Friday, 24 October 2008

Gresca - A Rumpus Of A Dinner

In formal Castellano, the word "gresca" means "row", or "racket". But in colloquial use, it's more than just some noisy behaviour. A "gresca" is a good, old-fashioned brawl - not quite a riot, but certainly a rumpus. Gresca is also a restaurant in Barcelona's Eixample district, brought to my attention by Ingo as a result of his recent review in High-End Food. Anyone who could define a fate-worse-than-death for a restaurant as to "end-up like Comerç 24" is bound to catch my attention - and after Ingo robustly defended his opinions on eGullet against my defence of my employers, I was determined to go see for myself. So the Monday before last, together with Ç24 stagière Walter, that's exactly what I did.

Rafael Peña at Madrid Fusión 2008Gresca's 32-year-old Executive Chef/proprietor Rafael Peña is the latest of Ferran's fledglings to catch the attention of the world's foodies with his new bistronomia, located in one of Barcelona's smartest streets (albeit on the wrong side of La Rambla tracks). I must have walked past the place many times during my early days exploring the city last autumn without noticing it - but that's hardly surprising as it's more of a corridor than a building. Gresca opened in 2006 and, in its debut year, was declared Revelation Restaurant Of The Year by El Periódico de Catalunya. Rafael caused quite a stir back in January when he introduced the first afternoon's session at Madrid Fusión 2008 with his presentation Barcelona - Paris: Bistronomic - Bistronomie. Cheap Bistrots - Haute Cuisine At Low Prices.

Rafael Peña shares at least three things in common with Jordi Artal of Cinc Sentits - both abandoned careers in the world of computing to pursue their passions for food, both employ family members in their tiny workplaces (Rafael's wife Mireia, like Jordi's sister Amèlia, runs front of house) and both eschew any ambitions to achieve awards and honour - especially the sort conferred by The Fat Man.

Gresca - not so much a dining room as a corridorThe first thing you notice on arrival at Gresca is just how small the dining room really is, with a mere seven or eight small tables to chose from. But Walter and I weren't going to be fooled by the dining space or the evidently miniscule size of the kitchen either, because from what we'd read about the place we knew that size certainly doesn't matter here. The two of us were warmly greeted and seated by the Maître D' Mireia, and from that moment we both felt completely relaxed and comfortable in the hands of a true front of house professional.

One thing we both agreed on throughout our meal was that the cuisine was a good deal more refined than we had been expecting. It's not as though we'd been anticipating huge portions of hearty, rustic Catalan stew or anything, but it was clear to us as professional chefs that the cuisine reflected the use of a gentle touch and an artistic eye, as well as some quite unexpected use of modern techniques.

Sardine with rovellon mushrooms, chives and balsamicThe first course of young sardine with rovellon mushrooms, chives and balsamic vinegar was relatively simple in concept, but was executed with all the precision required to highlight the quality of the products on the plate in an eye-catching and elegant manner. Another dish of deep, flavoursome onion soup with trompetas de la mort, parmesan and truffle was again simple and understated in design, but packed heaps of intense flavour and was gloriously contrasted with a fine brunoise of raw onion to create polar-opposite textures of the genus allium in one dish.

At this stage I need to make a confession. I've published nearly 20 restaurant reviews since I started this blog and in almost all of them I've gone equipped with my camera to take snaps of the food. On this occasion, for some inexplicable reason I completely forgot to take my little Fuji friend. So I'd like to thank three food observers for these photos, which are from John Sconzo's Madrid Fusión report on eGullet, Ingo's review on High End Food and Encantadisimo's photo display on Flickr.

Souffléed egg with vegetables 'a la crema'The souffléed egg with vegetables 'a la crema' was a masterstroke in conceptual technique. As professional chefs, Walter and I spent some time pondering the method they'd used to create such a preparation, but when we cut into our eggs to discover a flowing river of yolk emanating from within we were both drawn to exactly the same conclusion. In the end I did actually enquire with Sra. Peña just to clarify whether our joint hypothesis was accurate, and we were delighted to be met with a beaming smile combined with a nod of the head as if to say: "Yes, I can tell that you're both chefs and yes, you got it in one!"

So, let's see if any of my readers can work out the cooking processes involved here. Bear in mind this is a whole egg - with a soft, flowing egg yolk inside. Do you know how it was done?

The pre-dessert, which glided us smoothly into a world where the boundaries of sweet and savoury are gladly no longer frowned upon, was a dish combining Roquefort with lychee and green apple. Blue cheese and green apple is as well-established a culinary partnership as tomato and garlic in my book, but I was chuffed that Chef had put the two together in such a gentle way.

Rafael Peña's twist on a piña coladaThe Roquefort was presented in typical Catalan form as a "coca", above a layer of lychee jelly accompanied by a long strip of green apple (presumably Granny Smith) sorbet. Not original, but perfectly executed.

Then came the dessert proper, a witty play on the piña colada comprising a rustic-looking "coconut shell" of chocolate filled with coconut espuma and with pineapple in the centre. A very refreshing end to the meal, employing the gloriousness and luxury of chocolate, but lifted by the light and tropical flavours of the coconut and pineapple.

All in all a very good meal indeed, with nothing more than a couple of very minor criticisms totally outweighed by the positive notes. The products used were of top quality and justice was done to them with simple preparation by skilled hands. The dishes themselves were well-conceived, sometimes quite down to earth and other times interestingly modern. But regardless of any label one might care to put on the cuisine, what is clear is that with every dish that Chef Rafael creates he puts on the plate a veritable rumpus of flavours and textures to the delight of nose and tongue. When you consider the price of the menu when compared with Barcelona's more traditional fine dining restaurants, the bubbling ambiance of the place and the attention to detail in the service, one must conclude that Gresca represents remarkably good value for money. I couldn't agree more with Ingo.

A bit of rumbustuous behaviour might be OK in Gresca with its youthful and rebellious culture, but it would probably have got me evicted from the Barcelona eaterie I visited on Monday. I'll give you a clue - the Executive Chef is a Basque who holds four Michelin stars - one at the hotel restaurant in question. He trained the brilliant young chefs of two other restaurants which I ate in recently and wrote about on this blog. Now if you've been paying attention, you'll know where I went earlier this week.


Karen said...

It all looks delicious! Must make sure to check it out on my next holiday in Barcelona. No idea about the souffled egg though: will you enlighten us in your next post?

Su-Lin said...

Definitely bookmarking this one! Am dropping you an email now regarding your restaurant though!

Trig said...

Karen - Secrets of the souffléed egg definitely in the next post.
Su-Lin - I've mailed you. Really busy right now, so a bit behind in making a more public comment.

steffmeister said...

Well, I looked it up...

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