Unusually for somebody who writes about food, I’d never been to Barcelona. So this time, when I went for a week, I did my research.
I got Gaggan Anand to get me into Tickets, the restaurant run by Ferran Adrià and his brother. I got chef Ramon Salto Alvarez of the Gurgaon Leela, who is from Barcelona, to give me a list of restaurants. And I went through Michelin to look for the best restaurants in the city.
It was through Michelin that I ended up at Alkimia, a very sober, serious restaurant (one star), where some of the food (a pigeon with cherries, for example) was outstanding.
La Bouqueira the popular food market, is borderline touristy but a wonderful gourmet experience
So right at the end of our meal, I asked the manager to recommend some restaurants. Many of those he suggested were already on Ramon’s list so I just showed him Ramon’s original recommendations.
Ramon had suggested a paella restaurant that he liked a lot. Did the unsmiling manager of Alkimia think it was any good? He shrugged. "You know it is full of tourists," he said solemnly. I looked around Alkimia. Only one table seemed to have any Spanish people. All the others had Americans, Brits and Japanese. Surely, they were all tourists? And what about me, a visitor from Delhi? Wasn’t I a tourist?
The manager did not think it odd that, despite running a restaurant full of foreign visitors, he was being sniffy about places that were frequented by tourists. And, in time, even I came to see what he meant.
El Palace is to Barcelona what the Connaught is to London: small, discreet and classy
Food is a serious business in Barcelona. I was there for a week and I did not eat one bad meal there. And I had some truly exceptional ones.
Foodies from all over the world journey to Barcelona to eat. To those in the restaurant business, foodies are not tourists. They are gastronomes, deserving of respect. Tourists are people who know nothing about food and go to all the usual tourist traps to eat over-priced rubbish.
By that definition, I was lucky. I went to only one place which had a lot of non-foodie tourists (it was near the hotel and I’d just landed in Barcelona). And even there, the food was not bad. At the foodie temples, however, the food was truly extraordinary.
I’ll start with Tickets because it is the hardest restaurant to get a table at – it is booked out three months in advance.
Barceloneta’s eponymous restaurant does a terrific paella with meat and porcini mushrooms
It’s the restaurant the Adrià brothers started after closing elBulli and it embodies Ferran Adrià’s philosophy that food must be fun. So the restaurant is decorated like a circus or a carnival and the emphasis is on joy and amazement.
But the food is not at all circus-like. All the most famous elBulli dishes are here and the kitchen works to the same high standards.
We started with the most influential dish of this century, the elBulli ‘olive’. This looks like an olive but melts in your mouth when you bite into it, giving out the most intense olive flavour.
Adrià used a technique called spherification to create it and it revolutionised cooking (along with freeze-drying, the airs and foams, the liquid nitrogen and all the other things elBulli started) to the extent that most young chefs now want to spherify something or the other.
Gaggan Anand has the only dish that comes close to the original olive – his spherified papri chaat. But you’ll find versions of Gaggan’s dish everywhere too these days.
The meal was a complete triumph with Adrià tricks such as a ‘spaghetti’ which turned out to have been made from strands of oyster mushroom; the molecular tamasha of chefs coming to your table to create smoke-filled dishes, and an emphasis on uncooked high-quality ingredients such as oysters paired with Iranian Beluga caviar.
At the other end of the spectrum from the carnival that is Tickets is the 27-year-old Sant Pau with its three Michelin stars. It’s an hour by train from Barcelona but foodies make the trek because of the perfection of the cuisine.
The restaurant can only seat 27 people but the kitchen has 19 chefs and there are an equal number of waiting staff.
Oysters with beluga (left) at Tickets which the Adriá brothers started after closing elBulli; The elBulli ‘olive' at Tickets (right) is the most influential dish of this century
The food is beautifully presented and wonderfully cooked; coffee is served in a garden by the sea and you take a train home on a track that sticks close to the Mediterranean so that you pass blue water and golden sand nearly all the way back to Barcelona.
If you want something more informal, there’s El Nacional in central Barcelona. This is a lot like the New York Eataly, but without the retail element. It’s massive (it used to be a garage) and hosts four different restaurants and an equal number of bars.
It is jam-packed night after night but I liked it so much that I tried three of the four restaurants and one of the bars. The brasserie served me one of the best steaks I have eaten outside a full-fledged steakhouse.
The tapas restaurant did tender shrimp in garlic and olive oil, spicy chorizo sausages and more. And I ate so many oysters at the fish restaurant (followed by a delicately-trembling crème caramel) that it will be a while before I can face an oyster again. El Nacional is not expensive, much favoured by locals, and was one of my favourite restaurants in Barcelona.
There were many other terrific meals at Michelin-starred places such as Cinc Sentits (great daube of beef from the Pyrenees) but the real surprises were at the places where you didn’t expect the food to be so good.
I wandered into the tiny Mercer Hotel in the Gothic quarter (easily the most beautiful part of Barcelona) and found that the restaurant was shut for lunch. But the bar served food. And an enthusiastic chef kept turning out surprise after surprise – silky ham croquettes, cod fritters, and the best patatas bravas I had on the trip.
Cod tartare (left) at Sant Pau, an hour by train from Barcelona but a hit with foodies; crustaceans at the seaside district of Barceloneta (right)
In the seaside district of Barceloneta, I went to a restaurant named after the district expecting nothing much, but the food (including a terrific paella with meat and porcini mushrooms) was so good that I could well understand why the large restaurant was packed out with locals, and why people queued up for tables.
I took a day trip to Sitges, a beach resort once favoured by the likes of Picasso (and now, as I was to discover, a gay hangout) and went to a restaurant called Fragata with no great expectations.
The food turned out to be excellent: a brilliant fish carpaccio, a glorious seafood paella and baby squid grilled on the plancha.
There were other wonderful gourmet experiences, some of them borderline touristy including the tapas at the stalls at the La Boqueria food market.
Some of it (from razor clams grilled to your liking and another which tasted a lot like a channa chaat) was quite good. And the market stalls are worth seeing for the sheer range of produce available.
I didn’t waste much time in Ramblas, the touristy heart of Barcelona, because it is a little like Leicester Square in London: you never see a local and it is full of tourist traps. But I gather non-foodie tourists like it a lot.
Barcelona is cheaper than London or Paris. Even at Michelin-starred places I paid half of what I would have in either of those cities. And the food is probably a lot better (than London, certainly). If you want a gourmet trip that won’t break the bank, then this is the place to go.
Hotels can be expensive, though. The people the Alkimia manager would have described as tourists like the large Arts Hotel (400-plus rooms) in a very tourist-friendly part of town.
The same kind of people will also like the W, which follows the usual formula of merging the visions of the Ian Schrager/André Balazs kind of hotelier with the sensibility of Walt Disney.
It’s loud, cheerful and has the air of one of those giant mid-market cruise liners. Then there’s the Majestic, which is older and grander but still quite tourist-friendly and probably over-priced for what it is.
The hotels I liked were the Mercer (where I had that lunch), a 28-room property from André Balazs, (built around a 4th century Roman wall) which radiated class and discretion. I also liked the Miramar which is small, artistic and has a great view of Barcelona (it is on a hill).
But I was glad I chose El Palace. It is to Barcelona what the Connaught is to London: small, discreet and classy. It is a grand hotel, built by Charles Ritz in 1919 and a renovation in 1993 restored the magnificence of the lobby /and the public areas.
There are only 80 rooms and 45 suites and each of them seems different. (I booked it through the Leading Hotels of the World and because I’m a member of their Leaders Club, got a great deal.)
It has a wonderful location in the centre of Barcelona (nothing is more than a ten Euro taxi ride away) and I walked nearly everywhere from the hotel.
The concierges are great at fixing restaurants. And many of the guests are the kind of rich Americans who turn up in Woody Allen movies about Europe. (To Rome With Love, Midnight in Paris, etc.)
Are they tourists? According to the manager of Alkimia, probably. But then I guess all of us visitors are, no matter what we tell ourselves.
From HT Brunch, August 9
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