Friday, October 21, 2011

Food Fridays: A Spanish Feast for the Eyes - Part 1

Sobrassada, Churrizo, Jamon Iberico
Some of the best cured meat I've ever eaten!
Spain was a brand new experience for me.  My wife and I have travelled to France twice and I have travelled to other areas of Europe on my own, but Spain was new.  And what I was most looking forward to during our two weeks in Barcelona and Zaragoza was not the architecture, not the festivals and not the football (although those were all amazing) ... what I couldn't wait to get into was the FOOD.

Spain was been the darling of the foodie culture over the past few years, ever since Feran Adria's el Bulli was adorned with the title of "Best Restuarant in the World".  The small town of Roses became the Mecca for foodies around the world, but that was not what we were in Spain to taste.  We did make it to Adria's newest venture ... I mean you HAVE to try it when you're there, right? ... but we were much more interested in the basic, everyday Spanish, and in particular Catalan cuisine.

In Barcelona, as in other major Eupropean cities, the real belly of the town can be found in the markets.  Barcelona's main market is La Boqueria, located about halfway up the tourist clusterf**k known as Las Ramblas.  If you're into the insanity and tourist rip-offs, by all means visit Las Ramblas.  But if you hop the Metro to the Licieu station you'll come up right beside the Boqueria.  This won't avoid all the crowds, but it will get you to the heart of the matter.

This place is massive, and to be fair it is a bit of tourist hang-out as well.  My advice?  Head straight to the back of the market and work your way forward from there.  There's lots of everything so you don't need to feel like you're going to miss anything.  Take your time and and try things as you go.

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Lots of pictures, I know.  But what words can you use to describe the mind-numbingly wide variety of product available? Truthfully it was overwhelming.  But before you think the only way you can taste the bounty of this market is to buy your own little apartment in El Born (a tempting option I can assure you) be sure to look around for many of the food counters in the market.

The guy with the pony-tail (right) is your hook-up!
We had been told to visit Kiosko Universal by a number of people, and it didn't disappoint.  It's a very simple set-up ... essentially a kitchen surround by a bar.  It's extremely popular so either get there early or be prepared to wait.  If you're waiting, be sure to catch the eye of one of the servers and signal how many seats you're looking for.  They remember who arrived when and will get you seated as quickly as possible.

The menu is primarily grilled fish, prawns, razor clams, cockles ... although your basic papas bravas and the like are available as well.  We decided to go with what they do best ... Barcelona is on the OCEAN after all ... and go with the fish.

Sole and sardines cooked a la plancha, served with the ever present chips (fries).  A couple of glasses of Cava and you have a simple, delicious lunch.  The sole was as tender and moist as any I've had, and the sardines were not "fishy" in the least.

But I think the carnage we left behind spoke for itself.

When I heard that Feran Adria and his brother had opened up TICKET in Barcelona, I thought I'd throw a little caution to the wind and attempt to land a reservation.  This is no easy task.  TICKET only reserves 100 spots a day and you can only make them on their website.  Adding to the fun is the popularity of the restaurant means that reservations are taken 90 days in advance, and they're gone as soon as they're available.

I tried every day for almost 2 weeks to "win" a reservation ... unsuccessfully.  Thankfully TICKET has a smaller, more scaled down lounge attached to it called 41°.  It serves a scaled down version of what you can get at TICKET, and best of all reservations were much simpler to come by.  I still had to book about 6 weeks out, but we had our table and a chance to try some of the food wizardry that the Adria name is know for.

Some really fun dishes, but not what I would even come close to calling the best things I've ever eaten.  The flavours were excellent for the most part, but at the end of the meal I couldn't help but wonder what the big deal was.  Perhaps I needed the full experience, but based on our evening at 41° I won't be seeking it any time soon.

ETA:  This is truer than ever!  Seems that they've decided to change the concept of 41°!  From their website:
The success of the 41º has led us to take two decisions. The first one is to enlarge the offer at 41º, as we know it, in a new location we are still considering, so that more customers can be accommodated. The second decision is to change the current concept and sophisticate the offer at the present location. From 20th October, from 7 to 11 pm, the cocktail lounge will turn into a little restaurant with a seating capacity of 16 people, who will enjoy a festival consisting of 41 surprises made by our cooks and barmen in a very special atmosphere specifically created to go with this gastronomic metamorphosis.

The following night was a much better experience, and one we hadn't even planned on.  We had a number of tapas bars we wanted to visit, but they were either way too full to get into, or seemed too touristy ... sometimes both.  But after a day of wandering around El Born, we found ourselves near Lolita.  From the outside it looked somewhat like a burger joint ... lots of white tile with red and black trim.  But upon closer inspection we found a neighbourhood hang-out filled with locals catching up at the end of the day.  A young couple, just married that afternoon even dropped by in full wedding dress to visit the restaurant staff.  Perfect.

The food, wine and company combined to create one of our dining highlights in Barcelona.  It was in a word, "fun."  Bar staff who joked with their clients, and enjoyed the fact that a couple from out of town was trying things they'd never eaten before.  At the end of our meal I was handed a couple markers and asked to leave out mark on their wall ... look for the maple leaf.

For Part 2, we'll leave Barcelona, and head inland to Zaragoza for more tapas, flowers and churros!


docsconz said...

Very nice report, Arne. Isn't Barcelona wonderful?! It has so many great ways to eat great food.

I wouldn't draw too many conclusions about your Adria-esque meal at 41º especially in abbreviated form. Context and progression are both very important to get the full expression of an Adria experience. The context of Tickets is actually quite different than that at 41º. While that shouldn't make the food any less delicious, part of the magic is the surprise, whimsy and multi-sensorial aspects of it all. Should the opportunity arise for a more complete taste, I would suggest that you avail yourself. That said, neither 41º nor Tickets are elBulli, nor are they meant to be. Even the new limited seating, mega-course restaurant taking over the 41º space won't be elBulli, even if the food is quite similar. It should, however, still be a wonderful experience taken on its own terms as Tickets was for me.

Arne Salvesen said...

Thanks John. Oh I agree that Tickets/41 isn't el Bulli, but given I'll never get to eat at el Bulli it's the only thing I have as a guide.

A couple of the dishes we had, the Tentacles (like from your Fish & Chips) and the Prawn dish, were very similar in flavour and texture to Japanese shrimp chips which are very popular in Vancouver. Since I'd had the chips before, the Adria dishes were tasty, but hardly a surprise.

I loved the Olives, and the False Pistacio. The standout was the smoked fish made to look like a Skandinavian winter-scape. Forget the name, but the flavours were excellent.

What the experience did for me however was reinforce that I prefer meals like I had at the Boqueria over the food-as-science stuff. It's great, just not my thing.

And we made it to Camp Nou! Sadly they were on an international break (Spain played Scotland that week further south) so I had to wait until we got to Lyon to see my beloved OL. Happy I saw the game against Nancy and not the no-show against Madrid in Champions' League.

Thanks for dropping by!

Crissy said...

I had a feeling you guys would *love* Barcelona (how can you not?!) ... it's a fantastic place and yep, the food is definitely one of the top highlights!

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