How do you sum up a city’s food in one post? It’s an impossible task, and one I can’t even pretend to set out to do. I considered splitting this up into multiple posts–one on tapas, one on Bistronomics (a new restaurant trend in Barcelona, where high-end restaurants serve multiple courses for reasonable prices)–but ultimately I thought it would be more useful to you, and more manageable for me, just to pick the best bites from our trip. What you’re about to see represents the best food we ate in one of the world’s great food cities: Barcelona, Spain. If you’re planning a trip there soon, you may want to follow our lead.
Let’s start with tapas. One cannot travel to Barcelona without experiencing tapas–they’re an essential part of any trip.
Here’s the thing about tapas. In America, they often feel like a rip-off. I remember when tapas was a big trend here in the U.S., and any time friends would trick me into joining them for a night of tapas, I’d wind up spending way more money than I would at a normal restaurant. So I became wary of tapas. Even now, if you invited me to go out for tapas, I might raise an eyebrow. A single eyebrow: yes, I can do that.
But in Barcelona, things are different than in the U.S. Tapas are the way to go–they’re often the ONLY way to go (with definite exceptions). But unlike the US, you don’t feel cheated by tapas. Quite the opposite: Barcelona tapas aren’t the cynical enterprise of opportunistic restauranteurs, they’re the profound expression of a dynamic food culture–one that showcases ingredients and techniques cultivated and perfected for generations.
Our first tapas meal was the meal we had at the place pictured in the lead photo–Bar Pinotxo, right at the entrance to the Boqueria market. This is an essential first stop for any trip to Barcelona. After wandering in off Las Ramblas–where you’ll find tropical birds in cages, throngs of tourists, and performance artists dressed in mythological costumes (fairies, gargoyles, trolls)–you will come to a crowded tapas bar and wonder if this is a place for those in the know or a place for tourists.
The answer is the former: this is where food-lovers come to toast the start of a Barcelona eating binge, and you do it with a glass of cava:
One thing we noticed pretty quickly in Barcelona is, unlike Paris, the people don’t necessarily appreciate your efforts to speak the language. Craig–who speaks far better Spanish than me–would often try to engage counter people in their native tongue. They’d answer back in English.
At Bar Pinotxo, they humored us. We ordered in Spanish, and they answered with a mixture of Spanish and English (though the right language to speak is, of course, Catalan). Somehow, with all those languages, we ordered these croquettes, filled with ham and cheese:
You will find examples of this at most tapas bars–fried balls, filled with savory treats–because the purpose of a tapas bar is to keep you drinking. And nothing soaks up alcohol better than a big fried ball (more on that later).
One highly prevalent item we spied around the Boqueria was baccala, or salted cod. Here, at Bar Pinotxo, it was rehydrated and pan-fried until it resembled fresh cod–only with a deeper, more complex flavor (because of that salting) with an eggplant ragout on the side.
But the star of the show was something you’d never expect to steal the spotlight–chickpeas!
(Embarrassing moment of dialogue—Me: “Como se dice ‘chickpeas’ in espanol?” Counterperson: “Garbanzos.” DUH!!!)
Oh gentle reader, how I wish I could’ve pocketed some of these chickpeas, sent them off to a lab and determined what EXACTLY went in them to make them so extraordinary. Looking at that picture now, I still have absolutely no idea. I want to say there was something briny in there–like anchovies–but that’s not true. They didn’t taste briny, they just tasted complex: these were mighty deep chickpeas. If anyone has any insight into what goes into the chickpeas at Bar Pinotxo, please enlighten us in the comments!
We leave Bar Pinotxo full and happy and slightly tipsy from the Cava, and remove to our next tapas destination: Santa Maria, a tapas bar near our hotel in the Born district (Carrer del Comerc 17).
As we left our epic dinner at El Bulli, the maitre’d asked if wanted any Barcelona restaurant recommendations. We said yes and he handed us several pages of paper with restaurant tips (I can type that up in a future post, if you’d like). On that list was Santa Maria, which is why we went there.
Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. On the random night we decided to wander over there, it was their last night open before summer vacation. The mood was festive, to say the least. This place is to tapas bars what Patti Smith is to rock n’ roll. In other words, it’s badass. Don’t believe me? Note the penis painting on the wall:
Here, the kitchen staff sprayed each other with the dish-washing hose, and the star dish was a plate of fried frog’s legs with some kind of glaze:
These were meaty frog’s legs–the kind that induces the statement, “tastes like chicken.” But this was brave cooking happening here, and though no other dish really pops in the memory–except maybe this fish…
This place is more about the experience than any individual plate. It just oozes cool. Look how cool Craig looks in this picture. That’s Santa Maria, doing its job:
Another saintly place to eat tapas is an alternative to the Boqueria, the Santa Caterina Market (aka: Mercat de Santa Caterina).
If you walk into this famous market–famous, first and foremost for its architecture (do a Google image search)–yield to the left and keep walking until you stumble upon a tapas bar called, La Torna:
Pull up a stool–notice, you’re surrounded mostly by locals–and order what promises to be one of the best bites not only of your trip, but maybe of your life. May I present to you calamari, cooked a la plancha:
Thinking about this dish makes me want to cry, it was so good. It’s the sort of thing that proves every cliche true: cliches about using the freshest ingredients possible (in this case, calamari so fresh it practically sings to you as you eat it) and simple food often being the best (here it’s just seared on a hot metal grill and dressed with olive oil, lemon and parsley).
This was insanely good, so good that if I flew back to Barcelona right now, I may very well head straight to La Torna just to re-experience the magic. I know Craig felt the same way.
The other best bite we had at La Torna was the asparagus:
Not so much for the asparagus itself (which was simply grilled) but for the sauce underneath it–a romesco sauce, one of Spain’s most famous. It’s made from nuts (almonds or hazelnuts) ground with garlic, olive oil and small dried peppers. It’s fantastic–spicy, earthy and rich.
And now for the final two tapas joints, the two best of our trip.
#1 is of course the most-recommended, most talked-about tapas bar in all of Barcelona. That’s Cal Pep.
Funny story. We saved Cal Pep for after getting back from El Bulli. On the night we tried to go (August 1st or 2nd), we walked over and saw the restaurant was shuttered. A sign said CLOSED and it looked like it was closed for the summer. We corroborated that when we got back to the hotel—sure enough, one of our guide books said Cal Pep was closed for August.
We were pretty upset–this was the place everyone said we had to go–and we resigned ourselves to a life of quiet suffering, having never been to Cal Pep.
Then, on our very last day in Barcelona, Craig went awandering while I siesta-ed in the hotel room. The door burst open around 5 o’clock. “Guess what’s open?” asked an enthusiastic Craig. “What?” I asked. “Cal Pep!”
And it was true! Somehow we’d mistaken the shuttered restaurant for an absolute indication of a summer closing, but they weren’t closing until the next day. That’s right: our last night in Barcelona was Cal Pep’s last night of being open for the summer. If there’s such a thing as kismet, this was it.
At this point, you’ll have to understand that I was a bit exhausted from taking pictures of all my food. “Tonight I’m giving myself a break,” I told Craig. “Let’s just enjoy ourselves.”
Big mistake! This was some of the best food of the trip. Yes, it’s touristy–some of you warned it would be–but the vibe of the place was pure Barcelona. It’s edgy (big flames shooting up from super hot pans), it’s feisty (no special treatment for the bigshot who insisted he made a reservation when he walked in), and it’s full of life. We waited in the line and eagerly awaited our seat at the bar.
When we got it, we allowed the counterperson to choose the menu for us. It was a great idea–we loved everything we had.
Alas, my no-picture policy robs of you eating this meal vicariously. But I can tell you that we started with pa amb tomaquet, continued with pimientos de padron (those little green peppers–which they deep fry here–1 out of 10 of which are super spicy), a big plate of deep fried seafood (calamari, langoustines), and this; the remnants of which I couldn’t help photographing:
This, my loyal readers, is definitely another Top 3 Dish of the trip: chickpeas cooked with cuttlefish and mussels. The chickpeas act like a sponge, soaking in all the goodness of the fresh seafood and whatever fat they added (olive oil? butter?) This was outrageously good, a can’t-be-missed kind of dish.
But the best tapas restaurant we visited was visited courtesy of Pim, who texted me before I left and urged me not to miss Paco Meralgo.
This was it: all the vim and verve of the best Barcelona tapas bars, classed up a bit. The mood here was a bit more intense, certainly less relaxed, but understandably so: the food is just that good.
We started with the pa amb tomaquet (the best of our trip) and moved on to this gazpacho, served in wine glasses:
All my memories of insipid gazpacho–the kind made from canned tomato juice and filled with diced celery and onions–instantly vanished as we sipped this rich, explosive concoction. This was decadent gazpacho, like a tomato smoothie touched by the gods.
Next up was calamari cooked with chickpeas:
Important lesson from the trip: when you cook seafood with chickpeas, the chickpeas become brilliant nuggets of goodness, unparalleled flavor bombs that put a huge grin on your face.
We had these green beans cooked with Iberico ham:
(More on Iberco ham later…)
And grilled razor clams:
But the highlight had to be the bomba–fried mashed potato balls:
This has to be another Top 3 bite from the trip and how can it not be? A big fried mound of mashed potatoes topped with a fresh romesco sauce? As I said earlier, tapas are meant to encourage drinking and with these you could drink an entire mountain of wine. Actually, we had ourselves a bottle which the waiter recommended:
I’d be lying if I said I remembered anything about this wine, it was one of many bottles consumed on our trip. The best wine I remember, though, was a wine consumed at one of Barcelona’s bistronomics–our next category of restaurant. The bistronomic we visited was called Hisop.
As promised, our meal at Hisop was high-end–fancy plates, fancy service (the place, I must tell you, was pretty empty)–at a relatively reasonable price (with wine, about $200). We liked everything we had, but our favorite foods weren’t the more complex dishes, like this highly-sophisticated tuna belly with an Adria-inspired sphere on top:
Instead, we loved the food that celebrated Catalonia. Notably, this cheese course…
(The cheeses were all from local farmers and they were outstanding.) And this wine…
I loved this wine. (You can study the bottle to see its name and origins). It had that good-wine zip that you only get when you’re really drinking good wine. And it came from Catalonia which, again, made us happy.
Shall we pause for a moment and admire the Miro-inspired stains I accidentally made on the tablecloth?
I’m an artist, I am!
I realize this post is getting pretty epic, so maybe we should zip through the rest? What do we have left?
We have this fish which we ate near the beach in Sitges, a resort town 45 minutes outside of Barcelona, which is gorgeous and a must-visit–especially if you’re gay. (It’s apparently the Provincetown of Europe.)
I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it hardly matters—just avoid the touristy places right on the water, and seek out something that looks authentic. That’s what we did and ordering that fish–a sea bass–was the right choice. It couldn’t have been fresher.
There was this paella which we ate in the Barcelonetta–the small fisherman’s town right near the water, where we wandered and settled on a place for lunch in a little square. Does this make you hungry?
it didn’t necessarily have that caramelized crust on the bottom that good paella’s supposed to have, but the rice was perfectly cooked, and the taste of the sea was absolutely authentic. I can’t imagine eating a paella in America that’d come anywhere close to this. It’s a dish you must have on any trip to Spain, but not necessarily where we had it.
There’s the best sandwich in the world, according to Mark Bittman:
Yes Mark Bittman wrote an impassioned piece in the New York Times, several years ago, about how the best sandwich in the world can be found at Cafe Vienna right off Las Ramblas.
I can’t say I fully agree with Mr. Bittman’s assessment. The sandwich consists of Iberico ham–which is indisputably the best ham in the world, made from special pigs that are fed a steady diet of acorns–on bread that’s rubbed with tomato, in the Catalan tradition.
Mr. Bittman’s article is pasted to the door and reprinted on the menus, and I think this place must’ve jumped the shark when the tourists clutching Mr. Bittman’s article came pouring in. Our sandwich, which was indeed very good, was served on bread that left a lot to be desired. The ham, while good, didn’t match the taste of Iberico ham I sampled at the Boqueria. So, in conclusion, if you want a reasonably priced Iberico ham sandwich, this is the place to get it. But if you want the Best Sandwich in the World, go to the Boqueria and buy the best Iberico you can (it comes at various price points), have it sliced thin and then buy really good bread and make your own sandwich. That’d be the ideal option (especially if you take the sandwich to Montjuic, a gorgeous park that overlooks the whole city). Just my two cents.
Finally–yes, we’ve reached the end!–we ate one of our last meals at Commerc 24, a restaurant that’s perfect for anyone who wants to experience the whimsy and spirit of El Bulli, but can’t get a reservation.
The food here is very similar, if not quite as dramatic. There was, for example, this consomme that had, floating it in, spheres (much like the spherical olives we enjoyed at El Bulli):
One was Parmesan, one was Egg, and one was Truffle: they instantly liquified in your mouth, in a delightful, surprising way.
The meal had raw fish preparations and more savory preparations–like this course of foie gras risotto, some kind of foie gras cream, and corn nuts:
I have to tell you, I hate corn nuts, so this was actually one of my least favorite bites of the trip–I didn’t even finish my plate.
But the meal is redeemed with this dessert, a frothy, cloudy unidentifiable mixture of cream and fruit that I thoroughly enjoyed:
It’s the perfect image, really, with which to end this post. It captures how colorful, how playful, and sophisticated the food in Barcelona turns out to be. It’s a city that loves its traditions, but doesn’t keep its nose in the past–it’s constantly innovating, constantly evolving. Barcelona is a city that’s proud of its heritage but excited for its future.
I feel privileged to have eaten my way through such an inspiring city—I hope, someday, you get to do the same.