The 'Lona Rangers: four wondrous days in Barcelona
It's seven in the evening, too early even for locals with babies to consider supper. They will show up, but not for an hour or so. For now it's just me, Rachel, and another couple drinking at the bar. I'm wearing my usual natty attire: khakis, a t-shirt, and a backpack that confirms, if confirmation were needed, that I am a tourist.
So be it. It's the price we pay for visiting Barcelona and ensuring our meal at Bar Inopia, Albert Adria's tapas bar, lives up to expectations. Sure, we could visit two or three hours later, dressed to the nines (okay, maybe I can't do that), for the more authentic experience: fighting with the Saturday night crowd for someone, anyone's attention. But to hell with that. We want the chance to interact with the bartender, to get a feel for what we're eating.
In that sense, our gambit pays off. Our barkeep's brown hair and beard convince me we're being looked after by Kenny Loggins' Catalan doppelganger. But I'm not complaining. For the next ninety minutes this man tolerates my many questions with the patience of Job, and even greets my queries with a few wonderful recommendations.
Eating in Barcelona ranks as one of life's greatest pleasures -- actually, given the wonders of the city, so does starving in Barcelona -- and Bar Inopia's no exception. We whet our appetites with a few simple plates: "Air" bread with tomato and baccala, impossibly light toast with a rich tomato confit and cod so juicy it's hard to believe it was ever dried; ventresca de atun, tuna belly with a wonderfully meaty taste, more tomato confit, and a generous, but perfectly balanced dusting of sea salt; and a handful of anchovy dishes, including a boqueron topped with more anchovy, a preparation that is really just fishy fish garnished with a little more fishy fish. Of course, if I could buy preserved fish as succulent as the salt-packed varieties regularly served in tapas bars across the Iberian peninsula, I'd do the same thing, too. The only dish we don't enjoy is the mixed olive plate, as none of the olives strike our fancy, and one of which amazes me for its distinctly root beer-like taste.
Why stop when you're on a roll, right? The second wave of dishes includes an ensaladilla rusa, a tuna, mayo, and potato salad with a little red pepper. More anchovies arrive, but this time perched atop preserved artichokes. Then, the dish for which I will beg on my deathbed: tiny deep fried fish. Pelaya, to be exact, which, if my research is correct, is Atlantic spotted flounder. These little fish remind me of potato chips, only better. Given their oval shape, very generous dose of sea salt, and not-quite-paper-thinness, the comparison is apt. They have a wonderfully light crunch. After devouring a plate of them while polishing off a beer, I immediately order another.
"Are you sure you don't want to try a different fish?" asks the bartender. "Salmoneta, is a little thicker and has slightly fishier taste." What else could I do but accept? I don't want to suggest I now regret that decision, but let's just say when I think of the one that got away, it will be a dozen pelaya. Which is not to say that salmoneta isn't good -- though given it's orangey-pink colouring and shape, these finger-sized red mullet strongly resemble a goldfish -- it just fails to meet the standard of its predecessor.
Our meal at Bar Inopia was a wonderful experience, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in a city emerging as one of the world's great culinary destinations. The quality of the tapas justifies the line of customers patiently sipping cañas, tiny glasses of beer, while waiting an hour for a seat at Cal Pep's diner-style counter. Our meal begins with a pile of salty, deep fried pebrots de padron, slightly sweet, mini-green peppers; the most perfect clams cooked with morsels of ham; and a dish that must be inspired by a typical North American breakfast: foie gras sausage and white beans drizzled with a maple syrup reduction. Cal Pep's fried pelaya fail to meet the standard set by Bar Inopia -- too greasy, not enough salt -- but all is forgiven after one bite of their mesmerizing tortilla, truita trempera (click here for the recipe in Catalan), a thick, golden pillow filled with chorizo, potato, onion, and still runny egg. What sets this omelette apart is the slather of allioli, garlic mayonnaise, that crowns it, and transforms an already superb omelette into something ethereal. We finish our meal with the dense, silky custard of crema catalana, the region's nutmeg-inflected answer to crème brûlée. For photos of the sausage, clam, and tortilla dishes, click here.
Of course, one need not set foot in Barcelona's bars and restaurants to capture glimpses of the city's vibrant food culture. The city is home to one of the world's great food markets, La Boqueria. Rachel and I spent the better part of a morning wandering past rows of vendors hawking the most beautiful fruits, meats, and fish, though only after enjoying second helpings of the most addictive chick pea dish ever at Bar Pinotxo -- a delightful muddle, cigrons butifarra, that includes crumbled black sausage, raisins, onions, pine nuts, and parsley -- one of the tapas stands scattered throughout the premises. Beyond breakfast, my memories of our market visit are crowded with visions of countless types of dirt-caked mushrooms, containers overflowing with yards of tripe, and fishmongers chatting casually while gutting and cleaning the day's catch with impossibly large blades.
Then there's the chocolate. On our first trip to Barcelona, we stumbled upon Cacao Sampaka, another Albert Adria venture, but one more closely related to his roots as el Bulli's pioneering pastry chef. This small chain of artisanal chocolate shops showcases many of the chocolate creations Adria developed at the restaurant, including some of the flavours we featured in our el Bulli chocolate sampler post. Adria's bonbons are good, but they fail to match the intense flavours and luscious textures achieved by Oriol Balaguer, a man quickly emerging as one of the world's great pastry chefs. This is actually a case of the student overtaking the master, because Balaguer spent seven years at el Bulli before venturing out on his own. His tiny shop, with its sleek automatic doors and ultra-modern displays, seems better suited to haute couture than ganache, but Balaguer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bond henchman, Emile Locque) has a magical ability to distill flavours and textures into his chocolates-- be it passion fruit, yuzu, or even corn nuts -- that Adria cannot match.
Barcelona's attractiveness extends well beyond food. I was first drawn to the city by a love for the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, whose most brilliant creations -- for me, at least, the Casa Batlló and the Sagrada Familia -- twist natural forms into awe inspiring spaces bathed in light. There's more, of course: the charm of La Rambla, the bustling, tree-lined mall, choked with pedestrians, vendors, and street performers; strolling the boardwalk in Barceloneta; and Montjuïc, the enormous park that looks out over the city while simultaneously offering a green refuge from its excesses. Well, at least to some. I know we haven't enjoyed any part of Barcelona -- not the architecture, nor the chocolate, and certainly not the tiny deep fried fish -- to excess yet.