From a distance, 2018 may look like the calm after the storm in Barcelona, the tempest of 2017 being the independence referendum and its fallout. Yet this isn’t quite what we’d call calm – the city is still convulsing, swinging between action and reaction, as it struggles with gentrification and social upheaval. The independence of Catalonia is not the answer to everything anymore, but it is still a mood, a political cause and door that could be half closed or half open, depending on your perspective.
Chefs are looking outside of the center, and even the city itself, in search of better opportunities. Numerous restaurants have moved elsewhere, while others have shuttered their blinds, like a skin of eateries that the city is slouching off. A serious generational change is afoot: food must be healthy and even organic, imaginative, local but international, cool but friendly, modern but familiar and always available. This is at odds with the old-school restaurants and markets that cater to an aging population, those people whose usual tables and stalls are slowly disappearing.
So during this past year, we found ourselves going beyond the city center and its immediate perimeter to explore some interesting culinary options. We also climbed the hills of Collserola to taste sustainable wonders on the edge of a forest, and enjoyed the projects of young brilliant chefs like Carlota Claver. And we made sure to appreciate those classic spots that stubbornly remained the same (even if they did get a face-lift).
Located in the upper half of Barcelona, close to Collserola Park, Mala Hierba is the brainchild of chef Fabio Gambirasi and Roser Asensi, a duo with a serious interest in sustainability and organic produce. The restaurant is housed in a structure with its own rooftop garden where they cultivate herbs and vegetables to use in their cooking.
Gambirasi brings to the kitchen all his professional expertise from the years he spent at high-end restaurants like Trussardi in Milan, which he pairs with a creative style based on a deep respect for seasonal products and a desire to reinterpret Mediterranean cuisine. A perfect example of this amalgamation is his take on the calçot, the Catalan spring onion. Usually grilled in charcoal and served with romesco sauce, Gambirasi cooks them at a low temperature with some smoked herring eggs, activated charcoal and a delicate ajoblanco (which translates literally as “white garlic”) cream. The calçots were perfectly tender and juicy, and we were blown away by the amazing reconfiguration of the traditional flavors of onion, smoke, almonds and garlic.
Cal Siscu is a tiny marisquería (seafood restaurant) in the shape of an old bodega in Hospitalet de Llobregat, a city on the periphery of the Barcelona metropolitan area. Here you can indulge in a total seafood feast, one that includes Atlantic oysters, prawns, clams, percebes or sea snails, and also some excellent fish dishes, while surrounded by old wine casks and amidst the peace and quiet that comes with being very far away from Barcelona’s dense city center.
Originally Cal Siscu was founded by Francisco “Siscu” Rosés in 1933; after a series of owners over the years, it is now managed by Constantino “Tino” Cabo, who is originally from the area and decided to take over the bodega-marisquería with his friend and head chef, Jaume Carbonell. They improved and expanded on the previous menu by including more fish and seafood varieties and recipes. But they kept the restaurant’s most iconic dish, albeit with a few improvements: fresh lobster in an intense tomato sauce. It’s similar to the classic lobster in “American sauce” but different in that the sauce is thickened with almonds and hazelnuts, and aromatized with some secret liquors. While the lobster itself was incredible, we were in for another surprise. Once we finished the meat, they added two eggs to the remaining sauce – this simple act encouraged us to devour what was left, and as we dipped our bread in the luxurious red sauce, we found ourselves immensely grateful that the pleasure of eating this dish had been stretched out.
Back in the city center, La Gormanda (“The Female Gourmet”) is chef Carlota Claver’s solo endeavor, which she manages together with her husband, Ignasi Céspedes. It’s a small restaurant that consists of a few tables, the best one being right by the kitchen, in a completely renewed former colmado (traditional grocery store) in Left Eixample. Claver comes from a family that owns two other restaurants in the neighborhood, and at La Gormanda she builds on her background to develop her own personal vision of contemporary Catalan cuisine: an international and healthy spin on flavors with local roots. And, of course, creativity is tantamount – a good chef is like a good architect, someone who can provide more than just functionality.
In her inspired dishes, Carlota places an emphasis on seasonal flavors and ingredients. Our favorite is the grilled leeks escabeche (marinated) with miso vinegar, served on top of a sweet potato cream and with the magic touch of dried tuna eggs grated over it. For dessert, we devoured the strange but evocative tea sponge cake with white chocolate, whipped cream and ginger cream.
After doing the math, Andrés Huarcaya, a Peruvian chef who has lived most of his adult life in Barcelona, decided to move his restaurant, El Practic, from Barcelona to Cornellá de Llobregat, a nearby city in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. Add a far-out location to a small, simple space, and the result is incredible food at affordable prices.
Huarcaya was part of the El Bulli family: he began working in the catering section of this world-famous restaurant in 2000, which he followed up with a wide range of collaborations in Barcelona and elsewhere. All this knowledge and experience is now applied to El Practic, where Huarcaya mixes Peruvian and Catalan cuisines to create an inclusive and versatile menu – one that includes comfort food for the blue-collar workers who come here for lunch and house-made tapas that draw in the biggest gourmands from downtown Barcelona. There’s an appealing dish for everyone here, from bao sandwiches and two different types of ceviche to cod fritters and croquets.
The most important variable of the equation is his talent for creating imaginative dishes from humble but delicious high-quality products like mackerel, anchovies or – the star of the house – the pig ear. The latter is our favorite: small grilled bits of chopped ear, with a layer of sweet paprika, dressed with drops of wine reduction and peanut praline, and accompanied by an ultra fine picada of almonds, parsley and garlic. All in perfect balance.
Sant Antoni Market
At last, after a long and expensive restoration process, the beautiful 19th-century Sant Antoni Market has reopened. The project was marred by drama and conflict due to the recent gentrification of the Sant Antoni neighborhood, which led aggressive developers to buy buildings and bully tenants in the hope that they could turn a profit. In response, local neighborhood groups organized demonstrations to fight against the major real estate forces that have transformed Barcelona over the last few decades. Thankfully, the market remained a municipal market rather than being turned into a food hall aimed at tourists. As a bonus, the blocks around the market were pedestrianized, leaving a wonderful open area for families to congregate and kids to play.
Vendors were happy to move back in and are clearly quite proud to be housed in such a magnificent building with wonderful modern facilities. The market is packed with locals, but everyone is welcome to come, taste and buy: we always end up leaving with bags full of vegetables and fresh fish from both sides of the peninsula. In between shopping, we eat raw oysters on the go and try a wonderful acorn-fed Iberian ham, washed down with a glass of wine, at a tiny tasting bar. Now this is the market life.