With summer starting to wind down (no, winter isn’t quite around the corner yet), it’s time to start unpacking the suitcase and take stock of some of the exciting bites and lessons learned from dining journeys the past few weeks. Over the rest of August, we’ll look back on visits to Kauai, Madrid, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Lisbon, Porto, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. Unfortunately I’m still looking for that excuse to visit Singapore or Istanbul. Today, we’ll begin in one of the great treasures of Europe: Barcelona.
I first laid eyes on Barcelona in my dorm room as a freshman at a college in small town Ohio. Our sparkling Mediterranean was Lake Erie and instead of having the prominent green urban mountain Montjuic overlooking our city, I used to have to run inside and out of sand bunkers on the golf course to get some sort of elevation change.
It’s fair to say, when I saw Barcelona in the film “L’Auberge Espagnole,” I was ready to go there. Or anywhere for that matter since I transferred after the year. Not to Barcelona, though.
The images of Barcelona’s sun, fun, and peculiar architecture never left me. They only grew stronger after seeing Woody Allen’s underrated “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” I figured when I’d visit the next year as a student living in Paris, I’d fall in love with ease, or at least go on a date with Scarlett Johansson. Well, at least I fell in love with the city. I didn’t find Scarlett or Penelope Cruz.
In both films, they kept talking about Gaudi. Gaudi here, Gaudi there. Gaudi in reality. Gaudi in my dreams. I kept thinking to myself, what’s the deal with this Gaudi? Is Gaudi a person? A myth? A religion?
I’m too young to remember anything about Barcelona pre- 1992 Summer Olympics. In high school I saw one of those NBC Bob Costas highlights video, so I have seen the flaming arrow light the torch.
I don’t remember Spanish cuisine pre- El Bulli (what, where’s the foam?!). To my generation, molecular gastronomy is Spanish cuisine. The tapas and raciones are “traditional Spanish” cuisine we don’t expect to see much of. Noboy talks poetically about ham and cheese croquettes like they do about croque monsieurs in France.
But I do slightly know Barcelona of the past decade after a few brief visits. Having only spent a grand total of seven nights in the city, I’m by no means an authority. However, consider me an authority to verify the magnetic allure of this truly one of a kind city.
I could try to transport you there, but in no way would that fairly do justice to the sheer creativity and energy going on in the not so big, not so small metropolis of Catalunya. There’s a dash of circus going on there too and in my recent visit which was my first in the heat of summer, a lot of maddening Times Square- double decker tour bus crowds that crush your energy.
I could try to put into words Gaudi’s architecture, the cosmopolitan beach scene, and the energy that still hasn’t let up since the 1992 Olympics.
But it wouldn’t really convey everything correctly.
You can’t really understand Gaudi’s whimsical fairy tale style that sometimes borders on disturbing without sitting on (what my friends and I call “my bench” for my affinity for it) the serpentine tile bench in Parc Guëll. Sagrada Familia? There’s a reason Gaudi’s STILL unfinished massive basilica is being discussed as the new eighth wonder of the world. I believe I had my first dose of real vertigo this past trip at the top of its towers because of its sheer beauty and Gaudi’s lack of experience with keeping visitors safely fenced in.
Insider’s Tip: Don’t even dare going to Sagrada Familia without an online reservation. The lines are epic.
Architecture and views are an essential part of Barcelona. That can be said for almost all major urban areas, but is very rare for a city of so few skyscrapers. My brother lamented from the top of Parc Guëll how after various viewpoints, every viewpoint looks the same.
True. Sort of. There are the landmarks raising out of the air: Santiago Calatrava’s TV Tower, Sagrada Familia, Torre Agbar (also known as the bullet casing), the two towers rising high out of nowhere at Port Olimpic, the teleferico dangling on a cable between the port and Montjuic, the mountains to the west, the Mediterranean to the east, and Montjuic itself. And yes, smog covering it all that reminds us Los Angeles expats of our former home.
The Olympic spirit still pervades everywhere, both literally and figuratively. Up high on Montjuic, tourist crowds still filter into the Olympic Stadium and kids frolic in the fountains by Palau Sant Jordi leading down to Calatrava’s commanding TV Tower. The plaza is particularly mesmerizing at sunset looking west with the fountains illuminated. Unfortunately on this past trip, the World Swimming Championships closed the plaza, so I was unable to cool off in the fountains.
The Olympics also changed the city in ways that have nothing to do with sports. Here, you have the paragon of intended after effects from such a marquee event for a rejuvenated metropolis. Barcelona’s subway is still clean and efficient. You’ll never wait long and your station will always tell you how many seconds until the next train. It’s the way public transit should be and never is.
There’s the youthful vigor of the city that oozes everywhere. As a student years ago here, I had some nights to forget and some nights I don’t even remember. Still, almost everyone is charming, even the taxi drivers. Paris this is not. Sure, you’ll get your usual sketchy big city characters, but that’s par for the course. I still remember listening to a FC Barcelona futbol game with my friends while talking about America to a tapas maestro, Xavi, at La Flauta years ago. He acted almost more interested in us than in the match.
When I showed Juanito Bayen, the legendary man behind the Boqueria Market’s Bar Pinotxo, a picture of my friends and him from four years ago, he immediately rocked back as if (probably pretending) he remembered us. It’s a small town big city.
You’ll see bikers everywhere like it’s Portland, Oregon. Streets are clean. There are plenty of parks. Everyone seems fit, something my brother mentioned after being in the city for all of ten minutes.
Then again, Barcelona isn’t a new city. It just feels new in lots of parts. It’s a city full of neighborhoods like any other. L’ Eixample is shady (in the tree way), affluent, and residential. This is where most of your restaurants probably will be. El Raval remains predominantly working class, but increasingly eclectic and artistic. The Barri Gòtic with its cramped, often souvenir shop laden streets and 15th century Cathedral is not unlike the Paris Latin Quarter. Surprising? It’s amazing to think this area is in such a modern, Gaudi filled city. The Born is filled with tapas bars and the Picasso Museum, yet still decidedly free of modern architecture.
Yes, we think of the gorgeous Barcelona in the movies and free swinging Barcelona with the same party vibe of the swingin’ 60’s in London. We think of Barcelona as a stroll down the Ramblas, which truly is one sheer mass of humanity, like a slightly less debauchery filled Bourbon Street. It’s also now Europe’s infamous center of pickpocketing, proudly (pardon the expression) swiping the title from the Colosseum in Rome.
Barcelona is alone in second within Spain’s largest cities. Madrid is of course the largest city at over 3 million and is the capital. It’s where the power is. It’s the center of those rigid Castillians. Valencia and Seville follow Barcelona, but still are best known for paella and flamenco. Really, Madrid and Barcelona are 1a and 1b. One is the iconic formal city. One is the iconic have fun city.
Barcelona is a major city, yet still has a population of under two million. Finding flights directly from the U.S. to Barcelona’s beautiful and closely located airport isn’t trivial. You certainly sense the friction between the Catalans and the Spanish government more from staying in Barcelona than Madrid. Barcelona’s economy isn’t in the tank like the rest of the country. They aren’t thriving, but they aren’t the reason for “the crisis.” It’s no secret the Catalans are a rebellious sort and fiercely independent. They’re tired of being second. How this tale between the Catalans and the government unfolds over the next decade will no doubt be riveting.
For our dining purposes, can Barcelona’s cuisine meet its beauty? We can have a grand time visiting Barcelona, but is it a major gastronomy destination?
You can probably answer that yourself. Spain knows how to cook and eat. Barcelona is no different.
Avoid the tapas tourist traps that surely will ruin your day amid a greasy, fried, ham heavy fury. Like the effect of the Olympics, the effect of El Bulli (an hour up the coast in Rosas, now just an “institute”) has not left. Barcelona’s ambitious restaurants range from very traditional to El Bulli carbon copies, but generally hit a sweet spot balancing the two. Like with Madrid as the political capital, Barcelona lives in San Sebastian’s culinary shadow undeservedly. The eating is mighty fine in this cuty. Chefs care here about ingredients almost more than at home in San Francisco and that’s saying something. The drinking isn’t so bad either. Spain’s new cuisine is having its decade or so much like France did in the 80’s when Bocuse and Robuchon started chipping away at haute cuisine in exciting ways. And the likes of Jordi Cruz at Abac and Oriol Ivern at Hisop are doing the same in Spain, veering away from molecular gastronomy, without disregarding it.
And here we are, talking about Barcelona like it’s London or Paris. It’s not even a capital. They’ve done something right in this city. Gaudi and the Olympics certainly helped initiate the strong civic pride and brought the tourist masses. It’s the Barcelona residents that have continued the exciting progress in the new century, rather than just taking a siesta.
Five Best Dishes of Barcelona:
Cinc Sentits: Foie gras with a caramelized crust and glazed leeks, on a crisp coca base
There’s no doubt that Jordi Artal’s inventive cooking, accompanied by maître d’ and sister Amèlia’s spotless service was Barcelona’s top dining experience for yours truly. Though the mandatory tasting menu didn’t exactly test all five senses any more than its peers’ tasting menus would, all hearts stopped with this masterpiece. And that’s not just coming from a foie gras deprived Californian. A “coca” is essentially a Spanish pizza or really more like a very thin crust flatbread. Here, the coca is a thin rectangle base for the centerpiece, glistening from its caramelized crust. A shower of leeks sits atop the entire foie gras piece, with a little drizzle of leek sauce below. Yeah, foie gras never goes out of style when done in capable hands.
We always say beer can be your carb heavy lunch, but what about in dessert? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Russian Imperial stouts replacing root beer in ice cream floats, but not much beyond that. From time to time I’ll see beer ice cream, like San Francisco’s Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous’ “Ballpark” flavor with Anchor Steam beer, roasted peanuts, and chocolate covered pretzels. Jordi Artal takes this beer dessert a step further with bubbly yeast. But the fact is, this is an ice cream sundae with bananas and warm caramel. It’s a tried and true, easy to love concept. The beer just adds a frothy, delightful edge to the usual sugar overdose of a sundae. Prost!
And the James Beard for most unimaginative menu descriptions goes to…Gresca, Barcelona (*applause*). When I asked our very helpful, if shy waitress what I should get as a rookie, she insisted on this if I could handle sweetbreads. Done. I had a hunch the dish was much, much more than it sounded. Indeed it was. Out came a dish that could make the pickiest eater lick their plate clean. The sweetbreads are tender like a well marbled Wagyu steak, instead of the usual awkward spongy solidified cream. A demi glace is made of the butter and veal stock and the “mustard” hides in the perfect mashed potatoes. It doesn’t sound light, but it really is. It almost seems like a Gaudi dish.
Of all the tapas in this world Trevor, you pick this? Mark Bittman and I are two eggplant spokesmen and you will be too after this dish. It’s from the same sweet-earthy profile as those great sweet potato fries you’ve once had, except meatier. We couldn’t get enough of these, or the completely non- Spanish burrata with mustard sprouts, rocket, and sundried tomatoes. Lolita’s mini hamburgers aren’t exactly going to win awards. However, their sliced rare ahi tuna in ponzu, a holdover from the heavily praised prior tenant Inopia, could be at Alan Wong’s in Honolulu. I could eat their imitation of the classic smoked salmon, greek yogurt, and truffled honey montadito from the legendary nearby tapas bar Quimet y Quimet at least once a day. But at the end of the meal, I couldn’t stop talking about crispy triangles of sticky fried eggplant.
Roca Moo: Crayfish with curry, roses, and licorice
It all started so promising at Roca Moo with exquisite amuse bouches like a savory yogurt with herring, caviar, and basil oil, or the Campari liquid truffle taste shot. But the dish that could hold its own at the related “Best Restaurant in the World” in Girona would be this floral, seafaring creation that truly shows the potential that the rest of the meal left unfulfilled (more on that later). The crayfish is almost identical to meaty langoustines, bursting with sea brine and velvety soft. Curry’s allure with the rose fragrance makes the dish a truly five senses experience…except that this wasn’t at Cinc Sentits.
Stay tuned for Part II of “Greetings From…Barcelona” tomorrow.