you see," he said. "You do not get this in America with your big hurry."

He's right, of course. The European system of apprenticeship, of long years of on-the-job training, pays in artistry we don't approach generally in America. It's sad but true and I know it's not nice to say, but the fact is that the great majority of culinary school graduates, whether from the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson and Wales, are mediocre artists.

Best of Sevilla
I am totally in love with the cooking at Casa Salva. This restaurant has been operating at 12 Pedro el Toro, directly behind Sevilla's Museo de Bellas Artes, since 1983. You wouldn't know it was there except for a discreet little tile sign on the wall. It is only open weekdays from about 1-6 p.m., but you should call ahead (954-214-115) since the owner can't be bothered with working during festival periods.

Casa Salva offers the best afternoon meal in Sevilla and it is little known by tourists. The owner calls his cooking "Mediterranean," meaning to suggest that it follows the relatively healthy recommendations of some certifying organization. Well, maybe. Whatever it is, you'll love the price -- about $6 for three courses. The menu changes every day, so I go every day.

Soups are the best starters. Classic salmorejo is the best I've ever had -- a smooth gazpacho with a slight bite, possibly from a strong olive oil, swimming with pieces of Serrano ham and sliced hard-boiled eggs. Chicharos con acergas turns out to be a big bowl of black-eyed peas and collard greens with potatoes and chopped tomatoes in a rich broth.

Your second course could be a plate of glazed rings of calamari with little clams in a sauce that is an intense reduction of seafood flavors spiked here and there with a hot pepper of some sort. Shrimp croquettes, made when you order them, are small, scattered across a white plate. You are afraid that they will suck the moisture out of your mouth. Then you bite into one and it is like eating cream married with shrimp. There may be grilled tuna, lamb's liver with onions, heaps of fried anchovies. For dessert, natillas, a creamy custard, or pineapple mousse.

How does the owner of Casa Salva do it? He directs the kitchen staff of two others, he makes your espresso, he takes and delivers your order. He stands by your table and sings the praises of good food. He appears to be a man without the kind of ambition that spoils so many American chefs. He doesn't want another restaurant, doesn't want to become a chain. He is a chef-owner with a pure culinary mission, not a wannabe millionaire.

crowd control
And what do I dislike about dining in Sevilla. Well, I do not much enjoy the hugely crowded scenes in many restaurants and tapas bars. I love the tapas at Esclava, for example, but it is so crowded that you can barely move a fork to your face without putting out someone's eye.

I handle the problem by eating a bit early by Sevilla's standards. So, I'll lunch at 2 p.m., just before the crowd arrives at Casa Salva. Then I might have some tapas at 6:30 or 7 p.m., again before the rush begins. Basically, I rarely eat a big dinner. I might have a media-racion of beef in a pimento sauce at El Caseron, a few doors from my apartment, at 10 or 11 p.m.

Be warned: You do encounter complete exhaustion with the American temperament now and then. The professionalism of service does not include the American expectation of speed. If a server detects your impatience, it's not uncommon for him to practice the art that I find to characterize most of the Spanish when a problem arises: He makes a drama out of it, in this case by making you wait all the longer.

Shamelessly, I have found discreet but generous tipping, which is rare in Spain, improves your service significantly on repeat visits. I do not recommend that you wear a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts when you decide to flash your cash, however. In that case, your vulgarity will earn you an extra long wait.


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