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Returned from Barcelona-Girona

  • n

My wife, Louise, and I were in Barcelona and Catalonia for 11 days recently. Our enthusiastic anticipation of the trip was turbo-charged by Tom Armitage’s chronicles of his trip last month. While our trip was great, the food ran from ridiculously bad to (only) very good. I should say that this was our first time in Europe, and the hype I’ve experienced regarding the quality both of European food, and of Europeans’ attitude towards food and ‘lifestyle’ was a lot to live up to. That said, we were planning our next trip while still there.
The Coffee. I have a friend who has traveled widely in Europe and who claims as follows: ‘any coffee over there, even at a place where, in the states you wouldn’t stop the use the bathroom, is better than anywhere here. It’s just totally different.’ To test this theory, the first coffee we had was right on the Ramblas, at Ital Caffe. I had an espresso which sucked. It had no body, and with a vulgar flavor and acidity. Adding sugar did not improve matters. After dozens of coffees at many locations, a few observations. All coffee we saw was brewed via espresso machine, which in my opinion, does not extract a balanced cup from lighter roasts, which are inherently higher acid. Not once did I see the very dark espresso roast which is typical for espresso machines here. I have heard that it is the surface oils in the darker roasts which are emulsified to create the syrupy body of espresso. Also, since darker roasts are lower acid, the concentration of flavor does not lead to an overly acidic cup. Additionally, almost all the machines there have automatic switches, which means the person making the coffee is not watching it pour. I never saw anyone adjust the grind, or re-make a drink which didn’t draw right. In fact, the best coffee of the trip (at Sopeta Una) was realized from a machine with a hand-pump lever. It was dense and balanced, and I saw the staff drinking it too. Most places I found café cortado, or tallat in Catalan, to be a good bet; just enough milk to mitigate some of the balance issues. Although coffee was frequently disappointing, I did find it wonderful in theory that everyone’s coffee is made just for them; no airpots or other enemies of fresh brewed coffee.
Being novices in the languages spoken there, we were eased into things our first night by a Danish waitress at Txiteca, a ‘basque tavern’ on C/Ample, near the bottom of the Rambla. Being in desperate need of calories, we ordered potatoes; I forget which style. They were served in a glutinous sauce with chunks of delicious smoky sausage. No great dish, but we were very hungry. Then we both had roast chicken with peppers and tomatoes. Again, the sauce had an odd sheen. The chicken was fine, but the high point was the group dynamic between the fries (what fat IS that?) and the glossy sauce. Truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts. At the waitress’s suggestion, we had a ground almond and milk cake which was heavenly. I should say that this place was lit up light a food court, a phenomenon which persisted through most subsequent meals. Low to moderate prices.
Picoteo, on Gran de Gracia, was fine for midday nibbles. We had tortilla patatas, served with tomato-rubbed bread, and pescaditos fritos, a pile of lightly breaded, fried whole little fishes.
Farga appeared to be something of a chain of patisserias, and we had there a fruit tart with flaky pastry and light custard. Very nice. Also on Gran de Gracia.
Can Carbol Bleu, on Valencia. A snail specialty house. Pa amb tomaquet with luscious tomatoes. Salads, non thrilling. One with iceberg and fresh mozzerella, and mysteriously wooden tomatoes; another with frissee and cold tuna in a red pureed sauce. Salmon Ahumado was a main course plato del dia, and I was expecting maybe a hot smoked filet. Instead, it was a massive platter of cold smoked and shaved salmon with chopped egg and onion. Very buttery and tasty, but kind of like eating 8 ounces of foie gras. Caracoles a la abuela were also huge potion, perhaps 16-20 ounces by volume. The sauce, very dusky tomato (I think) based affair with a mysterious aromatic meat, was ok. I ate less than half of the portion. Moderate prices
Do check out the Mercats de Llibertat (or any markets), one block off Gran de Gracia at Travessera de Gracia. I wanted so badly for one of the families shopping here to take us home to eat the home food of the culture. The markets all over were so inspirational, we found ourselves wanting a kitchen, especially given the fact that the restaurants where we were eating were slowly starving us of vegetables. In the market, but not on the plate. What’s up?
Bar Roure, at 7 Luis Antunez, is a small neighborhood joint. We were lured of the street bar the fact that a lively clientele was eating, apparently happily. They have small and medium sized plates which are all listed on a menu on the wall, as well as ice creams. The waiter tolerated our castillian, and we had champiñones in a garlic-y broth (excellent), a sandwich of each of chorizo and queso seco, and the exciting varidad de la casa, which contained one each of about a dozen seafood and vegetable products, along with tuna in mayonnaise. Here we also had our first experience with croquetas de jamon. I had anticipated a hashed ham and filler affair which would be formed into balls or patties and fried. They turned out to be Spanish bar food, like jalepeño poppers, preformed stubby fingers, breaded and fried. Perfectly tasty, but disappointing to be served frozen food. This casual meal, with house wine, was about $14 for 2.
We traveled to Girona by train to find the town in the midst of a festival weekend (All Saints Day). At an open air market set up in a city park, vendors were selling honey, cheese, cured meats, breads, and other comestibles. We picked up a wedge of aged goat cheese (6-8 months), and a wheaten loaf. The cheese was excellent; very full flavored with a dry yet creamy texture. Bread was rather dry and unexceptional. When the meat sellers closed up for the day, they just covered the meats with a sheet.
In Figueres, we dined on unremarkable pizza at Fiore, where we also had an ice cream sundae with reasonably good nut flavored ice creams.
I had become interested in the pine nut crusted cookies that were everywhere in evidence. Sold by weight, these were a sugary nut-meal center covered in toasted whole pine nuts. Come to think of it, the Catalans seem to excel in the use of nuts, to both sweet and savory ends. Generally, I was amazed by the pastry shop/population ratio in the small towns we visited, and by the seemingly limitless number and variety of cookies in these shops. In fact, sugar seemed to be widely appreciated, judging from the huge sugar packets they give with coffee (with larger coffees they give 2, of course), and the man I saw adding sugar to his Coke.
After doing the Dali museum, we supped at Meson Asador, the bar of which we had seen heaped with tapas type foods at lunch time. We entered and sat at the bar, browsing the tapas menu. Before I could protest, we were ushered into the dinning room and given a huge menu, in English, containing such dishes as quarter roast lamb. I explained to the waiter that we wanted to eat tapas. We ordered shrimp, sheep cheese, fried potatoes, and a platter of mixed vegetables. The cheese and potatoes were both fine, but the shrimp were the small rock shrimp kind (disappointing after being served giant shrimp with heads still on elsewhere). These would have been more disappointing had they not been served sizzling in chili-garlic oil. The greatest downer was the vegetable plate, largely consisting in potatoes and mushy green beans. Crema Catalana also left something to be desired; the custard reminded us of Jell-o pudding. The final blow was the check which seemed to bear little correlation to what we had eaten. At $15/ person, this was pretty cheap, but we left feeling that that money could have fed us much better elsewhere.
We frequently grabbed sandwiches for lunch, and most frequently ham and/or cheese. These varied tremendously in the quality of the bread and of the fillings. I found that some patience in finding lunch was well rewarded. In one event, we fell prey to the overpriced food and drink at a sidewalk café on the Rambla in Barcelona. Afterwards, with blood sugar levels restored, this seemed an obvious error. Beware.
Back in Girona, we had a good bar meal at La Taverna (near the post office, I think). The dramatic broquetas, served dangling from a miniature gallows arrangement, featured a variety of meats and sausages. Served with bread and tomatoes, a little green salad, and (reheated) fried potatoes. With 2 rounds of drinks and coffees, about $16 for 2 people!
In Palafrugell, we had difficulty finding places for dinner (no shortage of pastry shops, though). L’arc, a little café, seemed promising from the menu. When we got inside, we were informed that all the specials were unavailable, but that pizzas and salads could still be had. We had a greek salad (ripe tomatoes, raisins, walnuts, and wonderful goat cheese), and two individual pizzas, one brasilian (with a spicy red cured sausage), and one greek (walnuts, raisins, ham, and goat cheese). The latter was wonderfully dense and flavorful: fruit, nuts, cheese, meat. These pizzas aren’t about the crust at all. The crust is just a foil for quality savory toppings. These were about $7 each, as were the salads. Dessert was an apple tart, served in a saucer of fresh cream. The apples were dense in texture as if they were preserved in some manner. I felt the tart needed acid to balance the cream and highlight the apple flavor, but this is a minor complaint. With drinks and coffee, $35 for two.
Palafrugell’s food markets were as good as any. I loved the lack of monopoly in these places. Meat, vegetables, and fish are all sold by many dealers, so one can choose what looks best. Among beautiful vegetables, I saw a mysterious tomato, very large and hollow, with firm walls and a gooey, seedy node in the center. Has anyone cooked with these?
Back in Barcelona, we scoped Sopeta Una, recommended on this board earlier this year. We resolved to dine there, and went across the street to a friendly bar (I forgot the name). While we were drinking only, many of the customers were having small plates of simple food. Chickpeas in sauce, fish with little potatoes. We surely would have returned had this not been near the end of our trip.
We arrived at Sopeta Una (Verdaguer i Callis) at almost nine. We were bummed to see the street deserted and the restaurant closed. I was seen peering in and the door opened. I asked if they were closed and was told they opened at nine but we could come in and wait. The food proved simple and delicious. The spinach a al catalana was unctuous and flavorful, punctuated by raisins and pine nuts. A molded vegetable terrine looked fancy, and was good if not hugely flavorful. Pork slices were sautéed and sauced with mushroom flavored cream (yum). Fried butifarra sausage was hugely flavorful and served with escalivada (room temperature roasted peppers and eggplant). Plates were smallish, and if dining with a small group I would recommend getting several. We went away satisfied, but would have liked to try other dishes. Coffee, as mentioned before, was excellent. With dessert, coffee, and wine, $50 for two.
Finally, I wanted to get to La Llar de l’all ioli, but didn’t have the address, other than ‘Badalona’. Having no confidence that I could make myself understood if I called information (which the very nice waitress at Sopeta Una advised me to do), my strategy was to take the metro to the first stop in Badalona and find a phone book. I stopped into a bar and succeeded in finding the address. I asked around, and people seemed to think it was near the Pep Ventura metro stop. We went there, and called the restaurant. I tried to ask for directions but could not make myself clear without gestures. The background noise was lively, and I was spurred on. I asked an elderly couple who were waiting for the bus. They argued between themselves, and finally the man gave me serviceable directions. We found the street (though it was spelled differently than in the phone book), only to find a seemingly random system of numbers there. We pressed on, and found it! It was 3:45 pm and they were to close at four. Thankfully, we were seated. We were soon asked for our order, but we were unsure. I asked the waiter to recommend some things, and he proceeded to narrate the entire menu (with passionate testimonials). I ordered (rather randomly) escalivada, a salad of lettuce hearts and anchovies, a roast half chicken, and roast pork. Vegetables were smoky and succulent, potatoes rich and flavorful, anchovies salty and buttery, and the meats! Brown and crunchy exterior with juicy interior. And the allioli, of course. Thanks, Jim. Everyone else was drinking booze from glass flasks after dinner. What’s up? Food, wine and coffee, $35 for 2. C/Conquesta, 87. Badalona. Tel. 93 383 53 07

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  1. "Our enthusiatic anticipation of the trip was turbo-charged by Tom Armitage's chronicles of his trip last month. While our trip was great, the food ran from ridiculously bad to (only) good."

    A couple of thoughts, Neil. First, I noticed that, with the exception of La Llar de l'All i Oli, you and your wife ate at completely different restaurants than those where my wife and I ate. Second, our eating, with only a couple of exceptions, focused on seafood. Yours seems to have focused more on bar food, snacks, and meat/sausage/chicken dishes, although I did note a sprinkling of seafood dishes in your post. Obviously, I was completely knocked out by my meals there. Maybe we just have different palates, but it seems like there should be some other explanation for the wide discrepancy in your experience and mine. I avoided the places on the Rambla, but only a couple of your meals were there, so that isn't a full explanation. After hearing of your experiences, perhaps I should rethink my statement about spending more time exploring unknown, interesting looking places. The places my wife and I went were all pretty carefully chosen in advance, and perhaps weren't indicative of the general quality of food in Barcelona.

    I'd be interested in hearing Jim's thoughts on the differences in our experiences, since he knows Barcelona so well. Any ideas, Jim? On return visits to Barcelona, should I beware of dropping into unknown places? Is the general quality of food there as bleak as Neil's experience would suggest? Is there something to the seafood/nonseafood distinction?

    I agree with you, Neil, about the markets in Barcelona. I loved wandering through them. I was especially blown away by the freshness and variety of the seafood.

    15 Replies
    1. re: Tom Armitage

      my full comments will have to wait, tom and neil...we've gotten a triple hit of national press this week and next weekend it'll quintuple, and I'm manning the fort without Bob(TM), who's bumming around Laos.

      So I've got some serious behind-stuff to attend to. Forgive me for being scarce on these boards for the nexxt couple of weeks, folks...I'm keeping lots of plates spinning back here!

      one quick comment though...it's a horrible mistake to treat Barcelona like Spain, food-wise. you do NOT do tapas and snacks, in Barcelona, except at your peril. Remember...it's not Spain, it's Catalonia. So sit down and eat traditional Catalan food. Like at Llar de la Al i Oli, which is perhaps my favorite restaurant in the world (and I'm very delighted you both shared my feelings...anybody else out there try the place yet?)

      1. re: Jim Leff

        Interesting thought, Jim. All my meals in Barcelona (1) were full meals, no snacks; (2) were at carefully selected restaurants serving either traditional Catalan or nuevo-Catalan food; and (3) consisted mainly of seafood, with only a smattering of non-seafood dishes. I walked by a lot of bars with interesting looking plates of food lined up, and was tempted, but was too full from a preceding full meal to sample the food at these places. My previous reading about Barcelona--including "The New Spaniards--had made the distinction between Spanish culture and food and Catalan culture and food very clear to me.

        1. re: Tom Armitage

          a big part of catalan nationalism is not only denigrating castillian (what we think of as "spanish") culture, but feigning innocence of it. Many Catalans grinningly apologize for their weak castillian language skills (it's a put-on, don't believe them!), delight in observing how bad their bars' tapas are, and would sooner eat glass than listen to flamenco or go to a bullfight.

          A lot of it is post-Franco relief at no longer having The Mother Culture forced on them (the Catalan language was forbidden, etc, for years). But in general, it's a bad idea to seek Spain in Barcelona...it's guaranteed disappointment.

          e.g. I've been there 20 times and have never found great potato omelet in restaurants, though anywhere else in the country it's ubiquitous

          1. re: Jim Leff

            Jim - Speaking of potato omelets, you wouldn't know where I could find a good recipe for one, would you?

            1. re: pam

              only for you, Pam.....use link below

              Link: http://www.chowhound.com/writing/tort...

                1. re: Jim Leff
                  r
                  Rachel Perlow

                  I've been making this lately (without a recipe, based on a description from Spanish woman I was seated next to at a Hibachi restaurant (Mikado at the Marriott in Whippany, NJ), as Jason's been pining for it since his days in Spain when he was a teenager. I make it basicly the same as in Jim's linked recipe, but here are some notes:

                  First, since I'm usually making it as brunch for the two of us, I use about 1/2 an onion, 1-2 potatoes, 4 eggs and about 1 cup oil (about 1/2-3/4 remain after everything is done), and cook it in a small Circulon pan (about 5 or 6 inches in diameter).

                  I cook the onion in the oil first, when it's soft, drain. Use the same oil to cook the potatoes, which I don't slice, I cube (1/4 - 1/2 inch dice) and I don't rinse. I've made this with raw potatoes and with leftover baked potatoes. Except for the cooking time (the raw takes longer, obviously), there was little difference in the final omelet. After the potatoes just start to get crisp around the edges I drain. (If the onions had cooked as long as the potatoes they'd either disintegrate or burn.)

                  I then add whatever else is going into the tortilla (some diced sausage and peas in the last one) to the pan, mix in the onion and potatoes, and stir in the eggs. The rest is the same - especially the plate to pan flip (do it over some waxed paper or foil the first attempt!).

                  I know it's supposed to be eaten at room temperature, but we keep finishing it while its hot - with some crusty bread! When serving as hors d'oevres, serve at room temp on baguette slices with a little dollop of mayonaise.

          2. re: Jim Leff

            "I'm manning the fort without Bob, who's
            bumming around Laos."

            What? What? Fine job at running the fort, especially with all the new traffic (seriously! congrats), but how could Bob just run off to Laos like that--no gloating about the dishes he wanted to try, no promising to check up on old favorites, no piquing our curiousity or maddeningly whetting our appetites for information? And you mean he hasn't sent daily DHL packages with food reports? Some chowhound!! Am green with envy... (okay, so I'm a broken record, still seeking out a few Lao dishes, but still...)

            Bob, have fun, but come home soon to tell us what you ate!!!

            1. re: Mary

              don't worry...Bob(TM) has promised to write up a full accounting, with photos (he's a very accomplished photographer).

          3. re: Tom Armitage
            n
            Neil Anderson

            I want to point out that it seems that while, Tom, your trip was better researched in terms of restaurants, you also spent more money per person per meal. Near the end of our trip, I had begun to think that to be blown away, we would have to drop some big$$. I had been resisting this notion, and had been seeking out places with a neighborhood feel, which seemed to promise simple, honest food. In fact, the worst meal of the trip was a menu del dia lunch in La Bisbal (bacalao with tomatoes and peppers could have been great), at a place which might have had a granny in the kitchen. I had been forewarned about the tapas, and read the Hooper book, but I was seized by the notion that eating small, minimalist plates of one or two ingredients would be a way to highlight local ingredients; sometimes, in fact, this was the case. Also, and this applies to the coffee issue as well, I realized that assuming that everyone is out to serve high quality product and do justice to their ingredients was my naivete. That is no more true 'over there' than is it here. I see now that I was expecting any friendly-looking place to deliver the goods, just because we were in Europe. I do think, though, that it shows a real lack of integrity to offer food as a toss-off, i.e., to serve tapas, all the while laughing about how much they suck. Generally, I had a great time , some mediocre food notwithstanding. While my eating strategy would be different a second time, I do think it is important to remain intrepid. Thanks all for the feedback.-Neil

            1. re: Neil Anderson

              all points good ones, Neil (glad you read Hooper, btw). Barcelona's a tough nut to crack, and even after spending so much time there, I still have trouble getting a decent (that is, really good) meal. If only the al i oli place were closer to downtown! I have a place, called Pollo Loco on Calle San Pao (right off ramblas) that I go to for quick/cheap/very tasty food, but there aren't a lot of places like it. If you want authentic non-pretentious Catalan food, you've got to head for the boondocks (sp?)

              "I do think, though, that it shows a real lack of integrity to offer food as a toss-off, i.e., to serve tapas, all the while laughing about how much they suck"

              but think it through. How 'bout Chinatown places that serve crappy egg rolls for tourists who insist on it...the many Midtown Korean places that offer EVERYTHING but only make one or two dishes really well...great diners that offer unthinkable veal parmigiana. Even the most artistic restaurant still must make a living, and that often means giving non-chowhound customers what they seek rather than what's best. It's our job as chowhounds to work around this and strategize our orders

              Anyway, when I was talking about pride in bad tapas, I was talking at a societal level, not among individual restaurateurs.

              ciao

              1. re: Jim Leff
                n
                Neil Anderson

                Yeah, Jim, I know that strategic ordering is key, and I think that I would have realized some great meals with another few days in the city as I caught on. I was somewhat caught unawares as regards the necessity for such strategy. As I said, this was our first trip to Europe, and I think I was badly served by some of my friends who, because they love travelling in Europe so much, tend to come home and rhapsodize.

                (Note:$2 falalel on Escudellders is a good tip.)

                1. re: Neil Anderson

                  "Note:$2 falalel on Escudellders is a good tip.)"

                  Buen Bocadillo. Yep, congrats...a great chowhound find. But the shwarma's better. Also, VERY dangerous street. Not that that keeps me away...

              2. re: Neil Anderson

                I don't disagree with your strategy or hopes at all, Neil. Some of the best eats in my hometown of Los Angeles are inexpensive. The great Northern Thai/ Issan restaurant, Renu Nakorn, and the wonderful Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza, are just two examples. So I certainly understand trying to find good "honest" food at "places with a neighborhood feel" without spending the big bucks, as you so eloquently described your goal. I also agree with your main point. For every "great" inexpensive Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, for example, there are lots of "bad" to "mediocre" inexpensive Thai restaurants. Visitors to Los Angeles who think they are automatically going to get great Thai food at any of the zillions of Thai restaurants in the city have a very high risk of being badly disappointed. It is probably no different in any country, but the odds of getting good food vs. bad food may vary significantly from country to country. That might be an interesting idea for a new thread. What country, or region of a country, offers the best odds of getting good food at randomly selected restaurants?

                Although I wound up spending more money per meal in Barcelona than I had anticipated, they were "full" meals with lots of food, and I obviously felt that I got a great return on my investment. I also felt that the super-expensive places didn't deliver either the value or the "warm" atmosphere of the more moderately priced places I went to. (I think I made that point in my previous posts on Barcelona.) I guess that, after reading your post, I just felt badly that I had such a great eating experience in Barcelona, and you had such a disappointing one.

                1. re: Tom Armitage

                  Sadly, I'm going to have to retract my statement above about Renu Nakorn. See the Los Angeles board ("Bad news about Renu Nakorn") for details.