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!