After travelling from San Francisco to Barcelona, we checked into our apartment, hopped in the shower, and headed out for our first meal of the trip. Luckily for us, our apartment, located in the off the radar neighborhood of Poble Sec, was just a couple of blocks from Carrer de Blai, a lively pedestrian street loaded with restaurants and tapas bars. After cruising up and down the street scoping out the offerings we boldly stepped into a lively spot and grabbed a couple of seats at the bar. The counter was filled with little plates of food – maybe 100 plates at the ready with dozens of small offerings atop slices of baguette. A little bleary from travel and unsure what the etiquette should be, we looked to our neighbors for clues. Once I spotted a woman reaching over and helping herself, we were off to the races.
Honestly, the tapas that first night were just ok; a little cold and mushy, not what we had conjured up the previous 6 months we planned and dreamt about our trip. Oblivious, obviously, I looked around and noticed the tapas here were only 1€ each – the equivalent to the dollar menu at Mickey D’s. No harm no foul, we paid our 8€ for a round of beers and tapas and found another joint a couple doors down that was more satisfying.
Food wasn’t the only thing on our agenda for the trip, but it was at the high on the list, and Barcelona is a top culinary destination for sure! On our first full day we stumbled upon a new food emporium along the Passeig de Gràcia – El Nacional, a former parking garage transformed into a multi-thematic Spanish restaurant complex. We opted for the cheese and jamon bar over the steak house, wine bar, oyster bar, and seafood grills housed within. We ordered hand sliced Jamon and struck a broken Spanglish conversation with the man in charge of the Jamon.
He was working 2 different legs of ham simultaneously and remarked that each had their own unique characteristics of flavor and texture depending on the specific muscle he was slicing. He must have enjoyed my inquiries, as thin slices of Jamon were finding their way to my plate. He also prepared a nice assortment of 3 cheese I wasn’t familiar with: Bertizarana sheep cheese from Navarra similar to Roncal, local Carrat de Cataluna creamy ash-rinded goat, and a wine washed cow’s milk cheese known as Brisat de Cataluna. As we worked our way back home we found ourselves in a crowd gathered for the Giants Parade, part of the week long La Mercè (our lady of mercy) celebration happening around town. Dragons and drum corps, kids on shoulders; everybody loves a parade!
Yes, it’s true, Spaniards eat late; and I was pleasantly surprised how easily we slipped into their routine. For us San Franciscans it seemed odd to walk into a restaurant at 9:30 PM and see a number of empty tables and be told they’re booked for later. But our host had a couple of spots at the bar for us. At Malamén Bodega we had a light late dinner of squid croquettes, baby garbanzo and scampi salad, and delicious 4€ glass of Priorat. We spotted great looking loaves of bread at the chef’s station (aka Tartine and Outerlands), and the barkeep let us know about a bakery around the corner that bakes these special loaves for them.
We found their bakery, La Fabrique, the next morning and scarfed down a sampling of buttery almond and chocolate croissants before heading to the metro for our next destination – Montjuïc and the Olympic Village, before jetting over to the Sagrada Familia for an early evening tour. Later we found ourselves instinctively at Cal Pep, a restaurant I discovered 15 years previously on a recommendation from a foodie friend. Luckily for us the line was only about 6 deep so we lined up and began drooling over the plates the chefs were making before our eyes.
Cal Pep is a unique restaurant, a sort of short order kitchen dedicated to fanatically fresh seafood and local offerings. There’s a menu outside, but it’s really just for show as our server simply asked if we wanted fish, meat, or veggies. Not wanting to miss out, I said “everything!”, and he obliged. We were treated to the best garbanzos and spinach drizzled with sweet arbequina olive oil, clams with jamon and nora peppers, brown garlic grilled shrimp swimming in more luscious oil, baked monkfish with potatoes (Spaniards do potatoes and beans so well!), steak, more squid, mixed fried baby fish, and my wife’s new love – tomato bread (pa amb tomàquet). Who knew something so simple and ubiquitous could be so good? It’s the Spanish tomatoes, something I remember from my last trip, they’re small but so meaty and full of flavor. Grilled bread rubbed with tomato, a little garlic, a sprinkle of salt, and bathed in great olive oil. I was happy to order a well-aged bottle of Rioja from a favorite producer. Being in Catalonia, we had to have the Crème Catalan (crème brulee).
After all that food, how could I ever eat again? Walking through the famed Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (La Boqueria Market) the next morning with aisles of delicious produce teaming with fresh autumn mushrooms; the smallest clams, calamari, and snails known to man; and leg upon leg of shimmering Jamon – we was good to go. We opted to fight it out for a seat at El Quim de la Boqueria Bar and placed our bet that the couple at the corner might leave soon. Jackpot! We got the nod, but not before a woman tried to sneak in and got a good scolding from the staff. We came for their eggs – fried sunny side up with mushrooms, those tiny baby squid with shaved vegetables, little white beans and butifarra sausage, and more tomato bread. OMG, we’re gonna burst – time for a nap!
Taking a break from food touring we joined a day tour to Montserrat, a 10th century monastery atop a mountain outside of Barcelona. It was a cool, foggy morning as we ascended the mountain, eventually rising above the clouds. We rode the funicular to the cathedral, and had a tour of the fantastic museum (complete with an Egyptian mummy). It’s a magical place, enhanced by the elevation, devotees, and the aural joy of the bells ringing and reverberating between the mountain peaks. And just our luck there was a small farmers market happening, complete with the most delicious local goat cheese – how could we resist?
When our tour guide dropped us near our apartment he recommended a classic little bar with great chorizo just across from the metro stop. Later that night we found ourselves sitting outside Bar Borrel enjoying the street scene with sweet and smoky housemade chorizo, pulpo gallego (octopus), and warm custardy tortilla (egg and potato omelet).
Somehow on our beach day we ended up at Cal Pep’s sister restaurant, Passidis del Pep. In our beach clothes we were just going to window shop, but once I saw the leg of Jamon Iberico from Jabugo on the stand, the waiters in starched aprons, and their wall of delicious liqueurs I was in. Again, no menu, just a degustation of a whole lotta fish proteins: clams, snails, shrimp, langoustines, seafood cannelloni, refreshing cava on a hot sunny day, plenty of tomato bread, and twist my arm – another crème catalan. We came to enjoy ourselves, no regrets!
On the block next to our apartment there’s a tiny “tapas bar” Quimet y Quimet. Really, it’s a small wine shop that has adapted to become a destination cold tapas bar for foodies around the globe. In this tiny storefront they turn out meticulously crafted snacks from a small counter top cooler. I made my way there twice while in Barcelona and was astounded at the quality of the food and the precision of the operation. Mark Bittman wrote about Quimet a few years ago so there were a lot of Americans and Japanese seeking the recommended items, yet a good number of locals too. A few highlights for me: creamy Torta del Casar cheese served with caviar, olive tapenade and roast tomato spread; preserved baby calamari with pickled onions; cod croquettes; mussels in escabeche with caviar; the popular smoked salmon with greek yogurt and truffle honey; and plump juicy prawns with olive oil. They have a good selection of wines, great beer on tap, and you can even get a shot of any of the booze on the wall for 1/10th the price of the bottle – a great idea on a chilly evening!
We were treated to a lovely dinner by a colleague of my wife who happened to be in town at Martinez, a scenic restaurant atop Montjuïc overlooking the city and ocean. I had my head in the menu and missed it, but apparently Javier Bardem passed by our table on his way out the door. We were recommended the rice with lobster and it was delicious, most likely due to all the smoky bacon cooked into the rice. I did discover among all the wonderful food we had in Barcelona that I’m not a fan of Vichy Catalan sparkling water. Our host loved it, but I found it too be very salty, reminiscent of Alka-Seltzer. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, and I just need another trip to Spain to discover its charms
As we wrapped up our trip in Barcelona we set out in search of last minute gifts and sightseeing. High on my agenda was Ganiveteria Roca, a cutlery shop founded in 1911. They have everything with a sharp edge from nail trimmers to culinary knives, razors to pinking shears, all behind wonderful old belle époque glass lined cabinets. In the area we found Formatgeria la Seu a small cheese shop run by a Scottish woman who specialized in obscure hand selected selections and pithy conversations to anyone who takes the bait expecting her to be buttoned up and homogenized. Another spot we visited for food eye candy was La Cuina d’en Garriga in l’Eixample neighborhood. This stylish food shop offered beautiful specialty foods, cheese, wine, and charcuterie, and small plates in a very inviting Upper East Side feel setting. In addition to the famous Boqueria Market, we visited the Mercat de Santa Caterina (Santa Caterina Market) nearby. Santa Caterina has a more local feel, without a lot of fuss, and reminded me more of the Essex Market in lower Manhattan than our Ferry Plaza Market here in San Francisco. There I found a great aged sheep cheese, Pok, from Castile-Leon, the most expensive in the market at about $12 lb!
After a flavor packed week in Barcelona we capped off our trip with a couple of nights in Paris. We chose to stay near the Rue Cler, a small market street in the 7th Arrondissement loaded with restaurants and food shops. Our goal was to relax and not think about anything, just step outside and enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer. We dined at La Fontaine de Mars, a classic in the style of SF’s Tadich Grill, on our first night and had an enjoyable experience with meaty pate, roast chicken in creamy morel sauce, blanquette de veau (veal stew), a leafy salad you always dream of after a trip to Paris, and a lovely pot of red wine. While in Paris we ventured to a favorite spot on the other side of town, Café des Musées near the Place des Vosges and were treated to a lovely lunch of chilled English pea soup, salad nicoise, creamy cold-smoked salmon, and veal sweetbreads.
A favorite destination is E. Dehillerin cookware store, a relic of the times past. I save up for my visits and splurge on copper lined cookware, and have built quite the batterie de cuisine over the years.
A new discovery for me this trip was another old school classic – Izraël, l’épicerie du Monde, a spice and imported food bazaar where Parisians can stock up on dried fruits and nuts, and hard to find foods like Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Tex-Mex ingredients. I left with a big bag of Tarbais beans for a Cassoulet dinner as soon as winter weather obliges. As the world gentrifies and becomes more modern, I’m happy to find these well established businesses that keep the torch burning for people (like me) who take pride on cooking and kitchen arts.
As we toured through Paris I made a few cheese shop stops, picking up snacks for the plane, and a wedge or two of cheese no longer available here for the troops back home. It was a whirlwind of markets including Fromagerie Jouannalt, Fromagerie Nicole Barthelemy, Marie-Anne Cantin Fromager Affineur, and Fromagerie Griffon. All impressive shops loaded with the best of France, and a few selections from across Europe and even the good ol’ USA!
10 days in total and it was one very tasty trip! Nothing trendy, nothing frivolous or particularly modern; just the classics, or the traditional and authentic as I preach to my staff and anyone who’s willing to listen. I came to eat, see some art, learn about another culture, take some bad photos, and relax with my wife in celebration of our 12th anniversary. Lucky for me she had similar objectives and was willing to wait for me to take the 10,000th out of focus photo of whole fish in the market. On the plane home, I was that guy with the stinky cheese for lunch, plus a crusty baguette from a 400-year-old bakery, along with great ham and pâté from the farmers market near our hotel – I wanted to savor every last morsel and taste memory I could!
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