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Madrid/Barcelona Highlights (El Club Allard, Lua, Gelonch, Casa Delfin, Cal Pep)


Restaurants & Bars 5

Madrid/Barcelona Highlights (El Club Allard, Lua, Gelonch, Casa Delfin, Cal Pep)

singleguychef | Jul 17, 2012 03:40 PM

I finally pulled together a roundup of my 10 days in Spain last month, only in Madrid and Barcelona. It was my first time in Madrid and second to Barcelona, and I felt I ate much better this time in Spain because I did more research thanks to the posts here in Chowhound.

I ate a mix of fancy dinners and fresh hearty food from the markets, and a couple of last-minute, just for convenience tapas spot. Overall, I had more fun with the choices I went with in Madrid, but of course the fresh seafood at La Boqueria for breakfast every day I was in Barcelona is a highlight.

Here are my review from my blog with links to the actual post where you can see the photos.


1) El Club Allard (the most mind-blowing meal of the trip).

"From the first bite of my five-course lunch at El Club Allard, I thought to myself “what did I get myself into?” And not in a good way; I worried about where this lunch was going.

But then things changed and my taste buds tingled and I thought “what is this chef doing to my mind?” And definitely in a good way.

I found myself at this refined dining spot away from the tourist sites on the first day of my Spanish vacation (I’m spending time in Madrid and then Barcelona). My sister and niece from Honolulu are joining me, but they weren’t arriving until Wednesday evening, giving me the whole afternoon free to myself.

So I decided to splurge for a dining experience, especially after spending more than 13 hours on an airplane eating airplane food.

El Club Allard, which opened in 2003, is the playground for Chef Diego Guerrero. In many ways, he represents the chefs who benefit from the legacy of Spanish great Ferran Adria, who redefined Spanish cuisine – and around the world for that matter – through creative uses of molecular gastronomy.

The meal I experienced by Chef Guerrero, who talks of a silent revolution on the restaurant’s website and on a greeting card at the table, is the kind of meal I expect from places like Alinea and WD-40 in the United States.

Only tasting menus are offered, ranging from 74 to 98 euros. Since this was just a lunch for me, I went with the “Allard tasting,” which cost 74 euros ($93.70). This included two snacks, two starters, one fish dish, one meat dish, and two desserts.

The restaurant, up a short flight of stairs of a grand apartment building, has the feel of a historical hotel, ornate but not overly so. The service is formal but approachable. And because my server didn’t speak a lot of English and I only had a Spanish phrasebook, I couldn’t get all the details of the ingredients of the dishes and mostly am describing what I’m guessing beyond what was printed on the menu.

The meal always begins with the same amuse – Chef Guerrero’s foam with an underlining taste of peanut butter. My server told me to dip the greeting card on the table (the one with the call for a silent revolution) in the foam and eat the card, which is made with rice paper.

While the idea sounded fun, it was a bit trying to dissolve the card, and the texture of eating paper wasn’t that promising. Then a snack of foie gras with flecks of game truffle presented in a sphere of pine incense was amusing but off in flavor.

Creativity shined in a butter fish “tapa” served like sukiyaki. The one-inch square of butter fish was placed on a thin sheet made of sugar. Underneath it was what I would call a dashi broth, though a bit more salty than most dashi broth I’ve had. The dish was brought out over a votive candle like an Iron Chef presentation.

A tolosa bean ravioli surprised me when I bit into what I thought was a bean and instead found liquid squirting out with flavor. The ravioli itself had a nice bean filling but the skin had a texture similar to mochi, the sticky sweet Japanese rice treat.

Things started to shift, in my eyes, with the “egg with bread and pancetta,” a dish that actually won a culinary prize in 2001. I can see why. A delicate yet crispy bread is presented over a light potato cream sauce. When I cracked the bread, a soft yellow yolk oozed out to my delight.

The main fish dish of a turbot was presented under a dome. When the dome was lifted, basil smoke came wafting out. (Yes, more smoke.) The fish, a white fish similar to halibut or sea bass, was probably the best cooked piece of fish I’ve ever tasted, perfectly flakey yet still tender and moist.

The crispy skin on top was crispy on the edge, leaving the center still chewy to retain some of the fish’s natural integrity. A light broth was filled with seasonal spring onion and what looked like sea greens or seaweed that added a slight tang to the overall dish.

The “taco” hare was a taco filled with shredded rabbit meat. The presentation was amusing and mind-blowing with a tiny red carrot and baby corn on top, and then on the side three dollops of what tasted like fava bean puree but what looked like a garden ready for a rabbit to explore and munch away.

Chef Guerrero’s revolution takes height toward the end with the desserts, starting with a transition course of a rompope (a type of liqueur), which looks like a tiny shot glass, but is made of granita. I was instructed to break down the shot glass and mix it with the chocolate shavings underneath.

Then Guerrero’s “fish bowl” arrived like a little seascape in glass. Everything inside was edible, as I munched on coral made of white chocolate and cranberry, and a mussel shell also of white chocolate. Dining on the sea foam and some kind of green crunchy grass that reminded me of cereal, I thought that only a genius like Guerrero could make me eat this in wonderment, both playful and thought-provoking.

The dish, just like the “poached egg” that followed, made me wonder what others would thing about food that came almost like play things. Does this take away from the tradition of enjoying ingredients as they’re naturally made?

The poached egg was a white chocolate egg, but as I cracked it (it took me a bit to get through the chocolate shell), I was surprised to find “egg whites” made of what tasted like custard or gelatin, and this continued with oozing yellow yolk that I was convinced was a sweet but couldn’t say for sure.

Reading up on El Club Allard, I heard that Chef Guerrero typically came out to greet the guests and ask about food allergies, but I didn’t see him do that while I was there. (My server checked on my food allergies, of which I thankfully had none.) But because I was taking pictures and scribbling notes to remember this once-in-a-lifetime meal, the servers must have thought I was doing some kind of review (somewhat true), so I think they told the chef because he came out to greet me at the end of my meal. It was a brief conversation since he had to rush back to the kitchen, but Chef Guerrero impressed me as a modest and almost shy man and nothing like the mad scientist that I imagined in my head as I dined on his food.

Chef Guerrero’s food has garnered much attention, so his silent revolution is far from that. While not every dish worked in flavor (although beautifully presented) many others did, along with serving up a side of imagination. It’s the kind of meal that made me want to talk about the future of food and the forms it takes. In that sense, Guerrero’s revolution is well on its way."

2) Lua Restaurante,

"Lua Restaurante, helmed by another young chef, Manuel Dominguez Carrete, falls somewhere in between.

In a quiet neighborhood called Chamberi, Lua is a handsome restaurant that makes a nice setting for a celebratory meal (there’s even a large private dining room downstairs). I treated my sister and niece to lunch here because I thought it’d be a nice break from the shopping and sightseeing.

Lua serves only a five-course tasting menu, and at lunch it’s 49 euros (or $61) per person. The combination of creativity and classic Spanish dishes was evident from the beginning with a trio of small bites of a cherry tomato, grape and shot of beer.

But things weren’t exactly as they seemed. The cherry tomato was made of cheese, the grape a spherical liquid globe, and the beer was a gelatin of garlic and almond.

Molecular gastronomy only went so far, though. The rest of the dinner resembled the classic farm-to-table approach to cooking that’s popular in California. A beautiful gazpacho of peaches was served up with beetroot with butterfish and salmon roe, and a skate wing fish dish highlighted touches of Spanish flavors with sprinkling of paprika and fresh peas.

My niece got to try her first tartare when Chef Carrete sent out his classic appetizer made with Wagyu beef. She enjoyed the slight spicy wasabi flavor that coated the fresh minced meat topped with chile threads. (A touch of molecular gastronomy was represented in the green chile that topped the tartare. It was actually a tiny carrot encased in green-colored cheese.)

I regret that I told the server that I have an aversion to raw beef, so the kitchen cooked up my Wagyu beef, which still tasted rich and savory but I know some of you out there are probably upset about me forcing the chef to cook such quality beef.

Other parts of the meal were beautifully plated but simple, like the pork confit that was served with the traditional flavors of prune and apricots, and a dessert of passion fruit sponge cake with raspberry sauce (although the cheese ice cream added a new twist).

The service was incredibly helpful and friendly, and the young hostess who spoke English did a masterful job of introducing each dish as it arrived, translating the chef’s creations and helping our table to really appreciate each dish.

Lua feels like an oasis off the beaten track, providing a calming space to celebrate and enjoy sophisticated and refined dishes with traditional Spanish flavors."


3) Casa Delfin,

"There are several dishes that are iconic to Spain, and paella is one of them.

But when I think of paella, I think of a grill and a sandy beach as a huge pan of rice and seafood is cooked up for a hungry crowd. And I also associate the dish with Valencia, the coastal city where paella was created and where I ate the dish when I first visited Spain eight years ago.

So I wasn’t planning to get paella on this trip to Madrid and Barcelona. But because it was the first trip to Spain for my sister and niece, they wanted to try paella. After a lackluster paella in Madrid, my sister brought up the topic again when we made it to Barcelona.

After doing some quick research on Chowhound, we ended up at Casa Delfin, a quaint restaurant away from the tourists and the beach (where most popular restaurants for paella can be found). The restaurant is on the edge of the Barric Gothic district in an area called Born that had a residential feel.

When we arrived for lunch, we were greeted by a friendly staff and a space that was overly decorated inside, giving a feel of a French bistro and a German tavern. Turns out there was only one paella dish on the menu, so that’s what we ordered (13.50 euros 0r $17 per person).

Because the paella takes about 20 minutes to make, we ordered a starter of fried artichokes (5.50 euros or $6.95), which was fried well and served with a side sauce that reminded me of a more fluid romesco. (My sister is the deep-fried food fan, so fried artichokes found their way to our table often on this trip.)

We also had the traditional tomato bread (3.90 euros or $4.90), where a toasted piece of bread is rubbed with a fresh tomato.

When the paella finally arrived, it was an impressive display of fresh seafood, including several types of shrimp or crawfish, spotted with mussels and scallops. The server plated up the paella right at our table, and made sure that we each had a little bit of everything.

The rice had the rich flavor of chicken broth and blended well with the rest of the ingredients. It was just the right touch, reminding me of the paella I had in Valencia.

Dining at Casa Delfin really made me feel like I was dining at a favorite neighborhood spot, with a professional but friendly staff. And even though we ordered the most touristy dish, it delivered in presentation and flavor. Casa Delfin does paella well, but its kitchen gives the rest of the menu a lot of promise."

4) Gelonch,

"Gelonch is a tiny restaurant and its reputation of creating innovative Catalan dishes draws a lot of visitors from different countries to taste the food of Chef/Owner Robert Gelonch. On a Monday night when I dined with my sister and niece, the other tables were primarily filled with English-speaking tourists.

The 74 euro ($90) tasting menu starts out true to Spain’s tradition of tapas, or small bites. A parade of small dishes came out all at once, starting with a bowl of mojito paper, followed by rose-lychee baby scallops, miniature razor clams with sweet ginger and mango, black onion cake with sweet onion foam, and prawn and cod brandade with shrimp chips.

Our table filled with the tiny tapas looked quite festive, and I really enjoyed the prawn and cod brandade and black onion cake, which had a definite umami flavor. But the rose-lychee baby scallops and miniature razor clams were so small I could barely taste anything as I quickly gulped the teeny-tiny bite.

A real molecular gastronomical presentation came with the carrot-orange nitro popcorn, which was basically carrot and orange soup that was dehydrated with nitroglycerin and presented as a bowl of popcorn. It was pretty although the shapes weren’t as much popcorn as they were more like crumpled cardboard. My niece had fun biting into the pieces and watching a puff of smoke come out of her mouth because of the cold, but it lacked any real taste.

The evening improved with the delightful duck maigret mini burrito, which was a tiny burrito filled with tasty duck meat, and a nice presentation of a sliver of silver leaf on the burrito to give the feel of the aluminum often wrapped around a real burrito.

We had a nice server who spoke English and explained the dishes, but we often had to wait because she was the only person working the entire room. (Again, it was a small room with maybe five tables on the first floor, but with one server it can create some wait.) And even though our reservation was for only 30 minutes after the restaurant opened, the kitchen was already out of a few ingredients as our server explained how certain dishes from the tasting menu had to be substituted.

For example, a 24-hour sous vide jamon pork pancetta with grilled octopus was not available for our dinner. Instead, we got a plate of cuttlefish with deconstructed pesto. While it was a delicate dish with nice pesto flavor, it seemed to pale to even the description of the 24-hour sous vide pork pancetta.

While the dinner started off creatively with the tapas, it progressed to the point where most of the dishes started taking on the same savory brown flavor. From the shitake mushroom broth with spider crab ravioli to the black turnip with veal bone marrow, they all seemed to have that brown gravy flavor, even starting to all look the same with the familiar brown gravy touches on the plate.

The dessert courses had interesting touches of Spanish flavor, from the guacamole ice cream to the roasted tomato tiles, but they again didn’t seem to stand out in either flavor or presentation. In fact, many of the plates didn’t seem to showcase the ingredients as refined or cleverly as I’ve seen in previous gastronomical dinners in Spain.

Gelonch is a nice getaway from the tourist scene, bringing you to a neighborly spot for a tasting meal that’s commendable and ambitious but rarely ends with amazement."

5) Cal Pep,

"Opened for more than 30 years, Cal Pep makes simple dishes using the freshest ingredients from that day’s market. That means the dishes changes daily, and there’s no real menu because you just arrive and tell them what ingredients you’d like to eat. (The staff is always ready to offer recommendations.)

In preparation for my visit to Cal Pep, I read that you should get there 30 minutes before it opened for dinner at 7:30 p.m. So that’s what we did, arriving to stand behind one guy who had dinner at Cal Pep the night before and liked it so much he came back again, and a family who was visiting from Australia.

It seems only tourists like us would line up to eat dinner around 7:30 p.m., which is way early by Barcelona standards. As the line continued to form, I noticed that almost everyone was a tourist.

When the restaurant opened, we were seated at the long counter. There’s a small back room, and I’m not exactly sure how it works. I heard you needed to make reservations if you’re a party of six or larger, but some people heard that they didn’t take reservations. I was just glad we were able to get a seat at the counter as the line continued to form along the wall behind us.

When ordering by ingredients, you can end up ordering too much, which happened to us. I started rattling off ingredients and so came plate after plate, including classics like fried artichokes and fried sardines, seasonal ingredients like padron peppers, seafood like tallerines (tiny clams) and squid, and meat (for my niece) of lamb and botiffara, the classic Catalan sausage.

Watching the chefs cooking in front of us, they quickly prepared dishes that came hot to our plates. There’s even Pep, who no longer cooks and basically just holds court with the counter guests, chatting them up.

There were a few changes from what I ordered: I ordered lamb but our server thought I said “clams,” which explains why we ended up with two types of clam dishes (the regular and tiny version known as tallerines). We ended up getting beef instead because they didn’t have lamb, and ended up canceling the squid because we nearly stuffed by then.

Of the dishes that we did eat, they were fresh and simply cooked, usually just with salt and olive oil. The fried sardines, a classic tapas dish, was addictive (and yes, I tried them even though they’re deep fried), and the tiny clams were actually like a petit snack, perfect for a bar snack.

Probably the only really fancy dish was the botiffara, which came out sliced with a port wine reduction.

While the food was good, it wasn’t any more different than the fresh dishes we ate every morning at the marketplace (at La Boqueria). Cal Pep is a fun place to hang out, but I’m not sure if I would eat there more than once on a trip, and definitely wouldn’t wait more than 30 minutes for a table. My sister said the food was decent, but she felt rushed through dinner.

I’m glad I finally made it to Cal Pep, so I could see first hand what everyone was talking about. Was it a life-changing dinner? Far from it. Did I have fun? Yes, and I’m glad I can check it off my list."

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