Eating Barcelona: Tapas part uno

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There’s a long, well worn trope in television which sees part of the main cast of a show plucked from their usual surroundings and given a holiday; Think Jack and Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street: Viva Las Vegas, The Inbetweeners Movie, or that episode of When The Whistle Blows within that episode of Extras.

The reason for sending them away is usually contrived – the cover for an obvious effort to boost ratings or a lazy attempt to stretch material by rehashing old jokes with the novelty of characters wearing flip flops and being mildly racist to our continental friends.  Deservedly, they get mocked, derided, or at very best just forgotten.  With that in mind, join me as…

Last year in May I went to Primavera Sound festival with a few friends – seasoned Barcelona veterans who I was happy to let take the reins and guide the trip.  Returning this year with a different group of friends – Barcelona novices – it was up to me, the self-appointed king of insider Barcelona information, to research must-visit places for our trip.

Remembering I don’t know a single word of Spanish, I did as many as two Google searches for recommendations written in English before giving up a just asking Twitter.  Luckily that came through big time, and I ended up with a Google Map of the city littered with markers for bars and restaurants I had to hit up.

So abundant and diverse were the venues, that I’m going to break them down over several posts; there’s plenty of time to walk about bars and fast food; but first, the tapas.

On the first night we enthusiastically tried Cal Pep, without realising how naive we were to think we could just walk in and pay some money to eat food.  So we went to Bar Cañete, surely two restaurants in Spain couldn’t be full at 10:30pm?  WRONG, DUMMY!  Turns out that’s prime teatime in Catalonia.  After a third disappointment in finding out the El Quim de la Boqieria (more on that later) had been closed since 4pm, we gave in and headed down to the harbour district to pick a place at random that looked half-decent or at least didn’t have photos on the menu.  Nothing down by the harbour could be too bad right?  WRONG AGAIN JABRONI! YOUR COMMAND OF RHETORIC IS BOGUS!

Unknown Harbour Restaurant (Unknown street next to the harbour, just around the corned from the Lichtenstein statue)

I can’t remember the name of this place to warn you against it, but it totally sucked.  The nachos were cool ranch Doritos, the chicken wings tasted like they were deep fried in snakeskin and instant gravy, and the calamari would have done an outstanding job at keeping a fat roll of cash tightly bound, if I’d had enough cash left after the meal to facilitate popping bands; Not only was this the worst meal of the holiday, but the most expensive too.  The patatas bravas – which one of the two yardsticks for measuring the quality of a restaurant – were unsurprisingly the worst as well.  New holiday restaurant philosophy and bonus The Lost Boys quote: Stay off the boardwalk.

Betlem – Miscelánea Gastronómica (Carrer de Girona, 70, L’Eixample)

After the disappointment of the previous evening we decided not to eat anywhere unless it featured on the trusty list of recommendations, and after a painful walk to the top of the Gaudi park and back down again we found ourselves conveniently close to Betlem and its Gastronomic Miscellany – the sexiest two-word combo since Greggs invented the Festive Bake.

Taking a seat on the decidedly Parisienne terrace, on chair slightly too small for me; at a table entirely too small for my meal, we were shown the menu in English – perhaps like in the Inglorious Basterds bar scene my true nationality was given way by a subtle mispronunciation; a slight misuse of regional dialect.  Perhaps it was the fact I was bright pink, misty with sweat and wearing obnoxiously patterned swimming shorts on what locals would consider a mild day; We’ll never know.

The gastronomy on offer was definitely miscellaneous; I struggled to choose which part of the round-up to include Betlem in – the atmosphere and portion control was unmistakably Tapesque (Don’t bother checking if that’s a real word, just go with it), but plates were more adventurous than the standard bravas and croquettes.  That’s not to say they shied away from the classics – the bravas were served with a picante Mojo salsa and the croquettes were among the best – but their signature dishes are the main real reason for visiting.

The King Crab Ravioli wasn’t perfect – while the fresh homemade pasta tasted good, the fact it was overcooked meant the dish was lacking in texture – but the cilantro sauce gave a citrus, soapy contrast to the sweet, milky crab meat.  I usually avoid the type of smoked salmon that sits on supermarket shelves looking like a packet of laminated plasters, but the Salmon cured with Vodka has got me second-guessing the fish entirely.  Lean, thick cut and with just a little bite, it reminded me of velvet pork (surprisingly not the name of a band playing on the ATP stage during the festival); while I expected the vodka to overpower the fish with it’s grainy burn, it actually gave an added crispness to the dish.

Four Steak Tartare Toasts at two mouthfuls or slightly metallic raw steak and sweet shallots apiece was enough to beguile with the first bite, and satiate with the second.  A delicious couple of mouthfuls, but any more would be like watching a slinky on an escalator; pleasant but ultimately repetitive.

The Smoked Anchovies were more rewarding entirely, a robust concoction of smoked fish atop bittersweet layers of celery and artichoke puree – like a trifle for vikings.  The real favourite though, was the Veal Cheeks in Red Wine, hunks of the meat served in the Le Creuset pot that cooked them.  The wine reduced for long enough to not overpower the mild flavour of the meat, which was especially tender even for veal.

Despite cringing at the pretentious name, I went for the deconstructed peach cheesecake, which had a buttery, oaty crumb on the bottom, a peach compote on top, and a brilliantly absurd Cheese Ice Cream in between.  Being served at below-0 enhanced the smooth tannins in the cheese, which gave it a mild throatiness against the sweet peaches and rich biscuit brittle.  The Carrot Crumble was similarly deconstructed (bluergh) and a coconut foam which had me giving props to their creativity – but if you ever catch me daydreaming at my desk on a rainy afternoon, chances are I’ll be thinking about my fleeting holiday romance with that cheese ice cream.

Check out Part 2 of Eating Barcelona – where I review even more Tapas – right here