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Barcelona Channeling Japan

Two of the Catalan city's most exciting restaurants owe much to sushi
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
The sashimi plate at Koy Shunka is a work of art.

Posted: Apr 30, 2013 12:02pm ET

Here in Barcelona on vacation, I could not resist trying what by all accounts is the go-to sushi place, Koy Shunka. Having explored the sushi cultures of Japan and America in my cover story of the May 31 issue of Wine Spectator, I wanted to see how another great food culture, that of Catalunya, translates the subtleties of Japan's most famous cuisine using the products of the Mediterranean Sea, as abundantly revered here as those of the Pacific Ocean are in Japan.

And then, for good measure, wouldn't you know that Japanese cuisine and sushi would play a critical role in the latest venture from brothers Albert and Ferran Adrià (who famously closed his own celebrated restaurant, El Bulli). They opened Pakta in early April, serving what they call Nikkei cuisine. Sushi is a part of the cuisine, Japanese by way of Peru, an east-west fusion made famous in America by Nobu Matsuhisa.

Both restaurants were knockouts, paying full respect to the original cuisines while subtly using modernist techniques and ingredients seamlessly.

Hideki Matsuhisa, the chef-owner of Koy Shunka, born in Japan in 1972, is the son of a Tokyo restaurateur. He arrived in Barcelona in 1997 and in 2001 opened a neighborhood sushi bar called Shunka ("aroma of the season"). Koy Shunka ("refined aroma of the season") opened in 2009, raising the stakes with set menus of $96 and $143. In the old Barri Gòtic, in the shadow of the Gothic cathedral, its façade hides an interior of simple Japanese forms and a fully open kitchen. Unlike many sushi places, where the chef cuts fish and forms the sushi behind a bar surrounded by diners, the whole kitchen brigade is visible here, at work steaming, simmering and frying in gleaming stainless steel.

The presentations use Barcelona's creative tableware, including a beautifully designed plate for sashimi that's made with an uneven curving trough to hold the sliced fish attractively, and separate indentations for soy sauce and wasabi. The sashimi, in this case bonito tataki, salmon, toro both sliced and chopped, white sea bass and maguro, was all made from local fish.

The sequence started with delicate chips of Japanese potato and a heady dip made of foie gras and miso, served with an intense miso soup frothed on top to suggest cappuccino. Next came a little bowl of tofu cream garnished with jellied dashi and coral-colored flying fish roe. Classic sushi of excellent grilled eel was followed by a small bowl of ramen made with rich local Ibérico pork and a sweet crayfish tail. Another highlight was a local gamba (prawn) coated in puffed rice and served over a gel of prawn broth.

The overall impression would be completely familiar to a visiting Japanese gourmet, but details such as the gels, the flavors of Ibérico pork and local seafood, and winks such as the foamy miso soup and puffed rice on the tempura add a tinge of adventure. I loved it.

Pakta occupies a storefront just below Montjuïc, a short walk from the spacious Plaça de Espanya. The kitchen staff, headed by Albert Adrià and chefs from Japan and Peru, gets the balance of Asian and Latino elements right in its two menus, 16 courses at $89 and a 24-course extravaganza at $111. The latter blew me away with brilliantly creative stuff, one sigh- and smile-inducing bite after another. Dishes such as seviche, with its bright yellow aji amarillo-infused leche de tigre marinade, and sweet potatoes and crunchy corn hit the right flavor buttons, and mashed avocado-tofu puree played refreshingly against tart yuzu and creamy pink salmon roe.

Being an Adrià restaurant, the presentations are stunning. The very first amuse-bouche offered a small paper cone filled with tiny fried whitebait, crisp and utterly oil-less, tangy with a powder of kimchi and seaweed, the cone propped into a specially designed ceramic holder. Another ceramic bowl, all white, looked like someone had punched in the dome of a volleyball half; it held an exquisite arrangement of yuba (the skin that forms when soy milk is heated) with beluga caviar and two blobs of shimmering shoyu gel.

"Caviar," made by spherifying soy sauce, garnished toro sushi perfectly, thus requiring no dipping. A creamy, sweet raw scallop, its slices arranged in its shell, came with a powder of its coral to dip them into. Corn bread accompanying a deconstructed lomo saltado (a popular Peruvian dish of steak stir-fried with peppers over potatoes) was actually a white bread made from corn milk and white flour; cooked in a microwave oven, it was soft like cake and could be torn into uneven chunks, as are many restaurant cakes these days. Lime-infused powdered green tea garnished mango sorbet, the first of five desserts, sharing a long green plate shaped like a banana leaf.

Too often complex avant-garde constructions fall apart awkwardly when you try to eat them. These had been carefully adjusted so they handled well. Wine performed flawlessly at both restaurants. Bodegas Forjas del Salnés Albariño Rias Baixas Leirana 2011, a sleek minerally white wine, was a no-brainer with Koy Shunka's cuisine. Torellò Cava Rosé NV from Penedès, a ruby-colored sparkling wine, had dark fruit flavors from its Monastrell and Garnacha grapes, creating some distinctive matches throughout the dinner at Pakta.

My only disappointment at both restaurants was the texture of the rice. It was more firm and compacted than what the best sushi masters achieve in both Japan and the United States. But that's a mild complaint. The creativity and sheer savoriness of the ideas more than compensated. I won't soon forget Pakta's sushi of grilled Ibérico pork belly, tinged with a hot chile glaze.

Koy Shunka
Carrer Copons, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Telephone: (+34) 934 127 939
Website: koyshunka.com

Carrer de Lleida, 5, 08004 Barcelona, Spain
Website: www.pakta.es

James Laube
Napa —  April 30, 2013 6:13pm ET
Envious, but you're getting picky about rice!

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