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Sep 5, 2007 05:03 AM

Barcelona report (long)

The trip was a long weekend, August 31 to September 4. The dates are important because it was a terrible time to go, but my husband had a meeting and it was that or nothing. Many of the eateries we were interested in were closed -- even though August technically ended on the Friday, they extended the vacation to the Monday or Tuesday or beyond. Same for some shops and stalls in the Boqueria market. The city was crawling with tourists, many with small children, but many seemed like college students. They all moved slowly and dressed horribly and undoubtedly altered the cityscape.

For reasons of closings, etc., and only being able to consume so much food in one day, we missed out on a lot of the tapas and never came anywhere near what we would call a cutting edge. But we had some very good food and a lot of fun. I considered this trip an introduction, and look forward to going back, preferably in November or February or one of the months I advise people to visit Italian cities for the same reasons.

Our Ryanair flight and bus connection on the Friday were perfect, so we were in our hotel by 8.30 pm, exactly at Paral-lel metro stop. We called Quimet y Quimet (tiny tapas bar, much recommended including by Bittman in the Times) to see if they were open, but there was no answer. That was inconclusive, but we decided not to take a chance. As it turned out, we'd not have gotten enough to eat there anyway (I went alone on our last day). We phoned Rias de Galicia and hiked over there.

Rias de Galicia: The Times published the address as Calle Lerida, but on the ground the street is Caller Lleida, the Catalan equivalent. The seafood in the window looked pretty tired, and if we hadn't been tired ourselves, hungry, and in a strange city, Franco would probably have kept going, but we went in and wound up having a wonderful, rather retro, meal--a sort of tuna and onion pie (whose name I forget), peppery octopus, avocado with shrimps, and a platter of sautéed shellfish, beautifully cooked. It was about €160 for two, I think, but was a good price-quality ratio.

Can Solé: This was our Sunday lunch, in Barceloneta, but was a disappointment, not worth the taxi ride. I ordered the classic veg appetizer that begins with an E, but I am blanking on the name. It was a few pieces of boiled onions, roasted peppers, and limp eggplant, all drenched in oil, all perfectly tasteless. My salt cod in some kind of red sauce was lightly fried and tasty (slightly undercooked for my taste though). A plate of sautéed cigalas (what I would call langoustines, in any case scampi in Italian) was delish, however. They were tiny and easy to shell. Franco's monkfish stew with shrimp and shellfish was hearty and tasty. We skipped dessert. So except for the veg it was pretty good, but the price-quality was negative, and service was sterile and unhelpful, and they brought the agua min to the table already open. (Incidentally, we found the tap water in Barcelona undrinkable, so always ordered bottles despite extortionate prices.) Nonsmokers (all tourists) were relegated to the upstairs room, and of course the people downstairs seemed to be having more fun.

Abac: This Michelin star was the fanciest place we went, and it was very good, all the bells and whistles except, as so often, for a properly translated English menu. Amuses (two of them, plus olives) and bread were superb. I was expecting Abac to be pretty conservative, and I think we ordered too conservatively as well. With the starters, though, we really tried for interesting-sounding dishes. I had salad-stuffed squid and Franco had razor clams nicely arranged on a bed of something I forget, possibly cèpes. Both were good but unchallenging. Possibly influenced by the gelid air conditioning, we were irresistibly attracted by the slow-cooked veal shank for two. Franco later said we shouldn't have ordered it, but I think a restaurant like that shouldn't offer five meat dishes, one of which you shouldn’t order. It was perfectly cooked, absolutely delicious, but enough for four and too much of a muchness in the context of a meal like that. It was presented whole, then carved into three huge chunks each, each placed on a thick and oily and none-too-tasty slice of eggplant. It may not be cutting edge, but a piece of meat like that cried out for a little potato or something. The room is bright and modern, with only nine very well-spaced tables.

Alkimia: We loved it. Also a Michelin star, it's on a different scale from Abac, much less traditionally fancy. The servers were personable young women with a tendency to talk to each other and less than fantastic language skills (but A for effort, and we did fine, better in English than Italian), and the whole setup is simpler than Abac, though lacking absolutely nothing, including two amuses. Prices are extremely reasonable (starters in the teens, mains in the 20s, desserts 9), and the crowd was young and Spanish (and execrably dressed; I hope I never read another query about dress codes; believe me, nobody cares any more). I don't know what I was expecting in the way of wild imagination, but what we had was quite restrained, and stunningly prepared. Again, we needed the Spanish menu to understand the English. I had a salad with jamon and romesco sauce to start. Only the gob of beet-flavored foam suggested we were in New Catalonia. It was all delicate and perfect, but I'd have kept the slices of jamon away from the sauce. My main course was arroz con cigalas (I hope I have that right), beautiful tomatoey rice with two shelled scampi. Franco had the much-cited seabass, two pieces of fish in a puddle of butter foam and squash purée. It was very delicate, and he was completely pleased. The butter foam really worked.

Euskal Etxea: frustrated by closings, we wound up for Saturday lunch at a Basque place listed in the Michelin. It's a cultural center cum restaurant cum pintxos at the bar, which is what we did. They were all voluptuous, carefully prepared, and delish--hams, fish purées, anchovies galore, peppers filled with things. We got there at about 12.40, installed ourselves on two stools and went to work; by 12.55, there were throngs standing behind us.

Café Viena: I would not make a detour on Bittman's advice (on Jacqueline Friedrich's yes -- her old Choice Tables for the Times seems still valid -- but her fave, Cal Pep, was closed), but I found myself standing in front of the bar he claims has the best sandwich in the world and went in. Perversely I didn't order it, and the one I did order (chicken) was no great shakes, though the place is cute and the chicken was good. However, I bought Bittman's "ibérico" to go, thinking Franco could eat it on the plane. It's a standard bocadillo de jamon, but supposedly with the best bread and ham in the universe. It was ten hours later before we tasted it, home in Rome, so I won't blame it for lack of freshness, and it was pretty good, but there was some sort of red sauce in it drowning out the jamon. We were both appalled, and Franco was indignant. In general we found gloppy sauces where Italians would stand back and leave the protagonists alone.

Boqueria market: Am I the only person in the universe (besides Franco) not to be blown away by it? I will grant that it should be seen earlier in the morning than I went, and that some stalls were still closed for vacation, and the ratio of tourists (us included, of course) to regular people was probably not typical. The fish was gorgeous, but not a patch on the Catania market, which I visited a few months ago. The ham vendors and cod/anchovy stalls were impressive. But the fruits and veg failed to excite me (though I'd love to have bought some of those avocados to take home; that's one thing I miss in Italy). The local produce seemed (and I emphasize seemed; as a total newcomer, I know I didn't grasp what was important) to be overwhelmed by the imported or exotic. We sensed strong bonds with Spain's former colonies. It was only at the stalls outside the market in the little square that I recognized a concentration of seasonal local produce, stuff that I would take home to cook, as I do here in Italy.

All in all, it was a satisfying trip despite the few frustrations, and I hope we'll get another crack at Barcelona soon.

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  1. Thanks for the great post. Barcelona has become a haven for college students on airfare, cheap beer and great a partying city. I share your somewhat disappointment of the Boqueria, especially if one is accustomed to the ones in Italy. Most of the fruits and vegetables are impressive for their display (note much of the cut-up unripe fruit sold in plastic containers), though there are some very good eating places within.
    Haven't been to Alkimia in a couple of years. Base on your experience, I'll have to give it another try this November. For most modern Catalan restaurants, I have had better luck with the tasting menus. Because many chefs fondness for sweet in savory dish and the new trend toward slow braising/roasting and sous vide cooking, I find dishes are better in small portions as they are less rich and coying.
    I think the Catalan vegetable dish you had at Can Sole is escalivada, though all the vegetables should have been grilled or cooked near a fire to give them a smokiness.

    4 Replies
    1. re: PBSF

      Could you list any of the "very good eating places" in the Boqueria? We'll be there at the end of November/beginning of December and I definitely plan to check out the market. Thanks!

      Also, thanks to mbfant for the helpful review of where to go and what to avoid!

      1. re: wiselindag

        Eating places in the Boqueria: Kiosko Universal, Bar PInotxo, Bar Boqueria, Bar Central, El Guim. All are bar seating, no tables.

        1. re: PBSF

          Yes I really recommend Bar Pinotxo, it is well worth the wait to sit at the bar. The BF absolutely hates to wait, and I made him and he was even he admitted it was worth it after the meal! The monkfish stew was something I really liked, and the chickpeas. We had so much good food though I can't remember it all. We went in May and were very pleased with the selections.

      2. re: PBSF

        Yes, escalivida, and indeed the eggplant did have a smoky taste, the only taste anywhere near the plate.

        Interesting point about the tasting menus, which I'll remember if I get another chance.

      3. I don't know how the Boqueria is in August, but the markets in Madrid are at their absolute worst in August. Almost all of the good stalls go on vacation (along with most of the rest of the city) and the quality of the fish and produce is nowhere near what it is during more normal parts of the year (variety or qualitywise). On the other end of the spectrum, before Christmas and Three Kings is the best time of year at the markets, especially for fish and shellfish.

        2 Replies
        1. re: butterfly

          Hmm, this seems to ring true to me. I was in Barcelona in Late November, and remember being blown away by the market, including fruits and produce. It was mushroom season, and they had many different varieties, including a local mushroom harvested from the area. They also had a fabulous selection of candied fruits. And they had one small stall selling various forms of edible insects. The fruit and veg did include many products from all over the E.U., but there were at least some local (spanish, don't know if that meant directly from the area around Bacelona, but my spanish is non-existent) products.

          1. re: butterfly

            I'm sure that's true. Evidence that this was the wrong time of year was all around us.