Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paco Meralgo (Barcelona)

September 2012

Calle Muntaner 171, Barcelona
Tel:+34 934 30 90 27

When we were planning our trip to Barcelona, one of the more difficult things we had to figure out was where to eat on a Sunday, when most restaurants are usually closed for the day. We didn't want to settle for one of the touristy places along Passeig de Garcia or Rambla de Catalunya, so it was important for us to find a good restaurant open that day. After some research, it was clear that we needed to try Paco Meralgo in Eixample, which was open both for lunch and dinner on Sunday. They generally took reservations for their table seats, but we were told that the bar counter seats had a brisk turnover (they obviously hadn't had many Singaporean diners there yet; we usually sit at tapas bars all day long) and that there wasn't a real need to reserve a seat at the bar.

We landed in Barcelona early that morning after a 15 hour flight and had to walk around Barcelona all morning while waiting for our hotel to check us in and the restaurants to open. By 11am we were famished and had to settle for a few small plates of tapas at TapaTapa along Passeig de Gracia (the food was cheap and decent for a tourist joint but it was troubling that the majority of its clientele was Asian), however, we were careful not to ruin our appetite for our lunch at Paco Meralgo after. By 1pm when Paco Meralgo opened, we were promptly at their doors and were the first seated at the bar (it was quite obvious to them that we were hungry).

We liked the interior of the restaurant. It was modern and had good visibility of the street outside (the restaurant is located at a cross junction in Eixample and we enjoyed watching the world go by through the large glass windows). At the bar counter were glass cases which enclosed raw and cooked food, not unlike a sushi restaurant. The only complaint we had was that they played a bizarre music selection at the restaurant, which included songs by Richard Marx, ABBA, the Carpenters, mixed with modern hits by U2, Taio Cruz etc. Listening to that eclectic collection of music was almost suicide-inducing at times.

The waiters were very friendly and were quick to explain some of their tapas as well as make some recommendations, while pouring us some cava. They had an English menu, but we basically went with whatever the waiter suggested instead. After taking our orders, the food took a while to arrive as the chefs needed to fire up the kitchen, but when the first dishes arrived, the rest came in quick succession, at a pace not dissimilar to that of a sushi counter. The first was a huge serving of bread with tomato and olive oil, then followed by delicious Bellota Jamon.

Tempura spring onion was next, and was surprisingly good despite my lack of enthusiasm towards spring onion (the batter was light and fluffy while the spring onion provided the sweetness).

We've had croquettes at tapas bars in Singapore but our first in Spain really blew us away. The fish and seafood croquettes were amazing, and tasted like they were made with seafood bouillabaisse and finely minced fish and prawns.

The big spicy Bombas (meat balls) were equally good, and were topped with a very spicy jalepeno paste and mayonnaise.

The local octopus with candied onion didn't do so well with us, as the octopus was quite chewy and despite the sweetness of the caramalised onions, we felt that insufficient seafood stock was used in cooking this dish.

The last of our savouries was the breaded suckling kid cutlets which were very juicy but were quite small portions (of meat) for that price and didn't appear to be breaded at all. Nonetheless, we were quite sated by that point and were grateful that the portions of this dish weren't any bigger.

For desserts, we had the catalan custard which was essentially a creme brulee but with a custard which tasted more eggy.

Finally, a strange looking dessert arrived: the Torrija de Sta. Teresa (i.e. catalan french toast). We had this before at Catalunya in Singapore and weren't particularly impressed, and the one we were just served looked even more suspicious. But when we tucked into it, it all finally made sense. The most humble dish of the meal was also the best. This was no mere french toast; it was very light bread soaked with copious amounts of custard and then deep-fried to give and crispy outer layer, with a sprinkling of cinnamon powder. We loved it.

Final Thoughts: The food here was very good and the restaurant spacious and comfortable, and we enjoyed our Sunday lunch. The torrija was so memorable (and the best we had tried during our 15 day Spain trip) and as a result we went back to Paco Meralgo two more times (once after our lunch at Hisop a short walk away, and the other at midnight after dinner at Tickets on our last day in Spain) just to eat that. At lunch the first time round, the crowd was mostly local, but when we got there late at night again, there was a large tourist crowd. Given that this is open on Sunday, it is top of our list of places to eat at on a day when most other good tapas places are closed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Catalunya (Singapore)

August 2012

The Fullerton Pavilion, 82 Collyer Quay, Singapore
Tel: +65 6534 0886

Update: Catalunya closed its doors in 2016.

Reputations in the world of haute cuisine can sometimes be a dangerous thing. It sets expectations which can inevitably lead to diners being disappointed if the context to which the reputation relates has been changed or is different. Take for example the recent opening of the burger joint, &Made, in Singapore. It is part-owned by the famous 3 Michelin star chef Bruno Menard of Osier Tokyo fame. We've heard friends and others comment that they were expecting much more from &Made by mere fact that it was opened by a top French chef. But the fact is, if you were to visit &Made without prior knowledge of its background, chances are you would have had a decent and probably enjoyable burger meal at prices commensurate to a diner of its nature at its location. It is as if someone like Bruno Menard is not allowed to take it easy and open a simple eatery, and that everything he does must be 3 Michelin star standard (the man is on his sabbatical while Osier is being renovated, by the way).

The same thing (with regard to expectations) could happen to Catalunya, a newly-opened Catalan restaurant in probably one of the best restaurant locations in Marina Bay area. Constructed as a glass-enclosed dome on an artificial platform on the bay, it directly overlooks the landmark Marina Bay Sands casino and the Singapore Flyer. Access to it is by way of a walkway just outside the Fullerton Bay Hotel (which raises questions about how one gets there if it is raining). Catalunya is a collaboration of a handful of Spanish chefs with very impressive CVs, which include stints at places like El Bulli. Before its opening, there was already a buzz around about a new restaurant to be opened by El Bulli chefs, which set a rather high and specific expectation of what the new eatery was going to be all about.

Given the hype, reservations were justifiably hard to come by, but the reservations people at the restaurant were quite proactive in letting us know what other available dates and seatings we could get, despite us not being to get a table on the date we wanted the first time we called.

The bar and tapas area dominated the centre and inner part of the dome, and the main dining area was located on a lowered platform along the circumference of the dome, giving full views of the Marina Bay. The bar and tapas areas took walk-in guests and didn't take reservations (as far as we know), while the dining areas served the same tapas as in the bar but had a wider menu of food. One 'design-flaw' of the restaurant was that the booth tables in the dining room lie directly next to and below the bar counter, allowing patrons at the bar counter to literally look over the diners at the booth seats. 

As is the trend nowadays, the bar was run by a group of very talented cocktail mixologists (all appeared to have come from Spain) who mixed up a couple of really nice drinks for us while we were waiting at our bar for our seats to be ready.

At the dining area, the large window panes gave all diners a perfectly clear view of Marina Bay, in particular, the Marina Bay Sands casino. This would be the ideal location to watch a fireworks show over the bay on New Year's Eve or during the National Day celebrations. And on any other night, diners will usually be treated to the nightly laser show taking place right in front of Marina Bay Sands.

For dinner, we picked out a few tapas dishes from the menu as well as one main course dish and dessert. We paired the meal with a few glasses of Spanish Rioja which weren't memorable.

"Escalibada" with Foie Gras and Smoked Eel: This was a good dish. The eel and foie gras worked well on the base of mushy eggplant.

Tortilla Omelette "Deconstruccion": The best dish of the night, and one which gave a hint of the chefs' El Bulli background. It was layers of liquid and foam in a cocktail glass, which when scooped through to the bottom, gave a very strong and distinctive flavour of the Spanish omelette.

Bombas from "Barceloneta": A classic tapas, this was deep fried potato balls with meat bits. What made it a bit more special than the usual was the chili sauce which accompanied the mayonnaise dressing.

Tomato Salad: We asked for a simple tomato salad to accompany the sucking pig.

Traditional Suckling Pig "Segovian Style": This was the much talked-about main course here. Though it was just the two of us, we were served half a little piglet. It was cooked so tender that the waiter demonstrated cutting it up using a plate (apparently a very Spanish thing). The skin was roasted perfectly to a thin crisp, and was sinfully addictive. The meat was very succulent and tender, and literally fell from the bone. My wife felt it was a tad bit gamey, though I myself enjoyed such flavours. Try as we did, we were not able to finish this and the waiter kindly vacuum-packed the rest for us to take home (we cooked the leftover portion with pasta the next day - it was fantastic!). We don't usually get fazed by big portions of food but this was more suited for three to four persons.

"Torrija" with Milk Ice Cream: After such a filling meal, we were looking forward to a refreshing dessert but unfortunately our choice of dessert this time was a bit simple. This was something which resembled a french toast and vanilla ice cream, neither of which was remarkable.

Final Thoughts: This restaurant is in a great location, on a custom-made platform on the iconic Marina Bay overlooking the Marina Bay Sands casino. When we were there, the cocktails were good, the service very friendly and the ambience buzzing. This was no fine-dining restaurant, but was a hip cocktail and tapas bar with a proper dining area (which served main courses in addition to the tapas). As it turned out, despite the stellar background in molecular gastronomy of the chefs, it appeared that they decided to stay clear of that and introduce traditional Catalan food in a more casual tapas setting instead. The food was good and some dishes were memorable, and together with its predominantly Spanish staff and bartenders, we felt that the restaurant managed to bring to our shores, to some extent, the Catalan cuisine and dining experience. It is certainly a welcome addition to the growing variety and sophistication of the Singapore dining scene.