Tapas, tapas, tapas! – Barcelona, Spain

When one thinks of Spain, the first thing that comes to mind is probably ‘tapas’. A visit to Spain without going to a tapas bar is an incomplete and boring experience.  I love dropping in to tapas bars to grab a quick and tasty bite to eat with a cup of cava, and to meet interesting locals who can teach me more about the wonderful Spanish culture.  Where did this wonderful concept come from?  One theory states that it started when bar owners used to place a slice of bread or ham over glasses of sherry to deter flies.  ‘Tapas’ means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’ in Spanish, so this certainly makes sense.  Another legend states that while King Alfonso X was sick, he was only able to eat small bites of food with his wine.  After he recovered, he ordered all taverns to offer small dishes to accompany alcoholic beverages.  Whatever the case, it’s one of my favorite ways to savor simple and delicious local food.  During my short trip to Spain, I tried to visit as many tapas bars as my schedule would allow.

The Mercat de La Boqueria, the large covered market near the Gothic Barrier in Barcelona, is perhaps one of the most famous markets in all of Europe.  Infinite numbers of food stalls offer fresh seafood, meat and produce.  There are also many charcuterie stalls that specialize in sausages and hams, namely the famous Jamón Iberico de Bellota that is to die for.  I started my tapas adventure here in the Boqueria market, where they have about 20 bars.

Perhaps the most famous of the Boqueria tapas bars is Bar Pinotxo, ideally situated at the entrance of the Boqueria market.  Legendary server Juanito Bayen, sporting a bright green vest with a green bowtie, works with a smile and a wink to serve a never-ending crowd of locals and tourists who wait patiently for a bar stool to open up.  This place is always crowded, and although there are tables to the side of the food stall, it’s worth waiting for a seat at the bar.  That way you can get an up close look at the busy happenings in the small kitchen, and a chance to have a nice chat with Juanito.

We had deep fried bacalao, which is a must-try in Spain.  These dried salt cod fillets are superbly delicate and tender once re-hydrated, and have the most wonderful salty flavor.  The ones at Pinotxo had a nice light crunchy exterior that gave way to a generous chunk of steaming hot moist cod.

My favorite dish here was a plate of tripe stew that Juanito quickly brought over for me after he saw me drooling over my neighbor’s plate.  Absent in any gameyness whatsoever, this stew was rich in flavor and intensity.  A few dollops on torn baguette pieces, washed down with a few gulps of cava,  and I was transported to a different world.

By the time we ate at Pinotxo at around 3pm, most of the food was gone.  The only last item available was this dish that resembled a hamburger patty.  Although it was good, it wasn’t my idea of eating tapas in the Boqueria market.  I learned a valuable lesson at this point- go to Pinotxo early before the food runs out.  They’re actually quite famous for their breakfasts too.

Just around the corner from Bar Pinotxo is Kiosko Universal that specializes in fresh seafood.  All of the fresh selections of the day can be prepared a la plancha or grilled with olive oil.  I was really excited to try this tapas stall, as I heard that they served great razor clams, or navajas.  I love the oblong succulent flesh of razor clams, and I haven’t been able to find a place in Los Angeles that serves them.  Kiosko Universal is much larger than Bar Pinotxo, and has a bar counter that goes all the way 360 degrees around the central kitchen, in addition to extra bar table seating to the side.  We started with a plate of Salteado de Setas, grilled wild mushrooms. The great assortment of fungi was dressed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and sea salt.

I was very excited to finally be reunited with razor clams, but the dish was a bit of a disappointment.  It had the same flavoring and garnishing as the mushrooms, and was even a tad bit undercooked.  I longed for the delicious razor clams at Mary’s Fish Camp in New York City.

The mussels weren’t that great either. Again, same flavor, same garnish, same degree of being undercooked.  We were ready to move on to the next stall.

El Quim de la Boqueria is another tiny tapas bar, farther way from the market entrance, deep into the central area of the market where the seafood vendors are.  I ordered a plate of huevos fritos con chipirones en su tinta, fried eggs with baby squid and squid ink.  Wow, what an amazing dish.  The tender and delicate baby squid, softly enveloped in a veil of runny egg yolk and black ink with just the right amount of saltiness, was divine.  This was perhaps the most memorable and delicious plate that I had in Barcelona.

I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me at El Quim.  He was born and raised in Barcelona, and swore by the tapas at El Quim, stating they were the best in the city.  By the way the baby squid dish tasted, I didn’t doubt his claim.  He told me proudly that he’s been coming here for as long as he could remember, at least once a week.  I asked him where else he could recommend for me, and he did not hesitate to give me the directions to Taktika Berri.

The gentleman told me that the waiting list for table reservations is about 2 months long, but the place to go isn’t there anyway- it’s at the pintxos bar up front.  Similar in concept to tapas, pintxos are more representative of Basque cuisine and are small bite-sized morsels held together with toothpicks.  Pintxos, or pinchos, means ‘spike’ in Spanish, precisely because of the way these delicate eats are speared with a toothpick or a skewer. Taktika Berri specializes in montaditos, which are pintxos featuring ‘mounted’ heaps of meat, seafood and vegetables on a slice of bread, held together by a toothpick.

As soon as I walked through the glass double doors, I was glad that I trusted that gentleman’s advice.  This place was packed with locals only, and there was not a single tourist in sight.  This was the real deal, and I knew I was in for some authentic Basque delights.  We squeezed our way to the bar and managed to grab a couple of seats.  The system here is such that you must first ask for a plate, which lets them know that you’re ready to start eating.  Then the pintxos commander behind the bar will come around with a plate of one type of montadito at a time, setting it on your plate if it’s something you want to eat.  This process happens only once every 10 minutes or so, reflecting the cultural notion behind pintxos that it’s an adjunct to drinks and long conversation, and not necessarily the main act.

We tried some lovely pintxos here, including deep fried ham croquettes and a savory bacalao cake with potatoes and eggs.  Montaditos included fresh anchovies with diced peppers, chorizo wrapped in bacon, fried sausage, and smoked salmon.  All were simple but flavorful and simply satisfying to the palate and stomach.  I loved the lively atmosphere here, and by being a part of this wonderful experience, I could really see how this style of eating and drinking is such a crucial part of socializing in Spain.  I met a lot of interesting people in the hour that I was at Taktika Berri, including an architect and a science professor at the local university.

At the end of the meal, you get charged for the number of pintxos that you ate, made apparent by the number of toothpicks on your plate.  A simple and smart system.  Ahhh, tapas.  What a joyful way of experiencing food and life!

Bar Pinotxo- Stall 466, Mercat de la Boqueria

Kiosko Universal- Stall 691, Mercat de la Boqueria

El Quim de la Boqueria- Stall 584, Mercat de la Boqueria

Taktika Berri- Carrer Valencia, 169, Barcelona, 08011.  Tel: 934-534-759

Random trivia: Did you know that the Norwegians were exporting salted fish like bacalao as early as 875 AD?

Inopia- Barcelona, Spain

“You know you are experiencing true creativity when you go to a restaurant and have the feeling that you’re eating in a country that you’ve never visited before”
- Ferran Adrià

While in Barcelona, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of strong yearning and sadness at the fact that I was so close to El Bulli, yet so far away.  When will I finally get my chance to dine at the best restaurant in the world?  To feel like I was at least a step closer to fulfilling my dream, I went to Inopia in Barcelona.

IMG_6698

Inopia is run by Alberto Adrià, the younger brother and partner of Ferran Adrià, the renowned and famous chef of El Bulli. During the 6 months that El Bulli is open for service, Alberto heads the pastry kitchen at El Bulli, but otherwise he mans the kitchen in his small casual tapas bar in Barcelona.

In stark contrast to El Bulli, this place is very casual and it’s almost hard to believe that it belongs to a chef of such pedigree.  Brightly colored red, orange and yellow Andalucian tiles, bare fluorescent lights and graffiti on the walls decorate this tiny neighborhood joint that only has 1 dining table.  IMG_6697Most patrons sit on the tiny stools by the bar or stand by the counters as they watch fútbol on TV.  In fact, this particular evening the whole city was buzzing with excitement as all eyes were glued to the TV to watch the 2009 UEFA Champions League finals.  In a country that is loco for fútbol, you can imagine the frenzy in the air as their beloved Barcelona team battled Manchester United.

Just as we sat down at the counter, Barcelona scored their 2nd goal and everybody, including the servers, started screaming and whistling.  Their team was on fire, and the place was buzzing with passion.  Many were wearing the red and blue jerseys and cheering on.

Although Inopia doesn’t have an English menu, the server was eager to explain the specials of the day in English to us.  All of the staff were extremely friendly and welcoming.  The menu, like most tapas bars in Barcelona, has a good selection of olives and canned seafood (conservas).  We opted for prepared items to see what Alberto Adrià could do.

The ensalada rusa was listed as an Inopia specialty, so we started with that.  The potato, mayonnaise, red pepper and olive salad was good, but…this was a specialty dish?  Really?  It’s something that I would make half-asleep with leftovers.

IMG_6691There’s a section of the menu called El mundo de la anchoa, or ‘the world of anchovies‘.  That evening there were 6 types of anchovies to choose from, and they were to be ordered by fillets.  Our server told us that the San Filippos, for 1.90 Euros a piece, were the best quality.  These anchoas del Cantábrico en salazón San Filippo were indeed meaty, perfectly fatty, and deliciously salty.

IMG_6693The Torrada Mallorquina was a really interesting take on bruschetta.  Chopped tomatoes, onions and olive oil were carefully spooned over a layer of sobrassada mallorquina, a spicy and smokey chorizo spread.  The ‘air bread’ that they used was crispy, light and delicate, and I could’ve eaten these all night with my glass of red wine.

IMG_6700

IMG_6702

The moment of victory for Barcelona!

It was around this time that Team Barcelona officially became the champions of the 2009 UEFA League, and the place went crazy. Horns, crackers, shouting, whistling, singing and skyrockets went off outside in a mass celebration hysteria.  It was an amazing experience to be in the middle of this city-wide festivity and eating tapas while soaking it all in.

The plato frío de lomo de atún soasado con escabeche ligero, seared tuna belly with a Montserrat tomato side, drizzled with soy sauce and olive oil, was quite good.  I was surprised to be having this very Japonesque toro sashimi dish at this famous Barcelona digs.  The drizzle tasted almost exactly like ponzu.  The lightly seared tuna belly slices were extremely tender and delicate.

IMG_6707

The croquetas caseras de Jamón ibérico were piping hot, straight out of the deep fryer.  It took a whole 5 minutes until we could even get close to it.  The rich interior was creamy, hearty and decadent.  Although my dining partner enjoyed these, I wasn’t blown away.  However, for 1.90 Euros a piece, it’s not a bad deal.

IMG_6708

The big and meaty sardinas en escabeche were quite good, well infused with thyme and bay leaf aroma, but it wasn’t as good as the one that I had at Tapaç 24.

IMG_6710

The pincho moruno de cordero or lamb skewers, were really good.  Listed on their menu as one of the Inopia specialties, these tender and juicy pieces were delectably seasoned with fennel seed and parsley.  This was my favorite dish at Inopia.  IMG_6711

In another head to head competition, we ordered Inopia’s  Bikini de mozzarella y paletilla Ibérica hervida, the mozzarella and Iberico ham grilled sandwiches.  It wasn’t just the presence of black truffles that made Tapaç 24 the undoubted winner again, but also the quality of the bread and the way it was grilled.  IMG_6714

Although the service was great and the atmosphere on this particular victorious night was incomparable, the food was mediocre at best.  Perhaps I came in with too many expectations, but the food simply fell flat.  After all of the hype and rave reviews, I couldn’t believe that this was all that Inopia had to offer.  I wanted to give Inopia the benefit of the doubt, and thought that perhaps Alberto Adrià was not in house that evening.  But no, there he was, behind the bar and at the grill, and I even got to meet him and chat with him.  He was a charismatic man with a powerful intensity that was almost intimidating, but his food reflected none of that.

Alas, what I thought would be the closest thing to El Bulli ended up being the farthest thing from El Bulli.  Given the number of restaurants in Barcelona whose chefs have trained with the grand master Ferran Adrià, it’s probably better to go elsewhere for spectacular cuisine in Barcelona- Inopia is not worth your time.  Obviously, none of this would even be an issue if you’re one of the lucky few who have a reservation at El Bulli.  As for me, until that happens, I guess I’ll just keep drooling on my A Day at elBulli book.

Inopia

Carrer Tamarit 104

08015 Barcelona

Tel: 93 424 52 31

Tuesday to Saturday: 7pm-11pm

Random trivia:  Did you know that you can get something called clupeotoxin poisoning from eating anchovies contaminated with the toxin?  Death occurs in 50% of people poisoned by clupeotoxin.  If you experience a metallic taste in your mouth and your nose turns blue after eating anchovies, then you’re in trouble.

Gresca- Barcelona, Spain

IMG_8196

La Pedrera

There’s a new culinary movement in Barcelona called ‘Bistronomia’, which combines the casual flare of traditional dishes reflective of the local food culture (bistro) and the more refined modern haute cuisine that is often found in Michelin starred establishments (gastronomia).   There are about 15 such Bistronomias in Barcelona which include La Mifanera, Cinc Sentits, Hisop, Alkimia and Embat.  Most are in the trendy Eixample district just north of the Plaza Catalunya, and all offer cutting edge cuisine with fresh local ingredients at more affordable prices.

Young 32 year old Chef Rafa Peña, a Barcelona native, heads the kitchens of Gresca as well as Spain’s bistronomic movement.  I decided to try Gresca for lunch, as I heard that they had an amazing lunch course for €19.  The tiny restaurant is just a few blocks west off of Passeig de Gràcia, the large popular shopping boulevard that boasts Gaudí‘s famous Casa Milà La Pedrera.  The space was tiny, accomodating only 7 tables that were beautifully set with crisp white linen tablecloths and shiny silverware.  The decor was minimalist and modern, and the service was generous.

IMG_8172The hostess kindly gave us an English menu and was more than eager to explain each menu item in detail for us.  Although the €19 set lunch menu seemed interesting (fresh sardines that day), there were too many intriguing items on their à la carte menu that I had to try.

After a delightful glass of parmesan crisps with paprika, they gave us the most amazing amuse bouche of foie gras with mango and chives.

IMG_8173

I started my meal with the octopus carpaccio with butifarra negra. The playful and geometric plating was astounding.  The thin slices of irregularly shaped octopus legs were like puzzle pieces, neatly laid out on a smooth background of Catalan-style blood sausage.  The periphery of the square display was framed with a refreshing crunchy ‘gremolata’ of mango, zucchini, lemon, cucumbers and onions that evened out the iron richness of the butifarra.  A rich smooth heap of potato purée waited patiently underneath as I carefully broke through its flamboyant cloak.

IMG_8178_2

The onion soup with gruyere and trumpet mushrooms (chanterelles) was quite intense, salty and smoky.  It was so concentrated in earthy essence that it could probably cure any common cold.  Diced vegetables brought a nice crunchy texture to this soup.

IMG_8176

I had the Gresca classic of Sant Pere fish with cockscomb and thyme.  The flavorful white fish had a delicate yet confident texture that stood up to the mighty collagenous  crests.  I loved these cockscombs that were tender enough to melt in my mouth but firm enough for me to feel a give on my teeth.

IMG_8191

The entrecote steak with potatoes and thyme was simply divine.  My dining partner told me that it was one of the best steaks that she had ever had.  At first, we were both surprised at how large the steak was.  How do they expect us to eat all of this?  Tisk tisk, how sad that so much good meat will go to waste, I thought.  But by the end of the meal, the dish was squeaky clean and we were groaning with pleasure.  Mmmmm….entrecote….

IMG_8187

When I return to Gresca on my next Barcelona trip, I would love to try the other Gresca classics: roast pigeon with ginger, smoked duck with langoustines, and a dessert of roquefort cheese with litchi and green apple sorbet.  I highly recommend this quaint Bistronomia where you will get wonderful and attentive service due to the small number of seats.  Make sure you call well in advance for a reservation, as they book up early.

Gresca

C/ Provença 230

Barcelona, 8036
93 451 61 93

400px-Rooster_portrait2

Random trivia:  Did you know that the cockscomb stops growing after a rooster is castrated?  Capons, which are castrated roosters, are highly prized in Europe for their tender and juicy flesh.

Tapaç 24 – Barcelona, Spain

IMG_7831As soon as I arrived in Barcelona, I made a bee-line for Tapaç 24, Catalan chef Carles Abellan’s casual and hip tapas bar.  After working at El Bulli with the master Ferran Adria, Abellan opened his hugely successful restaurant Comerç 24 in Barcelona.  Although I would love to explore Comerç 24 some day, I opted for the more casual Tapaç 24 on this Barcelona trip.

IMG_7834They’re open Monday through Saturday from 8am to midnight, allowing  enthusiastic patrons infinite opportunities to enjoy Abellan’s soulful food.  I went for dinner on my first night in Barcelona, and the place was bustling with great energy from an even mix of locals and tourists.  As expected, there was a long line that spilled out onto the sidewalk, but the turnover was very fast and we were seated at the bar tables within 15 minutes.  Although there are a few tables on the sidewalk that allow for al fresco dining in this beautiful and vibrant city, downstairs inside the restaurant is where all of the action is.

IMG_7845 The regular menu is printed on a brown paper bag that holds the silverware (similar to Mozza), but there are more daily special menu items on the chalkboards that are at each table.  Although the regular menu was written in Catalan which I couldn’t understand, the daily specials were in Spanish and some of the servers spoke English.  Everybody working there was in a jovial mood and they were more than happy to help make our experience wonderful.

We started off with the Bikini Commerç 24 sandwich, toasted Iberico ham and manchego cheese sandwiches with grated black truffles.  These warm sandwich triangles oozed with that familiar satisfying richness that grilled cheese sandwiches deliver, with the added decadence of truffle aroma.  Although this was good for dinner tapas, imagine the possibilities of what it could do for those late night munchies.  This would really hit the spot.

Unfortunately, they were out of boquerones al limón, fried anchovies with lemon, but we had a plate of chugetas that were probably just as good.  These small deep fried fish were the perfect little snacks to enjoy with our jar of champagne sangria.  With the perfect saltiness, crunchy texture and enhanced flavor from a squirt of fresh lemon juice, these little morsels were highly addictive.  It’s the kind of food where your hand automatically keeps moving from plate to mouth, and it’s impossible to stop eating.  We also had the requisite pan amb tomaquet, toasted bread with garlic, olive oil and tomatoes.

The rabo de toro, oxtail and bean stew, was excellent.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that I can imagine somebody’s mother cooking for hours over the fire.  The tender meat and gelatinous cartilage melted in my mouth in the most pleasant way, blending well with the richness of the full-bodied sauce.  Here I was in Barcelona, silently and happily gnawing away at an oxtail bone with sauce all over my fingers.  Perfect.

IMG_7858

As if the Bikini sandwiches couldn’t be a more ideal snack to satiate those late night munchies, here came a plate of Ous Estrellats al Gust (Catalan),  Huevos de payes estrellidas con butifarra negra (Spanish), or scrambled eggs, potato fries and blood sausage.  For the meat, you can choose from blood sausage, Jamón ibérico or chorizo, but we opted for the blood sausage, or butifarra, which is a local Catalan special.  It seemed heavy and oily at first glance and taste, but it was impossible to put my fork down.  There was something about it that made me become a voracious and greedy eater.

Our favorite dish of the evening was the Gambetas al Andaluz .  These fried shrimp were so fresh, that we ate the whole entire shrimp from antennae to tail.  They were garnished with just the right amount of salt to enhance the intense sweetness of the succulent flesh.  What a joy these shrimp were, and this was the moment when it really sunk in that I was in Spain, I was in Barcelona, and this was real tapas.  This dish said it all- fresh delicious seafood simply prepared with nothing more than love, passion, and soul.

The sardinas en escabeche were a hit as well.  The oily and tender flesh was delicately seasoned with olive oil, tomatoes and black peppercorns.  Absent in any fishiness whatsoever, these sardines rivaled its counterparts from the Tsukiji fish market in freshness and quality.  These sardines were so delicious that we ate everything on the plate, including the bones and the tails.

Xocolata Amb Pa, Oli, i Sal (Catalan), Chocolate con sal, aceite y pan (Spanish), or chocolate with bread, olive oil and salt, was perhaps one of the most delightful desserts that I’ve ever had.  We ordered this more out of curiosity as I couldn’t imagine what the dish would taste like, but it ended up being an amazing discovery.  The sweetness and richness of the chocolate ice cream was nicely balanced out by the sea salt, and perfectly smoothed out by the texture and aroma of the olive oil.  I love being pleasantly surprised by new flavor combinations, especially when it involves flavors that we are very familiar with and use almost daily.

Our second dessert was something that tasted like a mix between a cheesecake and flan, with a rich sweet berry sauce on top.  Honestly, the chocolate dessert was such a star that this berry dessert didn’t really leave an impression on me.  I can’t remember much about this dish.

IMG_7869

IMG_7836Tapaç 24 is one of those magical places that instantly sucks you in and makes you feel both excited and mesmerized.  The happy vibe,  smiling servers, colorful decor and cheerful music really set the mood for a fun night out.  The whole time I was there I was grinning from ear to ear, and I frequently stopped myself to look around and think, “Wow, I’m really in Barcelona.  This is amazing!”  The music makes you want to get up and dance, and the food and drinks make you want to hug your server.  Everybody there was having a great time, and and the spirit of Barcelona was very much alive.  I’ve already recommended this place to a few of my friends, as I knew they would have a great time there.

Tapaç 24

Comerç  24

269 Carrer Diputació, Barcelona 08007

934 880 977

Random trivia:  Traditionally, oxtail referred to the tail of an ox, or a castrated male.  However, these days it may come from steer or veal cows.