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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon- Paris

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In the heart of trendy Saint Germain des Prés on the Left Bank in Paris stands the infamous L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant.  What better way to kick start my recent trip to Europe than to pay a visit to one of the world’s most famous chef’s establishments?  Joël Robuchon has almost become a household name, as he continues to build his global empire of Michelin starred restaurants.

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L’Atelier, unlike the more formal La Table, offers casual small plate dining with a sushi bar-like square counter from where diners can sit back and enjoy personalized interactive service with the sommelier and servers, and the theatrical excitement of the large open-air kitchen.  The modern and sexy interior of the restaurant is dimly lit with cherry red accents, and decorated with vivid displays of sliced, rolled and curled vegetables and fruits in geometric containers.

Our amuse bouche was a refreshing gazpacho with mustard ice cream.  An invigorating tart cocktail of fresh vegetables with a powerful jolt of creamy mustard sensation.  This dish slapped my taste buds and salivary glands wide awake and prepared me for the sensational meal to come.

Les Anchois frais marinés aux poivrons rouges grillésa perfectly vertical tower of marinated anchovies with grilled red peppers.  The perfect saltiness and acidity of the vinegar marinated anchovies, paired with the deep sweetness of the grilled peppers was the perfect way to start the meal.

L’ouef, cocotte et sa crème légère de morilles- egg cocotte with a morel mushroom cream sauce.  This is one of Robuchon’s signature dishes, and for good reason.  This is a whole egg, slow cooked at a low temperature to where the whites of the egg just barely set and the yellow yolk is runny and smooth.  It was elegantly served in a martini glass with foamed morel mushroom cream sauce and a whole plump earthy morel mushroom on top.  A decadent, rich and flavorful masterpiece that combines perfect cooking techniques with culinary innovation.

Le Bœuf en plat de côte effiloché, salade de haricots verts relevée à l’échalote et chips d’ail– shredded beef short rib with french green bean salad with shallots, garlic chips and arugula.  A wonderful combination of textures between the crispy garlic chips, firm haricot verts, tender beef and fresh greens.  A surprisingly light dish that was a delight to eat.

L’Os a Moelle relevé d’une pointe de moutarde à notre façon– a grilled slice of toasted rustic bread, generously slathered with beef bone marrow mixed with Orléans mustard ‘our way’, perfectly balanced on a beef bone pedestal and garnished with parsley, arugula and baby beet greens. The marrow was perfectly rich and plenteous, with the slight peppery contrast of the greens and the fleur de sel seasoning taming the fattiness just enough so it wasn’t too heavy.  This dish, my favorite of the evening, was so mindblowingly delicious that we ordered another.

Le Cochon de Lait en côtelletes à la marjolaine, jeunes oignons au jus– Suckling pork cutlets with marjoram and young onion jus.  The small pieces of pork cutlet were perfectly tender and juicy, and the marjoram added a deep earthy aroma.  The dish came with Robuchon’s signature potato purée, extremely rich in butter and milk, and so creamy and smooth that it melts immediately on your tongue.

Les spaghettis à notre façon- spaghetti ‘our way’, with a simple tomato, basil and olive sauce.  Although this dish was good by any other standards, it was the least memorable plate of the evening.  I was hoping for something extraordinary, given the big name behind this establishment, but I was immediately unimpressed and bored after the first bite.  This is around the time that I ordered more bone marrow.


Les Langoustines en papillotes croustillantes au basilic– crispy langoustine fritters with basil pesto.  Deep fried to a perfect light and crispy crunch, these moist and delicate langoustines balanced out our meat-dominant menu.

L’agneau de lait en côtelettes à la fleur de thym- milk-fed spring lamb cutlets with fresh thyme, again with Robuchon’s signature potatoes.  These young lamb cutlets were surprisingly delicate and light, unlike the more familiar gamey and mature version.

Le foie de veau aux rouelles d’oignon croustillantes et son jus acidulé- veal liver with deep fried crispy onion rings in a tart jus.   This was my second favorite dish of the evening, especially since I am a big lover of organ meats.  Juicy, tender and intensely flavorful, the foie’s innate robustness was balanced out with the acidity of the vinegar jus and crispy sweet onions.  This dish paired beautifully with our bottle of 2003 Savigny-les-Beaune Les Marconnets that the sommelier carefully chose for us.


Le Bœuf la noix d’entrecôte à la plancha et ses pommes de terres grenailles confites- grilled beef ribeye with baby potatoes.  This was one of the most tender and sensational cuts of steak I have ever had, overflowing with succulent meat juices and exquisite fatty flavor.  It was grilled a la plancha to a perfect medium rare, most fitting to show off the incredibly high quality of the meat.


Although we were quite full from our delicious feast, we could not resist ordering a full dessert  spread.  We were on a roll, the night was still young, and good Lord we were at Robuchon in Paris!

Le Chocolat Tendance, créme onctueuse au chocolat Araguani, sorbet cacao au biscuit Oréo- creamy Araguani chocolate cream, bitter chocolate sorbet with Oreo cookie crumbs.  A beautifully decorated piece of art very fitting with the general theme and decor of the modern restaurant, with rich chocolate sweetness.


Le Pamplemousse glacé et confit en gelée rose, chantilly légère au litchi- grapefruit confit with rose gelée and light lychee cream.  A delightfully refreshing cold dessert with subtle tart sweetness and a spring floral aroma.


La Chartreuse en soufflé chaud avec une crème glacée à la pistache- warm chartreuse yellow soufflé with pistachio ice cream.  A wonderful interplay of cold ice cream slowly melting like lava and soaking its nutty flavors into the depths of soft warm soufflé heaven.

La fraise gariguette et son sorbet citron-basilic, meringues crispy- glazed Gariguette strawberries with yuzu basil sorbet.  A mix of tart and sweet, light and rich, this was a delightful way to end the extraordinary meal.

IMG_5357I entered the doors of L’Atelier with high expectations, and I left with a big smile and a full belly.    From the impeccable service to the seductive decor, the succulent cuts of tender meats to the delightful desserts, it was a perfect Parisian dream come true.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Paris

5 Rue de Montalembert
75007 Paris, France
01 42 22 56 56

Random trivia:  The ostrich egg, with an average weight of 3.3 pounds, is not only the largest egg but also the largest living single cell (the yolk).