Editor’s note: This is the penultimate installment of “Best Bites of 2012,” a roundup of our top culinary experiences over the last year. Stay tuned for our final “Best Bites” dispatch, from Istanbul, tomorrow.
We hadn’t planned on bringing in La Nochevieja at Restaurant Roma, but it was nearby and we didn’t feel up for public-transport adventures on New Year’s Eve. Situated on a quiet street in the upscale but untouristy Barcelona neighborhood of Sant Gervasi, Roma is thoroughly nondescript – a neighborhood joint frequented by neighborhood people of a certain age. The wood-paneled walls, racks of Maxim magazines and TV mounted in the corner kept our expectations pretty low.
The menus were in Catalan and Spanish but the owner, Oscar, who grew up just a few blocks away in nearby Gràcia, gamely translated the dishes to us in well-studied, if not oft-practiced, English. We’d come expecting run-of-the-mill Catalan food but were quickly knocked out of our end-of-the-year stupor by Oscar’s descriptions: milhojas (layers) of cochinillo (suckling pig), caramelized onions, potatoes, pumpkin and demi-glace sauce; puff pastry filled with foie gras, fried egg and raspberry sauce; pig’s trotters (a Catalan specialty) stuffed with artichokes and mushrooms. We tried them all and were blown away. It’s not often that New Year’s Eve exceeds expectations, but in this case it definitely did.
Espai Sucre is Barcelona’s first dessert-only restaurant. The restaurant and adjoining pastry school were started by well-known Catalan pastry chef Jordi Butrón, who wanted to create a new style of restaurant desserts. We really like dessert – very, very much, in fact. But were we ready to eat a meal that consisted of nothing BUT dessert? It was a bit pricey but, given that it was a special occasion, we decided to take the risk. Speaking of which, Butrón isn’t at all afraid of taking risks himself. The flavor combinations in Butrón’s tasting menu were like nothing we had ever tried before: cheesecake made from goat’s cheese and flavored with raspberries, red pepper and ginger; rice cooked in squid broth, with saffron flan and passion fruit; chocolate with hints of oak, rum and tobacco; octopus with fruits and mint! The flavors were both surprising and divine. Afterwards, we were left with the unexpected sensation that we’d just had a perfectly balanced meal.
It’s difficult to live abroad without broadening one’s food horizons. Nevertheless, certain food phobias are difficult to abandon, and we tend to find ourselves avoiding dishes that contain those items well into adulthood. Barcelona is famous for its fresh sardines. Still, even after years of living in this seaside city, we hadn’t been able to work up much of an appetite for the little guys. Being American, when we heard the word “sardine” we still tended to think of the ubiquitous sardine tin packed with oily, salty, fishy fish.
That all changed one day in Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico, when we stopped in at Bagauda, a new tapas bar started by the owners of Barcelona Reykjavik, one of the city’s best bakeries. Before we knew it, one of our friends had ordered up a pintxo of crusty bread skewered with fresh sardine fillets and sweet, macerated tomato. We skeptically popped a bite into our mouths and just like that, we became rabid sardine fans. The fish was milder than we’d expected and not at all “fishy,” with flesh that was tasty and tender and a slight saltiness that was perfectly balanced by the sweet tomatoes; in a word, it was delicious. We are proud to report that on that day, we crossed one more food phobia off our list.
If we had to choose one Barcelona neighborhood in which to wander aimlessly, it would be Gràcia, hands down. Filled with narrow streets, open plazas and charming architecture, the barrio still gives off a vibe of the small village it once was. Despite its relatively small size, no matter how many times we’ve been there, we always discover something new. Take the day we first discovered Lukumas. There we were, walking down Gràcia’s familiar Torrent de l’Olla, and there it was: a doughnut shop! Perhaps this wouldn’t be so unusual in many other cities, but in Barcelona, good doughnuts are somewhat of a rarity and until the opening of Lukumas, great doughnuts in Barcelona simply did not exist. Owned by Greek graphic designer Petros Paschalidis, the shop offers a range of doughnuts, in both traditional (glazed or sugar) and atypical flavors, such as white chocolate or dulce de leche fillings. We ordered a bag and sat in nearby Plaza de la Virreina, licking the sugar off our fingers as we watched the world go by.
The weather was so perfect that day that we knew we couldn’t possibly sit indoors for lunch. In fact, we didn’t want to sit in chairs at all. The day called for an old-fashioned picnic and, luckily for us, Vila Viniteca, a gourmet food and wine shop, was just around the corner in Barcelona’s El Born neighborhood. Seduced by the label, we first grabbed a couple bottles of El Puño Garnacha (Grenache) from El Escocés Volante, a red wine made in Zaragoza by Scotsman Norrel Robertson. We then spent a while drooling over the enormous selection of sausages, cheeses (over 350 varieties in stock) and fresh produce. After much discussion, we filled our basket with several baguettes, smoky Basque Idiazabal cheese, creamy Galician Tetilla cheese, some sobrassada (a paprika-flavored Majorcan sausage with a pâté-like texture), and a long thin fuet (a dry-cured sausage from Catalonia). A bunch of juicy purple grapes, a few figs, and we were set. Ten minutes later, we were sitting on the beach, ready for a lazy afternoon filled with good company and good food.