Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tickets, Barcelona

There are a few restaurants in this world whose reputation precedes them to the extent that the desire to eat in them is surpassed by the feeling that you, in fact, already have. The Fat Duck, for me, is one; The Hand and Flowers another. And outside of the UK, that restaurant, for me, was Tickets. I had digested so many reviews, read so many articles and seen so many photos, that it nearly felt like I had eaten there - without, of course, the pain of shelling out a couple of hundred euros in cash.

...but everyone said, "Go!", "You'll love it!", "It's amazing!". Given the two month waiting list online, and the fact that it was now just a couple of weeks 'til we set off on our jollies, I didn't believe we'd, er, be partaking in a spherified olive in our time in Barcelona. We'd debated trying for a walk-in, but by the fifth night of our stay in the surrealist city, we'd found so many other places we were dying to try (and one that we even wanted to visit twice), we'd crossed it off our list.

Cue charming waiter, who delivered the best service we've experienced at a restaurant, and a suggestion he could bag us a table for a couple of night's time. Well, it sort of felt rude to turn down such an offer.

Two days later, we sat outside the restaurant on a bench, watching staff mill between Tickets and its neighbour, 41 degrees. The anticipation was building and we began to let ourselves get excited. It was Jamie's birthday and I was excited to treat him to a meal in a restaurant that had seemingly nailed mass-market molecular gastronomy.

And, we found, it had. More or less. The food - for the most part - was pretty perfect. Spherified olives with a skin you could barely taste - explosive flavours of brine and garlic hitting the roof of your mouth. Watermelon infused with Sangria - a dish I really didn't want, but that Jamie did - and y'know, it being his birthday an' all. Well, it was... watermelony. Like, the best watermelon with a hint of red wine.

There were the Manchego cheese puffs we painstakingly watched a chef compose. Like Quavers on acid, I could eat a Grab Bag of these things (it might cost 40 euros for the pleasure, but man, I could eat them... coming to a Spanish petrol station near you, soon!).

The little nori-wrapped cone of tuna made me feel like a baby mermaid (would a mermaid eat fish? Hmm.); the anchovy with a film of olive oil was deliciously flaunty, the superficial skin being just that. Octopus with a take on kimchi didn't live up to the tentacled creature we ate at Suculent on the first night of our trip, and the accompanying salad to the crab cannelloni was something we could have made at home (though the crab wrapped in avocado itself was pretty divine).

The mollettes (a sort of soft bun, containing pork and mustard) were wonderfully comforting (and thank fuck they were, after waiting 25 minutes for the buggers) and the basil macaroni was, perhaps, one of the best 'pasta' dishes I've ever eaten. It was almost worth the visit just for that last dish.

But why did the service feel like we were being waited on by dancing bears, kept captive in a circus they wished to be no part of? Like teenagers given detentions in the heat of summer, few staff members seemed to want to be there, let alone permitted to experience fun. With stern-faced managers and steely sous-chefs watching over everything with distaste, it felt difficult to really enjoy the experience - which, I had hoped, would be the main point of this restaurant. A small break-through came when I dipped into the 'cortado', and a chef spotted the smile on my face - visibly pleased at the delight of a diner; and later, again, when the bored waiter made a crack about the 'broken' espresso cup (the crockery was intended to have its side cut away).

The manager appeared to care less that I found the service so dire it impacted upon our experience. Why should he care that we holidaymakers were shelling out a substantial amount of cash on a visit when they had an American TV crew in, filming? Perhaps if they'd mentioned this at the start of the visit, we might have empathised a little more. However, it was hidden from the customers - apart from, of course, the fact that the producers were sat behind us throughout the meal, with earpieces in, demanding shots of Albert Adria through the lobster tank.

Yes, really.

I don't wish to impart upon you the feeling you've already been to Tickets, especially because I wouldn't really wish my experience of Tickets on anyone, so I've gone easy on the photos and light on the description. I'm sure if you go, your dinner will be more fun than mine, and the food is undeniably skilled and tasty; though, if on entering, you spot anyone with a battery in their back pocket, let the curtains fall and exit stage left.

Avinguda del Paraŀlel 164, 
08015 Barcelona, Spain

Bookings via the website here.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Gresca, Barcelona

Sardine with spiced butter

Despite its seemingly low rating on tripadvisor, the customer reviews of Gresca were nothing but positive and it was thus almost immediately shortlisted for our culinary jaunt around Barcelona. Curiosity piqued by their lack of website, we were for once left to imagine what we might be served at what has evidently become one of the city's best 'bistronomics'. Chef Rafa Pena, yet another Adria disciple, trades on the concept of elevating humble ingredients to new heights by way of some modern cooking. This enables the restaurant to offer high quality, inventive cuisine without the hefty price tag.
When we entered, the restaurant itself was uninhabited save for a sole Japanese tourist avidly photographing her food and a couple of friendly waiting staff. As was confirmed by almost every other restaurant experience in Barcelona, this was in fact a very good sign. Seated, we were recommended a very nice Albarino and chose the tasting menu which was priced at a very reasonable 45 euros.

The amuse-bouche came in the shape of a parmesan crisp which, though not particularly inspiring, easily usurped the Doritos and Mini Cheddars of this world! The first course was a cooling salad of tomatoes, yoghurt and rye bread crisps - perfect on a sweltering August evening. The simplicity belies how incredibly tasty it was, with great textural contrasts to boot. I promptly swore to recreate the dish at home, something that I would do repeatedly throughout the trip.

Next came an assortment of sauteed wild mushrooms covered in melted Comte cheese. Comfort food, Barcelona-style. Stick the combination on a burger and you'd have a umami-rich treat. This was followed by foie gras escabeche (below). Escabeche normally involves marinating fish in an acidic mixture, usually vinegar but sometimes citrus juice, and is similar to a ceviche but for the fact that the fish is usually cooked before marinating. The pickled vegetables and tart liquid made a great contrast to the unctuous, rich foie gras.
Foie escabeche
The sardine with spiced butter (see top photo) came out looking so fragile and pretty that it almost seemed a shame to ruin it. I often feel a tinge of regret when I upset the expertly crafted plates of food in these establishments. (Yeah. I know. I'm weird!). The sardine was lightly cured, the butter like a second skin, the fennel pollen and lemon zest cut through the saltiness of the fish with anise and citrus notes, and the hazelnut crisps added a different texture. All in all, a very accomplished dish.

After that, a herb omelette encased in what can only be described as an iberico ham skin (shame there's no picture - but it wasn't exactly the most photogenic dish). Think caul fat but with a deeper, hammy flavour, wrapped around just-set scrambled eggs. Tasty but the texture as a whole was samey and not actually very pleasant. The same cannot be said of the 'Cod with rice' which was an example of how good the simplest of dishes can taste. A soup-like risotto of cod and peas with such a satisfying mouthfeel that it more than made up for the omelette.

The second fish dish consisted of a mystery fish which we've managed to work out through liberal use of google is almost certainly gilt-head bream. The waitress definitely said it was a 'dorada' at one point though she might have been saying that it was related to a bream. Either way, a good meaty fish, pine nut paste and charred, cinnamon spiced pearl onions made for an unusual but highly successful flavour combination. All the better for being surprising and inventive.
Mystery fish with pine nut paste and pearl onions
Now to the dish we had both had been looking forward to as soon as I set eyes on the tasting menu - veal sweetbreads with mustard mash. Seemingly uninspired, I know, but neither Anna and I had ever had sweetbreads. This is another way that Rafa Pena shows just how easy it is to take offal and transform it into something beautiful. To follow this was Pigeon with ginger & stir-fried baby vegetables - the gamey bird was wonderfully complemented by the bitterness of burnt ginger. A dish so frequently associated with duck, lifted to new levels through the use of an unsuspecting accomplice to Oriental flavours.

Sweetbreads with mustard mash

To paraphrase Raymond Blanc, you have to be serious with main courses but you can have fun with desserts. I particularly look forward to this part of the meal, even though I don't have a very sweet tooth, just because I know that the chefs will unleash their fun side on the desserts. The apple sorbet with roquefort was certainly fun in the sense that it was really playing with your palette, taking it one way then the other: crisp, sweet; salty, spicy. It worked but the blue cheese was slightly overwhelming. To finish - the spiced chocolate, which was garnished with rose petals, pistachios and another blend of spices summoning memories of German Christmas markets. By this point in any meal your palette has been pretty much overwhelmed. Suffice to say, a delightfully flavoured truffle.

Spiced chocolate
I would not hesitate in recommending Gresca to anyone visiting Barcelona. The bistronomic scene is thriving and it's easy to see why: these restaurants are located for the main part in stylish Eixample, yet they spurn all pretentiousness in terms of decor and instead put their total concentration into the food whilst offering incredible value for money. Just what the Spanish need in these tough economic times - a lesson which we Brits could do well to learn!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

"Are you sure we're in the right place...?"

Researching where to eat in Barcelona was a mixture of highs and lows. Highs, because practically everywhere we read about sounded delicious; lows, because nearly all of those places are closed in August.

We were staying in Sant Pere, a small area close to nearly everything - it neighbours Eixample, el Born, & el Barri Gotic. We found the apartment through airbnb and I would thoroughly recommend staying there if visiting Barcelona. It is small but perfectly formed, very reasonably priced & in the heart of everything.

It was also just a five minute walk to the well-known Santa Maria tapas restaurant - located on Carrer de Comerç, also home to the relaxed Picnic, and popular Comer 24 - owned by Adrià disciple, Paco Guzman. We'd heard a lot of great things about this place, and having previously had fantastic experiences in Gelonch and Tapas 24, other restuarants owned by ex-el Bulli chefs, were hoping for great things.

Unfortunately, like every other restaurant we really had our heart set on going to in Barcelona (with the exceptions of Igueldo and Gresca), it was closed. We found this out on our first day in the city, but remembered later in the week that there was a note on the door which seemed to imply it had moved locations. Stuck for somewhere to eat on Friday night (please see earlier frustrations with the month of August), we went back to decipher the Spanish map stuck to the door and decided it had moved to just the other side of the Parc Ciutadella.

Walking up Passeig de Pujades, we were concerned in relation to our attempts at translation. It didn't look like somewhere that would house a restaurant owned by someone who'd been taught under one of the best chefs in the world. We finally found it, and whilst rather fancy looking inside, it was totally empty. Realising that we still needed to adjust to the Catalunyan way of life by eating dinner after 10pm, we decided to have a drink at a nearby, er, 'pizzeria', a place where ex-Spanish mafia and O.A.Ps mingled. But hey, £6 for 4 beers, who's complaining?

We realised no-one had entered the restaurant in the whole time we'd been drinking our cervezas, but our bellies were forcing us to make a move, and so we began our expedition into what began as one of the most awkward dining experiences of our life (perhaps even more so than our first date at Ramson's, with the ever-"charming" Chris).

Even in Barcelona in August, it seemed odd that at 10pm on a Friday night there would be no-one in Guzman's restaurant. Maybe people hadn't realised they'd moved we thought? As a big Spanish momma sat us down and told us that she spoke 'very very little English', I started to worry. Fortunately, Jamie has spent time in South America and has a relatively good understanding of the language, even though he doesn't speak much of it. She took us through the menu and we anxiously ordered the menu degustacion. At this point, I'm not sure why we ordered it. We were sure we were in the wrong place (even though it said 'SANTA' above the door in the biggest writing I've probably ever seen) and we were the only people here on a Friday night. I felt much better when Jamie suggested that perhaps an opportunist con-artist had seen that Santa Maria was closed for August, and had popped up a makeshift sign convincing people they had actually relocated to this style over substance restaurant round the corner.

There was no music on, other than the tunes emanating from the kitchen's radio, and at this point we hadn't even been given our wine yet. I definitely needed a drink to relieve the awkwardness of the situation. Upon visiting the bathroom and seeing the cleaning rag left in the sink, I was about ready to bolt for the door.

To make matters worse the first item from the tasting menu was 'nachos'. "Shit Jamie", I said, "what if we really do just get nachos? What if they're just conning naive tourists who are blinded by the lights of anything that mentions an ex-el Bulli chef?"

The big Spanish momma was back, with wine. She offered us a taste. It wasn't good. Oh shit. We've been mugged, I thought. But then, I think five-year-old Anna crept out and saw her name on the wine bucket (not actually surprising considering Anna is a Spanish name - though usually with only one 'n') - and thought, 'this must be a sign, maybe everything's going to be alright...'. We were brought bread and olives, de-stoned and all. And tasty. Really lovely salty, spicy (covered in chilli) olives. I waited in anticipation for the 'nachos'....


And there they are, our nachos. Nothing like nachos. Thank fuck! We're in the right place. Lovely little tasty morsels of something resembling a potato and apple layered tortilla, covered with top-quality guacamole and salsa, with two mild deep fried Padron peppers on the side (I'm not sure I believe what they say about the ratio of hot ones to mild ones, I must have eaten about 25 of the buggers when I was in Barcelona, and not one was spicy!). To the right of the 'nachos', we had seared Iberico nigiri, and out of shot was a lovely little salmon futomaki, strangely fried on the outside, but actually making for a rather pleasant difference, in introducing a bit of warmth to the otherwise room temperature food. There was also a little pot of what I thought was going to be lamb tagine. Prawns had been used in place of the favoured meat, and it worked really well, although I did feel this dish would have benefited from being heated prior to serving. I'd like to say the star of the show were the chicken wings, which we were told (we think) were brined & confited before deep-frying. They were delicious and crisp, but unfortunately lacking in flavour and not particularly well seasoned. They were also sprinkled with - what I think were - Nasturtium petals, and I'm not really sure why. They did nothing in terms of flavour or texture, and I'm surprised that with Guzman's heavy influences from Asian cuisine (he's travelled heavily in the East, and worked as a chef in Tokyo), he didn't take more of a risk with flavour here. Still, pretty to look at...

Chicken Wings

Following these 'starters', we were presented with a deliciously fresh salmon and avocado tartare cheekily interjected with tiny pieces of gherkin. I would never have previously thought of putting salmon and gherkin together (though, thinking about it now - why not? capers and salmon is a classic combo), but it was a clever and witty nod to the classic tartare. We were then given the 'main' of - essentially - lamb kofta with tzatziki and a tomato and spinach salad. Nothing particularly ingenious, but it was tasty, the tomatoes beautifully ripe, and the tzatziki well-seasoned. There was also a spot of romesco sauce on the side, which worked well.

Lamb Kofta

One of my favourite dishes of the night was a beautiful palette cleanser, which we unfortunately didn't photograph: three types of melon, with a lemongrass granita and fine slithers of kaffir lime leaves. Beautifully refreshing and exactly what I needed after that mound of food! However, I felt Guzman defeated the point of this course with his next: pain perdu with tiramisu ice cream. The ice cream was delicious - and I noticed that tiramisu seems to be a hit in Barcelona - but the pain perdu was slightly too chewy, and I felt I would have been happier with a lighter dessert. I've got a photo but I don't think I need to show you what melting ice cream looks like! We were then given chilli & salt truffles. I know these are probably totally passe in foodie circles by now, but I've never tasted them before and they were fantastic.

Meal done, and we're still wondering what's the deal with this place? It definitely isn't the place we've read about, but it's no run of the mill restaurant you'd find in a part of town like this. Enter Paco Guzman to answer our questions. The chef pops his head over the kitchen counter and asks how we liked our meal. We start to chat and he comes round to talk to us for a bit longer. We learn that this chef, wearing his khaki cut-offs and looking distinctly different to the 'celeb chef' style shots we've seen of him in press, is the owner of Santa Maria and this restaurant, Santa. He tells us how he opened Santa five years ago (I believe Santa Maria has been going for around 14 years), catering to more of a business crowd, and where they are busy at lunchtimes. He seems disappointed that many restaurants in Barcelona have stayed open in August this year, whilst he took the decision to close Santa Maria for the month. He tells us he kept Santa open in order to do some work over the holiday period, though he's not expecting many customers, us being the only ones that day. He also vexes his frustration at the new gourmet burger fad which has recently taken off in Barcelona, and the pizzas of el Born stealing potential customers when you can eat at such joints for under ten euros. He also, disappointingly, tells us that he's selling Santa Maria and is keeping Santa as his focus. Reading about Santa when it first opened certainly showcases a more interesting and expensive menu. I try to gage whether his decision to close Santa is to aid a return to his early days at Santa, to showcase more of his creativity, but it seems from his response, that perhaps those years under Adrià hasn't created a molecular chef but someone who - despite their talent and fame - is struggling to make it as both chef and businessman.

Our meal at Santa wasn't out of this world, but it was good quality food, and I would encourage anyone visiting Barcelona to check it out, perhaps at a lunchtime, and not in August if you want some atmosphere (though you might miss out on the conversation with the chef!). It was 25 euros for the menu, inc. IVA (Spanish tax), which - for me - was good value. I feel someone larger than my build might feel there wasn't enough food, though Jamie was definitely sated by the end of it. With the potential for there being only one Guzman venture in the future, perhaps this will give him the opportunity to develop and refine what is already good quality food, and turn it into something spectacular.

Santa Restaurant
Av. Meridiana 2, 08018 Barcelona
00 34 93 309 7078