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Trip Recap, Barcelona 3/18 - 3/24 (LONG!)

q
Quizrah Mar 25, 2011 02:51 PM

Hi all!

Delurking to recap my recent trip to Barcelona by way of thanks for all the information I've gotten from the helpful posters here, particularly PBSF, Parigi, Aleta, and the two Ericas.

CERVECERIA CATALANA
We headed here for lunch after checking into our hotel nearby. Large, crowded, somewhat touristy. Wasn't too jazzed on this place: there were a bunch of not-great things (cold croquetas, underseasoned solomillo, undercooked calcots- -I know, my fault for ordering them here, but this was wishful thinking after failing to get a res at Can Marti on Erica's rave) for only one good thing (a botifarra flauta). It's very possible we ordered the wrong things, though: the chipirones and patatas bravas with egg consumed by the Australians next to us looked great.

LA MIFANERA
We had a nice but somewhat unexciting dinner here. The arroz negro with calamares and alcachofas was better than the mar i muntanya. Inexplicably, there was a large framed photograph of Robert De Niro with the two waiters and the chef, displayed prominently amongst the wares for sale at the reception area.

QUIMET I QUIMET
We went for a quick snack just as they opened for lunch on Saturday, before a walk around Montjuïc. I'm not sure I'm the biggest fan of canned fish generally, but these were nice, and went particularly well with the vermut. The salmon montadito with the cream-cheese-y substance and honey was, as previous posters and the guys at the counter assured us, excellent.

TAPAC24
The food here was good- -we had the bombas, the truffled 'bikini' (ham and cheese) sandwich), an alcachofas y guisantes dish (peas perfectly cooked), and some lentils with chorizo. The fluorescent lighting and basement seating, however, made things a bit grim. . .

things improved markedly by the third day:

LA VINYA DEL SENYOR
In the corner of the plaza surrounding Santa Maria del Mar, an extensive wine list and excellent small plates of meats, cheeses, and refined takes on Catalan fare. In addition to a plate of cheese, we had a great meatball with mushroom and foie and a very delicate little plate of canelones (wrapped not in traditional pasta, but something infinitely thinner- -not sure what it was). The wines by the glass were perhaps the most interesting we had all trip while ordering cheaply.

we also stopped in later for a couple pintxos at SAGARDI- -all very tasty.

PACO MERALGO
We'd made a reservation online at bcnrestaurants.com, but for reasons perhaps related to the time zone difference (and the fact that Spain doesn't go into daylight savings until somewhat after the US does), they had us down for 9:30 instead of 8:30. No matter: we had a great time sitting at the counter, where we were befriended by an enthusiastic old man and his dining partner, who coached us through the menu. Absolutely fantastic, in some ways the best meal we had in Barcelona. We had perfect fried artichokes, breaded scallops on the half-shell, grilled razor clams, some cod croquettes, and, best of all, the chipirones- -light, tender, juicy. Everything was executed with a specific and masterful understanding of the substance being cooked. We'd have gone back every night if we could.

SANT JOAN
We were the only tourists here, surrounded mostly by locals (of diverse means: working-class types and more uptown ladies both) catching a quick bite by themselves. We'd read here that they did menus del dia, but that didn't seem to be available when we went. The waitress was friendly and helpful, though, and between her and the guy sitting next to us, they decided to bring us a nicoise-style salad of escarole, bacalao, anchovies, tuna, olives, and boiled egg, followed by a dish of artichokes stewed with what looked like favas and peas, with chorizo and botifarra negra. Both were excellent. We had two cortados, and no dessert: judging by our neighbors, the thing to do seemed to be to order fruit, delivered whole on a plate, with a knife to cut them with. Overall, a really nice lunch.

GRESCA
We reserved here for Monday night, as it's one of the few places open. For the duration of our time here (about 3 hours!), there was only one other couple (also American) in the restaurant. I'm not sure why it was so empty (Monday? the construction across the street?), since other chowhounders have attested to its popularity, and since the food itself was really wonderful. We did the 50E tasting menu, which delivered a nearly unmanageable amount of food in 9 courses. There were a couple of misfires (an excessively salty cod 'risi e bisi'-type dish, pairs of dishes with very similar sauces and re-purposed accoutrements, a couple early dishes that were prettier than they were tasty), but in general the individual courses were thoughtfully conceived, well-executed, and beautifully plated. Particularly brilliant was his egg dish (which I think people have mentioned before), in which a just-set egg yolk is suspended in the middle of a soufflé made from the whites and set over the thin, toothsome potato noodles. . .There was also a fantastic scallop with very lightly pickled (and grilled) red onions and a macadamia nut sauce. A great union of technique and taste.

EUSKAL EXTEA
We had a bunch of nice tapas here, the passed hot ones (esp. the fried peppers stuffed with. . .crab?) somewhat superior to the cold ones (ham, patés, salmon, pork loin).

TICKETS
I'd managed to book a reservation online a couple days after somebody here posted the link. I'm probably inviting some serious snarlage here, but we were distinctly underwhelmed. Everything was tasty and well-executed, don't get me wrong- -Albert Adria hovered over the counters, personally checking (and in some cases delivering) each dish that went out- -but there was very little of the magical inventiveness that I'd sort of expected. This is maybe more a matter of my own expectations, but still, I've always thought that the small-bites/tapas format is perhaps the one best suited to modernist techniques- -little mouthfuls of fun, with none of the palate fatigue you might get from the consumption of a larger, single dish. We had:
- the jamon de toro (thin-sliced toro brushed with rendered jamon fat), which was good (as dishes with very high-quality ingredients tend to be), though in the end the lardo sort of overwpowered the (fairly mild, in this case) toro.
- quail eggs "1'40"- -cooked for a minute and forty seconds, yolk still liquid, then rolled in crumbs that tasted like Cheezits. The eggs were quite cool (perhaps this is common with the low temps used in sous vide cooking. . .but somehow I think the dish would have been more appetizing warm).
- pescaito frito: 'fried fish'- -I'm not sure what the name of the technique used here was, but we ate it all around town, from la Mifanera to el Celler de Can Roca- -essentially it gives the ingredient (processed first, perhaps?) the texture of a prawn cracker. Anyway, these chips tasted vaguely like fish, and had a pretty nori powder on them, but were kind of. . .meh.
- razor clams 'natural' with lemon air, ginger, and saffron. My mother's main complaint with Tickets is that the techniques used here generally failed to amplify the essence of the raw materials worked with. This dish was an exception: the iodine-y salinity of the razor clams was nicely played up by the lemon air (a justified use of an otherwise tired technique, reminiscent also of the clams' sea-foamy origins).
- quickly seared bonito with 'gelatina de refrito'- -nice, but again, not particularly tuna-y.
- liquid ravioli de queso de payoyo- -my favorite bite of the night, accompanied by a little onion jam and a toast, nicely cheesy.
- artichokes with ham chips - halved cooked artichokes, with little salty hits of dehydrated ham. Pretty simple.
- gambas fritas - shrimp fried in the shell. We saw people shelling these guys, but it seemed to us like you were supposed to eat them whole- -the spices were outside, and the deep-frying turned the thin shells brittle and crunchy. Super-sweet shrimp: high-quality material.
- rabbit ribs with allioli 'espumoso' - this was probably not the best dish to have after the fried shrimp (both were heavy and salty). It was tasty enough (and the foamy allioli was very nice), but again, there was nothing rabbity about the ribs- -could have been (as often touted) chicken.
- wild strawberry tart - this was a welcome and very refreshing dish after the salty fried food. . .perfect little strawberries in delicate pastry with lemon zest and a light slick of pastry cream.

Overall, as I said- -we didn't NOT enjoy the meal. . .but it was far from revelatory, and we ate better (and enjoyed ourselves more) elsewhere. There was just something slightly forced and false about the experience. Tickets is very much a commercially-minded endeavor, from the merchandise displayed in the windows to the sponsors listed on the menus. The decor and restaurant concept are. . .there's no other way to put it. . .*tacky*: the waiters in faux ringmaster costumes, the maitre d' in a jacket emblazoned with "TICKETS" in light-up bulbs (!), the loud fixtures and furniture. And *obvious*. As our waiter said, in English, "Welcome to the show." Yes: modern gastronomy involves a certain wizardry, sleight of hand, spectacle. But instead of amplifying the awe-factor, all the frippery made it feel like we'd mistakenly entered a theme restaurant, the Hard Rock Café via Germanes Adria. The circus idea, it seems to me, has far less to do with the tapas served and far more to do with the hype and media frenzy surrounding anything Adria. Even at their best, circuses are half magic and half hokum: on leaving, it was hard not to wonder if we'd been had.

Fortunately, our last meal of the trip was at

EL CELLER DE CAN ROCA
Much has already been written about this place, and in fact many of the dishes and amuses we had in the middle-priced tasting menu are identical to those discussed in earlier years (the candied-anchovy olives, the campari bonbons, the sole with five Mediterranean emulsions). Our meal was nothing short of extraordinary, a perfectly calibrated sequence of flavors, textures, and ideas. This was a meal with *cadence*, where each dish was not only outstanding on its own, but in contrast and complement to the dishes preceding and following it. Heavy (crispy pallet of Iberian suckling pig) is preceded by lighter (a cod trio featuring silky tripe and an escudella-based sauce) and followed by a fat-shattering acid dessert course ("Green Colourology": lime gel, lime sorbet, mint ice cream, cold liquid anisette rocks, scattered with fragrant baby mint and other herbs). It's silly to compare this place to Tickets (which operates at a different level, being technically tapas), but at Can Roca we found the magic and the playfulness that was so missing the other night, the masterful deployment of technique at the service of flavor.

The standout dishes of the day were the two-phase play on ensaladilla rusa (a liquid phase, with molten egg yolk, a tiny mirepoix, and a potato-based sphere; a dry phase with rice krispy-like potato puffs, minuscule citrus segments, and something else, all bound together with grilled rice paper) and the foie gras, liquified over an artichoke purée, with dehydrated orange, slices of whole artichoke, and black truffle. Incredibly decadent, totally essential, utterly delicious.

Service was friendly and unstuffy, and the space itself is quite beautiful.

* * *
Just some general notes for others who may be travelling: even at the fancier places we visited, people seemed to be dressed fairly casually (at Can Roca, half the clientele was in jeans; none of the men were wearing jackets: this was at lunch, mind you, but that still seems crazy to this New Yorker!).

We also tended to eat early by Spanish standards (8:30 or 9), and although this meant that it was easy to eat at popular places that might later get crowded, we had more fun when there were others dining (with whom we could chat and whose dishes we could scope out).

While it obviously helps to know Spanish, many menus are in Catalan, which isn't always as similar to Spanish as you might hope, so brush up on your Catalan food words before you go, if possible, or be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Luckily, almost everybody we encountered was fairly friendly and happy to explain or recommend things (and tolerate my unconfident Spanish).

Also, though I didn't list any above, some of the nicest treats we had were simple things we bought on the run- -little sandwiches with ham or cheese, pastries- -so don't kill yourself trying to plan your entire trip to the T.

Thanks again to all the chowhounders who helped me figure out where to eat; hope this recap helps someone else.

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  1. j
    jinx Mar 25, 2011 05:39 PM

    Great write-up. Now I don't feel so disappointed that Tickets will be closed while we are in town over Easter. And I may have to add Paco Meralgo back on--I'd seen some less favorable reviews recently, including Erica's, but it definitely sounds worth trying.

    5 Replies
    1. re: jinx
      q
      Quizrah Mar 25, 2011 07:03 PM

      Please do go! I didn't think Erica's review was unfavorable (we got many of the same dishes), just that it was a bit of a trek for her (it was not for us, as our hotel was three blocks away).

      I forgot to mention the great octopus dish we had there- -grilled and served with browned onions- -really tender and very tasty. While we mostly focused on seafood there, the locals seemed to go mostly for the meat dishes- -the guys on our left got a delicious-looking rabbit stew with a wild mushroom sauce, and the guys on our right had a gorgeous steak tartare and some foie on toast.

      1. re: Quizrah
        j
        jinx Mar 25, 2011 08:16 PM

        Yes, it was Erica's comment that it wasn't worth a trek across town that made me hesitant. It will be a trek for us as we are staying in the Born area. But, it sounds like it would be worth it...or maybe we will go for lunch while we are up in that area. Good to know that you can reserve via that bcnrestaurants.com... I just registered with them. I am also thinking about Gresca, but first am waiting to see if we can get into Cinc Sentits, which is our first choice.

        We'll be staying just up the street from Vinya del Senyor and Sagardi! Those are on my list as well.

        1. re: Quizrah
          erica Mar 26, 2011 03:41 AM

          Great write up! Curious about Can Marti--did you call to book and find them full on that day?
          A Sunday, I am guessing....

          To clarify, if my hotel had been near PacoMeralgo, I might also been tempted to try another meal ...but I did not think it was all that unusual..

          1. re: erica
            q
            Quizrah Mar 26, 2011 07:55 AM

            I tried for Saturday and Sunday, but it was last-minute (Thursday, before my flight) and I was doing it online through bcnrestaurants.com (instead of calling, which might have yielded better results).

            Re: Paco Meralgo: there's so much that goes into a single dining experience beyond the food itself. Especially when you only get to go there once, it's hard to make any kind of definitive judgment of a place. But we had a great time! And I suppose Paco Meralgo isn't *unusual*: it's not serving anything radically different from what you can get at countless other upscale tapas place, though I guess I felt the dishes were prepared with a higher level of attention and care than perhaps at the other places we visited. Anyway, see for yourself!

            1. re: Quizrah
              PBSF Mar 26, 2011 09:22 AM

              I totally agree that Paco Meralgo is nothing "unusual" but you paid the ultimate compliment to any tapas/pintxos place when you stated that "we had a great time". For me that is the essence of these places. The food should be good but it is the intangibles (the staff, the room, the buzz, the people watching) that what make one person love a place while another, it is blah. The reasons are subtle and personal why I like Paco Merago and not Cal Pep or in the Boqueria, Kioske Universal rather than Bar Pinotxo. I would never go to Euskal Etxea or Taktitka Berri (my two favorite pintxos bars) before 9 because the ambience is totally different later in the evening. I can't think of many tapas/pintxos places that gets kudos from everyone.
              For me, the only area to sit at Paco Meraglo or any tapas/pintxos is at the counter. it is interacting with the staff; order couple dishes and eat, order couple of more. Table service with a menu is completely lost in me except with a large group of friends. That is when a large bustling place like Cerveceria Catalana is handy. For these places, it is definitely not about the food as long as it is competent.
              Glad you had such a great time at El Cellar de Can Roca. I plug the restaurant and am always concern that someone make the effort of transport and spend the large sum and does not have a great experience.

      2. PBSF Mar 25, 2011 08:24 PM

        Thanks for reporting back. A great write up.

        1. m
          middyboo Mar 28, 2011 12:08 PM

          Thank you thank you thank you! This post is exactly what I was looking for when I came to the Barcelona board. Chowhounders never let me down. I esp loved the bit about the cadence of your CAN ROCA meal. I know exactly what you mean by that.

          Quick general question: Are that many restos closed on Sunday? We're getting there Sat morning and leaving Tues night. So, Sunday will be one of our two full days. I'm wondering whether I should go ahead and plan out all 3 meals for Sunday.

          Edit: Just saw the post about La Dama from PBSF. I've added that to my Sunday itinerary. Thanks PBSF!!

          4 Replies
          1. re: middyboo
            PBSF Mar 28, 2011 12:34 PM

            Just about all the good sit down restaurants as well as most modern Catalan restaurants are closed all day sunday. So are many simple everyday places such as Sant Joan. Sunday lunch is an easier as restaurants in Barceloneta and around the harbor are open. There are some good seafood/arroz places there because it is very popular for locals for Sunday midday meal. Many tapas/pintxos places are open Sundays, especially in the Eixample, Born/Ribera and the Barri Gotic. You don't need to plan all 3 Sunday meals far ahead. My advice is eat a midday meal in Barceloneta that might require a reservation. Since most of these restaurants are large, reserve the previous day is probably fine unless there is a 'must' restaurant. Sunday evening hit the tapas/pintxos places in El Born. Or you can reserve for PacoMeralgo for Sunday night or drop in early, around 7:30 for easy seating. Of course, it will depends on what you've planned for your other nights.

            1. re: PBSF
              m
              middyboo Mar 28, 2011 01:39 PM

              Thank you PBSF! If the weather is fine, we're definitely going down to Barceloneta on Sunday afternoon. Can Ros sounded like a good pick there. These restos below are on my list in no particular order. If there have been any drastic quality drop-offs, I'd very much appreciate a heads-up!

              Santa Maria
              El Asador de Aranda
              Lolita Taperia
              Can Ros
              La Tomaquera
              La Dama
              Gelonch

              Ah! So excited. We're leaving on 4/8. Any of the above have particularly awesome octupus? I love octopus and squid. Totally psyched about visiting another seafood city. My last big trip was to Japan and it didn't disappoint!

              1. re: middyboo
                PBSF Mar 28, 2011 09:47 PM

                You have an eclectic and interesting list, different from most.
                I really like Santa Maria: sit down tapas place with tables and counter seats. No standing, therefore it is more of a tapas tasting place rather than standup informal. Decor is industrial with one of the most friendly staff anywhere. They are a big asset to the place, fun but still efficient. The food is very eclectic: some Catalan, Mediterranean, fusion. The food is uniformly full flavor; not a place if one is looking for subtlety. The tasting menu is very reasonably price considering the quality and amount of food.
                El Asador de Aranda is a chain (not a bad thing in this case) of restaurants specializing roasted meat. Besides assortment of sausages, etc; only roast baby lamb is served as a main plate; no beef. The quality of the baby lamb is good and they've they've got the formula down pat. I ate at the branch in Tibidabo which is quite nice. There is also one in the Eixample on Pau Claris which I've walk by dozens of time. The decor doesn't appeal to me.
                Can Ros: it is one of the better seafood/rice restaurant in Barceloneta. Haven't been there in a couple of years but since the owner is the same, the quality should not drop-off any. The paella is good the last time I ate there but it is a difficult dish to for restaurant to produce, therefore, there is always little luck involved.
                La Tomaquera: that is a place from the past. It's been years. A real funky hole in the wall in Poble Sec. It is good down home cooking. Depends on if you want to trek over to a quiet area. Thanks for bringing this place back.
                La Dama: had dinner there last October after recommended by an well-informed poster; updated Catalan cooking; excellent ingredients and creative but not overly so; no foam, no decontructionism, etc. We took the shorter tasting menu which I think very well priced. The service is spot on and the decor is beautiful. One of the best dining experience I've had in Barcelona. Plan to return in late April. Hope I get lucky again. One of the few high end restaurant open on Sundays.
                Have not been to Lolita Taperia since it replaced Inopia. Nor Gelonch.
                You wil find squid in just about every eating place. Simply cooked at anyone of the counters in the Boqueria, in most tapas places as well as all types of seat down restaurants. Last time I ate at Santa Maria, it had a very good baby squid with butifarra. Octopus is less common but I've seen it at Kioske Universal and El Quim. The seafood places in Barceloneta such as Can Ros will have it, most lightly part of a seafood platter. There are tapas places in the Barri Gotic that specializes in octopus: try Bar Celta and other places on c/Merce.

                1. re: PBSF
                  m
                  middyboo Mar 29, 2011 04:25 PM

                  You are a saint. Printing this out to take with me. If you're ever in NYC, love to meet up for a good meal! Sorry for hijacking the thread OP!

          2. a
            Aleta Mar 30, 2011 07:04 AM

            Hola Quizrah!

            Thanks for the wonderful report! It will help ME with my upcoming trip this summer! :-P

            For traditional Catalan, I'd like to go to SANT JOAN and CAN JOSEP. I'll also try one of the 'GLOPS' (ie Braseria El Glop, Taverna El Glop etc) since they are open on Sunday nights. If the food is decent, it could be an alternative to Paco Meralgo or Sagardi on Sundays.

            For arroz, I might return to my favourite KAIKU or try CALDENI (which is near the Sagrada Familia and also has a tasting menu with Wagyu beef !).
            http://www.flickr.com/photos/encantadisimo/sets/72157606162077676/
            http://www.flickr.com/photos/encantad...
            I love Encantadisimo's food pictures and the links above are to Kaiku's and Caldeni's renditions of arroz.

            Agree with you on GRESCA . There are some really good dishes (like the egg souffle) and then there are some I could pass on (like the rice dish with bacalao belly). I decided that when I go next time, I'll order the mini-tasting menu, which allows you to choose 4 items instead of having all 9.

            Agree with PBSF and your comments on PACO MERALGO. It's not stellar but it's good food on a Sunday night in L'Eixample. The gazpacho is really delicious, btw; I recall they add almonds.

            I appreciated too your observation about the more casual dress code in Barcelona. When we went to El Celler de Can Roca for lunch, I noticed some flip-flops, torn jeans and 'beachwear' that I would NEVER expect to see in a 3-star Michelin in, say, Paris. That's what I love about Barcelona! You can eat well but don't need to get all decked out!

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