Barcelona: Way Beyond Tapas

Radical young chefs are whisking this ancient city's restaurant scene into the next century. Arthur Lubow eats his way through Europe's newest capital of cuisine.

If you were young and gifted in Quattrocento Florence, you picked up a paintbrush. In London in the Swinging Sixties, you strapped on a guitar. Barcelona today is in the throes of such a historic convergence; but in this time and place, the favored artistic tool is the skillet. Not just in Barcelona but throughout Spain, audacious young chefs are opening exciting new restaurants. "The most interesting chefs in the world today are coming out of Spain," Marc Veyrat, who runs two Michelin-three-star restaurants in the French Savoie, told me recently. "They are not conservatively following tradition. They know to dare, dare."

Over the past century, the most artistically daring region of Spain has been Catalonia, with its capital, Barcelona, at the epicenter. Picasso, Miró, and Dali were all Catalans, either by birth or acclamation. I thought repeatedly of those artists while in Barcelona in September to visit its vanguard of new restaurants. The inversion and fragmentation of familiar shapes, the erotic jokes, the splashes of bold and surprising color: All of the things I love in the paintings of these modern masters were now coming to me on a plate. Walking to and from the restaurants, past the curvaceous, dreamlike buildings of the "Modernisme" movement (Catalonia's version of Art Nouveau), I felt I had left the realm of the practical and entered the kingdom of the imagination.

Much of the credit for Barcelona's vigorous culinary scene goes to Ferran Adrià, the wizard of El Bulli, two hours north of the city. Catalonia has had other great chefs?most notably Santi Santamaria, who is still going strong at Racó de Can Fabes in Sant Celoni. But Adrià stands apart: In my opinion he is the most thrilling chef in the world today. Joël Robuchon, who dominated haute cuisine at the end of the 20th century, has called him "the best cook on the planet." The ingenious breakthroughs of Adrià?who, although only 40, has been cooking at El Bulli for two decades?are now copied at restaurants everywhere. Foam sauces, made with a nitrous oxide charger, and warm gelatins, which don't require chilling to keep their shape, have quickly become clichés when pumped out by more prosaic hands. But Adrià's philosophy has been even more influential than his technical discoveries. "For a long time, people just made food this way, this way, this way, without thinking," says Jordi Vilà, the gifted 29-year-old chef of Barcelona's Alkimia. "Ferran Adrià asked why, why, why? So now everyone asks why?but without his capacity."

While no one may have emerged to rival Adrià, the next generation of Catalan chefs is creating everyday marvels. Jordi Vilà is a perfect example. At Alkimia, his brand-new restaurant in Barcelona's Eixample district, he will reimagine something fundamental to Catalan cuisine, such as a romesco sauce. The classic romesco is a nutty, garlicky specialty of Tarragona (southwest of Barcelona) made with dried sweet pepper and tomato. Vilà replaces the pepper with dried-pepper oil?and adds strawberries. "The idea of putting strawberries into romesco didn't come from Adrià, but it is an Adrià-like idea," he says. Wary of coming off as a Ferran wannabe, he offers just one foam on his fall menu?a palate cleanser of gin-and-tonic yogurt espuma atop diced green apple and served in a martini glass. He uses warm gelatins sparingly as well, in a delicious guinea-fowl terrine and accompanying a large sardine known in Catalan as a caballa.

At Alkimia, a stark, pure-white room where the sculptural black vases contain not a single flower, the menu is sprinkled with quotation marks?meaning that, as with the romesco, the dishes are not precisely what you would expect. The guinea-fowl terrine, for instance, is accompanied by a "guacamole" of green apples and pistachios. Another appetizer, the "fried egg," is actually composed of a ring of cauliflower cream flavored with candied lemon and caramelized onion; the central "yolk" is a scoop of unsweetened egg-yolk ice cream, dolloped with sevruga caviar (another kind of egg) to add salt and crunch.

Deconstructivist cooking, pioneered by El Bulli, breaks a familiar dish down into its components, so that you see the original in a new way. Unlike literary or architectural deconstructivism, which usually produces unreadable tomes or uninhabitable buildings, the best deconstructivist cooking is strange but delicious. Vilà transforms the Costa Brava specialty arròs negre by pairing the sweet local squid with rice that has not merely been cooked until creamy (as the classic recipe dictates) but actually creamed, so it forms a tasty puddle on the plate, ringed by black squid ink. Instead of dousing his steak tartare with the customary olive oil, he tops it with a scoop of unsweetened olive-oil ice cream, adding a cold, unctuous accent to a familiar dish. He applies the Adrià philosophy, but with his own signature. "This is Catalan food, but it is not traditional," he says.

Throughout Barcelona I keep encountering untraditional food that still stays within hailing distance of Spanish harbors. (Actually, thanks to its unusually multicultural history, Spanish cuisine encompasses much of the globe.) At Hisop, another spare, stylish restaurant slightly off the beaten path on the northern edge of the Eixample, I talk with the young chefs, Oriol Ivern, 27, and Guillem Pla, 26. The restaurant's high-gloss red-and-black interior smartly sets off the brick vaulted ceiling in the rear dining room. The wall-mounted vases, each holding a long-stemmed red rose, are shaped like test tubes. Fittingly so, as this is a restaurant, a laboratory if you will, conducive to experimentation. "We take traditional flavors and present them in a modern way," Ivern says. "We want to open the mind. We want to renovate the classical plate." A "melon salad" comes in a small liqueur glass: a purée of green melon topped brilliantly with a little clump of spicy mâche leaves. The delicious subspecies of local squid (the Catalans have almost as many words for squid as the Eskimos do for snow) comes with a purée of white salsify, a green pesto of wild arugula, and a drizzle of orange sweet-pepper oil.

The most rewarding dish at Hisop is a rosy pigeon breast, served with two sweet purées: one of pears (the pairing of meat with sweet fruit is traditional in Catalan cuisine, and duck with pears is a classic) and the other of tomato confit. What makes the pigeon truly memorable, however, is a high-design touch: it comes with a green marble slab holding little heaps of different salts (smoked, gray, red, fleur de sel) and peppers (white, black, pink, Szechuan, Jamaican). Like a chemist, you get to manipulate the variables in this experiment. As a reward for your labors, you might have a chocolate madeleine soaked in rose syrup and served with a strawberry-pepper ice cream that packs a wickedly satisfying kick. And the ice-cold green tea is served with a caipirinha sorbet that is an adaptation of an El Bulli signature?an homage, like the quote from a Bach chorale in the Berg Violin Concerto.

It takes a little while to realize that the traditional food of Catalonia can be very weird indeed, even before it falls into the hands of an auteur. I come across many dishes I think are simply bizarre modern concoctions?pork-stuffed squid in a chocolate-almond sauce, say, or salt cod with honey?only to find that their provenance goes back centuries. I love one dish at Cata 181, a sleek, trendy tapas bar that is renowned for its wine list but, according to deputy chef Santi Rebes, is patronized primarily for its cuisine. (Head chef Teresa Olivella spends most of her time these days running the family butcher shop down the street.) Late one night, as I'm ordering small plates to accompany the extraordinary selection of Spanish wines available in small carafes, lightning strikes. A dish arrives containing two thick, soft discs made of pig trotters, accompanied by dried figs, walnuts, an oval scoop of honey ice cream, and a sauce made from a reduction of fortified sweet muscatel wine. It seems outrageously original, until I discover that in the Empordà region of Catalonia a sweetened pig's-foot flan is a traditional dessert.

I have a similar experience at Santa Maria, a handsome restaurant with rough-plastered gray walls, mauve pipes, and bare light bulbs atop long steel poles, in the newly gentrified El Born district?a neighborhood whose chic scruffiness reminds me of New York's Lower East Side. Everything here by the appealingly earnest chef, Paco Guzman, is rooted in Spanish cuisine, with a modern presentation and the occasional unexpected ingredient. We start our meal with Szechuan-pepper-spiked yucca chips and proceed to a round fish-and-shrimp croquette with thinly sliced plum and hoisin sauce. Next is a preparation of a wild mushroom called ous de reig (the Catalans are mad for mushrooms); its caps are sliced thin and stir-fried with asparagus and snow peas and its stems are stewed and served with a salad of baby greens. On to a very tasty shark that is prettily accompanied by carrots and okra in an orange red-pepper sauce and flavored with cumin, garlic, oregano, vinegar, and baby chives. Then the meat course appears, in the form of botifarra, a lightly cured pork sausage, accompanied by creamy white beans and cèpe mushrooms, with a lacing of green, fruity olive oil. "Typical Catalonian food," says the deep-voiced, beautiful blonde transsexual waitress, as she sets the plate on our table. And it is traditional?as is "she," in a quotation-mark sort of way.

That's the thing about Barcelona: The histrionic, the outrageous, the wildly colorful are all incorporated into a whole that's surprisingly harmonious. It helps that everyone seems obsessed with good design, arranging bizarre and more "normal" elements into assemblages that please the senses. Flavors are intense, colors supersaturated, the risks extreme, yet in the end, just about everything is tasteful. At Santa Maria, I'm reminded that this is not just the city of Gaudí's Sagrada Familia but also of Almodóvar's All About My Mother.

Guzman, 30, opened Santa Maria almost four years ago in a former wood store in what was then an unsavory district. He had worked at several high-end restaurants, including Reno in Barcelona, and then spent a year traveling in Japan and Africa. "I wanted my restaurant to have paper mats on the tables," he says. "I wanted that you can come here for a degustation menu, or you can come at 8:30 and have chicken wings before going to the cinema." He credits El Bulli for inspiring a new model of sophisticated dining in Barcelona. "Ten years ago you could not make a place like this here," he says. "Our generation, we are all between 30 and 35, and we have another concept about food. Before, it was classical French and luxury. El Bulli is experimental. It opened the minds of customers." At the same time, Guzman acknowledges that some of his new-sounding dishes actually revive old recipes. "The shark is a dish from Andalusia, with cumin from the Moors," he says. "You put ginger in meat and say that this is something new, when in the Middle Ages we used ginger, cinnamon, cardamom with meat." He wants to be innovative, but only up to a point. "My food must be healthy, not too expensive, not too bizarre, but interesting, to make your brain happy," he says.

Two other El Born restaurants are also in the forefront of new Catalan cuisine. Down the street is Comerç 24, even more stylish than Santa Maria, with a yellow-tiled open kitchen, gray steel columns, and gray tiled floors. Large glass vases enclose individual long-stemmed red roses like goldfish in bowls.

Comerç 24, which opened in June 2001, is the showplace of Carles Abellán, 38, a veteran of El Bulli. Indeed, it's the only restaurant in Barcelona that Adrià recommends unconditionally. "Carles Abellán surely understands our spirit," Adrià told me. "He was here nine years, and we have talked often in the kitchen. I think that Comerç 24 is very nice because it is accessible to all the customers. It's fun." Abellán himself emphasizes that he is not aspiring to the rarefied heights of El Bulli. "I don't want to be super-creative, I want to be medium-creative," he says. "I want classic products with sauces and foams?creativity un pocito. The creative process is very laborious." The relaxed dining room has tall tables and barstools, and some of the tapas-style dishes are served in sardine cans. The night I'm there, everyone is eating solid Catalan cooking, with a few highlights that recall Abellán's résumé: a foam of red vermouth as a welcoming cocktail, an aerated mayonnaise to moisten asparagus, a yogurt-mint emulsion with the lamb brochette, a soy foam in which to dip the onions tempura.

There's far more adventurous food just around the corner, at Espai Sucre, where everything, including the concept, is unique. Espai Sucre means "sugar space," and the house logo is an ant. It's a dessert restaurant?not desserts like chocolate profiteroles or crème brûlée, but showstoppers that commandeer the spotlight. Like so many of the Barcelona inventions that seem ridiculous at first glance, the idea of a dessert restaurant, on reflection, makes a certain kind of Catalan sense. Working with the physical properties of sugar, chocolate, flour, butter, and eggs (that, of course, is just the beginning), the dessert chef is a kind of scientist; and the assemblage of some of the more baroque desserts could, translated into stone and tile, be Modernisme masterpieces. Why relegate such creations to the end of a meal?

Espai Sucre was opened two years ago by Jordi Butrón, 35, the culinary personality, after Adrià, whom other chefs in Barcelona mention most frequently. Albert Adrià, Ferran's brother and partner, who for many years made desserts at El Bulli, says Butrón "makes the best desserts in Spain."

From the evidence of the five-course tasting menu I have, Butrón may be the most daring dessert chef in the world. Cold tea soup with spiced-tea ice cream and surrounded by puréed and minced tropical fruits and fine-chopped macadamia nuts is the relatively simple opener. By the third dessert, we're up to peppered milk with a yellow citrus cream, slivered Granny Smith apples, toffee, and a few spicy arugula leaves; it has the effect of a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. The fifth and most high-flown construction is a tea cream (flavored with smoky lapsang souchong), a black sesame wafer, a pool of unsweetened yogurt, a coffee-and-chocolate cake, sweet grapes, and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. It has met with some customer resistance, but it completely conquers me. To accent the smokiness and complement the chocolatiness, I follow the waiter's suggestion and sip a small glass of peaty Scotch whisky. During the day Espai Sucre operates as a cooking school, devoted to the perfection of the dessert chef's art. Transforming one course into an entire five-course meal may be the most radical trick of culinary deconstruction to be found in Barcelona today.

The restaurant scene in Barcelona is changing constantly, and a visit to a place called Ot provides valuable perspective. When it opened six years ago in the atmospheric Gràcia district, a short walk north of the Eixample, Ot was a trailblazer: It had the vision and courage to offer an ambitious tasting menu in a tiny setting, without the fawning waiters and damask tablecloths of traditional Francophile establishments. Brightly painted in orange, green, and turquoise, with blond wood accents, it was the prototype of the new generation of Barcelona restaurants.

Ot is still a charming place, with a helpful and appealing young staff. But as I eat my way through the menu?an aperitif of peppery coconut milk in a shot glass; a codfish foam with tomatoes, olives, and mandarin oranges; a peanut "vichyssoise" with quail eggs, cabbage, and carrot; a deconstructed suquet (the Catalan fish, potato, and tomato stew); pigeon with popcorn; and a petit-four tray of chocolates and Rice Krispies bars?all I can see is the looming figure of Ferran Adrià, simplified, like a cartoon. One of Ot's founding chefs, Oriol Lagé, worked in Adrià's catering operation back in 1994, and he may have taken away too many specifics. Menus featuring a lineup of foams, deconstructed creams, and novelty ingredients already seem old-fashioned. What will never be passé, though, is Adrià's true gift to the restaurant scene in Barcelona. It's what Picasso in his day provided to the art world: the feeling that, at this moment, all the rules have changed and anything is possible.

 

Lubow recommends: what to order

 

? ALKIMIA "Fried egg" appetizer, with cauliflower cream, unsweetened egg-yolk ice cream, and sevruga caviar; terrine of guinea fowl with pistachio-and-green-apple "guacamole" and trumpet-of-death mushrooms; squid with creamed rice and squid ink. $95; tasting menu, $30; At 79 Carrer Indústria; 207-61-15.

? CATA 181 Pig's trotters with figs, walnuts, and honey ice cream; three squares of rare tuna, each topped with a different mustard; sugared cruixents of cheese and tomato. $25; tasting menu, $20. At 181 Carrer València; 323-68-18.

? COMERÇ 24 Asparagus with mayonnaise foam; sardines marinated in balsamic vinegar or fried in Parmesan cheese; onions tempura with a soy-foam dip. $40; "festival menu" of tapas, $40. At 24 Carrer Comerç; 319-21-02.

? HISOP Purée of green melon topped with spicy mâche; pigeon with sweet purées and arrays of different salts and peppers; chocolate madeleine soaked in rose syrup, with strawberry-pepper ice cream. $80; tasting menu, $35. At 9 Passatge Marimon; 241-32-33.

? ESPAI SUCRE Smoky tea cream made from Lapsang souchong, with yogurt, a black sesame wafer, grapes, a coffee-and-chocolate cake, and chocolate ice cream. Seatings at 9 and 11:30 p.m. $ Five-course menu, $30; simpler three-course menu, $20; savory dishes, $9-$11. At 53 Carrer Princesa; 268-16-30.

? OT Peanut "vichyssoise" with quail eggs, cabbage, and carrot; a deconstructed suquet (a fish, potato, and tomato stew); pigeon with shiitake mushrooms, baby corn, and popcorn. $ Prix fixe, $40. At 25 Carrer Torres; 284-77-52.

? SANTA MARIA Tiburon shark with carrots and okra in a red-pepper sauce; botifarra (pork sausage) with white beans and cèpe mushrooms; parfait of coffee foam, mango cream, and white chocolate; rice pudding with cinnamon ice cream. $ $30; tasting menu, $30. At 17 Carrer Comerç; 315-12-27.

Arthur Lubow profiled art dealer and collector Ernst Beyeler in the July/August issue of Departures.

The country code for Spain is 34; city code for Barcelona is 93. Unless otherwise noted, prices reflect a three-course dinner for two without wine or service.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

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