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On a beautiful corner of L’Eixample sits Norte, a small yet warm, inviting and light-filled bar with a constellation of shining lights spelling out its name inside and a few tables with fresh flowers. The restaurant was started by three partners, Lara Zaballa, María González and Fernando Martínez-Conde (who left the project last year). They met while working at Barcelona’s acclaimed Moo restaurant and had come to cooking from studying philosophy, art history and journalism at university. They were each looking for something more hands-on, work that gave them direct physical contact with matter, and that shared motivation connected them from the beginning. All three also came to Barcelona from other cities in northern Spain. After their experience at Moo and other projects (Zaballa and Martínez-Conde wrote for the prestigious cooking magazine Apicius), they looked for a more enjoyable and less stressful way to do what they loved, starting with basically nothing but their enthusiasm and their solid ideas to convince the banks to give them a loan to start their own restaurant in 2011.

Today, with just Zaballa (head chef) and González (front of the house and sommelier) on board and after years of hard work, they are opening a second place – with a different concept but the same name – and making the original restaurant a reference point for market cuisine in the area. The cuisine here is simple but with a “cooking school” touch: interesting and precise, made from fresh, seasonal – and often organic – products. They offer a variety of savory and sweet dishes of traditional or reinterpreted recipes from northern Spain (Zaballa is from Vigo-Galicia, González from Bilbao-Basque country). There are excellent cold cuts and ham and a great selection of artisanal Spanish cheeses. Thanks to González, Norte also has a small but ambitious wine list available by the bottle or glass. She always chooses interesting wines from small producers made with personality, heart and quality, offered at very fair prices.

Breakfast is one of Norte’s specialties. There are fresh juices, great coffees, sweet or savory dishes and a wide-ranging menu that includes sandwiches and egg dishes made with the best free-range eggs from Calaf prepared any way you wish.

Among the many sides on offer is the restaurant’s famous Spanish omelet, and the most demanding customers can tell if it was made by Lara or not. But other customers come for the fish of the day and don’t even ask what the fish is; they just know that it’s going to be fresh and delicious, as always. Some come just for the leche frita (fried milk, made from flour, egg, sugar, cinnamon and lemon peel), a very traditional Galician dessert that is hard to find in any restaurant. Still others come to the restaurant for another elusive classic dish, the battered lamb brains, which are given an Asian reinterpretation with sesame batter and ponzu sauce. And furthermore, it would be impossible to remove the little hamburger of pickled pheasant with caramelized onion and arugula without hurting the culinary sensibilities of a number of customers here.

The fish of the day we tasted on a recent visit was cod cocotxas (or kokotxas), an always wonderful Basque dish made with cod (or hake) cheeks. Pleasingly gelatinous, it was accompanied by baked potatoes and a few drops of a parsley sauce. The smoked sardine surprised us: It appeared simple, served over fresh cheese and a piece of bread, but it made for a succulent and filling bite and paired perfectly with González’s wine recommendation, a Costers del Segre D.O. called Pura Vida (60 percent chardonnay, 40 percent macabeo, aged three months in French oak barrels), which was delicate, aromatic and well structured.

At the tail end of the meal, we had one of Zaballa’s much-loved desserts, “Congito,” made with chocolate mousseline with peanut streusel, cocoa crumble, roasted peanuts and chocolate cream with a touch of salt – luscious in flavor, airy in texture and absolutely divine in general.

For a top-notch lunch with a glass of great wine or a small bite or delightful breakfast, we always remember to head North. (And for sandwiches and salads, we go to the second location, Norte Verdi, at Carrer Verdi 4 in Gràcia, open 5-11 p.m.)

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Published on September 17, 2015

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