Saturday, June 27, 2009

Barcelona Eats: La Bodegueta Provenca

North of Las Ramblas and the Placa de Catalunya lies the Passeig de Gracia, which features a couple of Gaudi-designed private residences. One can probably assume that these were posh places at the time, and that descriptor still applies to the area. High end shopping features extensively in L'Eixample (Chanel, Gucci, etc alongside cheaper faves like Muji, the ubiquitous Zara and Mango), which brings with it plenty of fine eats.

After a day of walking for hours on end, there's nothing quite as appealing as a busy local eatery in a well-groomed neighbourhood, and La Bodegueta fit that bill. The restaurant's main location is on Rambla de Catalunya, and known for its wine/vermouth selection and charcuterie. The place is small and cramped, with patrons lining up outside amidst the smokers. The overflow goes to their second location, which is kitty corner to it on Provenca.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love, love, love to drink outside. Which means I love, love, love to eat outside. The strict bylaws/zoning/bullshit that limit sidewalk cafes, restaurants, etc. in Canada don't seem to have any historical root in Europe, so wtf? Is it the cold? We gots to get right with that shit. Anyway, we ate outside, with the daily specials board behind us. Again, as with many places, the daily specials almost outnumber the items on the regular menu, so it's always hard to narrow down our choices.

Not being able to read Spanish is definitely a handicap: we really should have brought a Spanish/English dictionary with us, and there don't seem to be any good (read: free) ones on the iPhone apps. We told our waitress that we wanted sardines, and had picked something out on the menu. She explained that most of our picks were from the 'non-fresh' (ie canned/preserved) menu, but recommended these sardines (out of numerous choices) to us. It's weird eating canned food that's just as tasty as fresh food, but there ya go.

We also picked a few things off the dailies list, figuring that they were probably the freshest items for the day. Our waitress took time to attempt a translation: apparently the different kinds of clams have different names in Spanish. These were the meatier, juicier type of clams with a darker and thicker shell, lightly tossed in olive oil and cooked over the stovetop or grill until they opened. Simple and great, with just the right amount of char on the shells to give a great scent and taste to them.

I also knew that I really wanted some squid or octopus. Perfectly cooked squid or octopus is a holy wonder to behold. Tender instead of rubbery, these baby octopus were sauteed in red wine, garlic and olive oil, with a hint of smokiness to them. Probably among the best octopus we had in Spain.

We also hadn't tried any suckling pig yet, which seemed totally wrong and needed rectification. This was a more contemporary take on it, with candied pineapples to pair. I cannot emphasize how great the skin was on the pork: nice and crispy and salty. I seem to remember the sauce being apple-y or pineapple-y.

After days of eating as much as humanly possible, we toned it down for this one. Probably because we had dessert, chocolate and churros and tapas midway through the day, or maybe not. Overall, this was a great casual place for when you still want great food but without much fuss, instead of mere sustenance, and a good no hassles pick out of a neighbourhood of higher end dining.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Dos Palillos

I wouldn't normally go all the way to Europe just to have Asian food, but when we passed by Dos Palillos, I had to give it a try. It had been one of Food and Wine's travel issue picks as one of the top places to go in Barcelona, and it was on the way to Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. And continuing from the Inopia vein, it is the home of former El Bulli executive chef, Albert Raurich.

Dos Pallilos isn't the most obvious place to find: it is the restaurant in the Camper Hotel, as in Camper shoes. The hotel in itself just features a bright sign that reads "Hotel," and Dos Pallilos has a bright sign that reads "Bar." It isn't until you notice Raurich's old El Bulli chef whites displayed on the street until you realize that this is indeed the place, with a subtle sign located to the left. What's more, when you walk in from Elisabets, it looks like any other neighbourhood bar, until you realize that there's an Japanese style bar in the back, in the same color scheme as L'Atelier Joel Robuchon. Certainly a marked difference from El Bulli.

When you walk in, it's just dark and red. Only after your pupils adjust do you notice the cute little Asian affects decorating the walls, like the little rice hat jars on the wall, or the wood squids, etc. in the window boxes.

Instead of going for the fixed lunch menu, we opted to pick a few things ala carte. The chefs are also the servers. This is also novel, considering how many people travel from around the world to work with Raurich. One of our servers spoke fluent Spanish through the thickest Scottish accent you could imagine. The menu features Raurich's take on traditional Asian (mostly Chinese and Japanese) small-dishes, all of which he lumps under his co-opted usage of the term "dim sum". We tried these Chinese glazed walnuts, which you can generally find in any Asian market, sweet/spicy glazed with sesame, although these ones seemed less chemical-y than the store bought ones. It wasn't too far from the usual.

What came next, then, totally set the tone. An "Onsen Tamago," which was a slow-poached egg, cooked at 63C to emulate an egg cooked in a Japanese hot spring. The egg is then drained from the water, and placed in a dashi/bonito broth, served with shiso leaves and soy sauce crystals. Once you crack the yolk, the whole thing mixes up into something amazingly broad in flavour, though light at the same time.

We also ordered the tempura cherry tomatoes. A completely simple idea, but not one that we'd ever seen in any Japanese restaurant in Vancouver. The tempura batter was tremendously light and delicate, far better than many Japanese places we've been to.

Next came the steamed shrimp dumplings, which I don't remember much about. I do remember that they made the dumpling wrappers using "de farina de patata," which meant they had a perfect texture to them without being as doughy as in some Chinese restaurants. They were stuffed with pork and shrimp, and some other bloggers claim a bit of foie gras. I don't remember much about it, apart from being a decent dumpling, so perhaps that says it all.

My uncle in Hong Kong always claims that any good Chinese chef ought to be able to make a good char siu bao. He's somewhat right: it's hard not to overdo the bun, so as to make the whole thing too doughy, and it's even more difficult not to fuck up the BBQ pork, so as to make it too saucy or sweet. So, I had to order the BBQ pork buns at Dos Pallilos, which were completely different than anything you've ever had before.

For starters, it's completely savory, without any hint of sweetness. This is why, I suppose, they also serve the buns with a side dish of Chinese mustard, which I though was a bit unnecessary. There are also pine nuts in the mix (or was it peanuts?), which completely took it out of the ordinary. In a way, it was almost shocking.

We had also ordered a grilled Chinese braise pork belly, which took 20 minutes or so to slow grill. It's not too often that you see an executive chef actually do any of the cooking, but Raurich actually came out to handle the grill with his chef de cuisine for most of the time (his wife was busy entertaining other guests). It was probably the furthest thing I assume El Bulli's kitchen to function, so it was a pleasant surprise.

In the meantime, the chefs kept asking us if we wanted to order anything (other than booze) to snack on while we waited. During this time, we watched one chef prepare the Thai red curry razorclams right in front of us, so we ordered those as well. These were, of course, incredible. The Thai red curry was more of a light drizzle of red curry infused oil, with sea beans and seaweed to accompany. These were a real highlight: emphasizing the natural flavour of the razor clams, with the red curry notes in the background.

At long last, the Chinese braise pork belly was served. The braise was close to a traditional Chinese sweet and salty one, one that we would probably have at least twice a month growing up at home, and sort of reminiscent of a traditional Shanghainese braised pork hock. Coupled with the fat of the perfectly prepared pork belly, each slice just kind of melted in the mouth.

All in all, Raurich finds an interesting balance of Asian small plates within a Spanish tapas context, and Dos Palillos was one of those places that, while serving Asian food, was still uniquely Spanish. It wasn't so much any one dish that completely floored us, but the sum of the parts added up to what was probably one of the most memorable meals we had in Spain.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Inopia

I'll confess: Inopia was a Gwyneth Paltrow pick, from her e-newsletter Goop. This is a lot to admit to, as we hated every episode of On the Road Again we watched (as did Anthony Bourdain, apparently): the incessant yapping just didn't fulfill the potential that you would have expected from Batali and Bittman on board.

Her Barcelona picks, however, came out on during our first day in the city, which was enough to pique our curiosity. Inopia was one of her top picks for tapas (we couldn't make it to the local pick, Commerc 24), and its location - away from the general tourist areas, east of El Raval in the Sant Antoni/Poble Sec area - was appealing. The fact that it is run by Ferran Adria's brother, Albert, didn't hurt either.

We had heard that it was impossible to get into Inopia if you didn't show up around the 7/7:30 opening time. We weren't sure whether to believe the hype or not, as 7/7:30 is insanely early for dinner in Spain; most people don't seem to eat until closer to 10. It was a good thing we didn't chance it, though, because the place gets packed as soon as its steel gate opens.

As with most places, Inopia has its menu, and then a slew of daily features written on the chalkboard. Many places have English menus, but Inopia does not. We relied pretty heavily on our server's basic English, and he did a pretty good job of explaining the choices to us whenever he could, though the high volumes meant we were guessing most of them. There are also pictures of popular dishes hanging from the ceiling, and little chalk pictures on the chalkboard. To round out the decor, there are guest-book tags in Jiffy marker all over the tiled wall, with pictures of famed celeb chefs (or just plain celebs) posted as well. These ones are of Ferran Adria, and Gael Garcia Bernal/Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu/Javier Bardem; pictures of Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, etc. flanked them, with copies of an El Bulli book were perched above.

As I mentioned in the last post, we always ordered the tomato/garlic bread, mostly to balance out the other tapas dishes.

For instance, the bread goes pretty hand in hand with a plate of nothing but anchovies in oil. As many writers have noted, Spain is one of those odd places where canned or preserved foods are often as appreciated as fresh food, and anchovies are a great example. Inopia had three or four different types of anchovies to choose from, and we picked the higher grade. This meant it was a bit less salty, and less earthy tasting than most anchovies I've had.

We also picked white asparagus which you could buy in jars from Inopia - it seemed like they canned/preserved them themselves. I've seen white asparagus plenty of times here, but never quite as thick as the ones we had in Spain. Inopia served them with a light hollandaise sauce, and they were a great clean counterpoint to the anchovies.

Bacalao is another preserved mainstay. It's basically a salted cod fish, but in many variations. We had bacalao salad with tomato, and as with everything, it was swimming in olive oil... but in a good way.

Croquettes are a universal item on tapas menus as well. We picked a standard, stuff with potato and Iberian ham. These were among the better croquettes we had, where the outer shell was thin and delicate.

The other potato dish that seemed ubiquitous at every table was the patatas bravas, which is potato chunks, cut like larger hash browns chunks, served with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and mayo. I don't really get the appeal, but I suppose it's like ordering fries as a side.

As one of the many daily specials, Inopia featured ribs. Instead of your standard pub food short ribs, though, these were rabbit. They were great: gently fried, moist, and light enough to eat in large quantities. Served with a mayo/horseradish type sauce.

Our server really pushed this cheese dish, and for good reason: the cheese, torta CaƱarejal, is insanely creamy, and a gold medal winner at the international cheese competition. The closest thing I could compare it to is obviously brie, but this was much creamier, and served lukewarm instead of the usual oven-hot baked brie. An excellent finish.

While not at Inopia, Albert Adria is the pastry chef at El Bulli. There didn't seem to be anything remotely close to that end of cooking at Inopia - not that I'm complaining - but here's a video of Albert Adria doing his thing, in support of his recent book, Natura (also featured in one of the Bourdain episodes):

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Taller de Tapas

We spent our first dinner in Barcelona at Taller de Tapas, which was tucked away in one of the many squares off Las Ramblas, one of the main pedestrian drags that caters to tourists and locals alike. The place is a real maze, so we picked what looked like the least touristy place. As we found it later, Taller de Tapas is a chain of tapas restaurants, with numerous locations spread around town.

The first thing that we had to order was a plate of jamon. It's hard to critique one plate of jamon to another: not much bad one can say about perfection.

The other thing that jumped out was razor clams. I used to eat alot of these in Texas, but for whatever reason, I've never seen them on a menu in Canada (apparently you can get them at T&T or at Chinese restaurants depending on the season). This is the first of a recurring theme. If you've never had them before, they taste sort of in between clams and geoduck. Here they were just steamed with a bit of olive oil, which I like: most seafood shouldn't be messed around with too much.

This was a plate of tomato/garlic toast, which seemed like a pretty common side order at most places. While the tomato and garlic were pressed into the bread here, many places just give you a plate of toast, a sliced tomato and a bit of mayo/aioli. This version was one of our faves. Again, simple without too much fuss.

Grilled sardines are always great. They have a sardine fest in Vancouver once a year; this seems to happen 365 days of the year in Spain.

There's not much to say about this paella. It had two clams, two mussels, two crayfish, and way too much lemon juice. I wasn't overly crazy about it, especially considering the paella we had later in Barceloneta, the beach/waterfront part of the city.