I’ve been to Spain all of twice. Barcelona in 2001 and then Madrid, a few years later. To say I hated my time in both cities would be an understatement of some sort. I had shoe bite, then food poisoning; I had restaurants refuse me entry and shop keepers deny me service. My handbag got stolen at a wedding reception and the boyfriend of the time… well, less said the better.
That should serve as some context for where I am coming from.
Eckhart Tolle writes: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” Over the past 11 years I have been so committed to hating Spain that I left absolutely no space in my heart or travel schedule to change my mind. It’s been a few years since I forgot what it actually felt like to be in those unpleasant situations. But I didn’t let go – it became a party anecdote, an office joke… Allowing an old story to become the real story is exhausting! Time had come for me to repair my relationship with Barcelona and decide anew where we stand.
The only aim of this trip was to walk the city, eat good food and ensure plenty of cava at breakfast. And get a tan while I’m at it. The magic of Twitter and some well-travelled friends (thank you Sabrina, Saffron, Aki, Maggie, Adarsh) ensured I was armed with enough restaurant names to last me a month. A last-minute gorgeous travel companion in Gina ensured we could now order for two and try more food!
Barcelona’s food was a revelation; a mismatch to the city’s ugly landscape (it’s time to look past Gaudi and the Gothic Quarter) and (mostly) surly people. Gina and I stayed away from five star hotels and Michelin meals to dig into the real magic of the city’s culinary scene – La Boqueria and the city’s tapas bars. Three meals a day weren’t enough for the greedy girls and we had to sneak in an extra tapas or two over the weekend. In no particular order, these are the highlights of my trip (we only ever ordered from the tapas bar, staying away from main course dishes).
A walk through a pretty dodgy area brought us to an unassuming neighbourhood where Lolita Taperia has made her home amongst dog walkers and local residents. Owned by Albert Adrià (yes, related to the El Bulli Adrià), this restaurant is bright and sassy. Lolita is a red-lipsticked bull who watches over the chefs from her place on the main wall. Like almost every tapas bar we visited over the weekend, this one too is very quiet at 8pm. I loved:
- La Burrata Lolita (creamy Burrata with with mustard sprouts, rocket, semi-dried tomato and black tapenade)
- La Gilda ‘Verd Picant’ (Basque ‘piparras’ or long green pepper with a stuffed olive, wrapped by an anchovy)
- El Llom de Tonyina en escabetx lleuger (tuna loin in ‘ponzu’ (marinade of soy, olive oil and natural lemon juice)
- Les ‘Rabas’ de pollastre (crusted chicken nuggets with potato crisps and Kurkuma sauce)
- And of course, Cava.
The kitchen is directed by El Bulli trained Carles Abellan who prepares simple tapas with a unique twist. A rare all day diner-style café, Tapaç24 is all about casual and counters. The service bordered on rude… that is, until we were seated. Soon as we were settled in with our Cava we had attentive help from not one but three wait staff (including, telling me to be careful about leaving my phone around). I loved:
- Bikini Comerç24 (grilled truffle ham and cheese – WOW)
- Iberian ham croquette
- Pa amb tomàquet (available in every restaurant in Barcelona; literally “bread with tomato” in Catalan. The toast is rubbed with tomatoes, garlic, and seasoned with olive oil and salt.)
- A white fish ceviche that was so divine, Gina could not stop talking about it the entire weekend
- And of course, Cava
Barcelona is dead quiet Sundays and Mondays, with more than half the (non-touristy) restaurants and shops closed on these days. Bar Velodromo was one of two restaurants near us that was open seven days of the week. Every review I read tagged it some version of a “Barcelona institution”. Re-opened after nearly a decade with the shutters down, the bistro is art deco stunning with a formica-plated steel bar, mahogany staircase, lime green banquettes, marble floors and a double height ceiling. Legend has it that for most of the 20th century this was a meeting place of the Catalan intelligentsia, underground political groups and the 1960s artistic group known as La Gauche Divine.
Everything on the menu was reasonably priced and it was all excellent. We sat at the bar and pointed at food on the counter. Still hungry, we were grateful for the English menu that was kindly sent our way. The highlight for us though, were two salads we ordered at the end of the meal. Catalan food is extremely meat/fish focused and by Sunday night we were craving something fresh and colourful. Anything fresh and colourful! Gina’s tomato salad and my spinach and orange salad were just the ticket. And of course, Cava. (Bar Velodromo is at Carrer de Muntaner, 213 Barcelona.)
Paco Meralgo, the other restaurant open everyday, means “to eat something”; and eat we did. This is the only restaurant we went back to twice. Like most of our choices this weekend, this menu too has a long list of mostly tapas-style options, with a strong focus on the seafood items. It was also the only meal we had more wine than food and flirted with unsuspecting diners. I loved:
- Zuchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella
- La Bomba – an oozy potato croquette stuffed with a meat and cream sauce, served with a spicy Romesco sauce.
- All the croquetas – meat and seafood
- And of course, Cava
Gina and I wanted to spend Sunday on the beach, and the plan was to begin with brunch at a hot recommendation. We spent the better part of an hour looking for this restaurant but to no avail (we later found out it was closed for August). Nick, a friend’s friend, was playing tour guide for the day and when he saw us in near tears at the news, he took us to Jai-Ca. Nick ordered for us and after the first few dishes I lost track of what I was eating. The highlight however was their “Tigre” – mussels crumb fried in their shells served with a sauce. Not only was this some of the best food I had in the city, it was also the cheapest.
The hot, over-crowded tapas bar was possibly the most authentic Barcelona experience I had the entire trip. Neon signs, food display – shrimps, navajas, calamares, pimientos del pardon, pictures of Barça players on the walls, inordinately long queues, shocking service, and outstanding food – Jai-Ca is easily one of my current top 10 restaurants in Europe. (Jai-Ca is at C/ Ginebra, 13 08003 Barcelona.)
I didn’t get to try a xuxos in the Boqueria. The famous Cal Pep was closed for the Summer and I forgot to look up the address for Dos Palillos. Tickets is booked out for years to come and I don’t know what a Catalan yemas tastes like. But I can live with that. As Tolle said: “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on”. The only reason yesterday’s story seemed so real today is because I insisted on bringing my past into my present. I did that with Barcelona and wonder how many other stories need to be laid to rest?