Despite the 1970s-era sign outside that says Granja (farm) and the red letters spelling “Bar” inside, you can’t really tell what this place is until you open the menu: a temple of “neighborhood haute cuisine.” The food at Granja Elena sounds simple but tastes rich and complex.
The restaurant is a family business, now run by the third generation – Borja, Patricia and Guillermo Sierra Calvo – in the same barrio in which it was founded in 1974, Zona Franca. This modern neighborhood is part residential and part industrial, a bit far from Barcelona’s center, located near the merchant port behind Montjuic and on the way to the airport.
Originally, the place was a small granja, a kind of typical Catalan shop-bar where one can eat breakfast and supper and buy farm products such as milk, cold cuts for bocadillos, coffee and hot chocolate. After the current owners’ grandparents bought the old granja, they began improving its offerings and moving in a more ambitious direction, bringing in high-quality products such as Iberian hams, French pâtés and Swiss cheeses.
Significant change really came to Granja Elena with Borja’s mother, Olga, who started cooking dishes at home to sell at the shop. This move was such a success that the family decided to put in a new kitchen so that these traditional dishes could be prepared in the shop itself.
The current owners are professionals through and through. Borja is the head chef; Patricia, the sommelier, has assembled an interesting and excellent wine list; and their brother, Guillermo, takes care of the bar. Their aunt Carmen has been the breakfast cook for 17 years, making smaller versions of the lunch offerings for early diners.
Granja Elena serves dishes in the Catalan-Spanish tradition, but with a bit of sophistication. Borja explained to us that often, finding the right product is much more complicated than the preparation itself: “An extension of a good chef is always a good supplier.” They have a few suppliers who have been with them as long as 25 years. Borja believes the importance of having a special connection with the suppliers is that they really understand what he wants and how to get it for the best price. Nearly all the market produce, fish and meat he uses come from the local Mercat de La Marina.
In the kitchen, Borja and two other cooks, Alex and Gemma, who also happen to be siblings, prepare a mix of contemporary dishes and reliable traditional recipes – ones, in fact, that Olga Calvo used to cook years ago. These include cap i pota amb sanfaina (beef head and leg stew with ratatouille) and a delicious and potent callos (spiced tripe stew with chorizo and morcilla, often also with beef leg and sometimes also with chickpeas), which is tender but substantial and served in a thick marble bowl.
One seasonal specialty we enjoyed recently was a great first course of red mullet cured in salt and marinated in Kalamata olive oil and served with chive and dill in a granite dish. Each bite evoked a Mediterranean forest – a bit of surf and turf that transported us, if only for a moment, far from the concrete and asphalt just outside the restaurant. Another taste of the ocean came from a bowl of tuna and egg yolk with soy sauce and Galician sea urchin. The salmon eggs on top offered a little splash of the sea as they popped in our mouth.
Best of all, however, was the roasted tuna galete (lower cheek) with piquillo peppers. The galete was like butter, pleasantly gelatinous and refined, and the pepper purée complemented it with a subtle, earthy sweetness.
Granja Elena is a veritable gem where the culinary enthusiasm behind the place is evident in every dish. Borja doesn’t like labels, and he doesn’t care about maps, territories or culinary social posturing – the only important thing for him and his family is have a good meal and to do it even better tomorrow than it was done today.