Sants is a working neighborhood with an industrial past and a communal present, both of which it proudly flaunts. There are the street names – like L’Espanya Industrial, Carrer Wat (dedicated to the engineer James Watt) and Vapor Vell (Old Steam) – that tell the story of industrialization in Catalonia, and the two buzzing municipal markets and the many bodegas and restaurants, like Terra de Escudella or Bodega Salvat, that serve as meeting points for an engaged community.
Although shaped by a diverse set of international influences, the neighborhood’s sophisticated culinary scene is tied together by something more local: vermut culture. Vermut has long been central to Catalan identity, although it fell out of favor in the late 20th century. But it has recently seen a resurgence in Barcelona (and across Spain), and La Mundana in Sants is one of the best places to indulge.
Opened by the Catalan chefs Alain Guiard and Marc Martín in 2015, La Mundana is a “gastronomic vermutería,” a small bar with a few tables, a patio area and bar stools positioned at a countertop in front of the kitchen. Naturally, there are 14 kinds of vermut on offer, as well as wine, cava and other alcoholic drinks. The small plates coming out of the kitchen are diverse, filled with ingredients that have been grilled, smoked, pickled or baked; some are even presented raw.
Vermouth culture has seen a resurgence in Barcelona, and La Mundana is one of the best places to indulge
Perhaps the bar’s most famous tapa is the bravas de la Mundana, their take on the traditional patatas bravas. Rather than cutting and frying chunks of potato, they mash the potatoes and then fry them in a rectangle shape. The end result resembles a thin gold brick – it’s crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. On top of each slab, there are alternating dollops of an allioli sauce made with smoked black garlic and a spicy brava (wild) sauce made with paprika.
But no vermut tasting would be complete without a pickled treat. La Mundana’s banderilla, a skewer of succulent olives, a green Basque chile called piparra, sun-dried tomato, artichoke and a boiled quail egg no larger than the olives, fits the bill. The contrast of textures, specifically the juicy picked vegetables paired with the crumbly, creamy egg yolk, is as bold as the vermut, balancing the aromatic alcohol nicely without overpowering it.
La Mundana also excels in smoking, whether it’s the not-to-be-missed oysters, where the light smoky taste only adds to the ocean flavor, or the unexpected smoked ingredients sprinkled throughout the menu, such as smoked bread and smoked butter. Stronger yet is the smoked sardine, which is chopped and served with scarmoza cheese sauce and cherry tomatoes.
Another favorite is the milhojas or millefeuille of chopped brown crab, mixed with miso mayonnaise, avocado and apple, which adds a perfumed fruity touch, and served over potato chips. While the crab was not as briny as we had hoped, it’s still a wonderful dish from the first to the last bite.
As part of their ode to Catalan culinary tradition, La Mundana has also resurrected caneloni (cannelloni) the 19th-century Italian contribution to Barcelonean cuisine. They have adapted the stuffed pasta rolls by replacing the tubular pasta with the tender skin of cured pancetta and stuffing it with caramelized onions and minced pigs’ feet.
While the kitchen at La Mundana pays homage to Barcelona’s culinary past, its dishes are very much a product of the present. In that way it mirrors Sants, the neighborhood it’s nestled in – the former industrial zone may be reshaped and made over, but its history is always proudly on display.