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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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.