Posted 09 April 2006 - 12:04 PM
A meal at el celler de can roca may remind you of some of the flash lessons you half learned at minibar, but the food doesnít come to your table in the quick bursts of creativity, tentative nibbles and gasps of the long-running, six-stool entertainment upstairs at cafe atlantico, an anomalous restaurant industry equivalent of cats on broadway, but for a few. if tickets for the two seatings a night for minibar are fairly easy to come by these days, at least on weeknights, maybe itís because the novelty is wearing a bit thin, and after they smash your check -- a gesture with a muted shock value because the two industrious cooks and your server/guide have actually been coddling their customers all night to keep anyone from freaking out, especially at $100 an eater and up -- where do you go for your next cutting-edge dinner? if your appetite for culinary adventure has been whetted, you are unlikely to find it at the logical place -- the comparatively restrained cafe atlantico that has been working smoothly all night behind your back. katsuya fukushima spent some time hanging around ferran adria at el bulli (opening roughly now for some seven months and already fully booked for the year), and his kitchen can scoot out such unusual garnishes as corn sprouts (a mouthful will satisfy your curiosity, these are bitter with a vague texture of corn silk; still, it is a sublime touch to surround foie gras with variations on the feed that is used to fatten the duckĎs liver, as they do here). But whatís in the center of your plate is apt to be fairly traditional fare. pop rocks for dessert? i didnít notice any last time we were there, but didnít we start doing those decades ago, a cheap sugar high that, like other acidic candies, can make your mouth sore if you donít know when to quit. (bob kinkead was dispensing raisinets or goobers in his desserts during the good old days of 21 federal, so much for the novelty of mixing the sacred and profane.) local hero jose andres, if you can believe what you read in travel magazines, will eventually move on with the minibar approach, incorporating cutting-edge spanish cooking into a full-scale restaurant, which sounds like the right idea to me, but letís hope he doesnít take it to new york. looking back, isnít minibar too much of a simon-says experience: eat this in one bite, take this in two, inhale, use your spoon, donít shovel the wine jelly or youíll never catch the butter dab? does foie gras cocooned in cotton candy really deserve the oohs and ahs? itís the appearance of sugar, but mostly air. if you were confronted with six olive oil bonbons -- olive oil in a thin sugar shell -- would you finish them? (if the answer is yes, score yourself a bottle of fine olive oil and start swigging away.) considering how good the zucchini in textures or clam chowder turn out to be, wouldnít it be nice to find the circumstances that would allow more normal portions? as much a rapid-fire introduction to new juxtapositions of ingredients and a sure-handed display of what you can do with unconventional equipment and an eye for color, minibar is low-key satire, epic ambition played out on a small scale, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the long succession of steps and the almost mechanical precision required for this cooking -- but it ultimately invites skepticism that the end result has been worth the excessive effort..
el celler de can roca is in girona, a pleasant hour-and-a-half train ride into a semi-mountainous landscape from barcelonaís estacio de sants. (rosa, home of el bulli, is further up the tracks.) unless you plan on staying overnight, youíll have to go for lunch, which begins at 1:30 but doesnít swing into full gear until after 2:00. we found the lunch and dinner menus in spain to be similar. to work up an appetite, girona is well-worth wandering in the morning as the fog burns off, and one of the altars at the townís gothic cathedral depicts a battle that was decided by poisonous flies, although considerably more people come to drool over ďthe tapestry of the creation,Ē an appropriate reaction because it was woven during a period when western art was still in its infancy. the restaurant is no more than a half-hour walk from the cathedral, but you may never find it without ducking into one of the information centers. they were so friendly and short on tourists the day of our visit, in early february, that they waved us in from the street. practically everybody around knows this restaurant, but itís not easy explaining how to get there, so your best bet is to grab a cab. el celler is found in a nondescript suburb, where there are no beet tumbleweeds rolling down the street, and although itís not exactly berkeley, from the outside it bears some resemblance to chez panisse. if you arrive the way we did, you will be surprised at the dining room, which looks ordinary, even drab, with a sturdy waitress rushing to tables of hungry construction workers, some of them with mud on their boots or plaster in their hair, with first courses that look like they were grabbed from a salad bar. there is also a problem with our reservation, and we are then directed next door. we made a common mistake: the restaurant on the corner belongs to the parents of the roca brothers, who have opened shop one house over in a space that says fine dining, though to your right on entering is a small homey parlor resembling the place where you wait for your doctor to see you now. there are perhaps a dozen well-spaced tables inside, fairly typical of the restaurants in this part of the world. (the restaurantís web site, just fixed after being on the fritz for quite some time, mentions that 125 diners can be accommodated; maybe so, but we sure didnít see where.) we were seated (if you were writing into tom sietsema for a complaint on his weekly chat, you would probably say ďwe were satĒ) in the back, passing the kitchen and modern glass walls along the way, our big table up against glass patio doors looking out onto a mini, faux david hockney swimming pool in the center of a bright grass lawn. there are some worthwhile landscape paintings on the wall. the furniture you are likely to remember the most is a rolling stand carrying wine menus that are as big, though not as hefty, as the stone tablets god gave moses on top of mount sinai, all covered with special effects (i hope i have my bible studies right, they started and ended with cecil b. demille.) during our roughly two-and-a-half hours on the premises, we never saw a copy of the sous-vide cookbook co-authored by joan roca, but judging from the price tag ($180?!), i imagine that it too might be about big enough to fill a small doorway.
our server observed that spain is proudest of its white wines and helped us decide upon a ďstrongĒ bottle of do ferreiro albarino, which comes from grapes on old vines and successfully accompanied most of our food, no easy assignment. what on earth someone as squeamish as my wife is doing with a bowl of apple juice poured over large berry-ish clusters of tomato seeds, ďsnow,Ē fat anchovies and anchovy ice cream (sopa de poma) is beyond me, and what was even weirder than the combination was that she liked it. in this case, mixing sweet and savory turned out just fine, and in capable hands, at least, anchovy and apple can make for a happy marriage. (maybe hard to believe, but i tasted it and itís true. mustard ice cream was also on the menu, which runs long, except for desserts, and includes a recitation of the chefĎs hits.) on my side of the table was a more than generous serving of pig trotter carpaccio, strewn over a wide plate. gruelish in color and texture, mouth-coating with a semi-gelatinous feel, the carpaccio was accompanied by beans and a thin sugar timbale filled with bitter frisee. you might not quite expect it to carry you there, but this dish is transportation to hog heaven. next up, pigeon with risotto-styled rice was the mealís closest encounter with sous vide. not to envy the homeless, but i happily remember the evening a pigeon was roasting on an impromptu spit in the daniel webster park across from the australian embassy (the one where ginkgo nuts are gathered in the fall and you donĎt want to get them stuck on the soles of your shoes), and it smelled spectacularly good. by comparison, the pigeon emerging from its warm bath at el celler is not especially aromatic. itís soft, slightly bland, worked into a tootsie roll-ish presentation that incorporates candied orange peel and, from what i was told, gingerbread; otherwise, you would never know it. the pigeon was good, well worth the chefís trouble, but the pigeon in the park might have been better. for your final course, you will find desserts gone wild at el celler de can roca. my wife went the perfume route. an assortment of ices and gels and who knows what was supposed to taste approximately how calvin kleinís envy smells. a perfume card is provided for testing, and she said they nailed it, though refusing to dab some of this concoction behind her ears. i donít recall seeing any menís cologne on the menu, wouldnít have wanted it on my breath anyway and was still mildy jet-lagged, so i went for some chromatherapy -- blood-orange puree and apricot on a clear glass dish with a neon orange tube running underneath. as i was finishing up my therapy, three men at a nearby table, as instructed, were leaning into their plates as the server removed their cloches to reveal an aroma that all involved found amusing. was it rank? i wondered. tables of business hombres were lighting up their cigars, which can be ordered off the menu, and our young waiter was cracking the picture window door to dispel the building haze. along with the rest of the staff, he seemed more than capable of antic behavior, but it is clearly not tolerated in front of the customers. every nuance of the service was exceptional. there appeared to be quite a few regulars, and they are not coming here because they think that the preparations are outlandish. spaniards appear to have remarkably reliable radar when it comes to knockout cooking. on the languorous stroll back to the station -- during siesta time, looking into pet store windows at napping parrots, crossing brooks, traversing parks -- running the meal through my mind, i realized you would have to visit here several times to truly get the lay of the land, which provides
familiar signposts even as your imagination is being stretched. you can experience it almost like literature (whatever that is supposed to mean).
back in barcelona, abac proved to be a reliable source of foam and snow, both of which shimmer in a large wood-paneled jewelry box of a dining room. with the doors shut and the shades drawn over the large windows on a lower gothic area street thatís not much wider than an alley, you may wonder where the kitchen of chef xavier pellicer has gone, it doesnít seem to be around, and you may feel trapped in a pocket of stark, post-modern opulence. abac is within walking distance of the picasso museum, through some back ways, and closer still to a custo boutique, where for roughly $100 you can walk out feeling like drew barrymore in a body-fitting size 3 rock-and-roll tee shirt that someone is sure to think is inappropriate for your age (if you are older than drew barrymore). the snow is ginger on tuna with white rhubarb. next up, for me, is baby goat wrapped in crisp skin with scallions (i donít know where they came from, but they were special), chard and root vegetables and, for her, pasta tubes stuffed with bolognese lobster. foam is pomegranate on baked apple with pine nut nougat and grenadine. we ran into some deliriously good cheese in spain, and the cheese course here was the best we found anywhere. the wine was fine, as well, one of only 12 rare bottles the sommelier said he is able to snag in a year, but not too rare for us: another round of albarino, do ferreiro cepas vella 2004. and there was also some pea foam along the way. the food here is as good as it sounds. this was the only place we encountered female servers; in spain, where the gender roles appear to be more narrowly defined than americans are accustomed to, maybe thatís chic. (in the winter, at least, leg men -- a la ďthe man who loved womenĒ -- may be disappointed by their trip to barcelona. the women were all wearing pants, unless they were past 60 and then their skirts were down around the ankles, though not quite long enough to sweep the streets. if you just packed skirts, thatís okay. the people here are tolerant of foreigners, but they may think you are loose or loco.) thereís a lot not happening on sundays and mondays in barcelona. abac had only three occupied tables on the monday night we dropped in. itís a find.
the aspirations of el raco den freixa, a bit uptown, are also on the cutting edge, the most memorable manifestations a small white tube of honey, not glue, accompanying potato chips and purple potato powder with hake and onions. (come to think of it, they also employ female servers here.) at its heart, however, the food is traditional. apple and corn were teamed up with pork, truffles and beans at some point on the tasting menu, which seemed to be the best alternative since this was our one stop not offering an english menu and it would have been all night before my wife finished translating from her yellow-striped marling menu-master, which will get you only so far. at the outset, the service here was flustered (there was something going on behind the scenes about the language barrier), but the situation smoothed out fairly quickly and remained mellow the rest of the night, at least until chef ramo freixa swung by at the end of the meal for accolades and insinuated that our hosannas were insincere. i hope he believed us, i think he was playing. this is one of those restaurants where the sonís cooking is an attempt to break away from his fatherís.
veering from whatís new to the tried and true, neichel is off the avinguda de pedralbes, two blocks from the finca guell, a lodge and stables designed by gaudi, and is on the ground floor at the end of a modern mid-rise apartment building. people rave about this place, and they are right about the food, but not about the dining room, which is conservative fancy pants to a point, but also stirs in kitschy decoration: stacks of red michelin guides, ostrich eggs and fairy-tale mushrooms cluttered up the deep sills in our vicinity. the dining area is set off from the kitchen by small bars stacked with shelves of liquor bottles and dozens of spoons dangling from the ceiling. to keep it all clean, somebody must be doing a prodigious amount of dusting. michelin man jean-louis neichel himself looks like heís ready to cuddle when he warmly welcomes you on the way in. the staff here is mature, professional, kind and not stuffy. after a few amusing introductions and samples of the dayís appetizers, a five-course tasting menu starts with foie gras, spider lobster and crab tartare, and moves on to a brown-sauced rice with huesca truffles and peas, scallops and chicken with wild mushrooms and couscous, and braised beef cheeks in vilajuiga wine with cinammon, quince and potatoes with chorizo. here is where the french rub shoulders with the spanish, who tend to be more direct in their approach to cooking. the food keeps on coming, but itís not more than you can handle. the cooking is light, the flavors are clear. after choosing your desert from a cart, you waiter composes it on a plate decorated abstractly with daubs of colorful fruit sauces. our cheese course consisted of six tastes from spain, eaten clockwise, building in strength and ending in blue. wine pairings are a good choice: sr. da folla verde albarino from galicia (i donít know how rare it is, but it is as good as any albarino i have ever met), villa narcisa verdego, rueda; rene barbier chardonnay, catalunya; biga-tinto tempranillo from rioja (two glasses); and tres pasas pedro ximenez, montilla morices. neichel is a quiet master, he could probably make the tablecloths delectable.
if you like bars, you shouldnít miss the long and dark one in the front of botafumeiro that is full of characters. we were led to the back dining room, up a half-flight of stairs. This is where they seemed to be taking the english-speaking tourists. donít worry, you wonít get ditched there. this place is bustling, with some swagger, providing more of a social scene than the small places on our list, so you can really relax. the octopus was the best, the tenderest, most coddled i have ever had, and the serving is easily enough for two. sea cucumber is on the menu, but at a price that makes you think twice about ordering it. sea bass and rolled sole were excellent, cooked just a notch or two above raw, which was the standard wherever we went. it was not a good night for celebrity watching when we were there. one table over, you could only conclude that a may-september couple had had too much to drink when they started diluting their wine with water. their waiter clearly regarded this as a sacrilege, but allowed them to continue.
tram tram -- another small place off the beaten track uptown in the ďvillageĒ of sarria, about as remote as tenleytown is in washington -- seats non-smokers up front and takes smokers around the bend, which is innovative for this country. (sarria is easily accessible by the underground metro. however, changing to the fgc line at catalunya station requires exiting the system through the turnstiles and re-entering some distance away. we noticed that we werenít the only ones reluctant to do this, as the signs directed, but you donít need to worry about being charged for two separate trips. your fare card takes care of it. this would be like exiting the orange line at farragut west and walking over to the red line at farragut, all in one trip. metroís fare cards wonít allow you to do this, but maybe figuring it out would be an alternative to digging more tunneling for those who want the stations to connect.) the short trip on the fgc, however, was not without incident. sitting opposite from us was a nun returning from a work-shoe shopping spree, all beatified and sucking hard candy. we hadnít noticed that she tossed the wrapper on the floor of the car, but became aware of the transgression immediately after she deboarded at her station when her accomplice, a primly dressed middle-aged woman with madness burning in her eyes, rushed over to our seat, picked up the litter and began accosting us with accusations we could not understand. somehow we were able to thwart the scheme, otherwise i am dead certain that the contents of my wifeís purse would have ended up in a convent fund earmarked for garments and accessories. when you do exit the station, the street you want is above you, so climb the stairs and then make a left. (keep this in mind also when you are looking for líimpero in new york off of 42nd street. before you get to the united nations, you need to climb the stairs to the playground and the road above you.) tram tram is so welcoming, even soothing, that it was no time before our unpleasant encounter with some of barcelonaís clever ruffians was only a distant memory and we were engaged in light conversation with our waiter, who was born in the philippines and hopes to come to washington, d.c. soon. in his only visit to the states, he went to ohio, which he liked very much, so we assured him he would like our city just as well. chef isidre solerís cooking is the epitome of simplicity, although the menu suggested there is enough going on that i felt that perhaps i was missing out on something with my cod, which was almost raw and a decent dish, but not up to a big plate of spanish ham, another big plate of sardines, and a lobster entree, all of which were extraordinarily delicious. a plate of potato chips dusted with anise sets the mood. dessert doesnít get any simpler than a really good pear when you order it prepared naturally; it comes peeled, cored and sliced. our waiter steered us to a nice, reasonably priced bottle of bernat oller merlot. (in general, i would say that wines are not as marked up in spanish restaurants as they are here. also, the only water you will be drinking at your table will be bottled, and when you empty one bottle, they will open another, without asking you. however, you donít feel like you are getting taken when they do it, so maybe this is something american restaurants should study. i believe it starts out with keeping the water bottles reasonably priced, and not trusting the tap water.)
go to silvestre and hope baby eels are on the menu, served over mashed potatoes with a poached egg and dark garlic. this is transcendently wonderful comfort food. runners up included shrimp ravioli and rabbit with rice sauce. a fondant de avellana streams molten hazelnut sauce into a pool of orange, but if you donít have much of a sweet tooth, head for the fresh fruit. a full lunch for two runs under $125, roughly half the cost of the other places on this list, which are in the $200-$300 range and are comparable to prices in washington, some relative bargains, others somewhat more expensive than you would pay here. you can get away with $180 or a tad less at botafumeiro.
for coffee and a bit to eat in the morning or mid-day, you canít beat the riccota cheese with honey at granja m. viader. itís not exactly easy to find, but itís only a hop, skip and a jump from bar pinotxo in the mercat de la boqueria. you could almost skip eating out in barcelona if youíre worried about the expense, by shopping at this market. toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, or bikinis, are also available at granja m. viader, but you will get a bigger one, with three slices of bread and more cheese, on the other side of the rambla, at cafe schilling. itís a bar and a place to eat, the decor half modern and half venerable. it also puts you within striking distance of el ingenio, the place to find toys and incredible papier mache parade masks that are too enormous to carry home easily, although i found a nice pointy-nosed rat that just managed to fit into the overhead bin. la manual alpargartera, also nearby, almost makes espadrilles seem feasible, and they had my wife convinced that she should walk out of the store with a dozen muy elegante pairs until a cooler mind rode to the rescue.
practical imperatives: you may have come to this vibrant city for gaudi, picasso before he started having his periods, medieval art or roman walls, but dining is going to consume more of your time than you expected. our barcelona list is haphazard, and we were left with the impression that you could spend the rest of your life here finding good places to eat, just like in paris. you need to make reservations at most places, no matter how busy they are, and this can be accomplished by e-mail, or leave it to your hotel if you donít speak spanish. we squandered our time and money on long-distance calls; in most cases, english is the last thing the person answering the phone wants to have to deal with. we hadnít expected it, but the people of barcelona have to go to work in the morning, even the pickpockets and shell game scammers, so dinner didnít seem to be as busy as lunch during the week. all of the restaurants were easy to find using the subway and a good map, but crossing barcelona by cab is no more expensive than it is in washington, and the drivers are responsive and donít expect much of a tip. we left 10% in cash at the table at restaurants, but nobody is forcing you to. for men who face a long trek back from a restaurant to the subway and have expanded their bladders with a couple of bottles of wine and water, i would not recommend copying the native practice of relieving yourself at the far end of the platform on the tracks, with your back discretely turned. While it is true that the security details can pass infrequently, this is not how you want to meet a large bomb-sniffing alsatian. many of barcelonaís best restaurants are away from the bustling city center and off tight streets climbing hillsides north that are dark, crooked and lonesome at one in the morning, but most of the criminals you are likely to run into stick to crowded areas where the attention of patsies can be more easily diverted and there is more scenery to fade into during the getaway. barcelonaís near-legendary faginís girls and boys are furtive and expert at running their hands through your pockets or purse rather than confronting you like a bandit, so the uptown passages are not as mean as they would appear. however, in the event of a confrontation, the best response is probably what you were taught in yellowstone about close encounters with grizzly bears: drop to the ground and roll into a ball with your hands behind your neck and hope the attacker isnít good at playing soccer. if you paid for your dinner in cash, chances are that you have already been cleaned out by the restaurant. the attackers tend to know this, which is another point in the post-prandial touristís favor. they would much prefer having their run-in before your meal. but donít let concerns over personal security ruin your foodie vacation. your chances of something bad occurring are no greater than they would be wandering through shaw on a spring evening looking for vegetate.