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When you think of Barcelona’s gastronomic scene, what comes to mind? Undoubtedly traditional Spanish tapas, a rich wine culture, and most likely the transporting molecular gastronomy of Ferran and Albert Adría, among others. For some time now, the city’s ambitious food scene has been as much of a draw for the coast side destination as it’s many Gaudis, golden beaches, and rich artistic heritage.
Papas bravas, jamon serrano, cheesy cod croquettes, ample glasses of rioja, side by side with surrealistic next-life fantasies (think: the delectable squid at Enigma which masquerades as sushi rice, saffron brioche melted and wrapped in parmesan to look like a pasta pillow) make Barcelona’s dining scene a rare mix of the long-established and the cutting-edge.
At the newly opened Barcelona Edition, one woman, Sussie Villarico—alongside her romantic and culinary partner, El Bulli-alumna Sebastian Mazzola—is introducing a new element to the Catalonian locale. Villarico is Barcelona’s first female sake sommelier, and if you talk to her and Mazzola, you’ll find that the city is starting to experiment with pairing its long innovative food with the unexpected new spirit—traditional Japanese sake.
“It’s definitely something new to see sake on a menu,” said the 31-year-old Villarico, who is originally from Denmark and of Danish and Pilipino heritage. “Right now, it’s becoming more and more in gastronomic restaurants because people are finally starting to discover how well sake pairs with food. It’s very versatile. Sake is not like what they think it is."
Villarico continued to explain, "People tend to confuse it with something very strong. They drink it traditionally in the small cups, sake cups, which people confuse with the shot glass. So, we have our own private menu, which pairs with sake, which we’ve been introducing very slowly.”
Villarico started out as a wine sommelier before discovering her love of sake during a trip to Japan in TKYEAR. She and Mazzola met at while working at the Adría’s 41 Grados—the hyper-conceptual 16-seat bar that serves 41 mini-courses to each diner. “We found out that we worked really well together,” grinned Villarico.
The pair went on to work together at the brothers’ Peruvian-Japanese standout, Pakta, before launching a unique pop-up series and this week, opening the three restaurants at Ian Schrager’s Barcelona Edition. “At Pakta, we [created a] tasting menu, So, to find the pairing for each bite—that will be a lot of pairings,” explained Villarico.
“We found with sake, that it was actually very easy to pair, and you can actually pair it with different dishes without changing the sake and it will still work. We both discovered: wow; you can do it with spicy, the ceviche, different dishes.” Traveling back and forth to Japan, Villarico developed an expertise—and close relationships with “very small, very artisanal” sake breweries that aren’t often introduced outside of Japan.
“We especially enjoy here in Spain to introduce sake with more local food,” said Villarico. “That’s interesting because that totally changes peoples’ minds.” Sake, she explains in Bar Veraz, the vegetable-driven, seasonally-focused restaurant in the Edition, is actually the drink with the highest amount of umami.
While umami was discovered in Japan, “there are a lot of ingredients in the Mediterranean that have a lot of umami,” she continued. “For example, ripe tomatoes, shellfish, parmesan cheese, truffles, ham, and if you pair a sake with a high amount—because it’s not all sake that has a high amount of umami, but there are some—but if you pair one with a high amount with these ingredients, it can have a very nice effect.”
So, for example, the mushroom risotto served at Bar Veraz pairs quite well with an umami-rich sake, suggested Villarico. “Then for the [hotel’s] rooftop [a Latin American-Japanese pool bar], you can maybe go for some lighter styles of sake, more fruity styles, because you have spicy, you have sour, you have sweetness in the dishes,” said Villarico.
“It’s not the first that will come to your mind maybe, but we still have it listed in the wine list so people will see that it is an option,” reflected the sommelier. “There are a lot of artists, musicians, living in Barcelona, and many of them enjoy having sake as an inspiration. We also always serve as a tasting menu [in our pop-ups]."
Villarico continued, "that has been since the beginning, changing all the time. So, it could be Peruvian food, but always paired with Japanese sake. That was our way to introduce sake to the people of Barcelona: that you can actually enjoy sake just as you can enjoy wine.”