Restaurants & Bars 4

Barcelona & San Sebastian Report

estufarian | Sep 2, 200302:34 PM

It was a significant birthday. How to celebrate? “What’s the ‘best’ restaurant in the world?” – impossible question to answer, but “Which restaurant would you most like to go to?” was much easier. El Bulli! And we were able to get reservations for the actual birthday by significant forward planning (involving setting the alarm for the middle of the night). Now we had 6 months to plan the trip and build a gastronomic tour. Basically Basque and Catalunyan food, with a touch of wine regions on the side.
Landing in Barcelona, we hotfooted it to Rioja and had our first taste of Spain in Casalarreina (a couple of hours drive south of both Bilbao and San Sebastian). The restaurant (La Vieja Bodega) was situated in a 17-century wine bodega (barn!), beautifully restored with a rustic feel. This turned out to be a very important meal, as well as being an excellent start. First we learned that restaurants open up for dinner much later in Spain than Europe. Then we over-ordered (according to the server) because the choices were so tempting. The first courses were spectacular – worth a visit here just for those. I had a simple plate of Iberico ham. Paper-thin slices, but what flavour! Had the mouth feel of a ham, but none of the fatty taste sometimes encountered with lesser hams. This serving was all flavour, melt-in-the-mouth, simply the best ham I can remember ever having. Chowspouse also tasted this and was amazed at the delicacy yet intense flavour, no sensation of filling up with food – almost ethereal. Throughout the trip this dish became a regular choice, but nowhere (regardless of stars) did the ham match up to the one here (not cheap however – we checked out prices at delis and typically Iberico sold for about double the price of the next most expensive – Serrano). Chowspouse’s starter was also spectacular. A salad of Lamb Sweetbreads. The sweetbreads were breaded, nugget-sized and totally grease-free. Sweetbreads are a favourite ingredient for me, but invariably a disappointment when presented. The colour is bland, even when breaded, and it’s also a difficult texture to present. Here the salad was multicoloured, so visually attractive, and accompanied by pine-nuts (crunch) and raisins (chewy and a sweet contrast) as well as a beet reduction dressing – more colour and sweetness. And lamb sweetbreads (or at least the way prepared here) seemed to have more flavour (I don’t ever recall being offered lamb in North America). The nugget size also helps texturally. An astonishing start. Next we tried a Foie Gras course and a Risotto. That allowed us to learn to eat local food – not fancy French or Italian transplants! Both were partially left (even foie gras; a first for me). Then the mains, (actually in Spain this is a misdescription as Appetizers and Mains tend to be about the same size – another learning), one of duck and one of pigeon. The local pigeon was excellent, the duck less successful. Desserts best forgotten, particularly the cheese plate which was dried out. But being Rioja, the wine list was excellent. We had a half-bottle each of a Crianza (Cubillo) and a Reserva (Tondonia) from the same producer (Lopez de Heredia – very reliable). All in all a mixed meal, but the starters were superb.
On to Bilbao, not the top chow destination. Because we had a pending 3* meal coming the next day we decided to graze on the local tapas (or Pintxos as the Basque call them). These came highly recommended, but I was underwhelmed. I’ve always liked the idea of tapas more than the execution. If I can order from a menu and have them prepared hot (or cold as appropriate), then fine – but at a tapas bar you just point and get – usually at room temperature. This leads to a sameness, and you have to eat standing up (or you’re at a place that isn’t popular, so the food probably isn’t as fresh). But it’s fun, if not exciting food.
Now San Sebastian. Too much choice and two 3* restaurants. Arzak and Martin Berasategui. A rule we follow from way back is to spend at least a day between top restaurants to avoid burn-out. So only time for one. It seemed that Arzak is more traditional and Berasategui more leading edge. So the latter was the choice. After getting lost (with all the place names in Basque country being changed e.g. San Sebastian is now Donostia, and Pamplona now Iruña, getting lost is even easier; we followed a sign towards Irun instead of Iruña) we anticipated our first 3* on this trip. Only one tasting menu choice, but it seemed to offer good value so we both went for it. The wine list contained many choices new to me, so we asked if they had matching wines for each course. No, not possible. The sommelier preferred to select wine from the list depending on individual tastes. Eventually, we just asked for a red and a white of his choice – there was almost no selection of half bottles. The white was VERY oaked – not a particularly good choice for modern cuisine. The red was a better match although simple (but at 85€ for the two, not unreasonably priced).
On to the meal which, frankly, was disappointing. One criticism of cutting-edge cuisine is that the techniques can over-dominate the meal. This may have been the case here, as almost every dish featured (and some were dominated by) gels. Even the salad course contained ‘jellied lettuce’. Although the flavours were good, the parade of gels was boring to the palate. And this wasn’t helped by a concentration on smoked fish, Now, I enjoy smoked fish (Chowspouse less so), but smoking does tend to blur the underlying taste. So the overall impression was of a repetitive sequence of ‘smoked fish and jelly’.
And that soon became boring. Not a truly memorable meal and we speculated that Martin Berasategui had overreached himself with his numerous other endeavours (and restaurants), but indeed he was in the kitchen and toured the tables towards the end of the evening. Not in our 3 best meals of the year so far.
The next day had been planned as a rest day, but based on a rave review we booked in for lunch at Akelare (a 2*). What a find. The best meal of our lives. It deserves a special write-up (linked below).
Back towards Barcelona and El Raco Can Fabes (another 3*). Recently renovated (and the renovations not quite complete – suspended for August when everyone takes vacation) it now has a half dozen guest rooms and a new wine cellar and breakfast room (for guests only). I don’t know what the previous version was like, but the street side of the restaurant appears to be an old quaint house, which may have served as the original entrance. Now you enter through the side - resembling a modern garage door, into a glass maze. But the service is super-professional. The tasting menu has a couple of options, but usually at a significant additional charge, otherwise limited choice. The wine list is international, with a good Spanish section. Included was one of the all-time great Riojas (1970 Castillo Ygay from Marques de Murrieta) at a very fair price (cheaper than I had seen it at retail), so this was a must choice (they only had 5 bottles left).
This is a tough restaurant to review. The food is perfectly prepared – I don’t think I’ve ever had Mediterranean food better prepared, but still not fully satisfying. Our memories of the meal are the amuses and mignardises, both of which were spectacular, numerous and interesting (e.g. a prune stuffed with duck). I emphasize Mediterranean, as it doesn’t have a particularly Spanish feel to it. The whole experience is much closer to a French dining experience. More formal and correct, rather than the passion and excitement in the food I experienced elsewhere. More a question of style, as I can’t criticize the food. I just didn’t feel it. And a slightly bitter aftertaste, in that the charges for bread and water here were the highest I found in Spain (they are noted on the menu). It just grates a little that there were so many supplements on this check, making it the most expensive meal we had in Spain (but, it must be said, significantly cheaper than an equivalent meal in France). If you want the 3* (French) dining experience, this is the closest you’ll find in Spain.
By contrast, the next day we ate a late lunch (for us, early for Spain) between Can Fabes and Girona that was all excitement. If people are doing the Can Fabes/El Bulli trip (by car), take a note of this place.
In Riudarenes the La Brasa restaurant (in the La Brasa Hotel) looks dingy from the outside, more like a beer hall than a restaurant. But inside it’s pure trattoria, chequered tablecloths and all, serving Cuina Catalana (and proud of it). They’re also proud of their wine list – and their own wine (about 5€ a litre). And the place is packed, so go early (by Spanish standards). A multilingual (sort of) menu, with generous portions and cheerful service. The meal was solid – both the half rabbit and braised pig cheeks were excellent. One of the dessert choices was a cheese plate – which came with 9 different Spanish cheeses. And the check (for two, including wine) was less than double what we were charged for bread and water at Can Fabes.
A brief break before El Bulli to explore the Dali Museum; incidentally the granizada (shaved ice and freshly squeezed lemon juice in the main square in Figueres) was the perfect antidote to sweltering weather.
And finally, El Bulli. Site of the pilgrimage. Could it live up to expectations? I’m not going to give a course-by-course description – that’s been done several times. But the experience, and my reaction to it, was unexpected. At most fine dining establishments, the routine is predictable. You’re seated, peruse menus and wine list etc., and settle in for a choreographed experience somewhat akin to a symphony concert. At El Bulli, you’re asked about allergies etc. then, before any menu or wine list is presented, your world explodes. In a matter of minutes there are 6 or 7 different dishes in front of you, all seemingly brought by different people. Explanations are given and replaced by newer ones as each dish pursues the previous one. I had asked for the wine list – but it was futile to try and read it (maybe 100 pages) – the food was coming too fast and I didn’t want to miss anything. I ordered a Cava of the server’s choice and the wine list was whisked away (the table was full by this time anyway). In fact I had to stop servers removing some courses before I’d tried them (only empty plates were permitted to leave our table the entire evening). This was no symphony; it was a rock concert (no laser beams, but I think there were smoke pots). At the time, I found this stressful (anybody who tries to drive there would already be stressed from the precipitous drive anyway). On reflection, this was part of ‘the show’. Throw out your preconceptions about fine dining; you’re here for a totally different food experience. And a few elements emerged that continued throughout the evening. Misdirection was everywhere. What you see (and expect from experience) is NOT what you get. A potato chip with salt and pepper isn’t quite that. I think it was potato (didn’t question it at the time), but the pepper turned out to be dried olive, and the salt was actually globules of lemon juice. Some things we expected from our research – the spaghetti that’s actually Parmesan cheese. The caviar that isn’t – the caviar returned several times, always with a different flavour. But it has the exact texture, a firm but yielding outer skin which, when pressure is applied in the mouth, squirts out a surprise flavour. Now we knew what we’d had at Akelare – the same technique was being used there, and apparently there were a multitude of applications and flavours. I’ve researched the technique since and, simply, as Anthony Bourdain says, “Don’t try this at home!” But even so there were surprises. Apart from ‘caviar’, this year’s innovation is ‘air’. Imagine a very aerated foam (both liquid and solid versions were served), so the flavour component is incredibly light (almost inhaled rather than eaten, as a mouthful contains so little content). An example is carrot air in a bowl (actually the bowl was half covered – more like a clog). It takes a few spoonfuls to get to the bottom, and as you continue you’re suddenly hit with a flavour blast of tangerine. It’s exactly the same colour as the carrot and is totally unexpected (it’s under the covered part of the clog). A ‘loaf of bread’ is actually chocolate air – and so on. You don’t ‘dine’ at El Bulli; you ‘experience’ it. Will you like it? Who knows? It’s not fine dining, it’s El Bulli – and not for everyone. People go to Rock Concerts for the whole experience. You can buy the CD version of the songs, which are technically perfect, but it doesn’t match the experience of the live concert. Some people prefer the CD. I’ll take El Bulli.
Incidentally, the pacing after the initial onslaught is more normal. It’s a 4-hour meal (28 courses). We even requested a re-serving of some dishes that were exceptional – and these requests were accommodated (although a couple of courses later). We even took a break around 2/3 the way through to massage the digestive system and strolled outside where you can see through the kitchen window. There was Ferran Adria sitting to the side reading his newspaper. The kitchen runs without him standing over the chefs. He just stirred to answer questions. And gets up to greet patrons who visit the kitchen – that way the food preparation isn’t disturbed.
And yes, we did buy the tee shirt! And you can’t (yet) make reservations for next year. And the English language version of the cookbook is scheduled for October (didn’t ask if it was just up to 2002, or whether it would include the 2003 technical details).
Back to Barcelona, one of my favourite cities in the world. Dining opportunities were sparse – we were there on Sunday/Monday when many restaurants are closed – and during August, when the rest of the city is on vacation, so all the top restaurants were unavailable. We had an OK meal at La Yaya Amelia, which is only about 10mins walk uphill from Sagrada Familia (an area devoid of fine dining). It’s open from noon onwards, so handy to know about if you still want to eat on a North American schedule. A great wine list and food pretty good, but forgettable.
And the final meal, in the Penedes (where the Cava comes from) at Restaurant La Fabrica in Vilafranca del Penedes. A surprisingly sophisticated menu, including sushi (Japanese chef), with both local and more continental dishes. Excellent food and good service at fair prices.
And home, surprisingly only about 2lbs heavier. Maybe caviar isn’t fattening!

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