Saturday, 31 January 2009

Dining Out In Barcelona

Three artistic elements combine to make Barcelona a cultural beacon – the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, the art of Joan Miró and the cooking of... just about everyone. Barcelona is a city where traditionalism is a talking point and its exponents are at times akin to a persecuted minority. For Barcelona is, above all, the European capital of modernism. And nowhere is this better represented than in its food.

The press depicts Santamaría and Adrià in duelling positionThe clash between culinary traditionalism and modernism came to the fore early in 2007, when Santi Santamaría of the Michelin 3* Can Fabes characterised contemporary Spanish chefs as "a gang of frauds who work to distract snobs", reminding his audience that all good meals "end with a good defecation". A year later he was back in the media spotlight denouncing "use of chemical substances" in food as a "public health risk". The man he was publicly attacking was Ferran Adrià of the now legendary El Bulli – and Santamaría might just as well have had a poke at Nelson Mandela or the Virgin Mary for all the good it did him, as the gastronomic roof promptly fell in on his head.

Although he was born in Catalunya's second city L'Hospitalet de Llobregat and based in Cala Montjoi on the Costa Brava, Ferran Adrià's influence is best seen in the Catalan capital, Barcelona. Broadly speaking, chefs in the city fall into three camps - pre-Adrià, Adrià-trained-and-inspired and post-Adrià - and these categories result in very different dining experiences for those who frequent the city's restaurants, of which there are thousands. I'll return to the gastronomic world of Ferran Adrià later.

With my friends and family at Cata 1.81 on Carrer de ValenciaThe first thing that needs to be explained about eating out in Barcelona, especially to a Brit, is that you would be unlucky to experience really bad cooking here. Poorly executed, uninspiring, even boring, perhaps... but really awful? Unlikely - although I've certainly come across one or two during my year-and-a-bit here.

But for every unpleasant experience there are many fantastically enjoyable ones, as with the relatively inexpensive wine and tapas house Cata 1.81 on Carrer de Valencia in Eixample (see left). Some things to criticise, but plenty more to praise and a great atmosphere in which to spend a night out with friends and family.

As with any city, Barcelona has its fast-food outlets, pizzerias, tandoori houses and French brasseries – many of them clustered around the tourist epicentre of Las Ramblas and a magnet not only for British and American tourists but also for many of the city's youth. These are obvious candidates to avoid, along with other classic indicators - restaurants on the touristy parts of the city's two beaches, those which employ fruggers (the front-of-house equivalent of charity chuggers) to drag customers in off the streets and - worst of all - those with large picture displays on the pavement illustrating well known international gourmet dishes such as pizza, Spanish omelette, hamburger, schnitzel and English toast.

A typical tapas bar in Barcelona's Barri GòticSpain has its own unique snack food, of course, but there's nothing very fast about it (leastways, not when served in its native country). The tradition of tapas, or small dishes of appetisers normally consumed at a bar, supposedly began when Castile's King Alfonso the Wise recovered from an illness by drinking wine and nibbling small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered taverns to serve their guests food and wine, effectively changing the law to allow to consumption of alcohol, so long as tapas were served.

The Basque Country has its own version of tapas - pintxos - and these can also be found in the many Basque bars in Barcelona. These differ from tapas in that they are based on bread and skewered with toothpicks. In many pintxo bars, you help yourself to whatever takes your fancy and the bill is a multiple of the number of sticks left on your plate at the end of your meal. Basques don't cheat and throw the sticks away!

Barcelona has its fair share of traditional Catalan cafés and restaurants serving good, rustic, wholesome food, served with a smile. A good example is La Gardunya in the Barri Gòtic's world-famous Boqueria Market, where you will find hake with romesco sauce (fish with almond, garlic and pepper sauce), escudella (Catalan stew) and botifarra with escalivada (spiced sausage with grilled vegetables). A very well-filled stomach will set you back about €35. As with all good Catalan restaurants, it describes itself as "de mercado" (literally "of the market"), implying best quality, fresh, seasonal produce.

The elegant but modern dining room at Balthazar in EixampleMove up a step in refinement and you find restaurants such as Balthazar (left). Located in the Carrer d'Aribau in the heart of Barcelona's gastronomic area, they serve classical Catalan and French-influenced Catalan dishes such as caldo d'ecudella amb mandonguilles de botifarra negra (Catalan soup with black sausage), niu de salmó amb mousse de llagosta i vinagreta pommery (salmon with langouste mousse and Pommery mustard vinaigrette) and arròs de sípia i ceps (black rice with cuttlefish and wild mushrooms). Elegant tables, well-presented dishes, a modern website with musical background... and an average price of €20.

And therein lies the enigma of Barcelona dining - quality and price are not necessarily linked. So to get great value for money, you need to do some basic research. Heading for "the best" or "one I've heard of" is merely likely to empty your wallet or purse. So let me guide you.

I'll return to the theme of pre-Adrià, Adrià-trained-and-inspired and post-Adrià later, as this is the key to selecting a fine dining restaurant. Meanwhile, the place to start is with the cuisine itself. Catalan cuisine may seem an obvious choice for the predominant type of food – but how many cities have such pride in their indigenous fare? London may have Brian Turner and Fergus Henderson, but the capital is hardly famous for its English restaurants. Barcelona's second most popular cuisine may surprise you. Not French, Chinese or even non-Catalan Spanish. By a country mile it's Italian (although mostly touristy Italian grub rather than traditional Italian regional cooking). The connection with Italy goes back a very long way. In the 13th century, Catalunya was Aragon's gateway to the sea - leading to the conquest of the entire western Mediterranean including the Balearics, Sardinia and Sicily. Other Spanish cuisines are also well represented, with Andalucían paella houses, Asturian and Gallegan fish restaurants and plenty of classical Basque, Navarese and Aragonese eateries. Next most common is another surprise – Argentinean (and occasionally Uruguayan) steak houses. Apart from on the fertile plains of Cantabria's Costa Verde, there is relatively little cattle farming in Spain, so beef is a luxury reserved mainly for dining out. There are even a clutch of joint Argentinean/Italian places in town.

Koy Shunka co-owner & Head Chef Hideki Matsuhisa inspects an Alba truffleThe current fashion is for Japanese food and the best of Barcelona's Japanese restaurants are populated by the chic, the trendy and the city's top chefs on nights off. Visit Shunka or its newly-opened up-market sister Koy Shunka (see right), and you may well find Ferran Adrià sat at the bar indulging himself with the nigiri, sashimi and maki dishes. Several restaurants (including the Shunkas) are Sino-Japanese ventures and most offer eclectic, if not fully Eurasion fusion dishes. Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese make up the bulk of other Asian eateries. Nepalese, French, Mexican and Indian food is also easy to find - with Moroccan, Tibetan, Cuban, German, Greek and Iraqi completing the global representation. Fusion cooking has not escaped the attention of Catalan gourmets, with Med-Argentinean, Med-Asian and Med-Antipodean food at prices as low as €20 at Anima in Raval and as high as €60 at Ot in Eixample.

Cal Pep - a tapas bar much beloved of visiting American foodiesOne other group of eateries well worth noting is what one might call the 'super-tapas' bars and their Basque cousins, the 'super-pintxos'. Tapas bars in general are places where one might expect to see ordinary working-class people enjoying a beer and a snack after work, or during their lunch break. Not so these establishments. Here you are more likely to encounter a celebrity than a carpenter. They still serve tapas - small portions of food along with alcoholic drinks, sometimes at stand-up bars, but the quality of produce and execution of dishes raises the food nearer to gastronomic level. My personal favourite (and a place I visit almost every week) is Cervecería Catalana on the Carrer de Mallorca. Best known amongst this class of diners is probably Cal Pep (pictured left), just minutes away from my apartment in El Born, with newcomers Dos Palillos and Inopia also attracting a lot of attention in the media and amongst foodies. There's a certain irony in the fact that the former arriviste is the retirement plaything of Albert Raurich, Head Chef at El Bulli for the past eight years and the latter fulfils a similar role for Ferran Adrià's brother and co-owner of El Bulli, Albert.

Other such haunts include Casa Alfonso, Casa Lucio, Cata 1.81, Cerveceria José Luís, Cor Caliu, El Rus, Euskal Etxea, Irati Taberna Vasca, La Panxa del Bisbe, La Verema, Ondarra-Berri, Orígens 99.9%, Paco Meralgo, Sense Pressa, Taktika Berri, Tapaç 24, Terrabacus and Zure Etxea. Prices range from less than €20 to €50+, much of the variation depending on the number of plates served.

A restaurant that offers dishes based on the world's finest cheesesSpeciality houses are plentiful, with excellent seafood restaurants including some of Barcelona's most expensive non-Michelin-starred diners - such as the elegant Botafumeiro in Barceloneta, which boasts King Juan Carlos, President Clinton, Julio Iglesias and Woody Allen amongst its clientele. Good vegetarian specialists can be found and the city also boasts cheese restaurants such as Cheese Me (see right) in El Born and outlets which concentrate on chicken, game and rice dishes. Many restaurants actively encourage children, with promotion of healthy and interesting child-sized portions, while others cater almost exclusively for business people and celebrities. Barcelona is not shy in advertising a thriving gay & lesbian restaurant scene and it also boasts at least one gluten-free restaurant and one that specialises in employing disabled staff.

Finally, no review of Barcelona cuisine would be complete without mention of Espai Sucre (Sugar Space) - Jordi Butrón, Xano Saguer, Guillem Vicente and Reme Butrón's world-famous restaurante de postres. Yep. You translated it correctly. Just desserts. And one of the most weird and entertaining restaurant websites you're ever likely to visit.

Ferran Adrià on work experience at El Bulli in 1983So, having set the general scene for eating out in Barcelona, let me turn my attention specifically to fine dining. Back in summer 1983, when El Bulli was a virtually unknown little holiday restaurant, a young man on military service by the name of Fermí Puig recommended to a friend and fellow sailor that some work experience at this small Costa Brava eaterie might be a good way to spend his summer leave, learning from a chef there by the name of Jean-Louis Neichel. Both Puig and Neichel went on to become giants of gastronomy and today they hold Michelin stars at Drolma and Neichel respectively, having trained and influenced many successful chefs during the intervening years. Puig's compatriot at sea was named Ferran Adrià Acosta. He was exactly the same age as I am now.

Joining Puig and Neichel in this group of top chefs who learnt their trade before Ferran Adrià became influential are Carles Gaig of Gaig, Xavier Pellicer of ÀBaC, Santi Santamaría of Evo, Jean-Luc Figueras (still operating happily from his eponymous website-free base in Gracia), the legendary Mey Hofmann Roldós of Hofmann, Ramón Freixa of El Racó d'en Freixa, Josep Monje of Via Veneto and Ángel Pascual of Lluçanès. I'm sure I'll have omitted some true greats from my list, for which I humbly apologise.

Michelin-starred Lasarte at Hotel Condes, opposite Gaudí's La PedreraPrices at these restaurants range from an average €75 at Hofmann to €150 at Drolma. Dining in any one of these establishments, although expensive, is well worth the money as an unforgettable experience. Barcelona's other top class dining venues include Arola, Bouquet, Celler de Can Mateo, El Mirador de la Venta, Enoteca, Galaxó, Lasarte where I'm currently working (shown on the right), Mercès, Moo, Quo Vadis, Rías de Galicia, Roig Robí, Torre d'Alta Mar and Windsor. The latter is probably the least expensive at €50 and top prices of around €100 a head can be found at Enoteca, Lasarte, Rías de Galicia and Via Veneto. Before you rush out to eat, I should note that these menu prices can easily double with wine, service and tax (much more if you select vintage wines).

A revolution began in Catalunya a decade or so ago with the emergence onto the culinary scene of the Nuevos Cocineros de Barcelona (the New Cooks of Barcelona), all of whom were inspired by Ferran Adrià and many of whom - including Carles Abellan, Jordi Butrón, Paco Guzman and Robert Gelonch - had previously spent some time at El Bulli. These young guns turned their backs on the old guard and their traditional fare, ignoring the well-established hotel restaurant scene in favour of small, avant-garde and often minimalist establishments in which they could ply their trade - ultra-modern cooking which adhered strongly to local roots and often deconstructed classical Catalan dishes.

The new chefs borrowed the term New Catalan Cuisine from an earlier revolution that followed hard on the heels of French nouvelle cuisine. Along with other disciples of Ferran Adrià, they adhered to a radical position subsequently codified in the Ten Fundamental Principles of Technoemotional Cooking - creativity, risk-taking, new techniques & concepts, multi-sensory experience, fun, new technologies, customer participation, equalisation of produce, blurring of the savoury/sweet boundary and cooking as a way of life rather than a business. After a steep learning curve with some initial disasters, 'Ferran's fledglings' developed into highly successful birds. And, ironically, the best of them were rewarded with the very thing many had initially rejected - fame, fortune and, for some, visits from The Fat Man.

Carles Abellan creates a dish at Comerç 24The new flagships of Barcelona cuisine included Alkimia, Cinc Sentits, Colibrí, Comerç 24, Coure, Espai Sucre, Gelonch, Hisop, Ot, Saüc and Santa María. What these restaurants brought to the Catalan table was the brilliance of concept, creativity and perfectionism of execution that hallmarked tutelage at El Bulli - ironically even when trained elsewhere, or self-taught as with Jordi Artal of Cinc Sentits. It didn't always come off, given the degree of experimentation, the rapid movement of staff and the dependence on unpaid stagières in unheard of numbers. But when it did, the results were spectacular. Locals could enjoy haute cuisine hitherto reserved for the rich and famous. Food tourists, especially Americans, flooded into the city to share the experience. And people like me came to study the profession of gastronomy practised at the highest level. The restaurants these new chefs opened became the watchwords for great Catalan dining experiences at prices which fell mid-way between those of traditional restaurants and the gourmet dining rooms of swish hotels.

Over time, many of los nuevos cocineros abandoned many of the excesses of molecular gastronomy in favour of what came to be known as 'ingredient-led' cuisine - foams and spheres starting to disappear in favour of simple, top quality ingredients combined to create simple but exquisite flavour and texture combinations. They were joined in this by places such as Can Ravell which started out life produce-led and moved towards creativity and ultra-modernisation.

Tariff was always a critical factor - even before the credit crunch. Whereas traditional hotels could charge exorbitant meal prices to those wealthy enough to reside in or visit their opulent establishments, the new restaurants were catering to an increasingly savvy but always financially stretched customer whose dinner budget extended no further than €40-60. As some restaurants increased their prices towards €75, Americans (used to cheap domestic prices) found it painful, especially with the weakening dollar. Without realising it, the new restaurants became slaves to the very system they had initially rejected. A Michelin star allowed price increases of anything up to 50%, while maintaining or increasing total covers. Foie gras re-appeared on the menus and the revolutionaries became the new establishment.

Wherever there's an establishment to be overthrown, forces will arise to challenge it and that new revolution has well and truly arrived in town. The Nuevos Cocineros de Barcelona are now the old guard and a clutch of emerging young guns are their challengers under the banner of bistronomia.

Pau Arenós with Toni Massanés and Ferran AdriàThe term was invented by newspaper editor and food writer Pau Arenós of El Periódico de Catalunya, who developed the Ten Fundamental Principles of Technoemotional Cooking mentioned above and who was kind enough to write a few words about me not so long ago. The term combines 'bistro' (a reference both to the small premises and to the traditional dishes that form the starting point of the cuisine) and 'gastronomia' (a reference to the haute cuisine processes and techniques used by these chefs). The word bistronomia also suggests 'economia', reflecting the down-to-earth prices to be found in these establishments.

The new bistronomic restaurants include Ápat, Arketipus, Artkuisine, Àtica, Bestiari, Canela, Catalina, Coctum, Embat, Fontana, Gresca, La Mifanera, Santiane's and Toc. This new generation of chefs possesses not only the technical skills and drive needed to succeed as chefs but, perhaps for the first time in culinary history, the commercial skills needed to succeed as businesses while remaining relatively small. One thing you notice immediately about these restaurants is that, unlike their gastronomic predecessors, hardly any have fully-functioning websites and most have no internet presence at all. This can't be due to lack of IT skills in chef/patrons still in their 20s/early 30s. Rather it reflects unwillingness to take on financial backers and a determination to make it as auteurs. Newcomer Rémy Lefebvre at Artkuisine illustrates this with a blog rather than a website - like me he uses Google Blogger!

Ápat (reverse it!) reconstructs both Catalan and Italian dishes, while Àtica offers creative twists on Catalan classics at €27 for a menu dégustation. Bestiari packs up to 100 covers into a restaurant and nearby tapas bar with creative Mediterranean offerings at below-average prices, while young Hofmann graduate Dani Terramon at Canela entices diners to his Aribau diner with Catalan-Asian fusion at €25.

Rafael Peña of bistronomic sensation GrescaJosep Lacambra at Catalina keeps prices low by employing no staff, Eduardo Rosso at Coctum has sent Catalan fusion off on a round-the-world tour, while Fidel Puig and Santi Rebés at Embat have drawn on their experience at Espai Sucre to play cleverly with sweet and savoury. Àngel Puigbó at Fontana remains faithful to the theme of creating contemporary dishes from deconstructed classics, as does Rafael Peña at the excellent Gresca - the most expensive of the group at €40+. La Mifanera's Patron/Head Chef Roger Martinez - like me a former chef at Comerç 24 - is experimenting with global rice-based dishes and Sandra Baliarda at Toc is going out of her way to modernise very traditional Catalan dishes including some using long-discarded products.

Rémy Lefebvre at Arketipus has carefully segmented his market with à la carte prices at around €50 to attract business customers and an express menu fixé at €20 to entice foodies. And with an deliciously ironic twist, he recently introduced a menu tradicion allowing customers to experience the delights of mushroom risotto, boeuf bourguignon and tarte tatin for €26 including VAT. If it wasn't for the fact that he's very much alive and well, Ferran Adrià would turn in his grave.

The seductive power of the lady in redSo where is the new revolution leading? Taking a cynical view, a disparate group of individualistic chefs all rejecting the past but having no clear direction forward is likely to vanish in a puff of now-banned restaurant cigarette smoke. But I have a different, if equally cynical, view. I expect the best of the new breed will succumb to commercial pressures, take on investment partners, open larger and swankier premises, serve foie gras and truffle and win Michelin stars. Young revolutionaries will transform into ageing conservatives. And a new gang will arrive on the scene to challenge their supremacy. Plus ça change.

Having written all that, I suppose someone is going to ask me if I could recommend a restaurant in Barcelona that's simpler, less extravagant and more predictable. Somewhere you can rely on to serve identical dishes no matter when you visit or under what circumstances. Certainly. Here's one you can try. It's called McDonald's and it's located just off the Plaça Catalunya. Enjoy.


David said...

Espai Sucre is a great restaurant. I was reluctant to try it, but was surprised at how good it was. And the food (ie: desserts) aren't necessarily 'sweet', which made it all the more interesting, since they use textures and tastes in unusual ways. Successfully.

james said...

I wish this post would have been up before my trip, but through my own research is how I first came to view your site.
In Barcelona I experienced some of the best food I have eaten, especially in everyday fare. The food culture in Barcelona is bar none.
The only bad meal I had was a result of low blood sugar, circumstance, and being too close to a tourist-area restaurant.
Tapac 24, Cinc Sentits, and Espai Sucre, were all really good, but Gresca took the high honors.
The food and service were great. I wouldn't be surprised to see them garnering a star before too long.
Adrian, good luck to you in all your pursuits. In reading your posts I see you have the drive to succeed and I look forward to dining at your restaurant someday!

The Boston Foodie said...

Great post Trig. Can't wait to get to Barcelona. Everything I read and see says that Spain is the center of incredible food experiences.

Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Aiden my friend, you appear to be getting out far too much. Don't you have a credit crunch over there?

Trig said...

David - I couldn't agree more. I had a great meal there a few weeks ago, but I've still to finish writing it up for the blog. I was particularly interested in Jordi Butrón's philosophy and its relationship to Pau Arenós's Fundamental Principles. If I've understood Butrón, it's not so much about not being sweet as about overthrowing the dessert's status as an addendum and recognising its scope and possibilities.

James - I don't think that Gresca can win a star, or that Rafael Peña would accept one if it was offered, but it's a great place to eat and one of my favourite experiences of last year.

William - Get yourself on a plane with that notebook of yours and a fat wallet and let me know when you're coming. We'll hit some of the best places in town.

Scott - Shhh! Don't tell my parents but they fell completely for my line that I need to eat at dozens of restaurants in order to develop my palate and my knowledge of the business. If I had to pay myself...

Maria Sipka said...

Absolutely mindblowing! Not only are you a fantastic chef but an extraordinary writer. You've just added a whole new level to this magical city I am so happy we chose to live in! Your article inspired me to create a Food Lovers Thursday club and we'll be going through 'most' restaurants one by one ;-)

Trig said...

Thank you for your inspirational comment, Maria. I should make clear that I don't write pieces like this every day - this one took several months to write. And without a lot of editing help I'd probably never get it together. As for this magical city - try this post wot I wrote in September 2007, just before I moved here.

Paulina said...

Excelent Aidan!

I'm going to print it to take with me next time I go to Barcelona.


Jeanne said...

What a fabulous precis of the Barcelona dining scene! Next time I'm taking this along with me rather than having to chosse mhy dining venues based on proximity and a blood-sugary husband!!

Jack Glen said...

Wow!! you click my coupon. You can cut your dining bill with free restaurant coupons at a well-known website.

S. said...

Great post. Very informative-- better than any guidebook! This will be a huge resource when my wife and I visit Barcelona!

Raniya Sheikh said...

Nice article and nice place as well
Best curry in Manchester

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