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Feature Wed Aug 22 2007

The Bar(celona) Has Been Raised

My feet hurt.

Even with the best sole-supporting footware, in this case Klogs (their spelling), and specially fitted insoles that were a gift from a thoughtful friend... my dogs are barking.

After working at the Sherbourne in Dublin nearly nonstop for the last couple weeks, I have a bit of R&R coming and have chosen to spend it in Barcelona checking out two things: tapas and Gaudi. I've been interested in both for years.

Most cultures have a version of tapas: dim sum and panchan. Chef's degustation or tasting menus. Small plates and mezze. Antipasto or kiyaseki. It's a way of eating I embrace entirely.

Antonio Gaudi was an architect best known for his surrealistic spires that appear to be dripping. Check out La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Casa Mila or Parc Guell — Unesco protected World Heritage sites, like the Pyramids or Great Wall. As a child, I first saw his work in an oversized art book at the library now cultural center on Randolph and Michigan and have been fascinated ever since. I'm going to spend this unexpected bonus time going somewhere I've always wanted. Over the years, I've consulted on a few near-authentic tapas/small plates restaurants without having visited Spain. Going to the source is invaluable for authentic cuisine. Culinary research.

Armed with a list of "must eat" places given to me by Thierry, our French pastry chef at the Shelbourne. His wife is a childhood friend of Ferran Adria, whose restaurant El Bulli (not too far from Barcelona) is considered by many to be the finest in the world. When Thierry heard I was Barcelona bound, he offered to hook me up and proceded to write me out a "greatest hits" list of his favorite spots. Working my way through that list I had some stunning food. A professional hook-up — cut to the chase, I had a ringside seat at le grand bouffe.

"Si Corazon, and oh so muy sabroso!"

My plans are to find my hotel, start the binge and document the excess.

I lost weight during the Shlebourne opening — just not that hungry while feeding the masses, besides working during normal peoples meal times. That won't last long in Barcelona. I've always eaten what I want when I want, an inclination or natural affinity which played no small part in my eventual career choice. I've always tended to eat late as well, the natural behavior of the Spanish. We should get along famously.

First meal was near the hotel, which usually means mediocre. It was. Boquerenos, crab with pimenton, beef empanada and bacalao fritters. Good, nice even, but it wasn't the transformative experience that I'd lusted after all these years.

Dinner rocked though.

Fresh as it Gets

El Lobito, just off the Port de Mar... Revelation and epiphany come to mind. Not since working in Japan have I witnessed the simple and pristine elevated to this degree. Thierry had written "mariscos" next to the name so I chose to check it out first.

The fixed menu for 55 Euros included ensalada con atun, jamon Serrano Iberico (even better than prosciutto Parma and not available in the States), boquerones, mejillones, tallarinas, calamares, cigalas, chipirones, pescadilla, rape, lenguado, lubina a la Sal and assorted pastries for dessert.

Most fish I knew, some I didn't. All, bar none, were mind-blowing.

Here the ingredient is king. The freshest fish from the Mediterranean, often alive until cooked for your meal, prepared simply ala plancha or possibly fried, then drizzled with good local olive oil and sea salt. Finito. No stacks. No foams, or in these parts where it originated, espumas. No names of farms or fishermen on the menu. Just straightforward nothing but the freshest possible food on a plate.

The menu changes daily. They buy what's best at the Mercado every morning and close when they run out of food.

This is a meal I keep going back to in my head. Among the best meals I've ever eaten. It literally haunts me.

The next morning, list in hand I walk to the Mercado de la Boqueria, the central food market with hundreds of stalls selling the type of food I ate last night, only raw. This is where chefs or anyone passionate about food, shops.

Fantastic displays of exotic fruits and vegetables immediately necessitated the purchase of mangosteens, as a moth to the flame, having become addicted to them in India and having no access to them in the States. Numerous fresh fruit drinks are available iced down such as moro (dark blackberries) or pithiya from Vietnam, also last sampled in the East.

But the seafood! Cigalas, langoustines, gambas, cockles, sepia, calamares, sea urchin, octopus, dry cod aka bacalao, razor clams, tuna loin, oysters, sole, sea bass, monkfish and sardines to name but a few, a lot of it still moving. Sprinkle water on them and the whole table quivers.

Huge primal cuts of meat or Jamons Serrano Iberico (50 or so) hang from hooks in the meat stalls. Rabbits, pigeons, chickens, ducks, pig's heads, trotters, intestines, tongue... any and all unimaginable offal.

Pinotxo Bar

Pinotxo Bar sits just off to the right of the entrance of the Mercado. Thierry said it's Ferran Adria's favorite tapas bar and not to miss it. This is where chefs congregate after making their early morning purchases for the freshest of the freshest ingredients most recently pulled from the sea or earth to be used later in their restaurants. After shopping, you'll find them here taking a break, eating comfort food, drinking an aperitif and bullshitting at the bar. At 8am.

Pinotxo Bar is named after the owner, who has a major proboscis resembling Pinocchio, a marionette of which hangs in the corner. He holds court every day wearing a loud vest and kibitzing with the crowd, mainly regulars.

I want to resample some of what I had last night to see if it was a fluke or not. It wasn't. Another smash hit. Razor clams are five to six inches long and thin. Langoustines are sweeter than gambas or prawns, but for me, the sweetest of all are the cigalas, a small hard shell cross between shrimp in size and lobster in look. If you're sitting at the bar, most everything is prepared in front of you on the plancha or flat top grill, finished with olive oil and sea salt, placed on a plate and served to you.

That's it.

The bar overlooks the hot line and seats about 15 with a few tables surrounding. The lobster and langoustines I started with were still alive when placed on the plancha so were covered with a clear rectangular Pyrex loaf pan so they wouldn't walk away from being my lunch. I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me who had complemented my ordering skills. A fellow chef, he suggested a traditional tapa not written on the menu that is one of the "especials de la casa". A sauté of small white beans tossed with baby calamari and its ink, sprayed with aged balsamic from an atomizer, drizzled with the ever-present olive oil and dusted with sea salt. Fantastico! The textures of the soft baby beans and the tremendously tender calamari offset with the sea flavor from the ink, the acid of the balsamic and the herbal fruitiness/pepper accents of the olive oil with the grainy salt of the sea. Ambrosia prances in my mouth.

A Wrong Turn

The rest of the day was spent walking around Las Ramblas, the touristy shopping street the Mercado is on. Shopped some, caught a cathedral or three and finished at the Picasso Museum, which was most excellent.

Later that evening en route to another on my hit list, my cabbie persuaded me to change my game plan and take his dinner suggestion instead. Caught up in the magic of the moment, I acquiesced and went with it. Bad idea. Huge mistake. Probable kickbacks involved.

The place was filled with clueless tourists eating poor quality, overcooked and under-flavored food — and to add insult to injury, they later tried to burn me. Had it been even mediocre I would have let it slide, but it wasn't so I didn't. Four courses. Three bad.

Tepid soup with rubbery seafood. Dishwater with pencil erasers comes to mind. Fried tiny whole green peppers sprinkled with sea salt were the highlight of the meal. That segued into burnt saffronless paella with more overcooked seafood. The direct opposite of what I've been eating. A glass of some young wine and a Crème Catalana, a traditional Spanish dessert described like flan. Wrong. It's more like Crème Brulee, which is my nemesis. I don't like that dessert and would never order it on purpose. I'm of the opinion that the world does not need another chicken caesar nor Crème Brulee. You won't find them on my menus unless forced by the boss man. I figure if you want either, there are 10 other places in a mile radius you can get one. My career has been based upon unique. Not un-unique.

The final insult was the bill. They charged me for a bottle of wine. I had ordered a glass and barely drank even half of that swill. I barely ate a quarter of the paella — not that I wanted more, but then without a word, it was just whisked away from me. I had one spoonful of the Crème Catalana. The final bill was equal to last night's extravaganza, and I balked. Just because I'm American doesn't mean I'm stupid. It's not like I voted for George Bush. I said as much and requested they adjust the bill and after mucho reluctance, gesturing and telenovela-like drama, they did.

Thanks to my Espanola de cocina I do know what "pinche puto" means. Back at ya, compadre.

Back on Track with Cal Pep

The next day was devoted to Gaudi. Started at Sagrada Familia, but as the master left instructions over100 years ago for it's ongoing construction, there were cranes and scaffolding around the entire Cathedral. The famous dripping spires were obscured considerably and a bit of a disappointment.

Next up was another can't miss tapas suggestion from the list. Cal Pep. Mike, the chef de cuisine at the Shelbourne, had given me this one. He'd researched it with his ex-boss Chef Gray Kunz a couple years ago for another project. He also suggested I arrive early, at least a half-hour or so before opening to secure a seat. Gracias Mike.

Within about 15 minutes, there was a line behind me of about 25 people. Cal Pep has one long counter that faces the hot line and seats about 20 with a few tables in the back for larger parties. You file in, sit and eat as the overflow wait their turn standing directly behind you, salivating, while staring a hole into your back wishing you to leave.

It opened around 1:30. I left around 4, wasted and in a food coma.

After a while Chef Josep Figueres took to just sending me food until I said "no mas." Eaten while drinking a cold crisp fruity white: Clams with peppercini, calamari, mariscos mixto which included a few assorted baby fish, so small (1/2 the size of your little fingernail) fried to perfection. When I asked what they were, Josep laughed and said "poquito fishies." A Tortilla Espana con patata smeared with aioli. Langoustines with peppercini and caramelized onions. Fried artichoke hearts. A variation on the beans and calamari I had yesterday at Pinotxo Bar. This one had mushy peas, gambas and mussels in addition to the calamari w/the ink and the small white beans. The only misstep was the last course. Meat was not what I'd come for. Although seared tenderloin with rosemary fried potatoes was nice, I wasn't there for the meat. Don't need it, I live in Chicago.

Lunch ended with dos espumas (foams) ala Adria. An intense lemon and another of crème Catalana with burnt sugar on top, served in shot glasses with demitasse spoons. Nice. This variation on a passé theme I can deal with.

I left at 4, staggered to a cab and directed him to take me to Parc Guell, a Gaudi designed park on the outskirts of town. Magnificent. Walt Disney lifted plenty from Gaudi. A keen observer of nature, Gaudi incorporated natural forms into his designs. Bee hives, opium poppies, corn, fossils, exoskeletons of pythons, bones from chimps, tortoise shells, sponges, sea plants and tree branches can all be seen throughout his work. The result is stunning genius.

Three hours or so walking the park and head back into the city to see two more Gaudi masterpieces. La Casa Mila (La Pedrera), the wave-like apartment building with the Gaudi Museum on the top floors, and Casa Batlló are on what's called the "block of discord" in Barcelona's Golden Square. Think Michigan or 5th Avenue. All world-class designer names are represented. I ended up walking into the night towards the general direction of my hotel.

As much as I desired, I could not eat another bite. I just wasn't hungry. Feeling cheated and in mid pout, a plan slowly formulated. Go back to the hotel and pack so I can rise early and go back to Pinotxo Bar before leaving the next afternoon. Knowing that gave me comfort.

Back to Pinotxo

A 7am wake-up call gets me to Pinotxo by 8.

They recognized me from two days prior and treated me like an old friend. Sitting at the counter, the smell of fresh seafood pervades. Glass refrigerators, sushi style, run its length filled with today's bounty, with the hot line directly behind it. A pannini press grills coarse rough bread that is then rubbed with half a cut tomato and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt: Barcelona bruschetta, aka pan de tomat.

A double deep fry built into the counter next to it. Then a plancha and a four-burner stove with a water spigot mounted on the backsplash wall behind it. A deli station, cutting board and a two-tiered sink with shelves above holding mis en place. Utilitarian, economical, concise and gleamingly efficient.

Breakfast, cooked by the vested owner's son and grandson consists of clams con huevos cooked in a hot, well-seasoned wok. Olive oil, baby clams, parsley then one egg scrambled into the mixture. Finito. Next up, my favorite, Cigalas, thrown onto the plancha still alive, trapped under a Pyrex dome with a squirt of olive oil. 4-5 mins later, five are on my plate.

This time, unlike the last, the grandson smiles, pulls out a needle nose pliers and a dental pick and hands them to me to help coax every succulent morsel with considerably less effort than a couple days ago. I'm approaching regular status on my second visit. Razor clams, same routine. Plancha, olive oil, sea salt, plate. Café con leche and I'm done by 9:30am. I'll be working dinner service back in Dublin tonight.

It's not as if you can absorb a place, cuisine or culture in so short a period of time, but you may gain insight, respect or inspiration and that is a wonderful by-product of travel. Barcelona had a profound impact upon me and will be a hard act to follow back in the States.


Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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