It takes bravery and strength to swim against the flow, traits the Catalan sommelier Anna Pla and her partner, the Sicilian chef Nicola Drago, certainly do not lack. The duo opened Contracorrent (“Against the flow” in Catalan) Bar, a natural wine bar and restaurant, in November 2020, amidst a series of pandemic-induced openings and closings. In fact, it’s one of the few new culinary projects in Barcelona.
But opening in these complicated times was in some ways easier for Anna and Nicola. They had been plotting this project for quite a while, but the pandemic created opportunities that had been hard to come by previously. “For us, not big business people with big fortunes, the pandemic made it possible to start something new, since more things were up for negotiation than before,” Nicola says. “Now that so many businesses are closing, we are opening. This is why we named the bar Contracorrent.”
Located on a very pleasant pedestrian street just by the Estació del Nord and very close to Arc de Triunf, this small place has a terrace and a room full of daylight. And the dishes sent to the table are a kind of message: The menu takes a very personal point of view, based on Anna and Nicola’s own connections with the products, the environment, their neighborhoods and the community. As Anna says, “Nicola always talks about ‘giving the dish the love that it deserves,’ it’s like his phrase.” Nicola clarifies: “It’s not enough to put in a lot of care and effort only in the kitchen. How the dish is offered and introduced to the customer is also very important, and we must show them the same care.” Like Anna does in the room, explaining every dish and wine, expanding on the experience created in the kitchen or in the cellars.
Since they first met 10 years ago, Nicola has worked in restaurants like the Michelin-starred Celler Can Roca as well as with the famous Carles Abellán in Comerç 24. He held a partnership stake in several restaurants before deciding to sell his shares and start something small and more personal with his partner in life, Anna. She has a decade of experience in wine under her belt, including working in such Barcelona natural wine flagships as Bar Brutal and Bar Salvatge.
Now, in Contracorrent, both streams flow together to serve the local community. “We are focused on people from the neighborhood with fair, affordable prices, and a relaxed and fun atmosphere where they can drink first-rate natural wine and eat great food,” Nicola says.
Their blackboard menu usually lists around 10 dishes and tapas, plus some daily surprises that always follow the seasons and the products available in their garden or the stores of their trusted providers. “We live in the El Carmel neighborhood [close to the Bunkers del Carmel, former anti-aircraft defenses that now offer a scenic view, and Guinardó Park] where there is a community garden for the neighbors, many of them retired, and we have a plot of 350 square meters,” Nicola explains. “Many neighbors collaborate to take care of it! We cultivate mostly leafy greens, root vegetables and tubers, easy and low maintenance. We are very lucky to count on their help and shared passion.”
The organic vegetables not from their garden (which normally doesn’t provide enough to meet demand) come from a neighborhood farmers’ shop near the bar, while the fish is bought at Barcelona’s fish auction market and the meat from the local specialists Carn&Beef and Cal Rovira.
“We are focused on people from the neighborhood with fair, affordable prices, and a relaxed and fun atmosphere where they can drink first-rate natural wine and eat great food.”
They are in the process of growing their natural wine cellar. Anna explains: “I have around 50-60 different wines on the menu, depending on the week, mostly natural wine from Catalan and Spanish small producers – we love to support local producers. But like any wine aficionado, my interests go beyond the local offering, so the intention is to include more international wines in the future, but still give priority to the Catalan and Spanish ones.”
As for the cuisine, Nicola refers to it as Mediterranean: “Italian and Catalan cuisine can be very similar.” We were recently wowed by the grilled local beach squid, served with dry algae, vegetables from their garden like very aromatic rapini with mustard leaves and Bagna Cauda sauce made with anchovy paste. The dish felt like an intense sea wave crashing down on a field of greens.
We also loved the very refreshing ventresca (tuna belly) salad with fennel and citrus fruits, a beautiful and colorful composition with a Mediterranean spirit. A smaller but no less delicious bite was the extremely delicate “taco” made of marinated chopped beef with pickled vegetables wrapped in a nasturtium leaf.
But the showstopper of our most recent lunch on the Contracorrent terrace was a fantastic small ceramic plate topped with a tiny grill; on top were some beef slices and pickled onions, while below the grill was an aromatic bed of thyme and rosemary, which Nico torched at the table to create the smoke and heat need to cook the meat slightly and give it a great mountain flavor.
“We are happy that people are responding very well,” Anna tells us. “People are tired of being at home and they want to hang out, of course while taking care to adhere to the restrictions. But people are coming here and returning again and again, which is most important.” As for us, new spots like Contracorrent Bar prove that not all hope is lost.