El Racó de l’Agüir (“Agüir’s Corner”), a restaurant in Barcelona’s Sant Antoni neighborhood, has been a long time in the making: it represents the life’s work of the Agüir family, the culmination of their talent and experience.
Two generations can be found here – parents Roser and Ferran, who have managed four different restaurants over the course of their careers, and their sons, Iván and Ferran, both of whom are now in their 40s and grew up working with their parents. Mom and dad opened El Racó de l’Agüir in 1990, but after two years their progeny took over the reins.
All four are well-versed in Iberian and Mediterranean flavors, and while the restaurant is perhaps best known for their rice dishes, it also offers contemporary takes on a number of traditional Catalan and Valencian recipes.
On our most recent visit, we entered the long and narrow dining room decorated with wooden accents and traditional Valencian tiles, geometric beauties in blue, green and yellow. Beyond this warm space lies a small open kitchen – the guts of the restaurant – where a team of six works its magic. It’s here that the younger Ferran, now the head chef, creates his contemporary versions of the Catalan-Valencian recipes passed down through his family while his mother and mentor, Roser, oversees the stoves with her trained and expert hands.
The elder Ferran, meanwhile, presides over the bar with a smile and an inexhaustible energy while Iván, the older brother, is the mobile element – he makes the energy flow in all possible directions, between suppliers, the kitchen team and customers.
Although flexible and varied, the menu is by no means extensive; concentration is a powerful tool that works very well here. The family very specifically selects the most interesting ingredients of the season and is open to improvisation (it’s not unheard of for regulars to make personal requests or order off-menu items, which the kitchen will often accommodate).
Spontaneity is a key element of their food philosophy. “It’s important for us to be in the moment, to adapt to what’s freshest. Even some customers come and ask for a certain rice dish, and Ferran will prepare it with the ingredients he has that day – it’s a dish of the moment,” says Iván.
And all these dishes are made to be shared, a nod to the family’s past, when they spent their summers visiting family in the Valencian city of Alicante. “In Alicante, first courses are often shared in restaurants, something that now is more common but even a few years ago was still quite rare if the dishes were not specifically tapas,” says Iván. “Here all dishes on the menu can be shared. This is the culture we grew up with.”
“Both [paellas and arroces] are just a different way to do the same thing.”
Depending on the day, you can find fideuàs (noodles with seafood) and rice dishes of all kinds: seafood rice, arròs caldós (brothy/soupy rice), arroz a banda (rice cooked in fish stock, with other components served separately) and other seasonal rice dishes they create on the go. Their cooking style aims to highlight the ingredients. “Working with a good product you don’t need to mask it,” Iván explains. That’s why the family is always conscious of going straight to the source. “We work with a type of veal from a little place in Santa Pau [located in the inland Catalan county of La Garrotxa] and source wild fish,” he adds.
Speaking of fish, their salt cod is excellent, served with a romescu sauce and picada (minced almonds). Their monkfish croquets are also standouts, but even simple comfort food dishes, like their lentil stew, are terrifically restorative. We love how their dishes deftly navigate the territory between familiarity and modernity (healthful, made with top-quality ingredients and impeccably presented). “While I was learning [to cook], I was absorbing my mother’s values in the restaurant and the school’s values at the same time,” says Ferran, “and I did a little fusion of both that I think works well.”
“What I love most is that people start to remember the flavors of their childhood when they eat our food,” Iván interjects. Indeed, we were brought right back to our mother’s kitchen while savoring their wonderful croquets.
As for their rice dishes, Ferran and Roser make them Alicante-style, sautéing the rice with the other ingredients to extract more flavors. “This is what we grew up with. During summer holidays, our mother and grandmother used to make this type of rice on the patio, using a stove on the ground,” says Iván.
“Paella should have rice, saffron or paprika, and it must be made in an iron paella,” explains Ferran, referring to the type of pan that gave the dish its iconic name. “But both [paellas and arroces] are just a different way to do the same thing. In Tarragona, for instance, they first add the stock and then the rice, whereas in Alicante we sauté first the rice with the other ingredients – we mince the tender garlic, onion, cuttlefish and baby cuttlefish, sauté everything, then add the rice, sauté again, and then we add the stock, cook it all together.”
We tried their rice with sepionets (baby cuttlefish), tender garlic and clams, served in an iron paella on the table. The rice texture was perfect and the sepionets tender, while the clams were like small and delicate bites of the sea. The tender garlic contributed to the overall freshness and intensity of the experience. It’s an elegant rice dish that walks a fine line between richness and healthy moderation and, as a result, felt incredibly satisfying.
Despite the Valencian influence, they source their rice from Delta de’l Ebre in southern Catalonia’s Tarragona region, which is closer to Barcelona. The restaurant uses extra, a variety that needs to be properly attended to in order to create the perfect balance of taste and texture.
Ferran, however, has the touch when to comes to cooking this type of rice. “When you get used to a specific kind of rice whose timing you have totally grasped and everything works just as you need,” he says, “then it is difficult to change.”
Of course, every master has his own trick. But, as eaters, our main concern is to enjoy the magic that is performed, whether in the shape of extra rice, salt cod, monkfish croquets or Santa Pau veal entrecote.