Here's a restaurant recap from our visit to Barcelona in early January 2010. We got some good ideas from here, so we thought we'd give back with a roundup of our experiences.
Here's an album of food photos from the trip:
First, it's worth pointing out that several restaurants we wanted to go to were closed for the holidays / until after the first week in January. Manairo, Dos Polillos, Embat, Hisop, Catalina, Rosal 34, Onofre, Fast Good, and Espai Sucre were all on our list at one time or another but weren't open while we were in town. We still had more places we wanted to go than we could fit into our schedule, but our final roster would have looked different if some of those restaurants hadn't been closed. That's not a complaint, just something to bear in mind if you're thinking of going in late December or early January.
Second, if eating is a big part of your trip, it's a good idea to brush up on your Spanish food vocabulary. Teaching yourself some Catalan food words (or carrying a glossary) can be useful as well. In some cases Catalan food words are similar to their Spanish equivalents (conill/conejo, pop/pulpo, etc.) but not always -- it took us a few tries to remember what xai, vedella, or fetge mean.
Here's our recap:
Hands down the best meal we had in Barcelona, much deserving of its Michelin star. Carles Abellan's food is imaginative and sophisticated, and the service was top-notch from start to finish. We ordered the 'festival' tasting menu, which was 7 savory courses + 2 desserts + 3 amuses, and we enjoyed every single dish on it. The standouts were the duck foie gras mousse with corn meal and rice (a deconstruction of the scrapings at the bottom of a paella pan: put it all together and the taste was spot-on) and the consomme with methyl-cellulose balls injected with truffle oil, parmigiano, and quail yolk, which burst in the mouth like little bombs of flavor. While a few of the dishes were fairly straightforward, people interested in (or simply open to) molecular gastronomy will obviously enjoy this place much more than conservative diners, whose tolerance for artichoke mousse and nuts in gold dust might be limited. Although they said that the festival menu would not leave us overly full, we wound up skipping dinner after having lunch here because there was so much food. (And because we ate everything in sight!) Lunch for 2 + a bottle of wine was ~€200. We made reservations by email.
This was our other molecular gastronomy / Michelin star adventure in Barcelona, and while it doesn't have the same 'Two Degrees of Ferran Adria' cred that Comerc 24 sports, it's a very impressive restaurant. We thought the food was, with a couple of exceptions, slightly less innovative than that at Comerc 24, but it was very, very good. The chicken cannelloni was a particular star -- it looked almost like a burrito, but then you discover that they've rendered parmigiano into a pliable cheese shell, which paired wonderfully with the mole-inspired sauce. The deconstructed pa amb tomaquet, the deer loin with cellophane fat, and the peach gazpacho with olive oil were other favorites on the tasting menu (5 savory courses, 2 desserts, 2 amuses). Though the service here sometimes gets knocked for being cold, we found it efficient and friendly, albeit not as ebullient we had at Comerc 24. Lunch for 2 + a bottle of wine was ~€150. We made reservations by email.
Petit Comite is the 'downmarket' restaurant from Fermi Puig (of Drolma), part of the whole return-to-Catalan-roots trend that's happening in Barcelona. While we certainly applaud the idea of high-end chefs cooking in more casual and economical restaurants, we weren't terribly impressed with this one. It's a snazzy restaurant with a buzzy vibe, but some of the food, while good, was so simple that, for what they charge, it cried out for more imagination and sophistication. (A meatball with chickpeas is just that: a big meatball sitting on top of plain old chickpeas. It tasted good, but really? And with all the places to get good, cheap Catalan food, we have to say, really? again.) That said, the bunyols de xocolata (donut holes filled with liquid chocolate) were one of our favorite desserts -- we would happily buy these by the bagful. Dinner for 2 + wine was ~€80. We made reservations by email.
A tapas bar in the back of the Mercat Santa Caterina, La Torna is a great place for a quick, casual, and cheap lunch. We'd seen it recommended by Ramon Freixa, and devoted readers might recall the Amateur Gourmet waxing ecstatic over it. The dish that everyone seems to order is the fresh squid, which is flash-griddled with olive oil, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. It's straightforwardly delicious in exactly the way you hope tapas in Barcelona would be. We also really enjoyed the asparagus with romesco, which had a nice bite. Lunch for 2 was ~€25. Note that the menu, posted on the wall, is only in Catalan. We did not make reservations and don't know if they're accepted.
Given how much people rave about Paco Meralgo on Tripadvisor and Chowhound, we were a little worried it would be like Cal Pep, with a line of tourists circling the block waiting to get in. Fortunately, that didn't seem to be the case (maybe because of its location?), though we were glad we made reservations, as it was packed on a Sunday night. A couple of the dishes we ordered were ho-hum (the veal slider and the tolosas), but the shrimp with garlic and the famous bombas were delicious (the latter surprisingly spicy and so, so good), and the bikini iberic was the Platonic ideal of a ham-and-cheese sandwich. The pa amb tomaquet was the best we had -- and we ate a lot of it throughout the trip. The atmosphere was very lively and fun; it would be hard to have a bad time here. Dinner for 2 with wine was ~€50. We made reservations by phone.
*El Vell Sarria
Why should you trek all the way up to Sarria to eat in a restaurant that looks like it was decorated by a team of Barcelona's grandmothers? Because of the arroces, cooked over a wood fire and chock-full of soupy, crunchy, meaty goodness. We got the "Can Guitard mar i muntanya," a murky, muddy mess of a pan (don't expect the artificial yellow paellas you see on menus with pictures throughout the Barri Gotic), with huge, perfectly cooked langoustines, cuttlefish, and bits of rib meat. The wood fire infuses everything with a rich smokiness, a great complement to the shellfish and meat. We started with the (nice) patatas bravas with octopus, but the rice is the point. The service was very friendly, as was the clientele: virtually everyone that passed our table said hello, and on a Sunday afternoon the place had the feel of a multi-generational neighborhood hangout. Try to combine a meal here with a visit to the Monestir de Pedralbes, about a 10-15-minute walk away. Lunch for 2 + wine was ~€50. We made reservations via email and called to confirm from Barcelona.
We read that Jordi Herrera of Manairo considers Sant Joan one of the city's best places for down-home Catalan cooking. It's basically a diner, serving cheap traditional Catalan food with no frills of any kind. The owner -- who, incidentally, smoked while working -- was very friendly and fascinated with how we had found the place, which led to a mutually confusing albeit amusing conversation that culminated in us writing down web addresses where he could read about himself. The food is very simple and hearty: we had ham croquettes, cod with fried eggplant, and rabbit with garlic. The rabbit was one of the best dishes of the trip, an elemental mix of meat, fat, salt, garlic, and oil that we started eating with a knife and fork and wound up tearing apart with our hands and teeth. Note that the menu, which is posted on the wall rather than handed out, is only in Spanish and Catalan. Lunch for 2 + beer was ~€25. We made reservations by phone, though they aren't necessary if you arrive early in the service.
This is a tiny restaurant far up in the Eixample serving toothsome renditions of traditional Catalan specialties. It's also a one-man show: Josep, the owner, does all of the shopping, prep work, and cooking himself, and even joined the lone server to wait on some of the tables. Josep also takes the reservations, and he was openly incredulous when we called from New York -- they don't get much international traffic, though Josep himself is apparently a fan of American movies and Bruce Springsteen. ("Nebraska" was playing during dinner, and shots of Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, and others line the walls.) There are some mildly elegant touches on the menu, like a great plate of queso carpaccio that wouldn't be out of place at a high-end cocktail party, but for the most part Can Josep is about hearty dishes like lightly grilled, flavorful pig's feet and intense fideus negres. Our favorite dish may have been the tuna on sliced tomatoes (tomaquet obert), as simple as it was delicious. Because Josep does all of the cooking, don't expect all of your food at once. The one waitress there that night was friendly and helpful. (And, like the guy at Sant Joan, a smoker on the job, if that matters to you.) Dinner for 2 + wine and beer was ~€40. Unless you plan on going right when they open, reservations are essential -- there are only about 26 seats, and they'll turn people away even with open tables if they don't think they can handle any more. The menu is only in Catalan.
A few mornings we had a quick coffee and pastry at the first cafe we'd pass, but there were three restaurants we sought out for breakfast. They were:
This was one of the most aesthetically appealing restaurants we visited. It's small and vaguely Parisian, with bottles lining the walls, tile floors, and marble tabletops. If Keith McNally opened a restaurant in Barcelona, this is exactly what it would look like. We ordered a bocadillo of manchego and tomato. If we had bocadillos like this at home, we could come around to the whole breakfast sandwich thing. Two bocadillos, a coffee, and a Cacolat were ~€10.
This historic bar and restaurant closed in 2000 but has been refurbished and reopened under the direction of Carles Abellan of Comerc 24. (Though he probably just got a check for looking at the menu.) Apparently it's quite a scene at night, but they open at 6am to catch the last of the late-night crowd before they go home, so we went for breakfast. It’s sort of an Art Deco diner with a few lounge-y touches: attractive, though not as impressive as some of the early word has suggested. The food was solid—the bocadillo Velodromo, a sausage-and-cheese sandwich, was surprisingly sweet—but nothing to go crazy about. And there were indeed people finishing off their night at breakfast: a waiter had to throw a drunk young guy out after he kept wandering around to other tables asking people to light his cigarette (there’s no smoking), in between discussing women with fellow patrons and trying to seduce the woman he was with. Total was ~€10.
Given its location and fame, Pinotxo could afford to be mediocre, so it’s all the more delightful that the food is actually very good. Like virtually everyone else there that morning, we had the chickpeas with blood sausage, the Barcelona equivalent of greasy bacon and potatoes at an American diner. Don’t know where their pastries come from, but the xuixo we had here was our favorite of the many we tried. The service was very friendly. We arrived around 8 and had to wait a bit for some seats to open up. Total was ~€15.
We ate at three places that, if we knew then what we know now, we might have scratched. None of them were bad or anything, but given how good some of the other places we went were, they felt like missteps. The three in question were:
Home of the world's best sandwich, according to Mark Bittman of the NY Times. We'll have to allow Mr. Bittman a moment of over-enthusiasm. The sandwich in question -- iberian ham w/cheese -- is good, certainly, but not remarkable. Indeed, if you or I had really good bread, we'd do even better than Cafe Viena, where the bread was unremarkable. While we'll admit to some curiosity about Bittman's claim, our biggest motivation for going here was that we knew it would be open when we arrived on 1/1 (they're open every day of the year). Given the location, our expectations weren't terribly high, but we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were a fair number of regulars and locals (or at least people who spoke Catalan and were chatty with the staff) in there alongside a smattering of tourists. Much to our delight but no one else's passing interest, one of the living statues from the Rambla came in and ate in full regalia. Two sandwiches, a beer, and a water were ~€15. We did not make reservations and don't know if they're accepted.
*Taberna del Cura
We'd never heard of this place before we got to Barcelona, but we walked past on New Year's Day and there were at least a dozen people lined up at the takeaway door, so we decided to try it. It's in Gracia, next to the well-known seafood place Botafumeiro, with which it's affiliated. The service was friendly and we were lucky to get a table as walk-ins: many of the tables were reserved and they were turning people away by the time we left. It was the end of our arrival day, so we didn't eat too much: lima beans with two kinds of cured pork, a potato and onion tortilla, and a plate of fried artichokes. The beans with pork and the tortilla were serviceable, but the artichokes (carxofes fritas) were quite good, crispy and salty like perfect potato chips but able to be rationalized as healthy. After dinner they brought us complimentary aguardiente de orujo and aguardiente de vino, which just about knocked us out. This isn't a destination place, but given our circumstances (tired after a flight, New Year's Day), it was ok. Along with the half-bottle of vinya del sol, the bill was ~€40. We did not make reservations, though they are accepted.
This place gets a lot of good remarks on Tripadvisor and Chowhound, but we thought it was merely so-so. Given its location and atmosphere, it's remarkably cheap. Probably as a result, there were a lot of families there. (So many dads with their teenage daughters that we learned how to say, "So, you're a woman now" in Catalan.) The food -- pork loin w/tomato marmalade and a gallo fish with tortilla -- was palatable enough (albeit lukewarm), but it struck us as a little dull, like the food you'd find at the ok-but-nothing-special bistros you see in a lot of American cities. That said, if you're looking for value or you have unadventurous eaters in tow, this would probably be a good choice. We each had three courses and wine, for a total of ~€40. We did not make reservations, though they are accepted.