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.

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