DOS HERMANOS GO SPAIN: WILL SIR BE DINING ALONE TONIGHT?
I like dining alone (what do you mean, I don’t have any choice ?). Eating out is my hobby and doing so tout seul means I can relax, concentrate on the food and generally observe the ebb and flow of a (fingers crossed) good restaurant without distractions. It’s an even better experience when it’s a new opening where heightened expectations can make it all quite exciting.
I also like eating with others, but then my concentration is more likely to be on the company and the experience is somehow different. Restaurants often don’t know how to play it with the lone diner. Casual bistros are fine, the more upmarket ones offer me newspapers or magazines. At Charlie Trotter’s a few years ago they brought me all his collected works. In hardback. They looked quite upset when I turned down their kind offer: all I wanted to do was watch and eat. Watch and eat. But what if there’s nothing to watch ? Which brings to my experience at Vandelvira, a restaurant in the small town of Baeza in Jaen province.
I'd wanted to visit this town for some time being relatively untroubled by too many tourists - though not so few as the travel guides would have you believe - and because it was supposed to be an unsullied Renaissance gem. The two main towns in these parts: Baeza and Ubeda saw a huge influx of money during the 16th century thanks to textile manufacturing so a lot of churches and palaces were constructed, mainly designed by Andrés de Vandelvira. A sudden downturn meant that development came to a halt and thus the architecture was cast in er, stone.
Like many small Spanish towns the action is based around the main plaza where, during the day, the population seems to consist mainly of women pushing prams and old men walking up and down and moaning about, well, whatever old men moan about. Me, I keep saying the country’s going to the dogs.
There’s a smattering of bars and restaurants which I sampled during the day, in-between bouts of cultural activity, mainly with the aim of seeing if there was any game to be had. The nearest I got was some Pate de Perdiz which was very nice but probably not worth the linguistic hoops I had to jump through to get the yokel behind the bar to understand my order. Sometimes my classically correct Castellano can be a liability in Southern parts.
I’d been a bit worried because when I visited the restaurant earlier in the day on a recce as there hadn’t been a soul around in the beautiful former Convento de San Francisco which housed the restaurant. When I turned up in the evening things were little better – one table was taken. A Rigsby look-alike suddenly appeared from nowhere and showed me to a table. In the L-shaped dining room I was seated around the dog-leg away from the other two diners. Never mind I thought, the Spanish eat late don’t they. It was 10pm on a midweek night.
So there I sat in an, to all intents and purposes, empty restaurant with a soundtrack of dirge-like music and surround by antiques in some sort of Hammeresque mise-en-scène. There were long pauses between my courses which led me to believe that there weren’t any kitchen staff and Rigsby was doing all the cooking as well as the waiting.
In the end the food was ok. Given that there was no one there it didn’t seem like a good idea to test the kitchen so I stuck to some pig for both courses. Some Jamón Ibérico was expensive and lacked that oily, silkiness of the best types. Conchinillo was crisp-skinned and sweet-fleshed but I could have done with more of the pig and less of a dull dauphinoise. And that was that. The music and the funereal atmosphere had got to me. I’d finished by guide to Baeza and the Helado at the local bar seemed more tempting than a lukewarm Brownie.
I paid the bill, hurried back to the square and ordered a large café cortado and Pacharán. I like dining alone. I like big cities and crowded restaurants even more.