Pata Negra is entering into its ninth year, and traveling to Spain to research the food and wine trends is one of the best parts of the job. I visit the wineries and producers, and in turn am able to relay to the Pata Negra public the products, the people and their distinctive stories.
This trip would prove different then all others because I finally decided to bring my fiancée, Michelle, who despite all her European and worldly travels had never set foot on Spanish soil. Now was as good a time as any.
May is a wise choice for travel to Spain, way before the legions of tourists arrive in June, way before it becomes insufferable in July, and capitalizing on the fact that most great chefs close in August for holiday.
It is a good idea to pick a major city and branch out, rather than try to drive or train throughout the whole country, so I decided to concentrate on the northeast, just below the Basque country, with Barcelona as a base. A few days in Barca, then a drive up to Costa Brava, a long stay in Cadaques, a fishing village supreme, followed by two days in Girona for the Temps de Flors (flower festival), finally returning to Barca for two days before returning home.
All three cities were ripe with great restaurants to visit, and ample opportunity for me to drink cava and priorat, and taste the lesser known wines of the Costa Brava from DO’s such as Conca de Barbera, Terra Alta, and Emporda.
The first few days in Barcelona proved fruitful and set the tone for the rest of the trip. Due to the timing of our arrival Sunday, we missed lunch and had no reservations for on the beach paella, so we walked the streets of El Born stopping at local tapas bars (el Tapeo) finishing up at Sagardi for Basque sidra and pintxos, near our hotel, Banys Oriental. Once fueled, we walked over to La Vinya del Senyor en El Born for some wine. We drank Lapola from Ribeira Sacra, Remelluri Reserva 2009 and a Bertha Brut Nature Cava. We hooked up with some New Zealanders and shared a great Ribeiro from Emilio Rojo. We were so done for the night, jet lagged and high on wine and life, so we turned in early.
The next morning my dear friend Ana, the export manager at Gramona Winery, picked us up and drove us to San Sadurni for a private visit to the bodega. We were able to walk the grounds during a breezy, sunny morning and tour the facility to learn the history of the winery and a primer on how excellent cava is fashioned. Seeing the terroir firsthand, and the diverse biodynamic culture being cultivated there was a great first experience for Michelle into the wine making world.
We had a nice lunch at Cal Blay Vinticinc, eating Catalan classics such as pa amb tomaquet and anchoas, all which paired perfectly with the leisurely tasting of La Cuvee, Imperial, and III Lustros. The wines are so great for any occasion and are the epitome of versatility. We were very touched by a surprise visit from Xavier, the owner, making an honored appearance.
After a much needed siesta, we met up for tapas at Canete, a classic tapas bar where you sit in front of the kitchen and dine on seafood delights drinking the night away. There were more anchoas de Santona, two types of gambas, ajillo and salteada, and xipirons with mongetes. We drank San Leon manzanilla sherry and a godello from Valdesil. We almost ordered a red for the secreto iberico and the sardinas, but decided to follow up this great meal at a wine bar called Bar Brutal en El Born. Before we knew it, we were several bottles in for the night, a barometer of the number of bottles consumed for the remainder of the trip.
The following day, an obligatory trip to Boqueria with counter lunch at El Ramblara, for our first berberechos, tallarines, ostras y navajas. The pimientos de padron were so good. We washed that all down with a verdejo.
That evening we had a dinner date with another dear friend, Monica and her husband Eduardo from Think Global wines, another exporter extraordinaire with a big heart and great portfolio. There was some mix up at the originally planned restaurant, and after some apologizing by the owner, some wine and rerouting, we ended up at Capete for a lovely repast. We drank godello and mencia and had a grand ole time with our first intro into peas de Maresme and arros iberic. We night capped at Gimlet, a Barca cocktail bar mainstay in El Born.
Cal Pep for lunch the next day, a bar I usually visit when in Barca. Chef Cal was not there, but the tortilla jugosa style and pimientos de pardon are still going strong. Another round of tallarines and berberetxos accompanied by the nice 2015 vintage of Muga Rosado.
We spent the afternoon marveling at La Sagrada Familia which is near completion, unlike Crazy Horse back at the States. Depending on the time of day, the stained glass windows shine a multicolored spectacle of their own.
On a tip from Ana, we got lost trying to locate Tast-Ller, a private loft restaurant speakeasy where Chef Mikal is delivering an interesting, well priced market driven small plates menu. Chef Mikal and staff make you feel right at home, within a modern setting, lovely touches and serious cooking.
Thursday rolls around, and we rent a VW golf for the short drive to Cadaques, a fishing village extraordinaire on the Costa Brava. We built in lunch time in Llafranc for a scenic view at Casamar, elegant dining on the balcony with sea vistas, our first foray into Spain’s very fine dining. The food was more Michelin styled, but very good with well composed plates and layers such as in the tartar de gambas, nyoquis de patata, and arros amn cocotxa. There was a huge temptation to consume more wine at lunch, but I knew a treacherous drive awaited us, and discretion took over.
I was rewarded for my restraint because it is indeed not a normal drive to get into Cadaques. Once we passed Figueres and Roses, the steep, narrow lane mountain curves made their presence known. Extreme concentration and caution was warranted. Exhiliration, check.
We rented a duplex from Air B n B, which was located just far enough from the buzz of the port, but approachable in a matter of minutes, complete with balcony and port view as well as fireplace. The fireplace was more useful on this trip given the inclement weather, the only thing that did not cooperate with our beach plans.
Cadaques is the loveliest of port towns, old and sinewy, terra cotta topped, breathtaking and mysterious, reminding us of Capri or Cassis, Catalan style. Pescatore satisfying meals at family run Can Rafa and Talla, with weather cooperating enough for waterside photo ops, and ample opportunity to work off some of the meals with a walk to Port Lligat, an obligatory visit to Dali’s home, and a final day Celtic adventure to Cap de Creus, the lighthouse out of a movie seemingly at the end of the earth, eating in the old tavern and enduring the fury of Tramontana (the wind).
A day trip to Figueres for the Dali museum, complete with jewels, a wonderland and feast for the eyes. We stumbled upon a three day old restaurant named Bocam which operated with the savvy of a three year joint, serving up fresh seafood and iberic arros.
The best part of Cadaques was a splendid meal at Compartir, helmed by El Bulli vets cooking home style Catalan dishes with technique and flair, an extensive wine list and well designed setting, reason enough for the treacherous trek to this fishing oasis. The menu was playful and worldly, starting with oysters and sardines and razor clams, a tuna rolled into a cannelloni, and surprising us with a shabu shabu of salmon, an amazing egg dish, arros iberic and the dessert of the trip, a coulant avellane. We could have dined here every night easily.
Bt the time we got back to Girona, flowers were a blooming for the Temps de Flors. Girona, a city just one hour north of Barcelona with a Gothic quarter, hosts an annual flower show called Temps de flors. The city is spruced with tantalizing aromatic installations strategically placed in churches, museums, on street corners, and anywhere cool. The fact that El Celler Can Roca, one of Spain’s best restaurants, if not the world, makes Girona its home as well provided extra motivation to visit.
Artists spend many hours creating the picturesque and memorable designs, some thematically and playfully driven, while others a veritable feast for the nose and eyes. It can be overwhelming at first, especially managing the flower struck crowds of old folks with cameras, but the best strategy is just to walk slowly and take it in at your pace.
Looking at so many vibrant combinations of colors and textures fuels the appetite. It is like eating art.
We had a fine paella at Alqueria, and a quixotic seafood dinner at Arros y Peix. While the food was very good at both establishments, the décor was too corporate, and the lighting was off. Something about both decors detracted from the quality of the eating experiences.
Not to fear, because we had El Celler de Can Roca on schedule, so we trained by just drinking coffee and eating pastries for much of the day, in preparation of a long multi-course extravaganza.
We arrived for an early reservation, by Spanish standards, at 8:30, and entered through the modern grassy courtyard into an even more modern restaurant. I will admit that this is my second trip to Can Roca. I will confess that on my first visit a few years back, the end of the meal is blurry in my memory. My fault, as I had too good a time at lunch at a seaside resto in San Feixols named Villa Mars, where chef and proprietor Carlos went all out during our visit, contributing to a hampered state of consciousness for dinner, and ensuing stupor by dessert and a tour of the wine cellar.
This time around I was ready, snacking only on small pastries and great coffee, courtesy of a new coffee shop a stone’s throw from La Fabrica, Christian and Amber Meier’s flagship. Espresso Mafia is white walled and gold embossed.
Modern and inviting, the white façade leads you to a coffee haven with serious intent and warm embrace. The tandem behind the machine, from Toronto and France, transplanted and happy to be in Girona are trying to effect a small shift in the stolid coffee culture existing in Spain for a very long time. Quality espresso at the right price, not just the average joe for 1.50 euros you can find anywhere. Add a delicious piece of decadent chocolate cake with cream and a bona fide addiction is born.
Aside from the very serene setting that is Can Roca, with architectural industrial glass and metal softened by grassy canopies and stark trees anchoring the center of the room, the wine list is what captivates attention. A cellar that includes so many great options, especially from Catalunya, priced in the most reasonable way, effectively inviting you to order as much as you can drink, multiple course food pairing not withstanding.
After the complimentary and settling Brut Reserva cava from Albet y Noya, made exclusively for Can Roca, Sherry first, a fine aged fino named La Panesa, from Hidalgo, complex and nutty.
A bottle of blanc de noir from Lentiscus, bready and broad with dark fruit, great for the first course connecting through to the first few courses. We followed up with a Rioja classic, Vina Tondonia Reserva blanco 1998, and some serious mencia from Raul Perez El Pecado 2007, a cult fave from Ribeira Sacra.
The degustacion (tasting menu) starts off with playful adaptations of Can Roca hits. The world menu served in a paper globe offering tastes from Japan, Thailand, China, Peru and Korea. An olive tree placed at the table where spherical olives can be plucked of the branches. Then comes a pop up bar complete with illustrations highlighting the best bar food from the suburbs of Girona: breaded squid, kidneys in sherry, escabeche mussels, salt cod with spinach, and a Campari bonbon.
Then a foray into mushrooms, with consommé and gentle egg yolks and oysters. Such unctuous combinations of velvety textures and salinity.
Which sets up a parade of seafood dishes, from red mullet with kombu, to sea anemone in prickly pear foam, langoustines, red confit skate, blackspot sea bream and the best, prawns from Palomar with head and its juices, in a seaweed veloute and phytoplankton. Simply magnificent.
There were land courses too, Iberic suckling pig, lamb with eggplant, veal oyster blade and marrow, and pigeon fermented in rice, but they all bow down to the fabulous spring peas from Maresme, adorned in liquorices and lemon.
By the time the Cuban cigar box of various confections is placed at the table, we were both ready to cry out “no mas”, but made room for Turkish perfume and Orange Colourology.
El Celler de Can Roca is a dedicated temple to the best cuisine of Spain and can be quite magical, if you allow yourself to be seduced by the magic of the experience and the quality of thirty years of experience from the Roca family.
The next morning we headed back to Barcelona and did some sightseeing.. Gaudi’s La Pedrera and Casa Batllo in Eixample are marvels of futuristic architecture even by today’s standards, and a view atop Montjuic of the city is a great way to kiss good-bye.
That night we dined at Abac on Avda. Tibidabo. The hotel restaurant is a temple to wine and chemistry in cooking. The hushed dining room is very atonal, but buoyed by the views of the exquisite garden. Many dishes were cooked tableside in elaborate flasks and double containers. The process can be quite mesmerizing. The results, very subtly flavored and inventive food, infused with great care. Abaca had the most expensive wine mark ups on the trip, discouraging but catering to their specific clientele. We drank a Zuccardi Torrontes, a fresh, crisp Argentine white and a local white that drank like an orange wine, Els Bassots 2011 from the Conca de Barbera. The red was a real treat, an old vintage Cotes de Catalanes Fernand Vaquer (1988) which was stunning.
There was another tussle over peas and prawns again. Foie gras wrapped in greens steamed in one of those fabulous science kits. But the showstopper was the chocolate magic show. Only pictures can do it true justice.
Our last day in Barca, we had lunch at Disfrutar, the sister restaurant to Compartir in Cadaques. We had high expectations because Compartir was so memorable.
Disfrutar is located in a hospital neighborhood and one would not expect it to be where it is. But once we walked in we were greeted warmly by the staff and chefs. The open kitchen was a thing of beauty. The bathrooms an oceanic wonderland.
The dining room, a transport to a beachy locale complete with clouds and blue dreams of sandy repose. The tone is very convivial, a stark contract to the past two nights suggesting that we kick back and enjoy the show.
And enjoy we did. Barbadillo Solear sherry and Raventos I Blanc Rosat Cava set the right mood that we were in for a great time. We chose the short menu (dinner later, and more on that debacle later) which still consisted of 24 courses.
I really would like to go into great detail about every course, but I will have to return soon to do it justice.
Gastroeconomy.com has a detailed menu description of Festival (for more depth and photos)
The chefs, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas, headed El Bulli kitchens for years. Disfrutar is not El Bulli, but techniques and style are at play here, and we were so happy for it. By the end of the meal we were singing to one another. I believe it was a Bee Gees song, faintly heard over the gleeful din of this outstanding restaurant. Disfrutar capture the magical, elusive feeling that I got at Bulli. It cannot really match El Bulli for its locale, but excels in making you feel happy in its own right, no small feat for sometime jaded NYC customers who have dined at some of the best restaurants in the world. I left feeling both happy and sad. Happy leaving Spain with the knowledge that Disfrutar exists and I can return and sad that I can’t be in Barca on the regular to bring members of my crew to lunch at least once a month.
Beaming from the meal, we had one last resto on our docket, Tickets. I actually didn’t know what to expect, and almost didn’t care because Disfrutar imparted a lasting glow on us. I was warned by some industry folk about how commercialized Tickets was. They were underselling it. Tickets belongs in Las Vegas. Check that Atlantic City.
Tickets is just an Americanized, over stimulated version of what a tapas bar should be. It is unfortunate, because the cooking is quite good. Wines can only make the list after striking some deal with the restaurant. It seems many deals are made there for marketing purposes.
The problem arises when an industry person like myself comes in expecting a good meal, and the service goes to pot. Our server was not to blame, I suppose, when he really couldn’t help us to order wisely. His mission is to extract the most out of his customers, in terms of money. Courses came out with huge lapses in time, despite a not so full restaurant and an enormous staff. There were errors occurring at other tables too, accompanied by audible and visible in-fighting among the staff.
When our server informed us that there was an error in placing a tableside order of squab, he offered nothing to offset the error. He suggested that we order more food to wait for the mistake to be corrected.
Several minutes later a squab did turn up, but it was delivered to another couple at the bar who arrived half an hour after we did. I asked why we didn’t receive the final dish since an error was made. He replied that the order went through different channels. I tried to explain to him why his answer and rationale wasn’t an acceptable one. He just stood there. I asked to speak to a manager. No one out of that enormous staff came out. After several minutes he asked if we still wanted the dish. After twenty-five minutes had lapsed, we said yes. When it came out, we had long finished our sole bottle of cava. No more wine was even offered. Truth be told the squab was quite good. Our server then asked of he wanted dessert. It is one thing to rest on reputation, quite another to abandon basic hospitality principles. Enough was enough, so I asked for the bill, and again to speak to someone, anyone who could make decisions. No one came out.
In the end the cava was taken of the bill, and we left the server 20% gratuity. I think I had a bocadillo not too long after we returned from Dry Martini for a night cap. I am still perplexed as to the level of service at Tickets. I will say or write no more about it. Perhaps it was just an off night. I doubt it. And at the end of the day, we had Canete, Capete, Cal Pepe, Boqueria, Casamar, Talla, Can Rafa, Tast-LLer, Can Roca, Abac, and Disfrutar which left lasting, indelible impressions.
We left Barcelona early Saturday morning and arrived to New York by midday. We trekked to our usual post flight spot, Sripraphai for Thai food in Woodside, and satisfied our craving for spicy Asian cuisine, especially after a long adventure on the food and wine trail to my favorite culinary mecca, Spain.
As my dear friend often tells me, there is no greater time than now for access to drinking the wines of the world. Every time I return to Spain, I explore another wine region that captivates my attention and adds to my palate. Even though there will never be another El Bulli, there are so many great chefs and restaurateurs doing great work and inspiring each other to showcase the best of Spain. And we wine and food travelers are the richer for it.