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Just returned from Barcelona

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  • Kathryn Callaghan Jun 10, 1999 07:42 PM
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I just returned from six days in Barcelona. Our
gastronomic experiences ran hot and cold, but we found
that the best Catalan cooking, coupled with the local
cava, was capable of lifting us to realms of bliss and
joy far beyond anything we had known in Manhattan.

My imression is that this cocina verdadera is to
be found chiefly in the winding, dark alleys of the
Barri Gotic and Ciutat Vella: That's where we had the
best of our luck at any rate. There are two places in
particular that travellers should be alerted to.

The first is Agut (Gignas 16, off the Via
Laietana). The dining room is a cheerful yellow, in
surprising contrast to the grayed exterior, and the
pleasant staff is quick to proffer a quirkily
translated menu in English, though that fact is-in
this case-not a bad sign.
We started by sharing a green salad with salt cod
and smoked eel with a sweet pepper dressing; good,
though I suspect that there are better things on the
appetizer menu. Having narrowed down my options to
hake "trunk" with clams and potatoes and breaded pig's
feet stuffed with foie, I opted for the fish on the
waitress' recommendation. (Not that the pig's feet
weren't recommendabe. "Es que los pies de cerdo no me
dan gracia", she had explained apologetically.) The
dish was spectacular; a thick section of hake tail
standing upright on the plate, surrounded by the clams
and sliced potatoes, all in the midst of the simplest,
purest sauce imaginable. It was nothing more than the
released essence of the fish, the clam liquor, a good
amount of butter, and perhaps a little white wine, all
blended in the course of slow roasting.
My boyfriend was a little dismayed by the look of
his fried monkfish. The nuggets of fish, scattered as
they were haphazardly across an ungarnished plate,
looked a little sorry compared to my lavish dish. But
upon tasing them he was greatly consoled, as the
Spanish surpass all other nations in the art of
frying. And besides, there was plenty of hake to
share.
Agut's dessert offerings are more complex and
varied than those of most Spanish restaurants. But
after my rich entree, I wasn't equal to tackling
anything like a bitter chocolate-orange tart. I chose
instead a cold goblet of prunes macerated in moscatel
with anise. "The most Catalan dessert on the menu",
the waitress informed me. It was perfect.

The second paradise of Catalan cooking is Sopeta
Una (Verdaguer i Callis 6, just around the corner from
the Palau de Musica). The best way to convey the
homliness of the place might not be to mention the six-
and-a-half foot ceilings or the yellowed sheets of
protecting the tablecloths, but to relate how the
dishes are done. That task, it seems, falls to the
girl who is hostess, waitress, and busser. She washes
them in an ordinary kitchen sink located behind a
short bar which stands just next to the dining area.
The only appetizer that called to us that night
was of artichoke hearts with shrimp mousse. It was,
alas, unavailable, and we skipped directly to the
entrees. My boyfriend ordered Trucha a la Navarra; a
whole trout, stuffed with jamon serrano and fried.
Once again, it was a showpiece of Spanish frying
skill; as brittle and brownly crisp as could be on the
outside, and steaming, white, and perfect within.
I followed the same course with ordering as I had
at Agut; narrowing down the options to two choices,
and asking for a recommendation. My query - roast
duck or monkfish tail? - caused the waitress' eyebrows
to knit in indecision as she murmered "It's that
they're very different..." But then she took the
plunge, saying "But if you like duck, the duck is..."
A smack of her lips and a simultaneous flick of the
wrist indicated its quality. I ordered it.
Consuming the small duck thigh which arrived was
an experience I'll not soon forget. It was so dark and
full of flavor that I wondered if it was wild. But
the roasting method had at least as much to do with
the taste and richness as did the origin of the bird.
No nonsense about perforating the skin of the uncooked
bird with deep slits before placing it in a scorching
oven for de-fatting here! A thick layer of fat was
still visible between meat and skin, and much had
evidently melted over the meat, too; in effect almost
stewing it in its own fat as it roasted.
The mere thought of "rare duck breast" seems to me,
when juxtaposed with this memory, incomparably
grotesque. The roast duck towards which all roast
ducks aim is found in a Barcelona back street.

***
For anyone who has read this far, here is a Catalan
dish we enjoyed that could be easily made at home:
spinach sauteed in olive oil with a generous amount of
toasted pinenuts, golden raisins, and slivers of jamon
serrano (substitute prosciutto or the least processed
ham available)

And thanks to Ken for the posting, though we didn't
track down Provenca. Botafumiero looked great, but
was a couple of notches out of our price range.

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  1. Kathyrn--thanks for taking the time to post a great message!

    For what it's worth, the ham is strictly optional in the spinach dish...most people don't actually use it.

    JIM

    ps--thanks to ALL the generous posters lately....sorry I don't have time to acknowledge all personally...but bear in mind that your messages are enjoyed by thousands of people even if they receive no replies!