Eating in Barcelona

Landlocked Madrid is a tough sell in the summertime, especially when Barcelona, located on the sun-kissed Mediterranean, is only a two-and-a-half hour bullet train ride away. The city underwent a major metamorphosis/upgrade after hosting the Olympics in 1992, and it shows: stunning, cutting-edge architecture, gondolas, trams linking the waterfront to the hills, clean, efficient subways and wide, majestic avenues are just a few of the obvious signs. The food is also without peer in Spain. Located in the fiercely independent region of Catalonia, not unlike the Québecois in Canada, it is, in some ways, it’s very own country. Everything here – from ATMs to mom-and-pop restaurants and museums – lists things in English, Spanish, Catalan and sometimes French. The food culture is more diverse – and intense – as well. Sure, they have many of the same tapas, but canned seafood is as popular as fresh, and the sardines, anchovies and mussels I had throughout the week would put many American preserved fish to shame. Without a doubt, the Boqueria Market was the highlight of the entire trip for me, with its riotous fish mongers and bars and funky food stands, all tempting you to just stop over for a bite or two.

Boqueria Market

Lunch our first day was a knockout. Mont Bar is a tiny space, on a corner next to the University of Barcelona, with more tables outside on the sidewalk than inside. There’s a small picture on the wall showing Ferran Adrià shaking hands with the chef. I didn’t know if it was a bar with snacks, or an ambitious restaurant hiding behind a bar that proudly displayed its booze. It’s a little of both, actually. Starting off with our choice of seafood tins (I’ll take an anchovy, a sardine, a mussel and a sea urchin…) we then moved into some of the prepared items, each of which showed a deft hand in the kitchen.

Pan con tomate and sardines at Mont Bar.

The region’s most famous dish, consumed by everyone (and it must be, since the McDonald’s at the airport sells it) is pan con tomate (tomato schmeared on bread, drizzled with olive oil). But here, it arrived with pristine, oil-slicked sardines; then came one of the fluffiest croquetas we’ve ever had – tiny bits of aged jamón embedded into ultra-rich béchamel (another Catalan specialty, courtesy of its proximity to France) hidden beneath a crispy layer of fried breadcrumbs; there was raw ruby head-on shrimp and for our final course, smoked tuna tartare with splotches of pine nut emulsion.  This was bar cooking unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it’s must-visit eating if you find yourself in Barcelona.

The next day, we took the bullet train 40 minutes north to Girona, the town where El Cellar de Can Roca has been located the past three decades. Run by the three Roca brothers, the restaurant recently garnered the #1 spot on The World’s 50 Best List (of which I serve as a regional Academy Chair, overseeing 35 voters in the North America: Central Region). You now need to make reservations about 10 – 11 months in advance, but I managed to snag a lunch reservation there through a few friends, and while I posted some Instagram photos, I was sadly disappointed with the overall experience, probably because I had the highest expectations going in. Considering Alinea dropped to #26 this year (a travesty, frankly), I was even more stunned. Service was, not surprisingly, excellent. The execution and plating and cooking temps were flawless and the wine list, daunting. But there were few life-changing delights – save for the pre-meal snacks and the petit fours cart at the end – and I doubt I’ll remember any of the courses – mackerel, goose, pork belly – a week from now.

Tortilla española, cod croquetas, garlic shrimp at Bar Bas

Bar Bas, back in Barcelona, was more my speed: sitting at the long, narrow bar, facing the chefs, choosing my boquerones (oil-soaked anchovies), sardines, bacalao (cod) fritters and tartare, I was reminded of what I love so much about this country (which doesn’t really start eating dinner until 10 p.m.): people here love to eat, and not just one type of food. They want it all – canned seafood (conserva), fried croquetas, puffy soft tortilla española (a loose omelet embedded with thinly-sliced potatoes), grilled shishito peppers kissed with sea salt, garlicky shrimp cooked in earthenware cazuelas. What to drink with so much of this summer fare? Vermouth on tap, of course, served over ice with a bit of sweetened lemon or lime juice and an orange slice.

I also loved how every now and then, a rich, unctuous sauce would appear, like aji oli (think mayo without the eggs). Garlic, salt and oil are pounded together until they form a creamy, thickish sauce, not unlike mayo, I found myself asking for it with tortillas (see pic above), as well as dipping my potato chips into it (more on those chips in a bit). So much of Spanish culture is about interaction as well. Whether you’re watching your meal prepared for you, pointing out which of the tapas you want from the refrigerated case or arguing with the cook or bartender about which football team is superior (Real Madrid or FC Barcelona), there is a give-and-take, a transparency and a conversation that has to happen in order to eat here. At Bar Bas, I was asked how runny I like my tortilla and if I wanted a spicy Brava sauce on it (well, of course).

The counter at Bar Bas.

Yet another must-visit market is Santa Caterina. Located in an old convent, the market is hard to miss, with its brightly-colored roof that can be seen from a full block away. Most of the vendors on the interior are fine if you’re going to be cooking at your apartment that night. There is fresh fish aplenty, truckloads of beef, ham and cheese.

Santa Caterina Market

Santa Caterina Market

But you can also try samples of olives with anchovies for a mere euro, and there are several snacking opportunities hidden deep within. If you simply want to have lunch, most of the dining options are scattered along the perimeter, with waiter service or counters to sit at. True, there are loads of tourists here, but there are also plenty of locals, some of whom we chatted up for suggestions on where else to explore in the city.

A quick word on the beach: you should make time for it. Unlike Los Angeles, it doesn’t require a major time commitment like schlepping to Santa Monica for the day. Within 10 minutes of the tourist action, you’re right in the middle of Barceloneta Beach. There are several options for eating and drinking along the beach – entrepreneurs have set up restaurants in old shipping containers. But beware: it’s mostly crap. Our lunch at La Guingueta was a total joke, and an $80 one at that. Stick to beers and vermouth out there, and don’t expect more than a simple sandwich or can of preserved seafood to get you by. DO rent a bike and travel up the coast as much as you can, to take in the stunning architecture and views of the Mediterranean.

Bodega 1900

By far, our best meal in Barcelona – maybe the entire trip – was at Bodega 1900. Owned by the Adrià brothers, Ferran and Albert, and located across the street from their other restaurant, the whimsical Tickets (where I tried, but couldn’t get a reso), this is a restaurant I could easily see myself coming back to two nights in a row. Our server, Raquel, seamlessly shifted between Catalan and English, translating, guiding and gauging our adventure level. “You like sardines?” she asked, puzzled that the Americans before her were so game for anything. “I will bring you some. They are made just for us by the processor in Galicia.” And on it went, for some eight or nine dishes; I lost count. She would get our permission to order a few things – a croqueta, the famous olive oil suspended in gelatin, some smoked fish, a squid “hot dog” with aji oli and kimchi sauce – it didn’t matter. Everything was delicious and presented with such great care; you could tell each of the ingredients was meticulously sourced and then left to stand on their own; extra doctoring not necessary.

Sardines from Galicia, at Bodega 1900.

 

Jamón croquetas at Bodega 1900.

 

Smoked salmon on toast, with a drizzle of black truffle honey and dollops of Greek yogurt at Bodega 1900.

On our final night, at the behest of a colleague of mine, we visited Monvínic. Most of the bars and restaurants in Barcelona tend to focus more on beers, vermouths and sangria. There are wine lists, of course, but few restaurants seem to take their wine programs as seriously as Monvínic. Isabel Brunet, the friendly GM, hails from France, but has lived in Barcelona for years, and has found her calling. Each of the servers is a sommelier, and is tasked with steering, guiding and assisting diners with their massive list, presented on iPads. I surprised our server/somm by asking about a Txakolina, one of my favorite whites from Spain, and two minutes later we were drinking a 2009 that matched extremely well with our first course: ruby red beefsteak tomatoes showered in local strawberries and greens.

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We were pleasantly surprised with the menu, which was constructed more from whatever the local farmers were bringing in, rather than hewing to more traditional tapas construction. A silky smooth gazpacho arrived with a dynamic, rainbow color, veggie-topped flatbread, that managed to fit the warm evening as well as anything I’ve had at Lula in Chicago in the middle of summer.

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If you really want to see all of the blow-by-blow eating from this trip, you should just check out my Instagram feed. Better yet, book a flight. I know I’m already trying to figure out how I’m going to make that happen next year.

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