Here is a very special edition of our blog! An account of Barcelona’s Food Scene from the Chef’s Perspective. Enjoy!
What a culture shock Spain is. In a few short weeks, we have now gone from $15 beers in Iceland, to $8 beers in France, to now $2 beers in Spain.
Notable Restaurants – Poble Sec
Upon our arrival to Barcelona for a 2-week housesitting assignment, our host took us to their favorite local neighborhood spot, L’Avia, or better known to them Mario’s. On the edge of El Raval, this family run restaurant is a little gem with basically no menu. All the food is made ahead of time in large quantities and you order in a manner that is kind of like browsing through a pastry shop – “I’ll take one of those, a little of this and some of that”. The food is the kind of Catalan cuisine you’d expect from your grandmother’s house, if you were a kid growing up in this region. Nothing fancy, just good ingredients cooked simply. An artist of many talents, the walls of this small place are covered with Mario’s own artwork and if you happen to come on a Wednesday around 3:00PM you can even here the restaurant broadcast his weekly radio show. At L’Avia it’s about the neighborhood and giving back. Be prepared to drink as Cava is around 4.50€ a bottle and generally each diner is “gifted” a shot of the local liquor (or two) on the way out the door. Open from 11:00AM until 2:00AM, it’s definitely the spot to stop late night on the on the way to the bar, but for the paella you’ll want to arrive around 3:00PM and order a plate (for 5.50€!) right as the 3-foot pan comes off the stove.
Right up the street from our housesit was an amazing little tapas bar, La Platilleria. Cheap drinks and great food – it is all you really need in this city. Since we arrived I’ve been seeing and hearing about patatas bravas, but as with many “famous” dishes around the world, there are so many places that serve terrible variations. After sampling her fair share of bad patatas bravas in her previous trip to Spain, Roxanne continuously refused to order them anywhere. Finally, I convinced here to order them here and we are so glad we did. The first bowl came out – piping hot little pieces of deep-fried potatoes, julienned jalapeños, a chipotle sauce and a perfect garlic aioli. Exactly what this dish is supposed to be! (We ate here a couple of times and each visit called for 2 orders of Patatas Bravas!) Another regional dish done so well here was the Catalan tomato bread. You are given slices of bread, a garlic clove, a tomato cut in half, local Olive Oil and finishing salt to make it how you like it. Go heavy on the garlic, light on the tomato, whatever you like. This was by far the best way we had it in Barcelona.
Another local spot, Quimet & Quimet, is a bustling tapas bar. During one of our first nights in the area, we tried to get in but the tiny space was filled 3 people deep, shoulder to shoulder, and overflowing onto the street. If we were there for just the drinks it would be fine but we had heard so many great things about the food, we wanted to be able to relax and enjoy our experience. The next day we showed up for lunch and luckily got a spot right at the counter of the bar in this small 15×15 space. In cases on the counter in front of you is every possible canned or preserved item you could imagine from the region, and of only the best quality. Coming from the states anything canned we assume is the second-rate product because if it’s so good, why can it? In Spain it’s very different as they take pride in this food. At the product’s peak ripeness or season, it is canned to preserve the freshness and sometimes even improve upon it over the years, like a fine wine.
The small bites are prepared to order right in front of you. We opted for Iberico cheeks with a piquillo pepper and potatoes, pickled mussels, tuna belly with uni, and a smoked salmon with yogurt and truffle honey. Everything was amazing, but the salmon was our absolute favorite. Slightly smoked salmon, the sweetness of the honey with the profoundness of the truffle, and the creamy yogurt to smooth it all out was the perfect mouthful. Delicious little bites to start the day, not to mention a pretty solid sangria as well.
During a quick stop at the local vermouth bar one afternoon, we heard a couple other “gringos” asking the bartender for dinner recommendations nearby and became curious as to he had suggested. Since we were nearing the end of our two-week stay in the neighborhood, we wanted to see how our list compared and if there was anything thing we may have missed. Palo Cortao was one of his suggestions we had not heard of yet, so we decided we would try it for dinner. The namesake of the restaurant, Palo Cortao, is a type of sherry so needless to say they had quite a selection. Of course we had to finish off the meal with a Pedro Ximénez (another great sherry), but before we get to after dinner drinks, let’s not forget the food. We started with marinated sardines (a dish we seemed to eat everywhere!) with local olive oil, orange zest and ginger, and they were phenomenal. Next, a grilled baby squid dish with pork belly and truffle emulsion. The squid were perfectly cooked and while the pork belly was good, it was a little too tough (or maybe I’m just a little partial to the way I cook it). Finally came a braised oxtail with potato espuma and a very thick, rich jus. Delicious, just wish the potatoes has a little more texture to them, as they appeared almost liquid (a preparation we saw a couple of times). Great meal all in all – excellently priced and so close to home.
Notable Restaurants – Around the City
With the closing of El Bulli back in 2011, it was the end of an era. Ferran Adria was the man at the helm and his brother Albert was the pastry chef. A small restaurant secluded on the coast outside of Roses (and near impossible to navigate the one lane winding road) this dream team of chefs propelled themselves from doing zero people a night to being one of the originators of molecular gastronomy and the number one restaurant in the world for many years. It was here where, after a couple week stage, Grant Achetz learned the techniques that turned The French Laundry’s cuisine into what Alinea is today, and chefs like Jose Andres found their voice and went on to be one of the most successful and well know chefs in the world.
Within the next few years, Albert Adria set out to build his own reputation within the restaurant scene in Barcelona, and has definitely succeeded. His most popular restaurant, Tickets, is booked 2 months in advance as soon as the reservations become available. So we opted for nearby Nino Viejo and were not let down. A casual restaurant that focuses on small plates (like almost all of Barcelona), their menu was categorized by Butanes,
Antojitos y Ensaladas, Del Mar, Tacos y Brasa, and Postres. All sold by the piece, in which you hand the waiter your paper “carte” with the quantity you would like to order – all delicious beyond belief. The night’s specials consisted of Bouqurones with a Tiradito sauce, and a house made tamale (which we both immediately knew we wanted).
After a round of amazing margaritas, one with sea salt “air” foam and the other al pastor style served in a taco shell shaped glass, the first course arrived and we were stunned. The texture of the masa in the tamale was like a perfectly cooked omelet, but so much lighter. Neither one of us had ever had (and didn’t think was possible) to make a tamale this fluffy – absolutely amazing! The Bouqurones were equally as delicious, swimming in a Tiradito sauce of aji pepper paste, leche de tigre, citrus and herbs. We finished the meal with their Al pastor and house tacos, which were both such flavorful bites that we had to get a second round of each.
Cal Pep, located on the edge of the gothic quarter, is very popular in Barcelona and has been for years. What was once a local spot for the freshest daily seafood, now has a line out the door with people waiting to be lucky enough to get one of the 18 seats at the counter and experience this wonderful food. Upon squeezing through the front door, we probably stood waiting 30 minutes behind the full bar with a couple of glasses of blanc de blanc, watching to see when the next group would be done and we could finally have a seat. Once we sat there was no menu, just choose the number of courses and let the waiter take care of you. We chose 5 tapas and next thing you know the food started flowing. Clams in a jamon broth, calamari fried so simply, tuna tartare, a potato and egg pancake (very traditional) with garlic aioli, and sea bass with garlic, roasted tomatoes, and potatoes. The clam dish was probably one of the best things we’ve eaten this entire trip, absolutely amazing, and as a whole the meal was top-notch. The whole time there seemed to be a sense of controlled chaos. With no menu and the waiter guiding you, as a diner you don’t really know what’s going on or how much the meal will cost. Sure enough when the bill came it was much more than we were expecting, but for such a great meal it was well worth it.
A friend who had just been in Barcelona in the fall sent me a list of the places he thought were great and worth checking it. Granja Elena was on the top of his list. Off the tourist’s beaten path in an old coffee bar on the backside of the Sants-Montjuïc neighborhood, is a
beautiful small restaurant in which the son took over the family business and turned it into probably the best breakfast/lunch spot in the city. We arrived around 3:00PM to a packed restaurant, tables full of people in business attire out for their “3 bottle of tinto” lunch. Luckily we arrived just as a table opened up and were immediately set up with a bottle of Secrets Blanco Vino (chosen by our waiter and only 13€). This paired perfectly with our first course of cured tuna belly, fresh tomatoes and onions, dressed in what tasted like a white balsamic dressing. It seems out of the ordinary to have tomatoes this good in march, but they were delicious. For the second course, we had clams in a braised white bean stew, a pairing that complemented each other perfectly. We were told we had to get the baby octopus with scrambled eggs and squid ink but it wasn’t available that day, so we opted for the suckling pig instead. It essentially was a slice of perfectly cooked porcheta with more of that potato espuma(!), a mustard seed infused honey, and red wine jus. We generally opt out of dessert as we are always left a little disappointed, but we decided to round out the meal with a pistachio tuille filled with a honey curd (which was almost like a marshmallow) and pistachio ice cream. Probably the best dessert we’ve had in a long time. So worth the trip away from the center of town, just be sure to get there early enough to secure a seat!
Right on the water in Barceloneta, Suquet De L’Almirall, has become very well known for their paella. We started with the traditional Catalan bread (like at every restaurant around here) followed by a salmon tartare with tzatziki sauce, capers and dill. Very well done and balanced, the perfect start. Then came the paella. At first glance, with a whole langostine right in the center, it looked like someone forgot it on the stove top 10 minutes too long and dehydrated the rice, but when we dug in it was delicious and cooked just right. I haven’t had many paellas yet to compare, but this one was definitely a winner.
The Basque Country’s version of tapas, Pintxos can easily be described as ‘tapas on bread’, but they’re so much more than that. Barcelona is full of bars piled- high with these little bites. All self service and between 1-2€ a piece, they are the perfect solution for an easy, casual, and inexpensive meal or late night snack (just be sure to keep track of your toothpicks so the bar staff can tally your bill at the end of the meal). We were lucky enough to be staying near the best spot for all the pintxos you could ever want – Blai Street. With easily 30 different bars serving Pintxos and Tapas, it’s easy to hop from one to the next to find a place and bite that suits your appetite.
After sampling many of the places on Blai Street, La Tasqueta De Blai was hands down the best pintxo bar we found. Unlike many restaurants in popular tourist cities where quality generally takes a back seat to substance, this place goes above and beyond. The type of ingredients like foie gras, fresh fish, and housemade sauces, shows that the staff actually takes pride to offer a quality product. No cucumber tomato skewers with dried up shit here.
When traveling, it is unlikely that you will want to (or have the money to) spend eat meal sitting down for over an hour being waited on. The following are our recommendations for some great grab and go meals.
Cafe Viena Rambles – Maybe the only place on our list anywhere near Las Ramblas, this old prominent establishment was once rated the best Iberico Jamon Sandwich in the world by New York Times. While the sandwich was good, I don’t know that we would go as far to say “the best in the world”. Iberico, location and price can’t be beat.
Conesa Entrepans – Recently featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this spot right on Plaça de Sant Jaume specializes in homemade sausage sandwiches, griddled to order.
El Pachuco – A small Mexican bar on the edge of El Raval and Poble Sec, and always overflowing with young locals. The Sopes cannot be missed – pilled high with your choice of meat on top a wonderful house made masa cake.
La Fabrica – With two locations in the gothic quarter, this quick stop is easy for a wide selection of Argentinian empanadas. Have them warmed up and eat at the counters or take them to go.
La Boqueria – The market is full of quick bites to grab as you walk around and browse all local products. Paper cups full of Iberico, Spanish cheese, and any flavor fresh fruit juice combination you can imagine! Head to the market as they are closing (around 6:00PM) for a deal on the fresh juices – we scored 3 different flavors for 1€!
Cerveseria 100 Montaditos – Not our proudest moment but with 1 euro jarras (mugs) of beer and 1 euro montaditos (little sandwiches), this Spanish chain restaurant is the perfect place for a quick recharge. Sandwiches are tiny (stick to the #1 – Iberico on a little warm bun with olive oil), but for 1€ they are a great midday snack.
Notable Watering Holes
We were told about Doble during our day trip to Cadaques. This Amazing craft cocktail bar is the “off season” home to world famous cocktail master Manel Vehí (and winner of the international championship Mediterranean Inspirations 2015 by Gin Mare competition with a plankton infused drink). Doble offers a great menu with his best signature cocktails, elaborated with the last innovative cooking techniques and surprising textures. Creations influenced by his time with the Adrià brothers at El Bulli. He has since traveled around the world discovering ingredients and sharing his talents with chefs such as José Andrés and Grant Achatz, helping to develop the menu at Aviary (known as the best cocktail bar of USA). The cocktails less focused on the booze but on a seamless combination of world ingredients. An amazing experience, especially if he is there and you have a chance to sit at the bar and talk to him.
Another neighborhood spot in Poble Sec, La Confiteria, is a small craft cocktail and vermouth bar with décor that takes you back in time. Great flavor combinations and wonderful selection of vermouth, this place was always packed at night.
A surprising find in the Gothic Quarter, Alsur Cafè, is a late night coffee house and bar where locals gather to hang out on a quite night “in”. Their mojitos were great and only 3.50E each.
After wandering around the city all day, sometimes you just want to sit and have a couple beers. At La Sureña you can grab a bucket of 5 beers for only 4€, while overlooking the harbor. If you are in El Raval and want an authentic german beer hall style experience, L’Ovella Negra is the perfect spot (also offering cheap buckets of beer which are further discounted between 5-8PM)
With just over two weeks in Barcelona we covered a lot of ground, but some how there is never enough time. El Rey de La Gamba on Barceloneta along the harbor and Quim Boqueria located in the market where two places that same highly recommended to us that we just didn’t have a chance to get to.
Our Stark Perspective (tips)
- If you can, avoid the restaurants along Las Ramblas. They are grossly overpriced and not focused on quality.
- Beers come in two sizes – Canya or Cana is a small beer (.2L) and a Doble or Jarra is a large beer (.5L)
- Pintxo bars are a dime a dozen. There is minimal commitment so you don’t see anything you like, just keep moving to the next one.
- Since the city is big, their midday siesta isn’t quite as “strict”. Many restaurants still do close midday and won’t open for dinner until 7 – 8PM.