Continuing where we left off in Part I:
The Concept of Barcelona: Comfort Molecular Gastronomy
Like the city itself, the rustic past meets the Star Trek-El Bulli avant-garde. You see the classic side from Fonda Gaig or the old lunch cantina Cal Boter. For seafood, Cal Pep is as highlighted in the guidebooks at the Sagrada Familia, and actually hasn’t indulged into becoming a tourist trip recent reports tell me.
Every time I visit Barcelona, I need a decidedly not inventive, but still excellent lunch of tender baby squid over white beans with a generous aged balsamic drizzle and exemplary tripe from Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria. It’s a cramped, hectic experience, but one of a kind. Do it.
Just in general, the Boqueria is a mandatory food tourist’s stop. It might not exactly be among the pantheon of great food markets of the world, but it’s not far behind. Definitely spend the two euros on a fresh juice, perfect for a summer day.
At the other end of the Catalan cooking spectrum is where molecular gastronomy thrives in high wire style courtesy of Comerç 24 (Carlos Abellan is one of many Adria disciples now on their own in Barcelona) and Dos Palillos from alum Albert Raurich. In between the traditional and molecular ends is really where Barcelona’s cooking hits its stride at places like Cinc Sentits, Saüc, and Nectari. The city has 22 Michelin stars. Even to the formal French, the city is no slouch. Well, there aren’t any three star gastronomic palaces, but who needs those? Or really, who even needs the Michelin stars? I’ll take a city full of non starred, but still special places like Gresca any day.
The Cocktail of Barcelona: Sangria at L’Ovella Negra
What? Sangria? How much sangria have you had Trevor?
This is a sentimental choice from my first visit to Barcelona where I was tipped off to this expat bar that happens to make sublime sangria. They weren’t lying. It’s really a cavernous beer hall filled nightly by American students drinking steins of two options: Sangria or San Miguel beer. You can eat microwaved tapas and popcorn comes free.
But oh that sangria is nothing of the sort you had in college mixed in ice coolers. The red wine to sweetness ratio is spotless, even if I’m sure the red wine isn’t exactly top tier Priorat stuff. There’s no fruit to get in the way of your drink. This is serious, if not intended to be serious, sangria. And I can’t get enough of it.
If we’re talking world class craft cocktails in Barcelona, the discussion starts and ends at 41 Degrees. For the closest experience possible these days to El Bulli, 41 Degrees offers epic tasting menus, complimented by various cocktails. From midnight to 2am, the bar opens to the mortal public for coctels. I was concerned about staying awake until midnight to enter, then worried about lines afterwards once I arrived. Well, let’s just say a marathon dinner made it so I didn’t arrive until 1 am and there were two other parties in the bar. No worries about waiting then.
Drinks indeed live up to the hype. Pardon my lack of note taking while jet-lagged at 1:15 am. The standout drink wasn’t on the rocks, butt literally was served on rocks in a wooden box.
I believe the bartender informed me his off menu creation was called “The Catalanian,” a sweet- herbal riff on a Negroni. My email to the bar will be returned in September since they’re on vacation for August of course. Another excellent drink was the Margarita you’d find at El Bulli, with the salt rim in the form of salt air whipped up into the equivalent of sea salt cotton candy. More bars should apply salt like this to Margaritas as the salt enhances the drink by swiftly dissolving instead of distracting.
Continuing your cocktail crawl with a consummate Tanquerey 10 Dry Martini at Javier de las Muelas’ Dry Martini in L’ Eixample. These guys are old school pros, down to serving your drinks on silver trays for you to pick the drink off from yourself. Heaven forbid they touch the glass. When I asked if I should look at a menu, the reponse was “the menu is the classics.”
41 Degrees also pointed me towards the Ohla Hotel in Born for the best cocktails to compete with his bar. Like the rest of Spain, Barcelona is almost disturbingly obsessed with “gintonics.” Most versions taste like alcoholic 7 Up.
See what the potential is by visiting a great spot for sampling various high end gins and house infused gins with tonic water like the quaint Xix Gin Bar. I didn’t know shoebox sized specialty bars still existed. Xix is fanatical about its gins in a very subtle way. It knows its an important of this quiet residential neighborhood, so there’s no reason to say that loudly. Get your goblet sized “gintonic” and relax.
Another great choice for the bar scene is Pez Vela below the W Hotel’s seductive pool, way, way out at the end of the beach. It’s practically in another town. Cocktails aren’t close to as alluring as the clientele, which almost out- Miami’s Miami. But they’re very good nonetheless, as are the croquettes and giant rice dishes. Get the hub cap sized black rice with baby squid and artichokes. Views here are jaw dropping, both of the beach and the people around you. Have another drink.
Beer or Wine?
No question here, you’re drinking wine. Barcelona is surrounded by wine regions. The Priorat makes stellar reds to the southwest of the city. One terrific example would be the Closa Batllet Red Blend from Cellers Ripoll. Costers del Segre lies to the west as does the Conca de Barberá. Penedés is just south. Then you have to factor in all of the great Riojas, Ribeiros, Vinos de Madrid, Bizkaiko Txakolinas, Cavas, plus the exceptional prices for wine. It can be overwhelming. Drink wine here. My colleague Justin Berlin over at Vino 24/7 is a superb expert on Spanish wine and the best source I know to learn about this still under the radar area of the industry.
Wine Spectator recently wrote a very useful guide to the best new and old wine bars. Vila Viniteca and Monvinic sound like the clubhouse leaders. From a bar perspective, you must grab a drink poolside at the Mandarin Oriental’s rooftop terrace, Terrat, for an unparalleled 360 degree city view. Everyone is beautiful here, including you. While there, order the excellent dual 2011 Macabeu-Chardonnay from Oda Blanc in the Costers del Segre region.
Sherry is vital to your Barcelona experience. One great example bridging the sweet and dry Sherry gap is the Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado. Every bar will have some decent dry and sweet Sherry, along with the ever popular sweet Vermouth. It’s usually on tap and you’re supposed to enjoy something salty and oily, like anchovies or olives with them.
Here’s a guide to some craft beer destinations worth seeking out. To be honest, I’ve never had beer in Barcelona or anywhere in Spain. That’s more because of the wine than the lack of good beer. But don’t mistake Barcelona and Madrid for San Diego, Bruges, or Munich, either.
Shall We Grab a Coffee?
In Barcelona, I’d prefer to grab a hot chocolate and you would too even if it’s always sunny and 80 outside. The Spanish love their hot chocolate, especially if it’s the syrupy thick hot chocolate from Albert Adria’s Cacao Sampaka boutique on a quiet street off the Passeig de Gracia. The Azteca, flavored with cayenne pepper wasn’t as spicy as I remembered from the past, but just as hard to drink without a spoon or churro for dipping. Dip the churros or melindros (ladyfingers cookies, think Tiramisu) into the almost undrinkably viscous hot chocolate since both not fresh pastries underwhelm on their own. There’s a reason the locals think of churros and chocolate mutually. Service at Cacao Sampaka is very cold and I’m told that’s the case for everyone. You’ll get past that though when enjoying the pièce de resistances: the myriad chocolate truffles. Go for the olive and parmesan cheese versions for real eye-openers. It’s impossible to choose or lose here.
What a great tandem churros and chocolate are. They’re the Astaire and Rogers of the dip and sip world. Churros and chocolate can be breakfast, a morning snack, an afternoon snack, or dessert. Or dinner. Why not? The best churros I encountered were at Gran Ruiz near the Picasso Museum, where the omelindros were too greasy and the chocolate somewhat thin. The churros though were just right. Another place with great churros and decent chocolate is Farga, not far from Cacao Sampaka. Everything is good, but just not Cacao Sampaka good. Speaking of chocolate, all dessert lovers must make the pilgrimage to Oriol Balaguer, the atelier and almost royal shop from another former El Bulli star. Chocolates and desserts are the star here. No snacking on churros and chocolate since this isn’t a café. It’s hallowed ground from one of the world’s most important pastry chefs.
When it comes to coffee, I can mostly vouch for decent espressos at restaurants to keep me away from siestas. The Spanish love their café con leche. I thoroughly enjoyed a fine one from Bar Pinotxo to keep my jet lag away after an 8am arrival.
Yes, Barcelona has Starbucks. They won’t be too hard to find.
The one little corner of American “third wave” type alternative coffee is at the very hidden Satan’s Coffee Corner by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) in El Raval. It took me five minutes to find the barista who happened to be the man sitting at the window. It’s hidden inside a perfume store interesting enough. But hey, we’ve got top tier coffee in the U.S. inside shoe stores and law offices.
Barcelona isn’t a Portland or San Francisco when it comes to coffee, but Satan’s Coffee Corner would fit right into either. Satan’s doesn’t roast its own beans, but goes out of its way to source some of the world’s premium beans.
Skip It: Tapaç 24
By all means sample Carlos Abellan’s molecular gastronomy temple Comerç 24, but take my advice and pass on his casual spot. Here he takes classic tapas, modernizes them, then makes them seem like greasy assembly line fast food. The results aren’t pretty. The classic tortilla (like an egg omelette, not in the taco sense) tasted like baking powder. A mini burger was a dry joke with a foie gras spread that was designed to be added to the burger like cream cheese to a bagel, and the foie gras tasted no more exciting than plain cream cheese. The burger itself tasted like how the recent Sergey Brin sponsored synthetic burger was described to have tasted like. Maybe it was synthetic?
A truffle grilled cheese underwhelmed me with no umami anywhere. Worst was a hideous version of the Yucatan stewed pork staple cochinita pibil, served as make your own tacos. The corn tortillas were stale. The meat, while tender, bordered on rancid. I had to stop after two bites out of concern for staying healthy the rest of my trip. The place is even more uncomfortable than the typical tapas bar, too. And that’s saying something.
From my first trip to Barcelona, I’ll also pass along the advice on paella: have it at its home in Valencia. Skip the various unseasoned, dry rice dishes with heaps of bland seafood all around the Barceloneta beach area. Spend your beach time on the sand, not in a restaurant.
Restaurant of Barcelona: Gresca
Paris has its baby bistros that are an evolution from and a revolt at its formal glittery Michelin palaces. Barcelona now has baby bistros too. Or maybe call them baby Bulli’s?
Gresca is a perfect example. Like with the aforementioned sweetbreads dish, descriptions are brief and unnecessary throughout the menu that has more selections than the 20 seats in the dining room. Each dish is inventive, but you’ve seen something close to it before. A gazpacho with cucumbers sure hit the spot, as did thick toast with sundried tomatoes and salty anchovies. Outside of the sweetbreads, the dish that made me swoon was a dessert incorporating pink peppercorn sorbet, bitter fennel strands, and subtle green apples. Not quite El Bulli laboratory work, but not too far from it. It’s just right.
Best of all at Gresca and many of its cohorts…if you want a glass of wine, just choose white, rosé, or red. You know the price will be equal to water and it will be a well-chosen selection. They really do get wine in Europe, don’t they?
Yes, Cinc Sentits was easily the premier experience I’ve had in the city. And the last pillar of El Bulli, Tickets (shares a building with 41 Degrees), is the restaurant people travel the world to go dine at. I didn’t now about this trip until less than a month before I left. Tickets’ reservations open three months in advance and are gone in minutes. Being the big deal I am, I figured I could try to walk in. Yeah, right…
At the end of the day, Gresca is the place that really shows Barcelona 2013 to me the most. You can’t lose either way by going with Tickets or Cinc Sentits, or any other dozens of chef and ingredient driven restaurants that pop up almost daily. Now, if only Gresca could improve that website…
Symbol of Barcelona: It’s a Gaudi tie