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Homage to Barcelona

Catalonia's capital reaches the top tier of European dining

John Mariani
Posted: January 29, 2003

The modern decor at El Racoó d'en Freixa complements the innovative cuisine.

If any European city may serve as a dynamic model for 21st century urban renewal, it would certainly be Barcelona -- and that is especially true of fine dining. Indeed, more so than Madrid, Barcelona stands at the forefront of modern Spanish cuisine and is the proud promoter of the Catalan winemakers who now compete with the best in the world.

Barcelona's current dining scene is split among three groups: The traditional cafés and tapas bars on every street; the deluxe old-timers, like the sadly mediocre Via Veneto, with its fussy 1960s decor and insipid food; and the bright newcomers with young chefs yearning to be the next big star, along with a few established, family-run restaurants freshened by a younger generation of chefs who have transformed what was once a fairly predictable menu of Spanish favorites into a new Catalan cuisine of daunting finesse. All of which is buoyed by some extraordinary wine lists that revel in the best bottlings coming out of Spain's most innovative wineries.

Most restaurants, of course, serve traditional Catalan cooking -- salt cod fritters called bunyols de bacallà; the saffron-scented seafood stew called suquet; a hearty dish of squid and fish with black rice called arròs negre; a wonderful black sausage called botifarra negra; and the rich custard crema catalana that was the inspiration for crème brélée.

The requisite morning stroll from the towering statue of Christopher Columbus at the foot of the port up the bustling La Rambla promenade brings you to the city's sprawling La Boquería food market, flanked by narrow streets teeming with eateries and pubs. Among the brightest ways to begin the day is at one of the 10 counter stools at Bar Pinotxo (Pinocchio) in La Boquería, where Jaunito the owner, always in a fancy vest and bow tie, works with the speed of a New York deli man, serving up café con leche and glasses of red wine along with his wife's cooking -- bunyols, little egg and pepper sandwiches, white sausages and pa amb tomàquet, toast smeared with tomato and olive oil.

Sidling the port itself is the little fishing village within the city called Barceloneta, whose Passeig Joan de Borbó is literally lined with seafood grills. But the best in Barceloneta is a few blocks off the Passeig, on Aixada Almirall: Can Majo, a casual, comfortable place with wooden beams and old black-and-white photographs of fishermen. This is the place for the black rice and seafood, impeccably grilled langoustines, and simple wines of the region.

There is no dearth of trendy hot spots in Barcelona, with names like Kansas (inexplicably Italian), Samoa (a pizzeria), Brasserie Flo (an import from Paris), Chihuahua (Mexican) and Eljaponés (Japanese). A very edgy restaurant company runs this last restaurant, as well as the hip Agua set right on the beachfront.

You enter Agua on one level through an intensely blue cube of a building, and descend to a bright, multitiered dining room. The walls feature striking modern Spanish photography, and hanging lights resemble Madonna's Jean-Paul Gaultier breast cones. There's also a delightful patio to the rear, with white canvas awnings. The menu goes light, with dishes like prawns in garlic sauce, grilled clams, juicy lamb chops with juniper sauce, ravioli with salt cod, lobster risotto and several vegetarian options -- a little something for everyone -- with nothing on the menu more than $13.

Of course, no discussion of modern Spanish cuisine can fail to mention the influence of wildly experimental chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, a hundred miles northeast of Barcelona. Adrià's 20- and 30-course meals are based on the matching of disparate ingredients -- for example, a Parmesan ice cream sandwich, cuttlefish ravioli with coconut and soy sauce and his signature, foamy "cappuccino" sauces -- now an international fad. While El Bulli has become a mecca for some, its critics insist that much of what Adrià concocts is more of a shock than a delight to the palate.

Fortunately, the best Barcelona chefs, many of whom trained with Adrià, have toned down the master's iconoclastic impulses in their own work. An excellent case in point is the 25-year-old Ca l'Isidre restaurant in the Barrio Chino neighborhood. Owners Isidre and Montserrat Gironès have let chef César Pastor and their daughter Núria (the pastry chef) refine and update the Catalan menu while maintaining the sophisticated, quiet elegance of the room, whose walls are hung with Dalí and Miró drawings.

Here you may begin with a gift of fresh anchovies dressed only with olive oil, and follow with foie gras-stuffed ravioli. Slowly cooked cod cheeks come with a couscous with dried fruits. Sea bass clings to tradition -- and to tomato-olive accompaniment -- but it is very light, very fragrant and very much of the day's market. John Dory, on the other hand, is very much of the moment, perfumed with citrus and cardamom. Tender, rosemary-scented, spit-roasted goat (cabrito) comes with stewed onions, and there is even toro (bull) on the menu. Núria's desserts are superb, including chocolate soufflé with coconut ice cream and an apricot tart with toasted cumin seeds.

Ca l'Isidre's wine list is one of the best in the city, rich in the finest bottlings from both the big producers and the small. The real boon here, as at all the finest Barcelona restaurants, is that prices for exceptional wines are downright low -- $20 to $30 -- and the great wines of Spain sell for just a bit more.

Consider Ca l'Isidre's list of more than 350 selections, overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) Spanish. It is rich in every region, from Penedès (including wines such as Augustus Chardonnay '00 and '01 at $27 and many bottlings from Jean Leon) to Tarragona (like Étim Syrah '99 at $30), scores of Riojas and Catalan Priorats from the finest vineyards like Clos Erasmus, Clos Dofí, Clos Martinet and Clos Mogador. There are also eight vintages of Vega Sicilia Unico in magnum.

More modern is the sleek, leather and suede El Racó d'en Freixa, whose chef-owner Ramón Freixa, 31, refers to himself as an "author." His cooking is indeed highly creative, starting with little appetizers that can include a muffin studded with soppressata, a seaweed cracker, salted, tempura-fried nuts and a tipple of orange and carrot juice with a foam topping. Then there is a little plate of highly stylized tapas -- jellied ham, a peeled tomato ball and tiny bits of shredded ham. Then the fun begins: ravioli stuffed with black sausage and potatoes, fat fresh shrimp with caviar and John Dory with sweet, meltingly tender white asparagus. Dessert brings a wonderful confection of tomato and bittersweet chocolate (tomato is, after all, a fruit, not a vegetable), with little chocolate nuts and petits fours.

There is a wall of wine here that only hints at the considerable holdings in the cellar, representing the entire range of Spanish viniculture. The room is spare but very beautiful, with gray walls and caramel-colored wood, and Ramón's mother Dori makes sure everything runs smoothly for their guests.

More modern still is Abac, a word meaning "old table." I didn't notice reference to the name anywhere in the minimalist room of cream walls, blond wood panels, bright red chairs and alabasterlike ceiling lights. There are just 10 widely separated tables in the dining room, and the austere greeting suggests that you are here to dine, not just to eat something.

Xavier Pellicer's cooking here is highly refined, but with a sure degree of dazzle. You might begin with a deeply flavorful consommé with ravioli stuffed with stewed veal. Then a dice of sautéed wild mushrooms and vegetables served with an avocado sorbet that explodes on the palate. Beef with garlic and Iberian ham was a tame dish compared with one of the most perfectly roasted suckling pigs (cochinillo) I've ever had, its skin crackling, its meat almost like custard. You receive a pre-dessert, perhaps cardamom-flavored ice cream with vanilla foam, then an apple confit cooked down to its essence and a strawberry tart with mint. Petits fours arrive on a little metal staircase.

One of the newest restaurants in Barcelona is located in the strikingly modern, round Grand Marina Hotel near the convention center. Aire de Mar ("Sea Breeze") has clearly set out to impress locals and business travelers alike, keeping menu prices fairly moderate for this level of casual posh. The dining room, though too brightly lit, is expansive, with walls of windows overlooking the inner courtyard. Service, by an English-speaking staff, is well-trained, and the wine list, not yet extensive, is being built on each month. Currently there are more than 150 selections, most less than $50, including Spanish beauties such as San Vicente Crianza Tempranillo '98 ($45), Protos Reserva '96 from Ribera del Duero ($42), and an enchanting rosado '00 from Briate, a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, at $20. Among the "super Spaniards" are wines such as the superb Torres Grans muralles '96, a blend of red grapes from the Catalan region of Conca de Barbera ($168).

Aire de Mar also lists selections from California (Shafer Merlot '99 at $101, Marimar Torres Pinot Noir '93 at $65 and Opus One '98 at $127 -- which is selling in U.S. retail shops for about the same price), along with wines from France and Australia. (On the first floor, there is a recently opened Japanese restaurant named, well, the Japanese Restaurant.)

The slant here is more Mediterranean than strictly Catalonian. An appetizer of grilled asparagus with a poached egg, Iberian ham and Parmesan cheese had welcome simplicity, and a mushroom cappuccino soup with nutmeg cream and caramelized orange was a wonderful way to begin the meal. Chef Daniel Bausa really shines in the main courses, with dishes like a rack of lamb baked with thyme and sautéed green beans with cashews and lemon. His grilled Barbary duck breast with corn and sage cake nods to the New World, while a Szechuan pepper sauce nods to the east. Monkfish medallions come with creamy rice dotted with zucchini and small, tender fava beans with ham, dressed with an Armagnac curry sauce. Cod steak is done au gratin, with an onion confit and garlic-apple mayonnaise.

For dessert, don't miss the puff pastry filled with luscious sautéed bananas and lavished with a white chocolate and coconut sauce.

If many of these new restaurant dishes seem far from the idea of Spanish cooking full of yellow rice and pimientos -- never traditional Spanish food in the first place -- realize that in Barcelona you are really in Catalonia, where a long legacy of beloved foods has given way to a truly modern style that makes the city's gastronomy as exciting as any in Europe right now.

John and Galina Mariani's latest book is The American-Italian Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

78-89 Rec
Telephone (011) 34-93-319-6600
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $21-$30
Credit cards All major

30 Passeig Maritim
Telephone (011) 34-93-225-1272
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $6-$14
Credit cards All major

Aire de Mar
Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona
Telephone (011) 34-936-039-000
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $13-$22
Credit cards All major

Ca l'Isidre
12 Les Flors
Telephone (011) 34-93-441-1139
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $19-$28
Credit cards All major

Can Majo
23 Almirall Aixada
Telephone (011) 34-93-221-5455
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées, $15-$18
Credit cards All major

El Racó d'en Freixa
22 Sant Elias
Telephone (011) 34-93-209-7559
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $23-$29
Credit cards All major

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