Located on busy Carrer de l’Escorial on the edge of Gràcia, Vermuteria Loú is a tiny, cozy venue that is exactly what we look for in a neighborhood place. The little terrace out front, with just four tables and a bar that opens to the street, encourages patrons to sit and take refreshment while observing the local street life. Inside, the scene might consist of individual drinkers slowly savoring a glass of cava at the bar while a group of men sit at the tables in the back, talking and eating one dish brought out from the kitchen after another.
Arranged next to the Yzaguirre vermouth tap and in front of a wall covered by good-quality brands of conservas (preserved food products) such as Espinaler or Olasagasti, the food cooked by owner Lourdes Branco immediately catches the eye. As soon as we entered, we noticed a tray of montaditos, or bite-sized pieces of bread with anchovies, olives and peppers; a bowl of snails in an appealing sauce; a large tortilla de patatas; and various enticing-looking croquettes. The jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) hanging on the wall seemed to be telling us, “try me!” And this was just the beginning.
Six years ago, Lourdes decided to close her butcher’s shop, keep the great jamón ibérico they used to sell, and offer it in a new tapas bar in Gràcia. Her first idea was to open a vermuteria following the example of Quimet & Quimet, with high-quality preserved food products and just a few cooked dishes to serve with the vermouth; she figured it would mainly appeal to a middle-aged crowd. But thanks to her excellent home cooking, she found her own personal style, and patrons – all kinds of people from the neighborhood in the mornings, mostly young people during the evenings and weekends – began to be seduced by her elaborate hot tapas. Lourdes was at first surprised to discover that “young people have good taste and they really value my food. It is very rewarding. They especially love my potato bomb,” she says. Indeed, her potato bomb is a real winner, both delicate in flavor and packing an explosive punch. The large ball of creamy mashed potatoes contains tasty veal cheek and foie gras inside, and is topped with a spicy sauce of tomato, nuts, black pepper and cayenne.
Lourdes’s talent for cooking comes through in the venue’s wide selection of traditional dishes that always manage to go beyond the basics, whether in their rich ingredients or their outstanding preparations. Highlights include the fried eggs with foie gras and Iberian ham shavings, an elaborate cod stew, a clay pot with a tasty sauté of cuttlefish with mushrooms fried in olive oil and onion sauce, and the esqueixada, a traditional salad of dried cod with fresh onions and red peppers. There is also carpaccio of beef and even cod, a potato omelet featuring Iberian ham, and a homemade Russian salad made with fresh vegetables.
But what we enjoy the most – and so, it would seem, do other customers – are Vermuteria Loú’s 20 or so different kinds of delicious croquetas, all lovingly prepared by hand by Lourdes, who makes three or four varieties per day and rotates the selection throughout the week. Fillings range from Iberian ham, ceps mushrooms with foie gras, or black Catalan sausage with parmesan cheese to prawns and monkfish, spinach with goat cheese and pine nuts, or cod, among others. On our visit, Lourdes offered us freshly made croquetas with ceps: creamy, oblong balls, thoroughly crunchy on the outside and perfectly soft inside, in which we could really appreciate the homemade béchamel sauce dressing the ceps, a very well-loved Catalan mushroom because of its intense flavor. We also tried the croquetas with jamón ibérico, which were extremely flavorful, filled with substantial pieces of ham and finely chopped onions.
Lourdes takes her croquette-making very seriously, preparing the fillings at her home a day in advance, then frying the pieces in the vermuteria throughout the day so that she can always serve them fresh. “My arm is broken from making croquettes,” she jokes. But her efforts are worth it. Another client points at the ham croquettes in the tray and exclaims, “Terrific – the best in Gràcia!” He might just be right.