Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Look of Love: El Palacete Rodríguez Quegles

The 25th Canarian Jazz Festival came to an end on 24th July, stretching over more than 2 weeks, entertaining thousands throughout the archipelago, bringing jazz, in its widest sense, to the masses. 25 years! I vaguely remember its early humble beginnings and I couldn't believe that it's been around for two and a half decades already.

The Jazz Festival overlaps with the 20th edition of the month-long TEMUDAS, which again, brings various art forms onto the streets of Las Palmas. The TE stands for teatro (theatre), the MU for música (music) and the DAS for danza (dance). TEMUDAS can also be seen as a play on words; te mudas means you move, and the festival basically moves from street to street, square to square, over the Vegueta district.

It's heartening to see the growth of important cultural and sporting events in the Canaries over the years, attempting to show the world that this archipelago has more to offer than just "cheap" beach holidays. Its Music Festival is held every winter, the next edition being the 33rd. Yes, the 33rd!

The 16th Film Festival was held last March and the Opera Festival will be entering its 50th edition in 2017.
Then, on the sporting front, there's the Marathon, the Transgrancanaria ultra trail, the Iron Man, etc.

Anyway, the purpose of this post wasn't really to talk about these events but rather to share a few photos I took and to expose this gem, hidden behind Triana.

One of my favourite buildings in Las Palmas (and it's many other people's fave too) is El Palacete Rodríguez Quegles. A gorgeous building such as this has to have a gorgeous story to go with it, and this one certainly has.

There was this señor, affluent and influential, no doubt, named Juan Rodríguez Quegles. He fell in love with a lady, María Teresa González Díaz. So, his proposal to her was no beating about the bush: "If you marry me, I'll build you the most beautiful house on this island".

An offer she found difficult to refuse so she took him up on it. And he wasn't lying.

He contracted a prominent architect from Madrid, Mariano Belmás to fulfil his promise. Building work started in 1900. The story then becomes a bit hazy. It isn't clear how much work Belmás did but he didn't finish the work; it was Fernando Navarro y Navarro who did but exactly when the building was completed is unknown.

Through the years, however, love alone wasn't enough to maintain a building of this stature. The cost was too great and its inheritors couldn't keep it going. The Ayuntamiento of Las Palmas acquired it in 1972.

The Conservatorio Superior de Música used the building for about 16 years but eventually found that the premises were too big for the number of students they had.

Since then, several organizations have had the fortune to use El Palacete (Little Palace) and fairly recently, it received a facelift, and took on a fresh coat of paint. The original colour of the exterior walls is unknown although it had been green for many years. Now, it's blue, and against the blue skies of Las Palmas, I think it's perfect. The evergreen flame trees with its bright red flowers provide a graceful contrast.

The fruit of love

From 28th May to 24th July, the organization occupying this mansion had been Heineken, who called it The House, and they used it to hold various cultural activities where access to them was by invitation only.

Their penultimate event before their tenure expired was a short concert as part of the 25th Canarian Jazz Festival mentioned right at the beginning of this post. The performing band was Patax. Led by master percussionist Jorge Pérez, they play a blend of jazz fused with funk, Afrocuban, flamenco, folk and whatever else that takes their fancy. If you've never heard of them, I'd recommend that you looked them up.

I was thrilled when I managed to conjure up a couple of last-minute invites and dragged Matthew Hirtes, also known as Mr Gran Canaria Local, along with me. On the early evening of Friday 22nd July, a stripped-down quartet, comprising of Jorge Pérez, Alana Sinkëy, Carlos Sánchez and Daniel García, treated us to an "unplugged" version of Patax. A fuller band would appear later that night at Plaza Santa Ana.

Patax, unplugged

Once in a while, I come up with a photograph (of mine) that I really like. This doesn't happen often but when it does, I like to share it with the world. Of course, not everyone may agree with me. When I mentioned at the beginning that the purpose of this post was to share some photos, the following are what I was referring to. The gentle, demure, sultry Alana Sinkëy simply lit up my camera. Even though I had to crop a lot to get what I had in mind, I am chuffed to have had the opportunity to capture these few seconds of her:

Alana Sinkëy

I hope you like them as much as I do!

Villegas, Vicente. "EL PALACETE RODRÍGUEZ QUEGLES." ULPGC, 2012. Web
Also thanks to Matthew Hirtes for his assistance in the research.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

In search of excellence: Hito, a restaurant review

Sunomono and green beans
Round about the time of the last Spanish economic boom, Las Palmas witnessed a proliferation of Japanese restaurants. Japanese cuisine had become trendy. A few years behind the rest of Europe, perhaps, but, it's never too late.

Prior to that, there was only one,  a small, nondescript, more-a-café-than-a-restaurant type of place in one of the seediest part of town. But, yes, with an authentic ageing Japanese chef. The food was good, but the place was known only to a privileged, and dare I say bold, few. For many years, his wish was to retire and for his son to take over but, unfortunately, his son wanted no part of it. So, instead, he groomed one of his staff, an authentic Canarian. The place still exists, the area no longer as seedy as it had been.

This leads to the question: can we have genuine Japanese cuisine without a genuine Japanese chef? Can we experience its grace, its style, its excellence?

Unbeknown to most of local residents, there is not one Japanese restaurant with a Japanese chef; hell, probably not even one Japanese worker. Not as far as I know. The majority are staffed with Chinese staff, owned by Chinese immigrants.

Yet, the restaurants prove to be popular. So, perhaps, yes, we don't need Japanese chefs to prepare Japanese food, just as we don't need a French chef to churn out French cuisine [in fact, there was an excellent French restaurant in Las Palmas with an English chef, but, sadly, it no longer exists].

Later, much later, along came another authentic Canarian, with the look of a Canarian wrestler - and the luchadores canarios do have similarities with their Japanese counterparts - who married a Japanese lady, and who went to Japan and trained to be a sushi chef. Dani was his name. He and his wife opened their own place, established a reputation, moved to another location, and carried on devoting his life to the art of sushi.

Until, one sudden day, he left our presence. RIP Dani.

Meanwhile, a roving beach bum set out of his home in Johannesburg, searching for himself. From the west to the east, he covered such ground as Thailand, California, Spain and Greece, to name but a few. Somewhere along the way, he discovered that his interest and talent lie in the world of catering, and started honing his skills under numerous chefs, eventually, focusing on Japanese cuisine.

To cut a long story short, Oliver met his partner, Olga, in Greece, and they decided to invest all they had in a restaurant of their own. The spot they chose was the spot left by the departed Dani. They brought with them, Javier, a sushi chef who trained under a Japanese master in Mallorca.

So, again, not a Japanese; no, not even an Oriental in sight. Olga hailed from the Czech Republic, Javier from Ecuador, and the waitress is Italian. Mamma mia! What can we expect? What should we expect?

Just like the greatest samurai, two strokes is all it takes. "Hito", which comprises just two simple yet elegant strokes, means man, people, mankind, character. Look at the symbol and you may see two legs, a roof, or perhaps something else. Walk through the doors of Hito and you'll find yourself in a smallish, clean, 35-seater functional dining room, and most likely, looking into the eyes of the sushi chef, Javier. No tatami rooms in sight, but space is at a premium around here.

Japanese in concept, Hito goes beyond the popular dishes, inventing some of its own, and not afraid of introducing non-Japanese recipes, such as Pad Thai, but, always aiming for the Japanese standards of style and quality. The fusion of the culture mix of the staff spills onto the hospitality, the art and the quality.

We were welcomed to open up our appetite, courtesy of the house, with some hors d’oeuvre, which included the famed Japanese cucumber salad, sunomono, a green bean salad, and another dish which I can't quite recall. The slight tangy taste of the sunomono was just what we needed to tame the heat in our bodies. October in Las Palmas is summer, weather wise. The seeds of the beans were crunchy and flavourful, but getting them out of their pods were rather awkward with a pair of chopsticks.

From the cold hors d'oeuvre, we then went on to the hot, the steamy, sexy gyozas, with skins that slip onto the back of your mouth effortlessly. I am not normally a fan of gyozas, but these got the thumbs up from me.

The tempura came piled up to look like Mount Fuji but tasting far better, I bet. Fluffy, crispy and not too greasy, it didn't take too long for the mountain to vanish.

I couldn't leave without trying the Pad Thai, naturally. I'm one of those die-hard addicts and ever since the only Thai restaurant known to have existed here closed (the crisis hit the service industry extremely hard), I haven't had any. Of course, I didn't expect to eat a Made-in-Thailand kind of Pad Thai, but I was willing to settle for something even remotely close. Its appearance was "cleaner", more Jap than Thai, and even though it was "watered down" to suit Canarian taste buds, it still carried the distinct flavour those familiar with this dish would recognise.

The limes weren't Thai limes, of course, and I made the mistake of squeezing one whole wedge. Caribbean limes are bigger and juicier than Asian ones and I have reason to believe that these are of the former breed. Also, I would have liked it to be spicier; the next time I'll have to remember to tell Oliver.

After the memorable Pad Thai, we went back to the cold: how could we eat in a Japanese restaurant without sampling the sushi, right?

The tuna and salmon we had were as fresh as though they'd come from the sea 100 metres away, but the rice was a bit plain for my taste. I'm used to a slightly more vinegared version. The makis were just as lovely and one, especially, caught us by surprise. These had something warm inside: a piece of fried prawn, I believe. Brilliant!

To end the meal, we had fried ice cream (tempura de helado) with pineapple sauce. The first time I heard of fried ice cream was in London and I thought my leg was being pulled. Then, years later, I had my first taste of it in Bangkok and I was wowed. The sensations of hot and cold at the same time was exotic, but the pineapple sauce was too sickly sweet for my liking. I'd ditch that. Personally, I'd decorate it with something darker to give it more contrast, something like miel de Palma, for example. It is similar to what is locally available in many parts of Asia under different names such as nam tan pip or gula jawa. So, if anything, its exoticism value is far greater than that of the pineapple.

Hito may not have the presence of a Japanese person, but it does not lack his spirit. Innovative and arty, it seeks to introduce the exquisiteness and marvel of Japanese cuisine to the general public, to the common 人. I'm looking forward to trying some of the other temptations offered in their menu, which you can see here.

Type of restaurant: Japanese, fusion
Verdict: Recommended!
Average cost: €20-30 per person
Telephone: 928 05 82 89