By Joe Ray
I’d wanted to come back here for years. I’d also been wondering where to have my last meal of the summer in Barcelona.
Appropriately, I went with my old lunch partner/landlord Fede who introduced me to Restaurant Montalban when I rented my Poble Sec apartment from him years ago.
All I wanted for this meal was to repeat the one I remembered, as it seemed the owner had made some sort of deal with the devil to make good seafood.
There is no disappointment.
We start with percebes - gooseneck barnacles - sugar sweet, wildly expensive, and looking like dinosaur toes, Montalban’s are made with a pinch of cinnamon in the court bouillon. To eat them, pinch the neck, pull out the sweet center, pop it in your mouth and wash it down with a Galician white and you, too, will be saying, “Money? What money???”
We follow with a plate of galician octopus that’s plump, tender, almost sweet and paprika smoky. Every time I eat this dish I like it more.
Barnacles and octopi, however, are sideshows compared with the real reason I want to return; I want the rodaballo. The turbot comes out crispy-chewy on the outside firm and flavorful on the inside. There’s a lemon, but there’s no reason to bother with it; this fish is worth a deal with the devil. My word - one taste and you wonder why anyone would bother with any other preparation.
You’ll pay for the pleasure, but Montalban is still a great value. As Fede says, “this place and Quimet & Quimet are the only places you’ll find people wearing suits in Poble Sec.”
Count on about 35 euros for lunch with wine. Sky’s the limit if you order percebes, but they’ll be worth it.
Bar-Restaurante Montalban “Casa Jose” - MAP
+34 93 442 31 43
Closed Sunday night and Monday.
By Joe Ray
We roll out of "the place with the amazing anchovies" and head next door to the new Cal Marino - which, with walls lined with bottles, barrels and a bar full of tasty vittles, looks like Quimet & Quimet’s little cousin.
Toni brought me here for a quick snac a month ago and I wanted to check in again and see what’s cooking.
They don’t cook much, actually, they source. There are gourmet snacks a gogo - lots of good things to skewer with a toothpick and a few combinations à la Quimet. There are plates with excellent olives, tasty shrimp, or little bites of octopus; you’d have to make a concerted effort to make a meal out of it, but paired with, say, a good cider, they get the appetite racing, the conversation moving.
They’re still working out a few kinks; I tried flagging the waiter for some tomato bread and he made a long-distance stiff-arm gesture that said, “Can’t you see I’m overwhelmed?” Come in at a quieter time, however, and the barman/owner will be happy to teach you about the products he stocks.
They’ll work it out. Can Marino is a great launching point, a future neighborhood reference as a watering hole and part of a great one-two punch after you have some of those anchovies.
Count on 5-15€ depending on how much of a meal you want to make of it.
Can Marino - MAP
C/ Margarit 54
+34 93 329 45 92
By Joe Ray
Three steps before I get to the restaurant that’s been recommended to me, I walk in front of the place where I’ll end up. I do my ‘hesitate, peek inside at a place that has really good potential, look at them menu and salivate’ thing.
Without prompting, a customer in front of La Botella looks me over, sees what’s up and says “the food’s better here.”
Does anyone need more prodding than that?
Inside, there are all the right signs: a bunch of ruddy-faced white-bonneted women in the kitchen, a table of five grandmothers on a Sunday out, sawdust on the floor that a 10 year old uses to spell out the name of her crush with the tip of her shoe and the staff you want to adopt as your host family.
Cider - in this case sidra Peñon (currently celebrating their 100th birthday) - is poured by guys who look like they’ve been doing it for 100 years - eyes fixed not on the glass four feet below where they’re pouring, but on some fixed point on the horizon...until they fix your gaze as they hand you your glass.
This isn’t expensive stuff - 2,30€ for a 75 cl bottle - but it’s the kind of stuff where you take a sip and truly wonder how we can bother spending so much time drinking second-rate drinks.
I watch dishes go out - plump bits of octopus, tiny scallops in their shells and have a bit of buyer’s remorse. Galician-style hake? What was I thinking?
Good things, apparently.
I will note the size of my cut of fish: every bit as large as my fist. My word, a Parisian chef would cut this in three pieces and sell it for more!
I will also note that my worries about having a fish with a sauce are unfounded. The hake would be a marvel on its own - bite-sized discs breaking off with just the right amount of fork pressure. The sauce - laden with paprika (but not too much) - is there if you want it, smoky and even slightly sweet goodness.
I’m sure it’s fantastic, but did I miss the place next door? Not one bit.
Count on about 20€ per person.
Restaurante La Botella - MAP
C/ Emilie Robin 15
+34 98 556 48 08
BY Joe Ray
There we were, sore of foot and in front of La Cerveteca - the beer place. Not the toss ‘em back and drunk by five style, though. In Barcelona, like in Paris, coffee and beer are always good, but seldom better. La Cerveteca is one of the few wonders that falls into the ‘better’ category - the kind where you walk in and stare in wonder, saying ‘Holy cow - what’s this doing here?’
Case in point, I spy Nøgne Ø beers from Norway - something I recognize from Anders Kissmeyer’s wonderful Norrebro Bryghus brewery in Copenhagen - along with American IPAs, treats from Belgium and Germany and even Anchor Steam from San Francisco!
(Seeing the latter, I instantly pine for my San Francisco days, roaming Potrero Hill when the smell of the hops streaming out of the brewery takes over the neighborhood, with a scent that, inexplicably, will always remind me of Spaghetti-O’s.)
Guillaume and I order an IPA and a Liberty Ale, grab a few papers, find a back table and take a load off for an hour.
La Cerveteca MAP
+34 93 315 04 07
*Pinotxo, of course. A Joe Ray three-star.
By Joe Ray
Bacalao - salt cod - has never been my favorite. Catalans do backflips for it, but to me, there are so few aha! moments, I never quite understand the bother or the price.
To set me straight, my ever-helpful Barcelona tipster, food writer Carme Gasull, took pity on me and sent me to the Masclans kiosk in the Galvany market on the far side of Avinguida Diagonal. The only tourists up this way are lost.
First, the negotiations: three of us would like to try Esteve Masclans’ bacalao and there are no tables at his kiosk. The man behind the counter works out a deal where we’ll eat the fish at the tables of a nearby bar/food stall whose beer we will happily drink.
Our meal begins with a dive in the deep end.
“Start with this,” the waiter says. “It’s chick peas and bacalao spine.”
Technically, it’s the tissue inside the spine and my friends look at each other like they’re wondering what they’re in for, but it disappears in a flash. It’s possible I ate the whole thing. I don’t remember.
Masclans are masters of sous-vide, slow-cooking much of their bacalao in a vac-pac bag and we try a few variations - one with tomatoes, one with truffle another with a type of mirepoix. Sweet and silky, the tomato preparation is the landslide winner.
The best dish, however, is carpaccio-style translucent bacalao rounds, each disc with a pea-sized dot of olive paste, the whole drizzled in healthy quantities olive oil, accompanied by a scattering of sofregit-esque fresh tomato sauce. The fish is the star, of course, but it gracefully shares the stage with its friends.
Count on about 15€ for lunch, including beer from the neighbors.
Masclans - MAP
Mercat de Galvany
+34 93 200 99 27
By Joe Ray
Similar to the way he divulges his kitchen secrets, Toni’s stingy when it comes to sharing his favorite places to eat in Poble Sec - my favorite Barcelona barrio.
We were out picking up supplies for a soup he was making and as we walked down the street from La Cova, he casually mentioned how their anchovies were the neighborhood’s best.
I did not fail to take note.
You’d walk past La Cova 1,000 times, but once you’re in, you never want to leave. Anchovies are served up six to a plate and there’s a fantastic bit of skin on the underside adding extra flavor and silky texture. Twice, my notes read “fleshy goodness” and they’re bathing in a tiny pool of house-blend olive oil, vinegar and secret spices - if you ask, the owner might divulge his secrets.
Ari will later refer to La Cova as "The place with the amazing anchovies." Toni would turn red.
Four beers, two plates of anchovies and pa amb tomaquet (tomato bread) came to about 12 euros.
Hard to beat.
La Cova MAP
+34 934 411 063
By Joe Ray
While we’re prepping the calcot sauce in Toni’s kitchen, we get talking about our favorite artery-cloggers and I mention steak Rossini - a big steak with a slab of foie gras, preferably seared, melting over the top - at Le Tambour.
Or, well, anywhere.
He grins and walks toward the fridge which, is a Pandora’s box of high-cal goodness and pulls out two steaks and a slab of foie gras.
Lunch is served.
By Joe Ray
Hot off the press? Hot off the griddle? Who cares?
Located at the bottom of the culinary wasteland of Las Ramblas, Cuatro is new, very good and a solid value.
Reserve now - they may be working out the kinks, but it’s going to be full to the gills very soon.
Kinks? There’s a bit of a split personality - the sign on the door says “Bar Cuatro” giving the hurried and hungry every reason to walk past. There are noble G&Ts, good value wines, but it’s not a destination bar - it’s a destination restaurant.
The dining room is spread out, spacious and relaxed, making me wonder why they didn’t give themselves a little more room in the kitchen or if they’re planning on squeezing in a few more tables once they’ve hit stride.
Order à la carte if you will, but there’s a six-course degustation menu for two at 25€ a head and you get to choose which courses to try.
Our foursome, including my tipster, Barcelona food writer Carme Gasull, Edu and Meri, start with a duck crepe with red fruit chutney, which is like hot duck rillettes, minus some of the fat, rolled into a crepe, with a nice acidic bite from what’s really a drizzle of fruit reduction. It sets a nice tone for what’s to come. ‘Calamari strips with wasabi mayo’ are fried in a tempura-like batter, which would normally make me whine about needless poaching from other cultures if it wasn’t so good.
My favorite main - which elicited bipolar responses from our group - is a poached egg over a cauliflower cream with a wiggle of truffle oil and a tiny slab of wonderfully fatty bacon, everything bathing in a spoonful of olive oil and (I think) meat jus. I’m also almost forgetting the side of vanilla-scented mashed potatoes that came with a braised veal cheek. Giving the spuds gentle sweet, savory and honey-like flavors, none of us could figure out the mystery ingredient, likely the fruit a clever collaboration between chef Aitor Bergaretxe and lauded pastry chef Vicente Carvalho.
The wines, sourced by sommelier Jaume Martorell are smart, unique and good values - we have a 2009 Tempestad, a Galician beauty made with the godello grape - and the peculiarly-named 2006 Squared Three (bzah! - the number on the label is three squared), a grenache, tempranillo and merlot blend from the Rioja that leaves us every bit as happy as the godello.
There’s a salty chocolate mousse for dessert, presented in a way only a Catalan could appreciate, but the superstar is a play on french toast with a Parmesan ‘cake’ and pear sorbet. This alone is worth the visit.
Count on 25 euros, whether you order à la carte or the tasting menu, plus wine.
C/ Montserrat, 4 (a stone’s throw form the Drassanes Metro)
+34 93 301 43 24
By Joe Ray
I met Toni this morning to learn salsa per calçots - the sauce for the celebrated spring onion that’s barbecued into a coma for the masses, dipped into the romesco-like sauce and eaten by the dozens in wonderfully-sloppy sword swallower style.
Trying to get an invite into his kitchen to help, he was reluctant to have me over. “You’re going to steal my secrets!” he bellowed.
When I get to his house, however, he asked if I was going to pull out my pen.
Around the kitchen, there are two hocks of jamón, at least three active bottles of wine, including one with the bottle neck cut off, a bag of bunyols - (seasonal Munchkin-like mini donut/fritters, often flavored with a bit of anise) and three different kinds of oranges.
For the sauce, he’s got separate trays of roasted tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion ready and once those are done, it’s pretty simple.
“[The nearby Catalan towns of] Sitges and Villanova fight to see who makes the best,” he claims.
For his entry, he throws the following into the blender in batches:
- the flesh of a rehydrated ñora pepper in the blender (substitute, if you must, a sweet, mild dried red pepper)
- a dangling handful of roasted red peppers
- one roasted onion, skinned and chopped into rough chunks
- 10 roasted tomatoes
- 5 cloves of roasted garlic
- 2 cloves raw, peeled garlic
- 1 cup almonds
- ⅓ cup hazelnuts
- ½ cup bread crumbs
- two shakes of pepper
- 1 cup olive oil
- 2 cups water
- ¾ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 ½ tbsp salt
Run the blender slow for 5-10 seconds then fast for about 20. The sauce should be thick and still slightly chunky.
Salsa per calçots is also fantastic for making xató (pronounced “chateau”) - a salad made with curly endive, black olives tuna belly and/or bacalao.
*Admittedly, this is running a bit late, but, hey, I’m playing catchup after a month in India. Besides, if you’re in a cool climate and have access to spring onions to grill…they’d be wonderful doused in this sauce…
By Joe Ray
I did something with this place I don’t usually do: I recommended a restaurant to a friend without having been there to eat in a long time. A friend from London was coming into town for what the Brits call a ‘hen do’ (a.k.a. a bachelorette party) right around the time another friend who runs Slow Food Barcelona was talking about a favorite restaurant: Mam i Teca. There seemed to be a bit of serendipity involved, so I went with the flow. Now that I’ve gone, I can’t decide if it was a good idea.
At first, I thought the tiny restaurant lacked a bit of soul, but I figured out that it feels like that you’re eating in the semi-industrial living room of the guys who run it, right down to the Johnny Hallyday on the radio and the waiting for the waiter/barman to finish up his conversation with the client/friends at the end of the bar before you can ask for another napkin.
If you like that sort of stuff - it can have its charms - you’re in for a treat. I love that feeling that the two guys who run the joint are clearly doing exactly what they want to be doing, but I wonder how many other people come out of there feeling a little weirded out by the experience. The cuisine is Catalan and you can understand the Slow Food connection; product is excellent. Xató - a salad of escarole with salt cod and olives with romesco sauce wasn’t much to write home about, but it was counterbalanced by a sweet and salty rabbit stew with apricots and prunes. Mmm! Our favorite dish, a mix of just-cooked mushrooms, asparagus and garlic drizzled in olive oil was so good, we ordered it twice.
I can’t remember the last time I did that.
Maybe it was a good idea to send the hens here.
Mam i Teca - MAP
Carrer de la Lluna 4
+93 441 33 35
By Joe Ray
Walking out of the flat with two visiting friends, I point out the Celler del Nou Priorat - a local favorite in the Sants neighborhood run by a trio of Cubans that’s exactly the kind of place you pray to find when you’re wandering around looking for a place for dinner.
Instead, my idea is to get out of the neighborhood and do a Poble Sec tapas crawl. I drag my pals around to find that the three places I want to go - Quimet & Quimet, the new bar at Xemei and inopia are, respectively, closed, full and full.
I put in a desperate call to the Cubans and we hop in the metro and head toward home.
Once I sit, it takes only a glass of Cava, some sweet potato chips and a plate of pimientos de padrón for me to go from feeling like I’ve lost my touch back into the Food Leprechaun.
Olives help, too. And maybe some mushrooms sautéed with little bits of jamon. And there’s an octopus dish that has a friend from Lisbon take a mental return trip home with one bite.
There’s a famous brownie for dessert, but we get perfect, sweet and minty mojitos instead.
Cuban? Catalan? Spanish? Not really. More like fresh-from-the-Catalan-market inspired Cuban/Catalan/Spanish goodness. More like yes, yes and more please.
Count on 15-30 euros, redemption included.
Celler del Nou Priorat - MAP
+34 934 905 952
By Joe Ray
Now, I understand.
For years, I’d tried the classic faves a la Catalana - a broad bean dish without ever understanding why dish makes up part of the Catalan canon. Wrong places? Bad luck? Who knows? It's all over now.
I’d wondered about the Sants’ neighborhood’s Can Manel - which typically has, say, a whole roast suckling pig and some grilled artichokes in the front window - looked like it could be great or a dud and the only way to know would be to try it.
I finally bit the other day - they have a menu del dia for 10 euros and I was hungry.
It was clear when the beans were set in front of me that I’d have a new outlook on things.
Sitting by myself, I must have said, “Man, these are good!” to myself 25 times. The beans are rich, hearty and buttery-textured, brought to life with small quantities of - get this - three kinds of pork products.
“Bacon, blood sausage and jamon,” explains the waiter.
While my main - slices of pork loin (more pork!) with fries - is admittedly less interesting, they use good product.
I’ll be back.
Restaurant Can Manel - MAP
+34 93 339 10 47
El Port de la Selva, Spain
By Joe Ray
El Bulli interview finished, I head to Cadaqués to Can Rafa, a sojurn I’ve been trying to make for months…except every time I go, it’s closed and this time is no exception.
I’m alone and looking for a place where I won’t feel like too much of a chump sitting by myself and can still eat well. On this night, that doesn't exist in Cadaqués. In desperation, I leave town and call my friend Twin Stomach for somewhere to try in the nearby El Port de la Selva but the phone rings and rings…
In town, I knock on the door where a set of stout-bellied accordion players are practicing and they point me toward El Celler, a family-run seafront place set apart from the town’s more kitschy offerings.
There are fantastic anchovies with gobs of good olive oil and a bit of tomato which are fantastic together on top of their warm, homemade bread. I have a great duck breast in fig sauce and the front of house owner does a perfect job of alternately chatting and leaving me to enjoy my meal.
Count on about 25 euros.
El Celler - MAP
C/ Llancà 8-10
El Port de la Selva
+34 972 126 435
By Joe Ray
“It’s too expensive,” was the first thing out of a friend’s mouth when I mentioned we were heading to Xemei.
“But it’s goooood,” was the second.
“Best risotto of my life,” said another friend, “made with cod tripe!”
I was sold, plus there was serendipity involved. Food writer Carme Gasull proposed going at right around the same time.
On the weekend, Xemei is bustling with the open concept kitchen with the restaurant’s namesake Venetian twins running the show. It’s a loud, fun and casual atmosphere that stimulates the mind and the appetite.
We start, sharing a giant appetizer dish that’s an Italo-Catalan tapas with cod fritters, anchovies in vinegar on a fresh tomato salsa, a tender slab of mackerel. It’s all fine, but I’m thinking of the “expensive” comment more than the “good” one.
The waiter stops by, proposing a new bottle of wine and when I ask about the screw cap, he launches into a bizarre, five-minute explanation about screw caps, corks, evaporation and, to synthesize, how this case of special Italian wine, initially bound for America happened to end up in their restaurant.
It’s harmless fun, but I want to ask the guy if he actually believes what he’s saying.
“We’ve got a phrase here: he sold you a motorcycle,” says Edu. “He just wanted to sell you the bottle.”
The wine is peculiar but fine, but more important, the mains knock our socks off. All of them. The girls get mushroom risotto and Edu has spaghetti in squid ink that tickles our umami sensors and is served looking like cross between a Sicilian sfogliatelle pastry and a perfect beehive hairdo. I get a squid and artichoke dish - each element cooked separately and perfectly, the whole with fantastic textures.
Expensive? Well, motorcycles aren’t cheap, but it’s not that bad. Goooood? Yep.
We’ll be back.
Count on 40€, with wine.
Xemei - MAP
Passeig de l’Exposició, 85
+34 93 553 51 40
By Joe Ray
The first thing you notice on a tour of the kitchen at Les Cols is that there’s a water garden fed from the heavens in the middle of it. This makes sense. An ardent but not annoying locavore, chef Fina Puigdevall is intent on building your relationship to the ground beneath your feet - this volcanic area where she was born.
She immediately shines spotlights on local ingredients - buckwheat, cured sausage from Olot, wild mushrooms, the cabbage that gives the restaurant its name and even wonderfully fragrant black truffles. One dish features an egg from the black chickens running around outside the window.
The clever thief would begin by swiping Puigdevall’s purveyor list; in retrospect, what’s odd is that there’s no standout dish, nothing so wildly good that it makes you want to do cartwheels between the tables, yet hers is is food with roots. These are deep and wild flavors, strength pulled up from the soil - a geothermal cuisine.
Puigdevall is like a wayward member of Rene Redzepi’s New Nordic cuisine gang - you half-expect to find Sigur Ros jamming in the henhouse.
You spend a bit of time like this, thinking of where she fits into the scheme of things - some say she’s the next Carme Ruscalleda but you quickly realize their styles don’t match, give up the ghost and start enjoying things.
There is pea soup - a bright and happy green canvas supporting tiny cubes of balsamic, a micro-scoop of peanut ice cream, a bright yellow dollop of saffron sauce and a deep orange sea urchin. Squint from above and it looks like abstract art made with a set of Crayolas.
‘Pumpkin in five different ways’ has similar beauty, showcasing an ingredient that deserves the attention. Tendrils might grow from our fingers, roots from our feet.
In another dish, salt cod floats on brandade, those under spinach and chard everything heating the truffle (see above). You stare, you smell, you think, you hesitate to destroy it with a fork, then you smile. The beauty in the presentation of these dishes is subtle when looked at individually and breathtaking when considered together.
Equally as sublime is the space.
Using iron, glass and stone, the design of this restaurant hits what they missed at Can Fabes. While spots inside Santi Santamaria’s nearby restaurant can feel like the inside of a tank, Puigdevall clearly spent a long time talking to an architect who listened.
The sliding and pivoting glass doors and arches make the chef’s 13th century home modern and the main dining room are set slightly into the earth, so your eyes are level with the grass. We’re here on one of those winter days where you look at a picture of the backyard in summertime and it’s so green it might as well be another planet, yet even in winter, that subtle shift makes you notice shoots and buds you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
When your gaze extends upward, it might linger on clouds clinging to the hills or you might spend two minutes watching a drop of water work its way down the giant window. On any other date, this much time spent gazing outside would signal disaster. Here, you’re simply taking time to reconnect to the world around you.
The hotel rooms here are minimalist glass and metal cubes and I would love to return and spend the whole afternoon - post lunch - in the bathtub with a bottle of wine watching the clouds stick to the hills and contemplating the meal I just ate.
Service is well done, without hovering, and low key. Bravo for the bravery to offer a cart full of very worthy Catalan cheeses.
A tasting menu is 70 euros plus wine.
By Joe Ray
Ferran Adria's just announced that they're 'stopping' El Bulli - starting in 2012-2013, turning their Barcelona lab and Roses restaurant into 'research centers'.
Sounds like it'll be business as 'usual' in Roses through 2011 (two more seasons), though exactly what happens after that and what happens for the 2012-2013 season remain a bit vague. 2014 remains very mysterious. Return from a sort of sabbatical, perhaps in a different 'format'???
Carles Gaig is a chef and a businessman. The combination can make you cringe – it's hard to pull off and, truthfully, fewer chefs should try. Gaig, a Catalan cuisine legend, can be found anywhere from his high-end eponymous Barcelona restaurant to the sides of Barcelona's bus systems where he's currently hawking a set of cheap-looking knives.
I reconnect with the city a few steps below street level.We share a little plate of artichokes hearts that are drizzled with olive oil and spritzed with fleur de sel. They’re so tender, you don’t need teeth.
There’s also a little wheel of oil-bathed goat cheese that’s somehow has the wonderful tang of cheddar. We get a bacalao-tomato dish with olives and a separate plate of olives that I’m supposed to share. Oops.We wipe up our fingers with the ubiquitous useless napkins and wash it down with vermouth and seltzer water.
La Bodegueta – MAP
Rambla de Catalunya 100
+34 932 154 894
By Joe Ray
"At El Soldado de Tudelilla, get the tomato salad and the little sardine sandwich with sport peppers,*" says Artadi.
The notes for the little sandwich (a pincho) say "Why don't we eat more sardines in the U.S.A.?"
The question floats into space as I take a bite and flag the stout-bellied barman for a tomato salad which turns out to be the star of the show.
Said barman makes the salad on the bar beneath our noses by plucking a tomato from of the cooler with the wine and the onions and cuts it into bite-sized chunks with a pocket knife. He does the same with the onion.
"This is not just any onion," he says, "This is the white onion of Fuentes de Ebro," which, we'll learn, is more mild than a Vidalia.
"It is a town consecrated to the onion," he says.
He adds a can of still faintly-pink tuna to the plate and drops a few olives over the top before giving the whole thing a shot of vinegar, a 15-count drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of gros sel.
It's a little mountain on a plate that disappears in a heartbeat.
"We're going to be late," I say.
"I don't care," comes the response.
Count on about 10 euros for salad, sardines and a glass of wine or two
El Soldado de Tudelilla MAP
C/ San Agustín 33
+34 941 209 624
*Truth be told, he said "guindilla."