Best dishes: of 2014. Some were even in New Jersey.

Everyone loves a list. Especially when it contains pictures and brief, vague descriptions of food that someone else ate over the course of a year. Someone you don't even know. I mean come on. That's about as bad as suffering through a slide show of a coworker's vacation. But that won't stop me.

This is a list of the most memorable and exceptional dishes that my body processed into p**p during 2014.

Ramen Sora
Las Vegas, NV

Ramen sora spicy

I have to think this was my first “real” ramen experience. I guess I've had ramen in the past, but never gave it the serious consideration that it deserves. Ramen Sora changed my opinion on ramen, and got me thinking about it, a lot. Ramen just may be the perfect dish. Those gyoza were no slouches either.

Spaghetti with fennel pollen sausage and Calabrian chiles

Local Seasonal Kitchen
Ramsey, NJ


I've been a big fan of Chef Steve Santoro since the late 90s, when he was producing fantastic and exciting food at the long-gone Dish in Passaic, NJ. He left Dish, and disappeared from New Jersey, for a good amount of time. I figured he'd never return. Recently, he did return to open the awkwardly-named Local Seasonal Kitchen. And once again he's producing fantastic and exciting food. At first bite I knew this dish would be on some sort of “best” list. And whaddayaknow, I was right. Clean clean flavors of spice, meat, and heat. Awwwww, yeah.

The Black Pig
Cleveland, OH

Black pig burger

I'm still thinking about this burger. It remains one of the best burgers that I've had. Anywhere. DB Bistro Moderne, The Spotted Pig, Blue Smoke, Minetta Tavern, J.G. Melon. All of them take a backseat to this burger. Cooked to a juicy medium rare, an appropriate and delicious bun, house-made pickles, great melted cheese. The execution was flawless, and the burger simply outstanding. I hate this picture because it mocks me. It sits there, and mocks me, as I cannot eat it right now.

Chilean Seabass
Paramus, NJ

Chilean sea bass chakra_edited-1

Everything about this dish screams 1990s. The fish itself, the potato wrapped shrimp, the vaguely Asian preparation. But maybe the 90s weren't so bad after all? That potato wrapped shrimp, which I assumed would be a throw-away garnish, was excellent in its own right. Maybe nostalgia plays into it, but this dish is really fun. And visually appealing. Chef Ciszak is doing some very good work at Chakra. You and I should be going there more often than we do.

Ox tongue and tripe
Joyce Chinese Cuisine
River Edge, NJ

Tongue and tripe

A newcomer to the North Jersey Sichuan scene in 2014, and Joyce is bringing the goods. Their version of ox tongue and tripe is a good a version as I've had anywhere, with the added bonus of being slightly better for some reason I cannot explain. A great restaurant overall.   

Fat Gangnam Boy Hero
Kimchi Smoke BBQ
NJ-based Southern and Korean BBQ vendor

Fat gangnam boy2

That Kimchi fella is apparently known for his brisket, but don't let this sandwich slip through your paws. Bulgogi, pickled vegetables, scallions, processed American cheese, BBQ sauce, on a perfect hero roll. This thing is silly-good. Next time, I'll make sure a get a cold beer from neighboring vendor, which would just go so very, very perfectly.

Fish with carrots
Le Relais Des Trois Mas
Collioure, France

Fish at hotel

We had fun listening to the server describe this multi-component dish for 10 minutes, each of which had carrots incorporated some how some way. “Blah blah wis a puree of carrots, blah blah scented wis, ehhh, carrots, the feesh is blah blah wis carrots, a small glass of juice, made wis, ehhhh, carrots.” He wrapped up his explanation in his best possible English, sounding exhausted from saying “carrots” so many times, with “it's just a lot of carrots.” It's a good thing we like carrots. And sichuan peppercorn, which, to our surprise, made its way into one of the components.

The dish was a work of art. The view, sitting at Le Relais Des Trois Mas, overlooking the bay at Collioure, topless sunbathers and all, was glorious. This restaurant was very, very good. And every one of those carrots was perfect. I should also note that the hotel is just lovely as well.

Cassoulet (and ravioli)
Auberge du Vigneron
Cucugnan, France

Cassoulet Auberge du Vigneron ravioli

If you find yourself tooling around the Pyrenees, exploring ancient Cathar castles, and why wouldn't you, you'd do well to stop in the small commune of Cucugnan, nestled in the shadow of Chateau de Queribus. There didn't seem to be a whole lot going on in this tiny, tiny place, but Auberge du Vigneron is well worth a stop. Or even a detour. Especially if treacherous mountain roads lacking safety rails are your thing.

It seems unfair to include two dishes from a single restaurant, especially when I couldn't figure out what made one of them so good, but I will anyway.

Not sure what the sauce on the ravioli was, but it was ethereal. Each of those ravioli was filled with a different meat product, including foie gras IIRC.

As for the cassoulet, well, what can I tell you. It was probably in the top 5 dishes of the year. Filled with various sausages and duck confit, this dish could have, and may have, warmed the stomachs of a Cathar slaughtering army. Hints of genocide never tasted so good.

Merendero de la Mari
Barcelona, Spain


It wasn't the only paella we ate in Catalonia, but it was first, and it confirmed my suspicions that what passes for paella in my part of the word is simply absolute crap. As I said here, “Every bite revealed a little piece of tender seafood or vegetable. Stuff I didn't recognize. I'm having a hard time thinking about this dish at this moment, because it was so outstanding, and I'm so hungry right now, and I know it will be some time until I have anything remotely as good as this. I don't know what else to say other than it was a revelation.”


Barcelona, Spain


Gelonch wasn't the only place where we had seppia that was sliced into pasta-like ribbons during a trip to Barcelona, but it was my favorite. Linguini's got nothing on seppia. If anyone knows where to get a seppia ribbon-maker, or seppia for that matter, do let me know.

Slow roasted salmon
Woodstock, NY

Salmon cucina woodstock_edited-1

I rarely order salmon, because typical Atlantic salmon is largely unexceptional. Wild Pacific salmon in season, of course, is an entirely different beast, and should be ordered whenever it's available. The slow-roasted salmon with corn pudding at Woodstock's Cucina, however, made me rethink everything I thought I knew.

Escape Montclair
Montclair, NJ

Escape scallops

Chef Bryan Gregg has continued to impress the hell out of me in 2014. His commitment to seasonal, pristine ingredients squares nicely with the way I like to eat. One brunch at Escape included three scallops over corn. I believe this dish captured the essence of Escape Montclair. Simple, pure, perfect. A proper brunch, indeed.

Cauliflower ravioli
The Cookery
Dobb's Ferry, NY

The Cookery cauliflower ravioli

The Cookery has really impressed me with some dishes, while others have landed a bit flat. The cauliflower ravioli was one that impressed. Brown butter, of course.


Lion's Head Meatballs
Fu Restaurant
Fairfield, NJ

Lions head meatballs

A new Shanghainese restaurant in New Jersey, brought to you by the folks who run the excellent Chengdu 23 in Wayne. Maybe it was due to the fact taht I hadn't had this dish in close to 6 years, but diving into the Lion's Head meatballs were like nuzzling into the soft bosom of an old lover. Or something like that.

Stockade Tavern
Kingston, NY

Stockade kingston cocktail4

Stockade Tavern is a world-class cocktail bar run by a super nice husband and wife team. Every cocktail I had during various visits was interesting, mostly new-to-me, and eye-opening. There's a lot of craftsmanship here. No messing about. They've got ingredients that I've not so much as heard of, which is not easy to pull off. This is a great experience, and not to be missed. I cannot envision a time when I'll be near Kingston and not make time to spend an hour or two at Stockade Tavern.

Park West Tavern
Ridgewood, NJ

Andrew lasers
80s cheesy laser treatment courtesy of Duong L.

Andrew at Park West Tavern continues to grow and push the envelope with his cocktails. I rarely order anything specific here, and given my status as a semi-regular irregular, he generally has time to surprise me.  Just recently I had a new concoction. My comment after the first few sips was the somewhat absurd “this tastes like Christmas.” "That's what I was going for," he replied. Impressive.

Casa Leon
Collioure, France

Casa leon collioure anchovies

Collioure is known for anchovies. It has been argued that the world's best anchovies come from the waters here. Who am I to argue? I didn't even think I liked anchovies until eating them during almost every meal during a visit to this colorful, beautiful coastal town in the south of France. Before I left, I was a convert. Anchovies are magical.

Casa Leon is a lovely little restaurant serving pristine seafood, local wine, and, thankfully, anchovies. This plate of anchovies stood out, and went quite well with the bottle of Collioure rosé. Seek out Collioure AOC wines. You may be quite pleased.

Los Toreros
Barcelona, Spain

Los Toreros clams

Clams aren't generally my thing, but the big bowl of sweet, tender, briny clams at Los Tereros in Barcelona filled me with joy, and reinforced my understanding of simple Catalan cooking. Los Toreros is a quaint, not-very-touristy Barcelona gem.

Northern Style larb
Lotus of Siam
Las Vegas, NV

Lotus of siam northern larb
This horrible photo hurts my eyes. Sorry.

I haven't missed an opporunity to visit Lotus of Siam since my first visit in 2002 or so. When we returned this year, we were surprised to see the place has more than doubled in size. And it is more popular than ever. So much for a little hidden secret.

The selection of German wines remains impressive (and those wines go perfectly with the spicy Thai food), and the Northern-style larb remains delicious. And powerful. This dish is much different than the typical larb you'll find on most Thai menus. It's a deep, dark, rich, masculine affair, probably made with some liver and blood, and doesn't include the acidic bit that its cousin does. And boy oh boy, is it spicy. If you go to Lotus of Siam, consider their separate Northern-style menu, which is filled with rare and exciting treats.

House-cured pork with leeks
Lan Sheng
Wallington, NJ

Lan sheng smoked pork

A version of this dish can be found at most Sichuan restaurants, but I recall really, really enjoying the dish at Lan Sheng. Slightly smoky, a bit salty, pure and porky. Lan Sheng's liquor license will likely keep me from ever returning, but if I do, I'll order this dish again.

Fried chicken
Peck Peck Chicken
Teaneck, NJ

Peck peck chicken1_edited-1

2014 marked the start of a more serious exploration of Korean food at the t:e organization. While one might foolishly dismiss fried chicken wings as being nothing more than a snack, Korean fried chicken is certainly one of Korea's greatest gifts to our collective food culture. Move over, southern states.

Crab cake
Paramus, NJ

Chakra crabcake

Two dishes on this list from Chakra, a restaurant to which I really haven't given much consideration over the years? I'm more surprised than you. There's not denying the crab cake at Chakra is the tops.  The dish is perfect, right down to the lightly dressed snow pea shoots. There's a bit too much vodka on their cocktail menu, though.

Pasta with clams
Piermont, NY

Confetti clams linguini

It's not easy finding a decent plate of pasta with clams in the North Jersey area. It's really not. All of those Italian-American restaurants really don't do a very good job.  Most versions suffer from any number of flaws. But not the dish at Confetti. It should be the standard to which all other restaurants aspire. Beautifully and functionally plated, as well.

House-made sausage
Mill House Brewing Company
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mill house sausage

As I've noted, several times, Mill House Brewing Company has really impressed me. Elevated pub grub, great cocktails, excellent staff, a beautiful room. Every town needs a Mill House Brewing Company.  The house-made sausage made an appearance on my plate on our most recent visit. Juicy, flavorful, cooked just north of that's-too-raw, and a great version of bangers and mash.

Breakfast taco
Destino II Cart Tacos at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market
Rhinebeck, NY

Destino taco

On a whim and just because, I ordered a breakfast taco from Destino II during a quick run-through of the Rhinebeck farmers' market. And I'm glad I did. Was this a perfect breakfast taco? I don't have much experience with breakfast tacos, but I'd venture to say “yes, this was a perfect breakfast taco.” Fluffy eggs, ground chorizo, fresh corn tortillas, hot sauce, salsa. What's not to LOVE.


So there you have it. I'm sorry I put you through that. I hope this helps someone, somewhere, at some point.

tommy:eats is a freelance food writer, photographer and curmudgeon, based in North Jersey. When not making lists he can usually be found putting together slide shows of his trips.

Meson Asador Castell 4: Figueres, Spain

Meson asador exterior

Leaving Barcelona was not preferable. We could have stayed there until we ran out of money or died (I'm guessing the money would go first). What a wonderful city. But the next part of our trip was directly ahead of us, and calling. We checked out of the hotel, grabbed a cab, loaded up our bags, and went off to the Hertz office to pick up a rental car.

Our destination was France. Collioure, to be precise. We drove up the coast of Spain for as long as it made sense (a very leisurely drive this is), and then got on the highway, which led us to Figueres for lunch. Figueres is probably best known for the Salvador Dalí Museum. It's a tiny little town, just south of the French/Spanish border. Some research lead us to Meson Asador Castell 4, which seemed like a fine place for a meal.

They had a good crowd going, many of whom appeared to be locals, eating tapas and sipping wine at the bar. We grabbed a table and tried to decipher the menu. It certainly wasn't in English.  But we were getting pretty good at the menu thing by this point.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part XI: El Rincon del Cava: inexpensive tapas

Exterior el rincon del cava

El Rincon Del Cava may not be among the best tapas places in Barcelona, but I have to think it's among the cheapest.

We spent the morning walking up to Olympic Park, site of the 1992 Olympics. It's a good little hike to get up there. There's not a whole lot going on once you do get up there, but it was somewhat interesting and offers a great view of the city. More importantly, all of that walking contributed to a good appetite. Down the hill we went in search of El Rincon Del Cava.

Barcelona olympic park1 Barcelona olympic park2
Barcelona olympic park2
Barcelona olympic park2

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Eating in Barcelona: Part X: Rias de Galicia

Rias de galicia exterior

I did promise the missus that I wouldn't subject her to any more marathon tasting menus after the last one, just as I did the one before that. And I lied.

Rias de Galicia specializes in seafood and the cooking of Galicia--that area of northwest Spain that I'd love to visit at some point. It's also a very highly regarded restaurant, possibly one of Ferran Adria's favorites, and run by a couple of his partners. To not indulge in the tasting menu seemed foolish. Yet when we were done with the meal, the missus advised that we should have just ordered the regular stuff. We'll probably never know who was right. For my part, I had an outrageously good meal, very good service, and wonderful wines.



When I saw the tweezers being placed on the table, I thought "uh boy, an overly precious meal is ahead of us." To some extent that was the case. But the food was all grounded in top-notch high-quality seafood, and not futzed with too much. Here is the run-down of this exceptional meal, with some brief thoughts.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part IX: Gaudi, BO and castellers


This lady tried to pin a flower on my chest. I mean she poked me with the damned thing. This picture, mind you, isn't of her initial approach. This is after she poked me, and after I had walked past her. This is her friggin' chasing me with the deadly flower. It's really not a solid business model if you ask me.

"That's no way to start a day," I thought. Thankfully there was a very pleasant day ahead. A largely accidental one that I couldn't have planned better.

Bus stop

It was Sunday, and very few people were around, aside from the chest stabbing gypsies. We were well away from Las Rambla and meandering through fascinating little sections of Barcelona on our way to Park Guell, Antoni Gaudi's silly garden and park. The walk was well over an hour, and took us to parts of Barcelona we didn't know existed. Gràcia, for example. It's a very different world in the outlying districts of Barcelona. These were once towns in their own right, but were eventually sucked up by the expanding city. I cannot speak with much authority on this, but I suspect many have retained their own unique identity, which makes these towns-within-a-city great places to visit.

Park guell1

We arrived at Park Guell and found out that you have to buy tickets. In advance. It's nuts. Here I thought we'd be walking through a park filled with Gaudi's Willy Wonka-esque art and spirit. But that wasn't meant to be. We did find out that you can walk through much of the park without a ticket. I really don't know what we missed, but we had a nice time walking around the free section. The walk takes you up and up and up, exposing grander views of the city at every turn. Lots of cactuses and various flora to take in. And, of course, you'll have a chance to see some of his wacky creations.

Park Guell2,jpg
Park Guell2,jpg

Our walk through Park Guell terminated at the opposite side of the hill, away from the entrance. It just sort of plops you out onto a street. I really had no idea where we were, but I knew the walk back to Gràcia would be long, but downhill. Away we went, off to find a suitable place for lunch.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part VIII: Los Toreros

Los Toreros exterior1

After a half day of walking and eating Barcelona, the rooftop bar at Hotel 1898 was feeling quite comfortable in the mid-afternoon sun. There were times when watching the seagulls and staring off to the sea and mountains while sipping vermouth seemed like the best possible use of our time. Even Las Ramblas appeared pleasant and quiet from this perch, with the line of tree tops being the only hint of the mass of tourists below.

1898 rooftopThe trees of Las Ramblas heading toward the sea

Venturing too far afield for dinner wasn't in the cards on this night. Luckily we found a little place called Los Toreros during some googling. Even more luckily was the restaurant is located directly behind Hotel 1898, in a little alley, tucked away, and seemed to be relatively tourist-free.

Los Toreros interior2

Los Toreros, which I believe means bullfighter, is a cheery, brightly yet warmly lit, energetic little place. The menu is extensive, with plenty of tapas. It felt, to us, very authentically "Spanish," with a little whimsy thrown in, what with all of the pictures of bullfighters on the walls. The most old-school place that we visited to that point. (It will be noted that the t:e organization does not support bullfighting or the killing, torturing, or taunting of anything for sport. Well, OK, I do enjoy taunting people who have that fabulous combination of ignorance and arrogance and insist on proving it at every turn.)

We did not screw around and got right to the food. Which is what I'll do right now. But first, sangria.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part VII: Los Cachitos

Los Cachitos

We woke up at the crack of 8 am looking forward to a day without any reservations, or plans of any sort for that matter.

It was a glorious morning and we decided to go check out Gaudi's Sagrada Família, a spell-binding basílica which Gaudi started 30 years before his death. At the time of his death, the thing was a quarter complete. That was almost 90 years ago, and they are still working on it, with a scheduled completion date of 2026. A full 100 years after the man's death. Scope creep? Or maybe a lot of siestas.

Sagrada Familia

A partially-completed church couldn't possibly draw big crowds, especially so early in the morning, we figured as we moseyed on over. Errr, the thousands of people waiting in line to get in obviously knew differently. Bus loads of people. I have never seen a line this long. I think it went around the block twice. And this is a large block.

Sagrada Familia2

I'm not one to wait in lines, so we walked around the block, taking in its curious beauty, and then got the hell out of there, looking for the next thing to stare at. But first I had to buy something for that sunburn that I had foolishly acquired the first afternoon of the trip on the rooftop of Hotel 1898. It was a burn like I've never had before. My skin was itchy and stingy and felt like it was crawling off of my body. I have quite a bit of skin I should add.

FarmaciaThat nice gentleman is looking this American's belly, just barely hiding his shock and disgust.

We stopped at a Farmacia, a place where I assumed they'd speak English and I'd be able to simply ask for the remedy. No such luck. I resorted to picking up my shirt, pointing at my red and sizable belly, and making what in hindsight were baboon-like gestures to indicate itching. The missus found this exchange very, very humorous. The lady behind the counter probably not quite as much. I already had a bottle of aloe from the shelf, but was advised by a nice gentleman who happened to be there that "it's for teeth." For TEETH!?!  Ack. I was given a proper bottle of aloe for skin and was advised that it was 27 euro. "Whaaaatt??!" was my reply. The lady suddenly spoke very clear English and said "it's very good." Well bloody hell I should hope so.



We saw some kids playing soccer, and spent some time taking pictures and relaxing in the sun. The aloe was working already. It was in fact, apparently, very good.

Ciutadella park

Then we stumbled upon Ciutadella Park, which is certainly worth a visit. We spent some time at the Casada Fountain, not knowing a damned thing about it or what we were walking on/looking at. Still don't. That's OK.

With hunger setting in, we started looking for a place to eat in the Barri Gòtic . Nothing was really jumping out at us, aside from a nice little bar that had vermouth. We had vermouth.

Aimlessly making our way back to La Rambla, a street on which I advise spending as little time as possible, we ran into one of the many outposts of Enrique Tomas, a sort of charcuterie chain. With cones of pig for your snacking pleasure. And snack I did. Jamón ibérico in a cone. Whaddacountry.

Enrique tomas

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Eating in Barcelona: Part VI: Gelonch

Gelonch interior1

It wasn't my intention to eat many upscale meals in Barcelona. It certainly wasn't my intention to eat two upscale meals on the same day. But, that's how the reservations panned out on this particular Friday.

After a wonderful lunch at Hisop, we spent the afternoon aimlessly wandering the city, walking it off. There's no better past time. We did a fly-by on Gelonch, the restaurant to which we'd be going for dinner, and took a look at the menu. The missus was not pleased to be staring at another tasting menu, but at least they offered two, one of which seemed to include a reasonable number of courses. We are not looking for any marathon meals while on vacation. However, eating the food of a chef who worked under Ferran Adrià was certainly appealing, multiple courses be damned.

This is a small, chef-run restaurant. There is an upstairs with seating, and that area is equally as small as the one on the first floor, which was probably 4 or 5 tables.

The shorter tasting menu consisted of ten courses, contrasted with the larger sixteen course menu. I've read that there's a Peruvian or Japanese influence at Gelonch, but I didn't sense this. It was just very good, interesting food.

Gelonch kitchen door

Chef Gelonch does his thing in what is no doubt a tiny kitchen, which is hidden behind a door. When the food is ready, he opens a little hatch in that door, and places the dishes on the wee shelf for the server to pick up. Every time he dinged his bell and opened up the little door, he'd kind of look out. Perhaps he was taken with the missus. Either way it turned into a game with the missus trying to get his picture when he'd poke his face in the open hatch. The missus finally caught him.

Unfortunately this meal was about 100 meals ago at this point, and I didn't bother taking notes. I do recall a few specifics, and will try to present something at least slightly meaningful here.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part V: Hisop for lunch and Mercat Del Ninot


A few days before leaving for Barcelona, I started stressing that we didn't secure reservations at some of the tougher places to get into. After all, Spain is considered by many to be the gastronomic center of the universe, so it would be a shame to eat tapas the whole trip (not really). We don't typically look for fine dining when traveling, but certainly wanted to experience a few meals from chefs serving modern Catalan cuisine.

I was able to snag a lunch reservation at Hisop, a Michelin-starred restaurant that seemed to fit the bill.

As usual, we were the first people to show up to the restaurant. I wasn't even sure if it was open, or if it was a restaurant. The interior is shockingly minimalistic. Clean lines and very modern. Stark whites and light wood tones. And boy was it quiet. I started regretting booking a restaurant for lunch that was probably more suited to evening dining (considering the price-point and ambition of the menu), but any concern melted away with the wonderful service and excellent food.

Carles andreu parellada

I asked for some help with the wine choice, hoping to get something local. With some guidance we opted for a bottle of Carles Andreu Parellada. Parellada is one of the varieties used to make Cava. This producer is in Catalonia, not far from Barcelona. It had a bit of oak, and lots of acid. A great match for the seafood that was coming down the pipeline.

Hisop amuse octopus

A few amuses were presented, including this little piece of octopus in what I believe was described as “sea water.” It did, in fact, taste like the sea, but with a smoky element. The essence of the ocean, smoked. It was intoxicating The bread and olive, also, were excellent.

Hisop seppia

As I'm reviewing the pictures I see that we had five dishes, which is one more than we would have ordered, so I think this seppia was another amuse, rather than a course. Seppia (cuttlefish) with some sort of mayo-type sauce. It was the first seppia of the trip, and I found myself ordering it pretty much at every meal. This first cuttlefish dish made a positive impression on me.

Off to a good start.

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Eating in Barcelona: Part IV: Avesta for absinthe and Hisop for lunch

Avesta bar

After that wonderful paella at Merendero de la Mari, we started wandering through the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic), still very excited to be in day one of our visit to Barcelona. The Gothic Quarter reminded us very much of Bairro Alto in Lisbon. Stumbling onto a tiny bar, curiously playing American music from the 70s on the sound system, just as we did in Lisbon one night, reinforced that feeling.

The oddly small door to the oddly small bar called Avesta caught our eye. Well, factually, the sign out front that included the word "absinthe" caught my eye. In we went.

There was a bartender, and a single patron, watching some sort of sporting event on the TV. I didn't concern myself with the game, but inquired on the absinthe directly. I don't know much about absinthe, other than I drink it quite often in cocktails. I was advised that they carry several Spanish absinthes, and when in Rome...

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