Saturday, November 17, 2007

Trip Report: Barcelona, Part 2: Food

(Trip dates: Sept. 21-Oct. 1, and the food porn is here in the food photo album)

In general, the food in Barcelona rocked. Perhaps it might not have been as striking had I just come from the U.S., or, more specifically, D.C., where an embarrassing sum of our disposable income was spent on eating in nice restaurants, and where the legendary meals of our cooking club had just gotten into full swing. Instead, the trip came after 7 months in England, long enough for me to say that everything they say about British food is true. More on that another time, though.

Anyway, Barcelona. Barcelona is in a region called Catalunya, which borders France. Food in this region has its own unique identity, with heavy influence from Spain, France, and Italy. Spain's climate gives it a long growing season, and in late September, the produce was amazing. Its position on the sea means seafood dominates. And, of course, you have the delightful Spanish wine to wash down all that great food.


One of the first restaurants we ate at was Les Quinze Nits, in Placa Reial. They open at 8:30 p.m. and don't take reservations, so a line starts to form before 8. My coworker who lives in Barcelona had suggested the place, so the three of us met her there at 8:15 or so to join the queue. What was most striking was how inexpensive it was. We got the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu -- 11 euros (about US$15).

For a starter I had gazpacho that was absolutely incredible. We'd later get a glimpse at why -- the local produce is phenomenal. Easy to make great food with great ingredients. For a main, AW and I split a paella:

Very rich, very delicious. Other mains on the table: lamb shank and seared tuna. Dessert gave me my first exposure to crema Catalana, a creme brulee-like custardy dessert, only less sweet and less heavy. Here's a recipe on the Spain tourism site; the translation is a little silly, but use your imagination.

The night of the boring reception, we went back to our neighborhood and ate at CheeseMe in the El Borne neighborhood. Yes, unfortunate name. Cheesy, even. But how can you not love a restaurant where every dish includes cheese? We started with a sampler of 10 Spanish cheeses:

The blue (Cabrales, I believe) was probably our favorite. Sadly, we really had no clue what the rest were.

AW had heard about a must-do restaurant that turned out to be about 50 feet from our apartment. It's called Cafe de L'Academia. As soon as you book your flight to Barcelona, your next call should be to book a table at this restaurant. The food was phenomenal and a really good deal for what we ate. We were able to walk in and get a table at a Friday lunch with only a short wait because we really wanted to sit outside. (Inside, we could have been seated immediately.) (Also, sitting outside this restaurant was the scene of the Eyebrow Man Incident.) Pictured are our main courses, and there is a photo of our appetizers in the photo album and dessert is below. I'm not sure we ate anything that was particularly unusual, but everything was so perfectly executed. My main dish is the one at the bottom of the picture: Pounded beef steak with a goat cheese cream drizzle served with pear sauce. Mmm. My appetizer was a rice dish tossed in chili oil, which gave it just that little extra something. They're only open Monday through Friday -- have to appreciate a restaurant willing to forego a Saturday night's income.


Rule: Always eat tapas next to a church. [I could explain that, but I think I'll just leave that open to your own interpretation.]

We had some great tapas, and gee, it sure would be nice if I could remember some of them. Thankfully, I have at least a few pictures to remind me. Here are our tapas from a place called Ciutat Comtal on Rambla Catalunya: clams, ham and cheese croquettes (ubiquitous in Barcelona -- and sooo good), shrimp, fried anchovies, pimientos de Padron (the green peppers), and, on the side plate, tortilla (a potato fritatta, basically) and some pan amb tomaquet, grilled bread with tomato and garlic.

One of our tapas-next-to-a-church outings was to a local chain called Taller de Tapas. I can't remember a thing that we ate there, but that's mostly because of my crappy memory, and also possibly because we were eating at a poorly lit table and so didn't really see much of what we were eating. Thanks to someone on Flikr who took pictures of her food when she ate there, I do remember eating the chorizo sausage cooked in hard cider. Mmm. Anyway, it's a good, reliable meal, so if you come across one of these in Barcelona, give it a try.

One evening, with colleague LR in tow (the one who stole the sign), we wandered down to Bubo, a tapas-and-pastries place in El Born. Part of the fun was trying to communicate: Our waiter Tony didn't speak a word of English. So, it was down to my translation skills. Ha. It turned out to be pretty easy, as the special menu of the evening was six tapas of the chef's choosing, plus a cocktail, snacks, and dessert. So, with all food decisions out of our hands, we were brought plate after delightful plate of tapas, none of which I think we would have chosen organically but all of which were quite good. (Would you like to know what they were? Yeah, well, join the club. I do remember that the snacks were olives, and some sort of salty nuts served with a toffee sauce because salty + sweet = yum.) R did take a picture of our desserts: Nice, huh?

La Boqueria

Lest you think we spent all our time in restaurants, we did eat five dinners at the apartment. Sure, one of those nights we ate nothing but baguettes fresh out of the oven from the corner bakery, cheese, and olives. But man, don't knock it until you try it. Most of our dinners at home featured food from La Boqueria, Barcelona's amazing food market. I only have one picture inside the market because I got irritated at the number of tourists inside taking pictures. I, on the other hand, was there to live like a local, darnit. But man, it was beautiful. To get a flavor of it, do a Google Image search on "la boqueria barcelona," and you'll see what I mean.

The main staples of our at-home meals were bread, tomatoes, cheese, olives, and occasionally some serrano ham or baby chorizo sausages. The bread tended to be baguettes, although our best loaf came from a woman selling dense whole wheat loaves out of a basket on the side of an alley during the festival. We never saw her again. Oh, man, that was some bread.

The tomatoes were quite clearly in season, tasted amazing, and were very cheap. One day I bought three huge tomatoes from a woman off the side of La Boqueria. "Veintiocho centavos," she says. My brain simply couldn't process that. I handed her 78 cents. "No no no," she says, and hands me back 50 cents. So, these beautiful tomatoes cost a whopping 28 cents. And they tasted like sunshine.

The cheese ranged from goat cheese we bought from a mysterious cheese market that seemed to appear purely for our benefit, to the local Spanish specialty, manchego cheese. (Also some delicious fresh cow's milk cheese that I can't remember -- borrata? Borgato? Something like that. If you find it, GET IT, and eat with fresh tomatoes. Mmmm.)

The olives were amazing, too. We got some that were in a marinade that was on the edge of too spicy but were so good we ate them anyway. And the ham? Oh, the ham. The meat vendors in La Boqueria had the whole ham -- the bone-in, knee-to-hip (do pigs have hips?) ham -- hanging from the rafters. You tell him how much you want and he slices it right off the ham. Now, some of this was 175 euros per kilogram. We're talking serious ham here. We settled for a nice 75 euro/kg one, and got 5 euros' worth. SO good.

And finally, we actually ate a meal in La Boqueria. It was at the very popular lunch counter of El Quim. It's apparently a mother, father, and son operation, and they must all get along famously because they deftly and quickly move around each other in maybe a 9-foot by 5-foot space -- cooking, doing dishes, and serving customers. Basically they walk around La Boqueria to do their shopping, fry things up, and serve them for lunch. Doesn't get any fresher than that.

This was our first introduction to pimientos de Padron, small green peppers that grow only in Spain. They get sauteed in olive oil until the skin is a bit charred, and are served warm and heavily salted. The heat in the peppers apparently varies widely, but the ones we had were nothing but delicious.

Our main meal here ... well, this is going to be a hard sell for some of you. Namely anyone related to me or JT. But here goes: chipirones, or baby squid, sauteed in garlic and some chilli pepper, and served over a fried egg. Oh, so good.

Our dessert from Cafe d' Academia. And dessert means el fin.

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