Monday, April 7, 2008

Jamon, Mariscoes and Pescadoes: Spain Food Yatra (1) - Barcelona

Traveling through some of the cities and towns of Spain, I had a chance to eat at places wide and varied – with origins from 14th century to 21st century; 10 Euros for a couple to almost 100; a hole in a wall outlet to being served by tuxedoed waiters – an interesting experience for me in a country where so many tourists don’t manage to get beyond the eateries along the beach resorts of Costa del Sol. I have a problem of structure here. Should I write this as a restaurant review? But I am not a competent reviewer of restaurants serving food that I do not know much about. Should I write a guide for tourists? But my sample is too small to do that. So the best choice I had was to prepare a meal plan for myself for two days – a day in Barcelona and another in Andalucía – covering breakfast, lunch, an evening coffee break and dinner.

Again, I am sure to go wrong with names of some of the dishes or ingredients but readers can help me get them right looking at the pictures (they don’t lie??!!)

The Barcelona Itinerary

I have read at a few places that Spanish are not big on breakfast and it would mostly be just pan con tomaquet (bread rubbed with garlic and tomato with olive oil drizzled on top) and coffee. But not if you are at the La Boqueria (formally called Mercat de Sant Josep), and have a chance to visit Pinotxo or El Quim.

Pinotxo has been called a ‘culinary temple’ by El Bulli, had a book written on it and its owner/chef Juanito Bayan has featured on many NY Times. I opted for chipirones con fabes (baby squids with pine nut type white beans) which was light on oil and seasonings and let the beans and squid do the talking. My wife had tortilla de espinacas (spinach omlette) and seemed quite happy with it. But it was Xixos (custard filled croissant dusted with sugar) which took the prize – alright they were too greasy but divine and we ordered a couple more for a later hour. Juanito’s personality is integral to the appeal of this place, with a permanent smile and a ‘thumbs-up’ sign whenever he is photographed (do a Google image search and you will know!). One thing which was amusing for me was that many locals were having wine with their breakfast, something that I haven’t observed in many other cities. Maybe someone can throw light on that.

El Quim is the upmarket version of Pinotxo. It has a younger owner/chef who is gaining a worldwide appreciation, has its menu written on a blackboard (Pinotxo does not have any written menu), and a table mat is placed on the counter before food is place. Well also that the adjoining plate of gambas con ajillo (prawns with garlic) cost 18 Euros which would mean than breakfast here would easily be 30 Euros per person with bread, coffee etc. It is famous for its huevas fritos (fried eggs) with choice of seafood (baby squids, prawns). But this place is not for anyone on a low-fat diet as everything is drenched in oil (fine its olive oil, but still!) be it pan con tomaquet or fried eggs or the prawns.

We did not try the Kiosko Universal but it comes recommended by many and considering that it want crowded, it might be a good option on days when you are not willing to wait to be heard for your order.

For lunch, I would make a mandatory recommendation – Paella at Can Majo. I have read reviews which suggest that service is awful and Paella oily. We had neither of these experiences. We had booked a table for our Easter Sunday lunch more than a month in advance, and we were not disappointed. My Pescadito Frito(small fried fish) ‘melt in your mouth’ variety while my wife had a goat cheese salad which looked amazing and tasted better. It was one of the few instances when I have eaten paella which had socarrat (crispy caramelized toasted bottom) and sheen on the top (not sure if it is evident in the adjoining photograph, but would want to understand it better from anyone in the know). Smell of saffron and no penny-pinching on seafood! One of the few places in Spain which has paid attention to preparing an acceptable vegetarian paella. It is all well and good to say that a vegetarian paella is not the real paella, but then I am told that real paella is supposed to have rabbit and game but that has evolved hasn’t it?

If history and ambience were to take priority over the taste of food, a lunch at Can Culleretes is a good idea. With the walls adorned with beautiful paintings, and a 220-old history, it sure is an experience to savor what with all the signed celebrity photographs making you feel in esteemed company. I should add a disclaimer that food, though inexpensive, is of average quality. Interestingly the Crema Catalana here is like Crème Caramel rather than Crème brûlée, as it it does not have the hard crispy caramel top – again something on which I would want to know more – which is the real one?
If you are any other place, and are not the one to skip dessert, look out for this aniseed pancake which was an interesting option.

Evening Snack

For an evening pastry and a coffee, choice could depend on the neighbourhood. If someone has flexibility to chose which part of the Barcelona he/she would be in during tea-time, then head to Sarria. Some of the most innovative and flakiest pastries that I have eaten. We went to this 105 year old Brioixeria in Sarria on Major de Sarria, and everything we tried was out this world. We had caracolas (chocolate croissant), a flautin (long thin pastries with cream or chocolate – I have tried to get more information about it on the web, but unsuccessfully) and a savory spinach-cheese pastry. Dolso in the Eixample district would provide a nice break to tired legs from Gaudi exploration. High quality chocolate and other desserts, along with sandwiches and other short-eats. If you on Las Ramblas then head to Moka for a piece of history. Not really know for its food, but it is finds mention in George Orwell’s 'Homage to Catalonia' as the place where the Guardia Civil of dictator Franco awaited to attack the Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

If someone has actually eaten as per this itinerary, then for health reasons the person would be advised to head to any of the Pans and Company outlets for Bocadillos – Spanish sandwiches. This place has all the good things of a McDonald’s – great location, nice seating, efficient and fast service, standardized quality – but avoids all the negatives by having local flavours and healthy food. Or head to a Fresc Co’s outlets around town – a salad and a hot food buffet, along with desserts – eat all you can for under 10 euros. This is another chain professes to promote health food though I would need to lot of convincing to accept that ‘eat all you can’ and ‘healthy eating’ go together

El Quim(Shop no. 594) and Pinotxo(Shop No. 466) at Mercat de la Sant Jopsep, Plaça de la Boqueria
Can Majo, Almirall Aixada 23
Can Cullleretes C/ Quintana, 5
Dolso, C/ València 227
Cafe Moka 126, Las Ramblas, 08002 Barcelona
Pans and Company

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Joey said...

Restaurant Dolso Barcelona
This is the opinion of someone who was (it was my wedding anniversary dinner) and left totally disappointed.
Service in haste and without smiles.
Expensive food and of average quality.
Ambientedel restaurant uncomfortable, narrow and small tables.
The most disappointing desserts, Sorvete a ball of red fruit desserts call it cosmopolitan.
In short I smashed an alleged romantic dinner.

Anonymous said...

Actually Café Moka was not occupied by Franco's Guardia Civil but by the Republicain government's Guardia Civil during the May events in 1937. Orwell was standing guard on the roof of the theatre on the other side of the Rambla for a few days.