48 Hours in Barcelona
For the past decade, there have been murmurs that French haute cuisine, long considered the best in the world, was losing its place to the Spanish. When Ferran Adria’s El Bulli topped the best restaurants lists years in a row, these suspicions were solidified. Having been an aficionado of French cooking my entire life, even training as a French chef, I had never taken this sacrilegious viewpoint seriously. However, after having just returned from a summer holiday in Paris, the south of France and Barcelona, I had to concede. The food that one could find in any market stall in Barcelona was indeed superior to most of the food that was being hawked in the touristy bistros and brasseries of the beautiful French capital. Without further ado, a guide to the restaurants that led to one food writer’s conversion.
10am: One of the most famous things about the Spanish are their incredibly late dining hours so if you are up and about before 1pm, the only places to head to are the markets. La Boqueria is one of the most famous in Barcelona (more on that later), but we actually prefer the Mercat de Santa Caterina, which is a few minutes away in the Gothic Quarter. Filled with less tourists, the Mercat de Santa Caterina offers an jaw-dropping array of produce, from 20 different types of tomatoes in one stall, to a butcher that offers every cut of meat, not just the usual striploin and rib-eye. After picking up your bottles of olive oil and legs of jamon to take home (on this trip, we also made another relevation: Spanish olive oil, not Italian, is truly the best), head outside to the restaurant Cuines Santa Caterina, which offers all the classic tapas, but also more innovative ones such as a salted cod carpaccio, mini burgers topped with brie and one of our favourites, a simple burrata with dried tomato and artichokes. Also make sure to ask if they have their gazpacho with watermelon: a simply stunning and pink refreshment, perfect for the summer.
16 Avinguda de Francesc Cambo, Barcelona. Tel: +34 932-689-918.
1pm: Spain is famous for its seafood, (as well as infamous, with the country being one of the largest hunters of the endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna), and during our time here, we rediscovered anew the joys of such simple treats as anchovies and red prawns. One of the best places to sample all the seafood Spain has to offer is Rias de Galicia. The décor of this restaurant is not particularly cool nor modern, in fact, quite the opposite with the best of Queen playing on repeat in the background. But you don’t come here for the atmosphere, just the seafood. We loved the clams served fisherman-style, sautéed in a thick sauce that is reminiscent of Cantonese clams with black bean sauce. The shrimp and crab croquettes are also delicious, with a crusty croquette encasing an unctuous liquid that is a cross between a shellfish bisque and a béchamel. Finally, make sure to save room for the wild sea bass with confit of red prawns and shrimp head. The fish is one of the freshest we’ve ever tasted, and extremely well-cooked.
7 Carrer de Lleida, Barcelona. Tel: +34 934-248-152.
7pm: You might laugh that we suggest you have dinner in Barcelona at 7pm, but to get a seat at the hottest restaurant in town, you have no choice. Tickets is the tapas place opened by Ferran and Albert Adria, the geniuses behind the now-closed El Bulli. You can book online up to three months in advance but even that is close to impossible. Instead, try to snag one of the few walk-in tables by queuing up outside the restaurant at the ungodly hour of 7pm, when most of Spain is just waking up from their siestas. We’re not usually advocates of queuing up for food, but trust us, Tickets is worth it. Start with a seemingly simple order of olives and anchovies: the “olives” are spheres shaped to look like the real thing, but filled with a liquid that is more intensely vegetal and green than anything you’re likely to ever taste. The anchovies with olive caviar, meanwhile, are as silky as the most expensive tuna belly. Codium (a type of seaweed) tempura is the perfect tapas snack, while the red prawns macerated in soy and ginger, served raw but warm, are hands-down the best prawns we have ever tried. The meat dishes are less stunning, but this is on a purely relative scale. We did like the mollette with double chin, which is like a mini burger filled with thin slices of fatty pork. A liquid ravioli of cheese serves as the bridge between the savoury and sweet courses. Our favourite dessert was the “living forest”, a Smurfesque plate of green pandan sponge, coconut ice cream, chocolate twigs as well as meringue masquerading as comical mushrooms.
164 Avinguda del Paral-lel, Barcelona. Tel: +34 932-924-253.
1pm: If you didn’t manage to get a table at Tickets, Cal Pep is a good second choice. This tiny rectangular restaurant is constantly packed, and it is not unusual to wait for up to two hours for a seat. When you’re finally seated, there won't be a menu, so make sure to pay close attention while you’re queuing to see what people order. Start with a plate of clams, which are buttery and salty with a kick of wine. The sautéed mushrooms astounds us with how delicious they are, given the simplistic preparation. The spinach croquettes are worth getting (the chicken ones are not), and most people order the omelette with aioli and chunks of ham.
We loved the simple gambas (prawns), which are laid on the flat-top grill, buried under a mound of salt and served soon after. The blood sausage is great for offal amateurs as the flavour is light, and the beans with red wine reduction are a great addition.
8 Placa de les Olles, Barcelona. Tel: +34 933-107-961.
9pm: Everyone knows that Noma is the number one restaurant in the world, but did you know that the world’s number two is located a mere hour-and-a-half away from Barcelona in Girona? Girona itself worth the detour, with its stunning cathedral and beautiful Jewish quarter. But what we head there for is El Celler de Can Roca: a restaurant run by three brothers, who act as chef, pastry chef and sommelier. The restaurant with its natural fusion of indoor and outdoor space is so stunning that we wouldn’t be surprised if one of their three Michelin stars were awarded for design alone. El Celler de Can Roca offers two menus: a tasting menu that features six to seven courses, or the Feast menu, which offers 14 courses, not including the numerous amuse bouches. Having travelled all this way, we naturally opt for the Feast. Of the many, many courses, we were most taken with the following: a mini bonsai tree was presented as an amuse bouche, hung with caramelised olives stuffed with anchovies. An olive gazpacho was daring and aggressive, perfectly paired with a dry sherry. A salt cod brandade with salt cod tripe is one of the best dishes, with an olive oil soup that tasted of mature, flavourful olives and garnished with honey and chilli. Another dish we loved was a smoked sardine, with the unexpected combination of cherries and elderflower.
From the meat section of the meal, the lamb breast is smoky and earthy, served with amazing sweetbreads. On a side note, El Celler de Can Roca only starts serving dinner at 9pm, and the last train from Girona back to Barcelona is no later than 11pm, so make sure to book a hotel room for the night as the meal will not finish before midnight. Alternatively, a taxi back to Barcelona will cost roughly 180 euros, twenty euros more than the Feast menu itself.
48 Can Sunyer, Girona. Tel: +34 972-222-157.
8am: If you’re waking up early to get a morning flight and desperate for one last taste of Spain before you go, head to La Boqueria. Primarily catered to tourists (hence the early opening hour), this market is packed to the brim with everything from fresh fruit conveniently served in a cup to stalls selling all sizes of eggs, from quail to emu. Head to the back of the market towards Bar Central la Boqueria, which serves not only filling yet fluffy tortillas and great coffees, perfect for breakfast, but also possible the best bocadillos in all of Barcelona. Crusty baguette bread rubbed with tomato and garlic are filled with generous slices of salty, fatty jamon Iberico. Eat one at the market and get some to go to enjoy on the plane.
91 La Rambla, Barcelona. Tel: +34 933-027-260.