19 April 2007

Kill the wabbit (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 4)

[dried stuff](The original version, with many more photos (including pictorial essays on La Boqueria and the Cathedral of Santa Eulàlia), is here.)

16 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Rambla – This busy, heavily-touristed pedestrian avenue is filled with rolling street carts selling everything from cheap, logoed tchotchkes to live chickens and bunnies. No, really: bunnies. Does one walk around the rest of Barcelona with a freshly-purchased chicken tucked beneath one arm? Do tourists stuff a few in their carry-on luggage for later consumption? Or is this the land-based equivalent of a “catch-your-own” fish restaurant?


La Boqueria – Food markets just don’t get much more famous than this. Perhaps the Rialto in Venice, or (going back a few years) Les Halles in Paris. In more modern, organized terms, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza might come to mind. But when a shed full of food vendors becomes a destination for even non-foodie tourists, labeled in every guide book as a “must-see” sight, it’s clear that critical mindshare mass has been reached.

Viewed objectively, the market isn’t all that much different than major markets anywhere else. There’s produce, fish, meat, cheese, bread, wine, oil, some specialists…the usual array of products, tilted (as one would expect) towards local specialties. The only real differentiator is the striking ubiquity of ham. It’s mostly Ibérico, of course, with Serrano taking a strong second place, and then a handful of alternate appellations filling in the corners. What registers and overwhelms, however, is the amazing variation within each category…different cuts, different producers, different preparations…that makes it a little difficult to decide where to start. And given the staggering price of Ibérico, some guidance would be welcome. I curse my unusual unpreparedness, but anticipate the taste of last-minute cramming as I collect several pricey parcels of porcine pleasure.

Aside from ham, the majority of vendors seem to sell produce, which is itself strongly dominated by fruit in lieu of vegetables. There are a few exotics which we resolve to acquire tomorrow, on our way out of the city, but little that’s completely out of the ordinary for a food-focused traveler. Fish vendors exhibit their usual regional specialization, and though we won’t have the opportunity to buy any, we spend a long time studying the options, comparing and contrasting them with other Mediterranean markets we’ve visited. Meat in its muscular form is equaled in quantity by what some euphemistically label “variety meats,” though here the “variety” is rather larger than what we’re used to. Clearly, these are people who love their “parts” an offal lot. (Sorry.) Cheesemongers, on the other hand, seem to sell as much foreign product as domestic, which is a little dismaying (and since we’ve had most of the domestic products on offer, we’re fairly disappointed in the options), but the massive range of domestic oils is proportionally exciting.

Inevitably, staring at food for an hour or so makes us ravenously hungry. Many vendors offer various snacks and tastes, and those on a tight budget could probably assemble a fine graze from these nibbles, but there are tapas bars within the market that are neither pricey nor ill-thought of. Several of the recommended options are already closed for the day (and many vendors have shuttered as well; we’re here pretty close to the local lunch hour), but one bustling counter is still open, and we grab seats the moment they’re available.

Kiosko Universal – There’s an odd sort of Africa-in-Florida, “Livingstone, I presume” theme park style to the signage here, which is a little strange. But the food is authentic enough…fresh, as intensely-flavored as it is simply-prepared, and served with frank rapidity…and the price can hardly be beat. We sample flawless squid with potato “fries” (not crisp, but – like the tentacle segments – drenched in zippy olive oil), fried artichokes dusted with a vivid, complex sea salt, and a stunning row of baby clams bathed in even more oil. But the “killer app,” as such, is octopus gallego in its spicy sauce (though it is, once more, soaked in oil…not a bad thing in any of these three cases, but a little repetitive); the texture and taste are truly definitive. I wash it down with three glasses of a crisp, light, refreshing wine (probably a Penedès, but I don’t ask and they don’t tell), and feel absolutely exhilarated at the end. We’ve done the adventurous, and tonight we’ll do the higher-end, but here’s yet another important side to the ravenous Barcelona food culture. In a way, it just might be our favorite of the three.

We continue our stroll down La Rambla all the way to the broad expanse of the waterfront. It’s a beautiful day, and we pass some time on a short cruise of the harbor; a fairly boring procession of passenger and cargo ships, with only the rise of Montjuïc and the distant ridge of Tibidabo breaking the industrial scenery. At least we get to sit for a while.

[old man against wall]Barri Gòtic – From the waterfront, the entrance to Barcelona’s oldest district is a little forbidding, with tiny, dark alleys featuring neither businesses nor signage. It’s a little like Venice without the water (or the lulling quiet). But soon enough, we emerge into brighter areas: sun-lit golden-brown plazas milling with visitors, and narrow passageways lit up by the glow of commerce and enlivened by the bustling noise of passersby.

The city’s principal cathedral, Santa Eulàlia is oddly situated, hemmed in on all sides by auxiliary and connected buildings, and without a truly grand façade in most directions. Its one ornate face – the front – is masked by scaffolding. Inside, things are grander, with the usual soaring architecture and lovely cloisters (in the middle of which are fenced a rather chatty gaggle of geese, for reasons that remain unclear to me; perhaps they’re guarding the fountain). The nearby Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar is darker, quieter, and much more ethereal, like something out of a distant time. Every whisper and foot shuffle is amplified and echoed (the church is renowned for its acoustics), and the contrast between the two houses of worship is striking and wonderful.

Gaig – The entrance to this luxurious and much-praised establishment immediately throws one into a trichromatic otherworld of white, black, and blood red. But what it lacks is any sort of food whatsoever. That’s because it’s a hotel lobby…stark, spare and highly designed (like so much else in this strikingly visual city). When we arrive, it’s empty. We hesitate, uncertain. Are we in the right place?

As if on cue, a hostess descends the lobby’s grand staircase, escorting us upstairs to the restaurant’s crescent-shaped dining room, itself a dark wonderland of red and white (but mostly red). It’s not ornate, exactly, but rather fashionable in the vaguely minimalist, modernistic vein of our two previous evenings’ restaurants; what differs is that the color is overtly “aggressive” to an extent I’m not sure many restaurants would venture. I picture a bull, a matador, a cape. I feel the warm onrush of freshly-slaughtered livestock. I smell the intense fruit of a vivid red wine. It’s rather captivating, and the mood is instantaneously rendered. It’s invigorating, enlivening, exciting.

Unfortunately, imaginary wine isn’t all we smell.

Moments after being seated, a table just across the narrow room – a hirsute older man and two female companions, both of whom look rather dramatically younger than him – seems to be finishing off the last of their meal. The women light cigarettes…no real problem, and it’s hardly uncommon here, though one young lady goes through eleven of them while carrying on a 90-minute conversation on her mobile…and the man lights a cigar.

And another.

And another.

At first, it’s only a mild irritant. It does fill the room with its intense, overpowering aroma, but we assume it will be over soon – who chain-smokes cigars? – and concentrate on our menu. Amuses arrive in the form of breadsticks with a saline anchovy “dip,” which we nibble to great satisfaction as an accompaniment to apéritifs of flowery cava and shockingly good Manzanilla (the identities of which I do not acquire, unfortunately).

More amuses follow: peanut crisps, little balls of cod, other small bites and tastes…each a focused statement of purity and flavor. We’re given menus, but less than a minute later, a waitress arrives to take our order. She seems highly put out that we’re not yet ready. Do they actually hope to turn our table this evening? In any case, and somewhat inevitably, we choose a tasting menu, a wine from the extravagant (albeit adventurously-priced) list, and settle back to await our meal. And to wonder if we’re going to be battling cigar smoke all night.

The early service issues don’t immediately abate, however. We sit…nursing the dregs of our apéritifs, shoveling the crumbs of our amuses to and fro, waiting for our first course. Or for someone to take our wine order. Either would be welcome, at this stage.

Twenty-five lonely minutes pass.

The mildest possible blood sausage is the first course to (finally) arrive – just a morsel, and as refined as one could imagine from this thoroughly rustic ingredient – with quail egg and a creamy sauce that provides delicious contrast to the frank sanguinity of the sausage.

Muga 1998 Rioja “Prado Enea Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – What I actually order is the ’96, but they bring this without apology, only explaining that they’re out of the earlier vintage after I inquire (which, in halting Spanish, is not rapid enough to stop them from opening the wine). I’d actually prefer to make another selection in this case; however, the retrieval of this wine – which doesn’t arrive until after we’ve completed our first course – takes long enough that I shrug and let it go, figuring I’d rather have a wine on the table than wait any longer. Unfortunately, my original instincts prove well-founded. This is tight, tannic and oak-laden, with obvious fruit (that only emerged after extended aeration) and spiky acidity. By the end of the night, there’s a little more spice to the fruit. Of course this is a wine meant to age, but right now it’s obvious and more than a little clumsy, and had I known that the ’96 was unavailable, I’d have ordered something a little more advanced.

Then: a pretty but simple course of scallops and artichokes that, with the excellence of its ingredients, manages to very nearly define both elements. But the next course, a shockingly good filet of sea bass with basil oil, is even better, and once again a cream sauce provides counterpoint.

[cathedral chandelier]By now, the cigar smell is actively irritating. My eyes hurt, my throat is dry, and I’m beginning to lose the aroma of both food and wine. Which is a shame, because the fourth course – a bit of a signature here – is pure decadence: cannelloni stuffed with some sort of rillettes-like meat-based substance, with a black truffle cream sauce. It’s ecstasy in every bite, a culinary climax on a plate. If there’s a niggle, it’s that it’s the third course of the last four to feature a cream-based sauce.

…and we have now reached the limits of our tolerance, as señor lights his fourth consecutive postprandial cigar. Isn’t this sort of like shotgunning Cognac? I feel nauseous, and Theresa’s eyes looks like they’ve been through a funeral. Desperate, we ask if there’s any way to move farther away from the offending table…a request which they quickly oblige, but that only helps a little bit; cigar smoke is hard to escape. Still, a little respite is better than none at all, and there’s not much the restaurant can do about it in any case.

Foie gras is next, and it may be the best I’ve ever eaten. (Do they make it locally, I wonder?) It’s served with a neon-red fig that tastes of strawberry (which works) and a sugary, mint-flavored candy (which doesn’t). This is followed by a loaf of rich suckling pig…soft on the inside, crispy on the outside…served not in a cream sauce, but with a sort of apple cider/applesauce purée. However, to nitpick once more, the texture of the pig is highly reminiscent of the cannelloni stuffing.

Desserts commence with a “deconstructed” crema catalana presented as custard with a foamy center – and only token caramelization – served in a martini glass. I don’t really see the point. What follows is a little orgy of chocolate: bitter, intense mousse and a clean, direct stack presented in puff pastry. Honestly, both desserts are disappointingly timid, and – other than the quality of the chocolate – a letdown at the end of such a grand meal.

As is my custom, and determined not to let the smoke “win,” I ask them to surprise me with something interesting from their selection of liquid desserts. They come up with a wine I could swear I’ve tasted before.

Mas Estela Garnatxa de l’Empordà “Estela Solera” (Cataluña) – Sweet roasted nuts and caramelized orange with toffee, burnt coffee, and a thick, heated edge. The finish is watery, and the overall effect is decidedly average. And one more thing: the wine – from a newly-opened bottle – is almost opaque with sediment, which would seem to be a minor service flaw, though of course it has no appreciable effect on the taste.

So, the verdict. It has been, in most important ways, a terrific meal…excellent by most standards. And yet. And yet

The service has been off all night. The early timing problems eventually settle themselves into an efficient routine, and our move to another table is carried out with aplomb, but in any case the meal is far too quick; less than two hours for seven courses, and that with nearly a half-hour delay at the beginning…it all adds up to about ten minutes per course, which is unacceptably accelerated for a meal of this magnitude. Other meals in Barcelona have been quick, to be sure, but given the expense and richness of this food, one hopes for something more respectful of the cuisine. This bothers us more in the aftermath than in the midst, but that is almost solely a function of the oppressive cigar smoke, for which the restaurant is not responsible; the meal would have been just as speedy were the cigar-mainlining patron not in attendance.

Beverages have also been a problem. In addition to the wine-related service issues, water has been rather grudgingly supplied, and then sloppily sloshed about the table when served. It seems there’s a sort of schizophrenia at work, wherein some elements of the restaurant are as comforting, luxurious and elegant as one could want, and others are haphazard and indifferent.

But the food…oh, the food. Apart from the most minor complaints about textural repetition, it is exquisite. In France, perhaps, we’d adore this meal for its adventurousness, but here in Cataluña we question its reluctance…fair or unfair though that contextualization might be. Separated from those expectations, however, there’s no denying either the quality of the ingredients or the skill in the kitchen, and it’s important to remember that the rejection of tradition is not, in itself, an inherent virtue. The restaurant is, in the main, truly excellent. Still, it must be said: of our three meals so far, I prefer both Cinc Sentits, and especially Hisop, to this establishment.

One excellent espresso later, we stagger out into the cool Barcelona night. Smoke clings to our clothes, our hair and our lungs. Thankfully, the next time I’ll need my nice jacket is two full weeks away; by then, the smell might have diminished. But upstairs, through the hotel’s prodigious windows, we can see our puffing tormenter, lighting up yet another stogie (perhaps his sixth or seventh). From a distance, at least, one has to admire his stamina.

8 – This bar, on our hotel’s roof deck but featuring almost no view whatsoever (aside from the dark Barcelona sky), is open until…well, that very much depends. On a busy night, with the hotel fully booked with a nightlife-oriented crowd, it might stay open until the very wee hours it advertises. But now, in the off-season, our bartender clearly prefers to make an early night of it (“early” being defined, Barcelona-style, as somewhere around 2:30 a.m.). I share quiet poolside recliners and the near-silence of the late-night Eixample with a small table of young French tourists, sipping the overly sweet succulence of some local brandy and almost blindly scribbling in my journal. It’s a peaceful way to end the evening. And – blessedly – smoke-free.


Louie said...

I enjoy reading your tales of Barcelona because although Italy will always have a special place in my heart (from my heritage and our honeymoon), Barcelona is my favorite city not named New York. I miss it. Of course, I miss Italy too (you should try to go to Cinque Terre next time you're there. It's wonderful in its simplicity).

thor iverson said...

I miss Italy too. I think we're going back later this year. Possibly even to Cinque Terre.