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 Armitages 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 Ive 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 wouldnt stop the use the bathroom, is better than anywhere here. Its 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 didnt 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 everyones 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 waitresss 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. Whats 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). Larc, 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 arent 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.
Palafrugells 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 lall ioli, but didnt 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. Whats up? Food, wine and coffee, $35 for 2. C/Conquesta, 87. Badalona. Tel. 93 383 53 07