This week the Blacksongs, Miss H and Mr. D, were in town, and that always means a wild Pac-Man eat-the-dots tour through wherever you are. Ordinarily this is done out of sheer spirit–or simply p’a probar, our motto adopted during a 2009 Pac-Man tour of Rio de Janeiro–but this year Miss H was doing research for a food and culture-focused 2016 study abroad she’s organizing for her college (why do people other than me always come up with the best ideas????). I went along in the sheer spirit of intellectual dialogue, of course.
So, for those friends who always ask me for suggestions on their way to Barcelona, here are some of the dots we gobbled on the five-day gastrotour, plus a few digressive recommendations, beginning with old favorites de toda la vida (and I guess this replaces that old email that’s been circulating for years):
– Senyor Parellada. You could have Old Catalan cuisine at the legendary Set Portes, and that’s a good choice too (especially their obligatory arròs negre, rice in cuttlefish ink!). In fact, the owners of both restaurants come from the same venerable family of restaurateurs, about whose history, dating back to the 1771 establishment of the Fonda Europa in the town of Granollers, you can find out here (in Catalan). At SP, try the cannelloni (a surprising Catalan specialty) or, if you’re an adventurous meat lover, the cap i pota, a stew of veal “snout and trotter.” And if you decide you just love the Parelladas (as I do), head also to Semproniana, a more modern twist on local cuisine by one of the family’s women (intended by the father to grow up to be a client–the kitchen being a man’s place?).
– If you want a paella, you’re really in the wrong town: head to Valencia. While foreigners often think of this rice dish as quintessentially and universally Spanish, traditional Catalan cuisine is something else (generally something brownish that looks nowhere as delicious as it is). This does not mean good paella is not to be had in Barcelona, and if you’re going for it, best to do it in the proper setting: seaside. There are many xiringuitos (“beach shack” bars/restaurants) along Nova Icària and Bogatell beaches, but in my opinion Xiringuito Escribà, which was established the year Barcelona “came of age” (Olympic ’92) is where it’s at.
Their paellas are fantastic, but for more distinctly local variations, you should try (again) the arròs negre, or the fideuà, pictured below. And don’t forget to start with fried clams (you’re in Spain: eat fried things for chrissake) and that exquisite crackly bread topped with jamón ibérico. The owner also comes from an old family of restaurateurs, in this case the Escribàs, excellent pastry chefs for generations. Which means this xiringuito is also set apart from others by its scrumptious desserts.
After the huge lunch you can go for a dip at the beach right in front, but only if you’re a foreigner. Spaniards (including Catalans!) who swim after lunch regularly die from something they call corte de digestión, one of those malaises so specifically local that you can’t even link to an article on it in English. It is, however, lethal. I personally am immune to it (having been born outside the peninsula) but then again I never believed in such a thing as Barcelona beaches, created in 1992 out of gross industrial waterfront (agree to disagree: they believe in both death-causing digestion cuts and having a beach, I don’t). Plus, I’m Puerto Rican and it’s not a beach if there are no palm trees. So if you’d rather wait for your British and American friends to soak in possibly radioactive water occasionally full of jellyfish over yet another drink (I will abstain from disputing whether that’s actually a piña colada, but it’s pleasantly cold), just cross to the xiringuito in front of the xiringuito:
Before moving on, I’d love to mention another great place for paella, arròs negre, and fideuà, uptown in the Gracia neighborhood: Envalira. That’s pretty much all they’ve served since the beginning of time, and they do it quite well.
– A new place we tried, also in Gràcia, was Somodó, a mediterranean-Japanese fusion place. Feeling contrary (as I’m periodically wont to), I started by complaining about the name, seemingly a pun on the Spanish “somos dos” (we are two) because the restaurant is a collaboration between executive chef Shojiro Ochi and chef de cuisine Toshi Suzuki, and they are, indeed, two. (I’ve noticed a horrendous, politically incorrect, and tremendously annoying trend around here to name Asian places and products by making up Asian-sounding words, as in supermarket instant ramen like “Yatekomo Oriental Noodles”–Ya te como: I’ll eat you right away!)
But I digress. And I guess it’s not politically incorrect if you are Japanese. The restaurant is tasting menu-based (18.50€ at midday and 35€ for dinner) and totally different from what I expected, original-ish sushi (which I would have loved, I’m sure) and some sort of botifarra teriyaki. Perhaps even a delicious crema catalana mochi! But on the day we lunched there the choice of main course was between very delicious and beautifully presented cod tempura and leg of lamb (!):
Tables are served by Ochi himself, and to be honest we found him a little bit soup nazi (although maybe he was upset because our party was unexpectedly five people instead of six). However, the food is good and a great value (for when you can’t bear the thought of another slice of jamón).
– But the Blacksongs and I can always have another slice, and we also simply MUST dine at Cal Pep (I confess it was the second time I was there in just as many weeks, since I also went with Miss L and her entourage). Cal Pep is a food bar
where you will always have to wait (lines form outside even before it opens), but it’s worth it if you can stand lines–which I cannot. Best to try to secure one of the few tables in the back, which is not as hard as it could be. It is tricky to take food porn pics of the place (here’s my try)
because the true Cal Pep experience is a pica-pica (sampling) of tapes (Catalan spelling for tapas–pronunciation is the same) that you can see properly here, so that your table never quite seems full although you will be eating for hours. Although you should certainly let them know about food allergies and aversions (and they have a menu), the thing to do is let them bring you what they choose among ever-present classics and market goodies of the day. Their version of Spanish omelet (tortilla trampera, seen above) is one of my very favorites, and their clams with ham are staggeringly delicious. I tried to replicate them at home,
but it was a huge FAIL–I’m just not the cook in Spain that I am in the United States (or maybe I’m just deteriorating with age). In any case, at Cal Pep (unlike at my home) you will not only eat like you’ve rarely eaten in your life but also have a wonderful time with José, the server who has worked there since time immemorial: he will tease you about unknown things you will be eating, will pretend to drop plates and knock over bottles all over you (and never actually do it–unlike me!), and will amuse you with his constant exclamations (¡ay qué rico!). I ❤ José, and you probably will too.
When we weren’t together, the Blacksongs went upscale: their latest culinary discovery is Disfrutar, also a tasting menu concept (68 or 98€). I boycotted it because I just couldn’t eat any more plus I’ve become a bit desensitized to upscale experimental restaurants opened by what seems like an interminable line of El Bulli alums, but I must admit the photo gallery on their web site looks mouthwatering and Miss H was just raving about the exploding olives
that do burst inside your mouth (they’re not really olives, but olive oil essence trapped in a gel sphere).
On my own, I went downscale, to a couple of old tapas bars. Euskal Etxea, an old chart-buster, is the original Basque pintxos bar in Barcelona–it didn’t actually seem as good this time as other years, and I’m afraid that may be because it was purchased by a corporate tapas group, but it’s still a nice place in the Ciutat Vella ‘hood to have a few bites and a crisp txacolí. And Tapaç 24 (by another Bulli alum, I do reckon), on Diputació Street around the corner from Passeig de Gràcia is the yummiest way to avoid the chain tapas places nearby. Kitchen is open throughout the day, so stick to American meal times and avoid The People! Of course there are more mythical tapas bars/restaurants in the city: two rather modern (and upscale) ones that are definitely not to be missed are Quimet y Quimet and my beloved, beloved, beloved Paco Meralgo (ok, also a pun on p’a comer algo–to eat something), where, ethics permitting, you must try the foie gras montadito. And how to leave out the old-school, quaint and delicious Bar Roure.
It is IMPOSSIBLE to make a comprehensive guide of fabulous Barcelona restaurants (tapas and full-meal)–whatever else you come here to do, you’re going to eat. Well. Non-stop. Pac-Man style. I am knowingly leaving out a number of frequent haunts, and there’s a list of places I want to try before going home at the end of the month. I’ll probably add a list of some of these to this post at a later date.
Now, about that drink… Getting together for dinner of course requires meeting for a drink. In fact, the Barcelona tradition is wine or an apéritif and a cocktail afterwards. Pre-dinner, this week, involved the perennial and excellent La Vinya del Senyor, also a Parellada joint and very close to Senyor Parellada. And a place I unbelievably hadn’t tried, as it’s now been there for several years: the lobby bar at H1898 hotel. It’s in a beautiful building that was, in the 1880s, home to the Marqués de Comillas and later housed the Philippines Tobacco Company, Spain’s first “multinational.” You can leave aside, or surrender to, its evocation of Spanish colonialism (as you wonder, perhaps, why they chose the year of the empire’s loss for their name) and just enjoy the drinks, the ambiance, and the space, which is simultaneously cozy and enormous (rare in Barcelona):
And BTW, the Manhattan, Negroni, and (giant) Bloody Mary were all delicious…
Post-dinner, we ended up (more than once, that too I confess!) at the Gimlet near the Mercat del Born, which is now called something else that is still unclear. A note: you must pronounce it with a soft “g,” as in “gintonic,” which you can also order without the “&” (remember, ours is not to ask why). The new sign at the door just says “Cocktail Bar,” but the door itself still bears the old name.
Now, here’s another place that isn’t what it used to be, and I especially mourn the loss of the cute little cocktail glasses they used to have (photo from 2004!)
as well as the addition of that garish detective character to what used to be a display window for art,
complete with a fake view of the horrendous Torre Agbar and a quote from Charles Bukowski (Jeezus H–if it’s not Raymond Chandler it just breaks the vibe). End of rant: Gimlet is still a nice, intimate club for cocktails convenient to many places in the old city, and the long mahogany bar still exudes sophistication
(a sophistication that the blonde in the photo enhanced, but which vanishes into thin air the moment a short brunette like me tries to get on and off the inordinately high bar stools).
These days, Barcelona is also all about rooftop terraces, but I’d like to make a case for the age-old cocktail bars, before the dying breed disappears: the Ideal (from 1931),the Dry Martini (opened in 1978), and of course the original Gimlet twin established in 1979 north of Diagonal.
I promise eating and drinking is NOT all we do! This week we did attend sessions at the North American Catalan’s Society 15th International Colloquium, and I can prove it. Here, the panel with leading artists Joan Fontcuberta, Frederic Amat, and Francesc Torres:
(and yes, for those who know me, wink wink, THAT happened on a giant screen–a nice encounter with a dear old friend, of course).
Lastly, On the cultural entertainment side, last night I was invited to this wonderful reading/performance of Julio Cortázar short stories (and segments) by actor Joaquín Daniel and musician Aníbal Martínez.
I was all prepared to hate it (because I am, after all, a hater, plus how many times have I read Cortázar and what could be done that I find refreshing?) but it was brilliant–the setting as well as the acting, the music, and those texts that can forever surprise you. It was part of a series of productions of different types called Terrats en Cultura, and staged in Barcelona rooftops volunteered by private individuals, each for an entrance fee of 12€ including a glass of wine. Three are left this July, and more to come; check them out: http://coincidencies.com/.
More to come–exhibits, theater–in a future post…
I’m so exhausted from all the above, I’m now off to a well-deserved overnight trip to Girona. Fins aviat!
Post-Data: A few more restaurants!
– El Quim de la Boqueria. Go into the Boquería on Ramblas and find Quim’s stalls, which will be on the left hand (south) edge of the market. Stake out some stools. Slap them away from others if you must. Enjoy (here the vegetable tortilla, mushroom croquettes–though I myself am much happier with chicken/ham–and HUGE gambes a la plantxa; we also had very nice patatas bravas):
Capricious hours: open Tuesdays through Saturdays only 7:00-16:00 or 17:00 depending on the day. As usual, to stay away from The People (or at least the largest crowds) best avoid the 2:00-3:30 pm slot…
– La Robadora. In the Raval area, this is a tapas place, but dishes are so big a couple of them would make a full meal’s first and second course. Please ignore the “Gas” decor,
the Mediterranean-Asian(ish) fusion cuisine (like, for example, a tiny hamburger on a steamed Chinese pork bun) is quite innovative, and everything we tried was delicious: I have NEVER had such tenderly cooked squid! The sommelier recommended a wonderful Recaredo rosé Brut Nature cava, and (bonus!) he is really cute and friendly, and has an interesting wine blog (with enotourism routes) to boot.
– El Pla de la Garsa. Tiny restaurant in the Born district, has also been there FOREVER–I think I first visited it twenty-five years ago? It’s in a sixteenth-century house and beautifully decorated in modernist-ish country style. Although the stairs to the bathroom are death-defying, you’ll love the traditional cuisine, focusing especially on charcuterie & patés, and cheeses. Just went with the As and they had the 19.50€ dinner menu, which was spectacular (the “tender meat cooked in Monsant wine” is cow’s jaws, just so you know, but TRY IT). I had the mar y muntanya (literally “sea and mountain”), a very typical Catalan dish including seafood and meat; in this case unbelievable scallops with pancetta on a Granny Smith applesauce.
– La Pepita. I discovered this joint in Gràcia in early 2014, good either for tapas at the bar or a meal in the back. The name Pepita is either for the nice owner from Huelva (I’m not actually sure if that’s her name, but she and the other gentleman owner are really nice) or for their signature dish, a single-side flatbread with a choice of toppings that I suppose is a pun on good old Spanish pepitos. Their Very Important Croquette is quite remarkable, but just the other day I went at 13:00 (when the kitchen opens for midday shift) for a makeshift brunch of eggs with potatoes and foie gras that I have no words to describe.
– Pork, Boig Per Tu. Like someone else in my family I won’t mention, I long ago decided that if I had to be stranded on a desert island allowed to bring only one item, this would have to be a pregnant pig. Kill it with a stone, figure out how to make fire, somehow extract salt from the sea, put it on a bed or wild-growing arugula, and live happily forevermore… My signature dish is Puerto Rican-style lechón asado with the crispiest crackling you ever saw.
(just had to boast). This is all to say that when it comes to pigs in all their manifestations, I know what I’m talking about (hell, I even regularly date them). And Pork, Boig Per Tu (oddly, a venture by the Kukuxumusu brothers) serves it all: embotits or charcuterie, and any cut or preparation you’ve ever dreamed of, grilled or roasted in their clay oven. Much of it comes from their own farms. The sobrassada and the botifarra negra (blood sausage) are SINFUL, and so is the assortment of roasted meats, with either the shoulder or the ribs in first place (or was it the belly?)