02 Nov Barcelona: the Rio of Europe… but better
With the year-end Christmas festivities fast approaching, my thoughts go to Barcelona, where the winter sun welcomes us Northern Europeans from our grey gloom.
Earlier this autumn, I returned to Barcelona after an absence of 20 years. This was the city where I had lived over the Olympic Games of 1992; where my son had been born; and a city which has a special place in my heart.
I even speak Catalan, of a sort, having studied at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and done work experience at the Catalan TV station, TV3.Sitges. I had a lot to pack in… and I needed time to calibrate my emotional ties with what was my second home city, with London my first and Paris my third.
I ended my day with two blue-sky thoughts:
- Barcelona had become a global gastronomic capital, albeit largely on the back of the international success of El Celler de Can Roca and El Bulli. Both restaurants are, or were, in the case of El Bulli, further up the coast, in the province of Girona, but their resonance is felt loud & clear in the regional capital, Barcelona.
- The city has turned itself round to embrace the sea. Before, the city’s eyes were blinkered to extend no further than the statue of Christopher Columbus, at the bottom of the Ramblas… they are now cast out & along 4km of sandy beaches, with views across the Mediterranean Sea.
- Alkimia, with chef Jordi Vilà at the helm, will open in its new (easier to reach for tourists) location in the Ronda de Sant Antoni, not too far away from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. Vilà is famed for giving a new twist to Spanish classics. The old Alkimia had one Michelin star.
- Tickets... how can I not eat here, especially after it was selected as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. It is called a ‘tapas bar’, but would love to discover exactly what that means.
- Roig Robí, famous for its Catalan food, & located in Seneca street, on the posh side of Gracià. A brilliant streets for lovers of design. I had wanted to visit AOO, standing for Altrescoses, or Otroscosas, or Otherthings, but it was closed – not that it was meant to be, but this is Spain.
- Dry Martini, home to cocktail supremo Javier de las Muellas. This is as emblematic now as it was 20 years ago. It is in the Eixample district of Barcelona… between the old, historic part of the city down by the sea & the posh bits up in the mountains.
- The Eclipse bar of W Barcelona, with a 26th-floor view across the sea, to the Hotel Arts.
- If you are into fine dining, sneak a pair of smart shoes into your bag – for women, flats take up less room than heels. Once outside, I then change into my trainers, ready to walk the city. Yes, this is the home of easy-going fashion brands Desigual (who must have the best offices in the world, on the seafront), Mango & Custo Line, but for smart restaurants it is best to dress smartly.
- The city slows down, if not closes, in the afernoon, aka 2-5pm. The best is to go with the flow, & to think of the day being… coffee, aperitif, (late) lunch, rest, a short walk, aperitif, (late) dinner, bar, sleep (late).
El Celler de Can Roca in Barcelona
After a quick swim in Sitges, I boarded the train for the 30-minute journey to Barcelona, & then headed for lunch, via the Ninot food market, at Roca Moo.
I wanted to have one big culinary experience that day, in a city that has 22 Michelin-starred restaurants. And I had chosen this restaurant, on the ground floor of the Hotel Omm, near the top of the Passeig de Gràcia.
My decision was helped by the fact that Roca Moo is overseen by Joan Roca, the chef behind the ‘world’s best restaurant’, El Celler de Can Roca.
As always, I chose to sit at the bar… I feel like a lemon sitting on my own at a table. The restaurant was not that full. The Roca Bar, on the other side of the bookshelf-like divide, was much more animated. But then Roca Moo is a place for serious foodies.
“I feel like a lemon sitting on my own at a table.”
My neighbour at the bar was a chef from Chicago, tall & blond like his Scandinavian ancestors. I never caught his name but we had a fun conversation… about the Japanese restaurant he was planning to open in his home town, his visit to the other great Spanish culinary capital, San Sebastian, & about Mexican cuisine, one of the world’s greatest.
My new for-the-moment friend had chosen the full experience: the Joan Roca Menu at €110 + €44 for matching wines. Looking to stretch my Euros, I had chosen the amazing-value Moo Lunch Menu, including a glass of wine, water & coffee, or in my case hoji-cha (Japanese rice tea), for €49 (£35 or US$54)… a snip for a Londoner.
The Moo Lunch Menu was made up an appetiser, then 3 different courses, followed by ‘tea-time’. Each course offered a combination of tastes, flavours & textures introduced by the chef in gastronomic terms that sounded like poetry. I started to write them down, but soon gave up… just enjoy, I thought!
For my glass of wine, I chose a white… Can Feixes Blanc Selecció 2012, made in the hills of the nearby denominació d’origen of Penedès. Like so many Catalan whites, it was slightly pétillant… to give character & zest, just like the Catalans themselves.
Visiting the Barcelona barrio of Gràcia
I was tempted to go for a second glass of wine at Roca Moo, but no, I thought, I want to pace myself, as my next visit was to Viblioteca Wine & Cheese Bar, recommended to me by local wine blogger Zoltan Nagy & which offered a different, more intimate experience, in the ‘popular’ district of Gràcia.
My post-lunch walk took me past my first flat in Barcelona, in Mozart street. The front door had, er, been decorated… with graffiti. I had only lived there for a few months, & then realised that in those days, as a foreign, freelance journalist, I needed a better address – on the other side of Gràcia – if I were to hobnob with the glitterati of Barcelona.
With the passing of 20 years since I was last in Barcelona, I had forgotten a key rule… opening hours are baffling in Spain, so always check first. I arrived at Viblioteca to find that it only opened in the evening …
To drown my disappointment, I headed for the beach.
And then to the sea….
Six stops on the city’s metro, & I was in Barceloneta, the old district by the sea, where the fishermen used to live. I had redrawn my plans to take in one of the addresses of the culinary empire of another Catalan, Carles Abellán.
Ex-El Bulli, like so many of the great chefs in Barcelona, Abellán came to fame with Comerç 24, where he gained a Michelin star & a reputation for creative tapas.
Comerç 24 is now closed, & Abellán meanwhile is preparing for next year’s opening of his 10th establishment in the city, La Barra de Carles Abellán, in Barceloneta … think zarzuelas (fish stews), calderetas de langosta (lobster stew), rice (read paella) & seasonal vegetables, he told La Vanguardia newspaper last month.
For me, the Abellán experience was a zumo energético at La Guingueta, with a view over to the sail-shaped W Barcelona Hotel, home to another Abellán restaurant – Bravo.
My juice was designed to stimulate the circulation and pump me with antioxidants… a blend of stevia, banana, pinepapple, spinach & wheat grass. It definitely did fill me with energy.
W Barcelona looks uncannily like a half-sized Bourj Al Arab, the 7-star hotel in Dubai. One Barcelona resident told me that the W should have been ready first, but planning hiccups meant it took a while to get built. Barcelona is a city that thinks big, especially for its size…
People of all ages & nationalities were out enjoying the seafront… eating, drinking, jogging, surfing (too rough for swimming that afternoon), walking, looking at the sea… living & breathing life. The sun was beginning to edge down. It was time to move on.
The Adrià empire
I had this idea of staying in Barcelona for an early (9pm) evening meal, & then catching the last train back to Sitges.
My next quest was to find Yauarcan, the Mexican restaurant of Albert Adrià, the younger brother of Ferran Adrià, the name behind the home of molecular cuisine, El Bulli, & who is now busy with El Bulli Foundation.
The address I had was in a street whose name sounded like a rock band, Doctor Dou, in El Raval, a once dodgy district where, all those years ago, I had done a report for The Sun tabloid newspaper on a vicar’s daughter working in a strip club.
I never found the restaurant. As my son is always telling me, the world changes very quickly nowadays: fashions come & go, and restaurants come & go.
Albert Adrià, together with his brother Ferran, has meanwhile put his heart in his El Barri district, a one-stop global culinary destination in the nearby Paral.lel area near Montjuic, & in my day only famous for El Molino cabaret hall.
El Barri offers six Adrià restaurant concepts: Tickets, where my Chicago chef friend was eating that night, Pakta, Bodega 1900, and Hoja Santa & Nino Viejo, both with a Mexican influence, & next year 41° reopens as Enigma.
In the meantime, earlier this year, Albert Adrià was awarded the title of World’s Best Pastry Chef, while Tickets entered into the ranks of the Top 50 of the World’s Best Restaurants. And this summer the Adrià brothers opened Heart in Palma de Mallorca, a ‘gastrofiesta‘ concept, in partnership with Guy Laliberté, the creator of Cirque du Soleil. There is no stopping the Adrià empire!
With so many different restaurants, & a central reservation number to ring, it was all too much for me. I prefer to check out a restaurant by sauntering by… and Paral.lel was that bit further to walk. Instead, I wandered around the streets near the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA).
The locals had pointed me in the direction of the nearby Dos Palillos restaurant, part of the Hotel Camper, as in the eponymous shoe brand from Mallorca. A relaxed, informal looking restaurant presided over by Albert Raurich, also ex-El Bulli, & his Japanese sommelier/wife Tamae Imachi.
But by that time, I was deciding instead to return to Sitges. My evening meal of fine dining morphed into eating a bag of sun-packed Moscatel grapes that I had bought that morning from the Ninot food market. They were good, very good, from Teulada, down on Alicante’s Costa Blanca.
In the meantime, I won’t be waiting another 20 years to visit Barcelona.
3 places to eat in barcelona next time…
2 places to go for an aperitif or night cap…
Watch this space
The world of gastronomy has all eyes on El Bulli Foundation, set up by Ferran Adrià when he closed El Bulli restaurant in Roses, in the province of Girona, on the Costa Brava.
The Foundation aims to explore the notion of creativity, through El Bulli Lab in Barcelona & El Bulli 1846 which launches next year in Roses, with 20 people working over six months on “creativity applied to gastronomy”. Interesting.
What I bought
Nuts. Yes, nuts. There are lots of shops in Barcelona, but my best buy was nuts from Casa Gispert. Roasted almonds to be precise. Casa Gispert, a Barcelona institution, also sells coffee, spices, olive oil & lots of other amazing foodie things.
I also bought a warming ‘winter’ tea of thyme, sage, mallow & licorice which turns a beautiful cornflower blue once infused; and Cavaloca olive oil from the Priorat area, also known for its red wines.
2 top tips
During my visit, I was pleased to see that a couple of my old favourites were still thriving: Cal Pep, a tapas institution, and Sagardia, for a Basque touch.
Both, like Casa Gispert, are in El Born. The district is home to the church of Santa Maria del Mar, with its high vaults, rich atmosphere, & built during another golden era for Barcelona, the 14th century.