In Barcelona, food markets are longtime culinary institutions beloved by both neighbors and chefs. Their intense sights, smells and sounds are a wonderful, chaotic amuse-bouche that stimulates our senses without our even opening our mouths to taste any of the products being sold. But sometimes, we long for the chance to combine the multisensory experience of market shopping with the taste of great food. Although this concept can seem obvious, it’s actually not easy to find places that combine the selling of fresh products with their cooking.
El Tast de Joan Noi (aka John Boy, the English meaning of “Joan Noi”), a fish and seafood restaurant run by Paco Martínez and situated in El Mercat de la Llibertat in Gràcia, does just that, offering diners the huge pleasure of discovering an eye-catching piece of tuna amongst the ice and then seeing how the expert chef, Paco González, cooks it in front of their very eyes.
The Martínez family’s expertise in selling fish goes back to the 1950s, when Paco’s uncle Joan opened their first fish shop in the Barceloneta neighborhood, Barcelona’s old fishing port. Now, after three generations operating numerous fish stalls in the markets of the city, the family keeps businesses at two locations: in El Mercat de Lesseps and in La Llibertat, a historic market building dating to 1888. Paco Martínez opened El Tast de Joan Noi, adjacent to their seafood stand, in 2009, after the restoration of La Llibertat.
His chef, Paco González, has 18 years’ experience working at Botafumeiro, one of the best-known (and most expensive) seafood restaurants in Barcelona. But after this intense experience – and with a doctor’s order to avoid stress – he decided it was time to move to a more low-key workplace. Having sold fish to Botafumeiro for years, Martínez knew González and was happy to bring him on as the chef at his newly opened marketplace eatery. González has no regrets about his move. “In a big kitchen like Botafumeiro’s maybe you are cooking for a lot of famous people, but you never see their faces,” he tells us. “Here it is more personal and enjoyable. You can see and talk with clients; they can ask you to make this, or cook that…. And after some time, you know everybody!”
Sitting in front of the grill, we meet Antonio, a loyal customer who strikes up a conversation with us right away. His grilled sardines are getting cold in front of him, but Antonio is an enthusiastic talker: “You know all those restaurants with Michelin stars? Many times just a few dishes are really good. Here, each dish is a prize. Nobody in Barcelona grills the fish like Paco. Look at these sardines.” Antonio is having his breakfast here before going to work in Tibidabo Park, in the mountains behind the city. He is one of many regular clients who come to La Llibertat specifically to eat at Joan Noi, not just because they already happened to be shopping in the market.
González works with a menu based on the seasonal fish and seafood sold in the stall next to the bar, with most items served grilled. He says the simplicity of the setup – without a real kitchen or cold-storage facilities, but with a fish purveyor right next door – guarantees that everything at Joan Noi is always fresh, cooked right in front of diners and served in the moment. For us, two of the most appealing specialties are the baby scallops and the diced tuna, prepared with recipes created by González exclusively for Joan Noi. The delicate and tasty scallops, simultaneously soft and crunchy, are sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed on a toasted slice of bread with caramelized onions and some brandy, then topped with a cheese sauce and finally baked au gratin in the oven.
But the simply amazing diced tuna is perhaps the venue’s “star dish.” The tuna is perfectly grilled to the point where it has a thin, golden grilled layer on the outside, while the inside remains pink and as soft as butter. The whole dish is drizzled with a vinaigrette made with soy sauce, Jerez wine (sherry) and walnuts. González also prepares special paella and rice dishes, which need to be ordered in advance; these include the “Arroz Caldoso con Bogavante” (lobster with a brothy rice stew) and the “Zarzuela de Pescado” (seafood casserole).
Antonio, a gourmet at heart, stops by again to place an advance order for “Arroz Caldoso con Bogavante” for lunch (he was having the sardines for breakfast) and to say goodbye before leaving for work. “Three years ago, I used to drive 400 kilometers outside of Barcelona to have good lobster with rice stew,” he tells us. “Now I just come to the neighborhood market and order from Paco.”