Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cal Pep (Barcelona)

July 2013

Placa de les Olles, 8, 08003, Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 10 79 61 (no reservations except for tables of 4 or more)

Few will argue that Cal Pep is one of the most famous and perhaps also one of the best traditional tapas restaurants in Barcelona. We have been told to go there by so many of our friends that this time we planned to get there early before they opened for lunch since they didn't take reservations for 2 persons. The queue stretched out pretty quick but fortunately for us we got there 30 minutes in advance and was early enough in the queue to be the first wave of people to be seated at the bar when it opened (if we had missed the first group, we would have had to wait for another hour for the next round of seatings).

Located at the heart of the very idyllic and chic El Born district in Barcelona, Cal Pep is a narrow restaurant dominated by a long bar counter, with seatings for bigger groups in the restaurant area at the back.

Eating at Cal Pep is a noisy and energetic experience. At the counter, they will take your orders or ask if they can make the menu up for you, and when we were there, the gruff but otherwise affable owner Pep Manubens was patrolling the counter area constantly scolding us for trying to eat our food elegantly with our utensils (he kept gesticulating for us to use our hands!). Also, because of the growing queue (which they allowed into the restaurant), we had a row of people standing right behind us watching us eat and mentally willing for us to quickly finish and vacate our seats. So it could be rather stressful, having a crowd of people as hungry as a pack of hyenas breathing down our necks and waiting for us to finish eating and move off.

The tapas on offer here was very traditional, and included local favourites like the tomato and olive oil bread and grilled peppers, which were excellent.

The clams were very fresh and were lightly fried in their own jus, olive oil and salt. They were addictive and delicious.

The tuna tartare was seasoned perfectly and was so good on its own that it didn't need to be eaten with the bread (which was just as well since the bread would unnecessarily fill us up).

Next was the calamari which was also beautifully breaded, and would be one of the best calamari dishes we have had. 

This wasn't on the list of food which the kitchen was supposed to serve to us, but we saw our neighbors at the bar having the Spanish tortilla and it looked delicious. It was slightly ambitious for us to finish 2 large slices each of this egg and potato dish but it was so good we ate it all in no time.

Finally they served us a baked monkfish (it was a whole fish which was then filleted and served to us in individual portions, with a side of baked tomato and potatoes). It was good though perhaps slightly undercooked (which meant that it didn't have the springy texture we love about perfectly cooked monkfish).

For dessert, this was their version of a profiterole, i.e. whipped cream and vanilla ice cream wrapped in a sandwich of choux pastry drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Final Thoughts: We loved our meal here. As simple as it was, this was the embodiment of the traditional tapas experience in Spain. The queue was long, but once seated, the food came out very quickly, and service was prompt but not hurried. The food itself was hearty and unpretentious, and sitting at the counter it was mesmerizing to watch the chefs whip up the food with such efficiency and enthusiasm.

Friday, July 26, 2013

El Quim (Barcelona)

July 2013

Mercado de La Boqueria, La Rambla, 91, 80882, Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 933 01 98 10 (no reservations accepted)

Usually, we don't visit wet markets at home or when we travel, but in Barcelona, the La Boqueria market is a must visit. Along the famous La Rambla street, it is a busy and sometimes chaotic place, with shoppers milling around and shopkeepers moving their cargo (sometimes wet and squishy raw meats or seafood) along the narrow pathways. Meats, seafood, fruits and flowers, this market has everything. This is also the famous market where many chefs, including those from famous restaurants in the city, come to shop for their fresh produce in the morning. And these chefs, when they come to do their marketing, often eat at either of the two tapas restaurants located in the La Boqueria. Of the two, Pinotxo is older and more established, but El Quim has over the years garnered much loyal support as well. El Quim is named after the owner, Quim Duran, and it is not uncommon to see him behind the counter manning the kitchen or chatting with the diners (he is the one who looks like Andre Agassi).

We tried both. Pinotxo (for which we have no photos) is more traditional and it seemed harder for a non-Spanish speaker like myself to order since they didn't seem to have an English menu. Therefore at Pinotxo we had to simply order what the specials of the house were, and in the case when we were there, this was the usual Catalan favourite dish of tripe. El Quim is more tourist friendly, as they have menus in English, Japanese and Chinese as well.

El Quim is set somewhat in the middle of the market, and is a small stall with perhaps 12-14 seats around a bar counter. Not more than 4 guys (but usually only 2 are cooking) are manning the kitchen at any point in time, which always makes us wonder how they can prepare so many different dishes for so many people at one go.

The dining experience in El Quim (and as the case may be for Pinotxo as well) reminded us somewhat of eating at a hawker centre in Singapore, where food is cooked by sweaty men in a quick and often rather unhealthy manner (what with the uninhibited use of oil and salt), and served very casually at the bar where one is expected to eat quickly and give up the seat to the next hungry person.

The one thing we learnt eating at El Quim (twice) is that despite being a 'tapas' bar, their food is not served in tapas portions but are usually huge. For two people, it is advisable to start with 2 dishes and work yourselves from there. We made the mistake of ordering three and had trouble finishing them. It is not difficult to order from the menu, almost everything there is good (as most of it is fried or deep-fried).   This time we ordered the squid, the fried anchovies and the patatas bravas with spicy sauce, which were all very good.

We polished off the meal with a Catalan cheesecake, which is similar to a normal cheesecake except that the cheese is much lighter, much like ricotta cheese. And all these were just for breakfast.

October 2012

The first time we visited El Quim was last year. Without the benefit of hindsight (which we had the second time we went there), we went there to eat our third breakfast of the day (before we got there, we had eaten at Tapas 24 and Pinotxo, and it was barely 1030am when we sat down at El Quim).

The deep-fried artichokes was the shop speciality and they were quite magnificent. Still piping hot from the frier, they were crispy on the outside and juicy and sweet when bitten into. It was quite a large portion though, and we had trouble making a dent in it despite it being delicious.

The shock of the portion sizes continued with the unusually gigantic 'baby' squids (which were at least 5 inches in length). Again, delicious.

Finally, we ended off with the decadent and heart-clogging foie gras burger (but without the bun), which was dripping in fat, grease and flavour.

In 2012, maybe because we were one year younger, though we struggled, we still managed to get through most of the above meal, being the third meal of the day (it was barely after 11am when we finished). After that we still had lunch at ABAC and dinner at Tickets. In 2013, we found it much more difficult to eat all that and had to pace ourselves for the rest of the day.

Final Thoughts: For heart-clogging, greasy and messy, yet highly satisfying Spanish tapas (in specie but not in portion size), El Quim is highly recommended. For a casual marketplace tapas bar, the prices were rather high though, and this may have been keeping the locals away, because the last time we were there the entire bar counter was taken by (Asian) tourists only (the legend of El Quim has certainly spread to the Far East).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

ABAC: revisted Jul 13 (Barcelona)

July 2013

Avinguda del Tibidabo No. 1, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 93 319 6600

Overlooking the city of Barcelona, and perched on Mt Tibidabo, the highest point of the city, is the iconic Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor. Though relatively new, what it lacks in history (it is less than a hundred years old) it makes up with presence. From almost any point in Barcelona, the church can be seen in the distance on the mountain, as if it is watching over Spain's second largest city. Accessible by road, it is nonetheless advisable to experience the journey up by way of a century-old tram line and then an equally old funicular (cable car) up the very sleep slopes.

Interestingly, Tibidabo is also famous for it's amusement park, which also has a century-old history. The rides afford magnificent views of the city and the sea, and is very popular with children during the summer months.

But to us, the true attraction of Tibidabo is neither the church, the amusement park nor the views from the top of the hill, but what sits literally at the bottom of it at Number One Avinguda del Tibidabo. For there we had one of our best meals in Spain and certainly the best in the city last year (see earlier review). For all the fine dining restaurants we were going to visit in Spain on this trip, the 2 Michelin starred ABAC was the only one we were going to repeat.

The last time we had the smaller menu, but this time we came for lunch prepared having had no breakfast and having no plans for dinner. So we ordered the Grand Tasting Menu.

Nitro cocktail: The amuse bouche was made at our table. Our server poured some lime juice into a glass bowl and then sprayed liquid nitrogen into it. After whisking it for a while, perfectly formed lime sorbet was made, which was then scooped into a cocktail glass contained melon cubes. This was very refreshing and exquisitely done.

Carril clam and kaffir lime curry: This was so delicious. The consommé of clam jus had a very strong Thai influence due to the use of kaffir and curry, and the globules floating in the glass would burst in the mouth releasing even more flavour.

Barbecued sardines-style cured king mackerel and bread with tomato: This was a daring dish but as it turned out, the ingredients were perfectly complementary. We found the presence of a tomato sorbet quite disconcerting but it served to take some of the tartness from the cured mackerel. The bread was in the form of toasted breadcrumbs which was quite brilliant as it gave the dish some crunch.

Thin foie gras focaccia with toasted pine nuts onion consommé and orange zest: A crowd favourite, we gather, since we had this previously as well. But where the onion consommé was insipid and slightly too acidic the last time, this one was excellent.

Parmesan gnocchi with raw mushrooms, nuts, truffle oil and a mushroom infusion with lemongrass: An earthy dish full of umami flavours, this was quite spectacular. The globules were of liquid parmesan and they went well with the truffles and the mushrooms.

Small salt-cod fillets, pickled padron pepper seeds with capers, salt-cod gravy with cardamom and alliaceas: It was an interesting version of cod which taste was new to us. The cod was flavoured with some acidity and a creamy yet rather salty sauce which was unusual but nonetheless very good.

Egg yolk cooked in seawater with caviar and lemon parmentier: Another brilliant dish. In addition to the runny egg yolk and the lardons, what made it special was the presence of the toasted bread crumbs which gave the taste of the dish a different dimension.

Smoked steak tartare, beef with dressing, cooked egg yolk, veil of mustard and pepper bread brittle: Another repeated dish from the last meal, this was as good as we remembered it.

Roasted scallop, lime meuniere and lemon parmentier, baby carrots stir-fried in butter: The scallop was perfectly lightly roasted and accompanied by the luxuriant buttery accompaniment with the carrots adding some sweetness to the dish.

Beef with oysters and baby radishes: In this case, it was oysters with a splash of beef stock consommé and dried stringy beef floss. It was very good.

Pearly razor fish with tomato bread and baked garlic soup: The fish was excellent, especially with the strong garlic and tomato accents complementing its flavour.

Iberian pork tail and sparerib meat, Palamos prawn, coral consommé and curry bun bread: An interesting and delicious combination of prawn with a dark pork stock. The pork tail was a bit hard and chewy but the rest of the dish was very good.

Nitro raspberry sorbet and distilled pears with liquorice: Another sorbet made with nitrogen (though this time they didn't make it in front of us), with very thin burnt liquoriced pear slices.

Chocolate and cocoa with hazelnuts, coffee and vanilla: An excellent chocolate dessert, and we particularly love the use of the cake-like shortbread in it.

Over snow of yoghurt and biscuits, flower's nectar and violet ice cream: This was such a pretty dish and was also very delicious. The violet ice cream was bluish-purple in colour and had the flavour of flowers, and the yoghurt snow was milky and slightly tart; neither of which would have been nice to eat on its own. But when taken all together with the sugar disc on top, it was quite amazing.

Petit fours did not disappoint, and the familiar favourites of the milk yoghurt and the raspberry lipstick popsicle were well appreciated again.

Final Thoughts: Nine months on and we were still blown away by Chef Jordi Cruz's food. This is without doubt our favourite restaurant in Barcelona and the consistency of excellence in both our meals here has been impressive. Although we were seated at the exact same place as before and served by the same people as before, there were many new dishes which wowed us, and some of the dishes which we had before tasted even better than the last time. Chef Jordi has found the ideal balance between the solid fundamental cooking techniques which produce food of wonderful flavour and the modern frills and gimmicks which make the dining experience more interesting and entertaining. Add the ultra chic and luxurious surrounds of the ABAC Hotel as well as the professional yet attentive service, we suspect that dining at ABAC probably represents the pinnacle of culinary sophistication in this city. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tapaç 24: revisted Jul 13 (Barcelona)

July 2013

Carrier de la Diputacio 269, Barcelona
Tel: +34 934 88 0977 (no reservations)

Tapas 24 is our favourite tapas bar/restaurant in Barcelona for a variety of reasons: Firstly, the food has always been consistently good (as at the end of our current trip to Spain, we would have eaten there 7 times in the past year - see earlier review). Secondly, it opens from 9am to midnight so it is our go-to place for any meal of the day, even at non-peak periods. Thirdly, it is around the block from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel which is where we have been staying whenever we are in the city. On this trip, we were looking to have a late meal and didn't have reservations anywhere else, so we joined the queue for a seat. At night, this is a wildly popular place, and for a Thursday night, it took us more than an hour in the queue to get seated. When we started placing our orders, it was already past 11pm.

There is always a buzz behind the bar counter at Tapas 24, whether it be in the morning or in their busiest moments at dinner time. The servers are quirky and can vacillate between being very chummy or obnoxious, depending on their levels of stress at any particular time. When it gets crowded, the restaurant feels perpetually short-staffed and it may take a while to get tables cleared or orders taken. But the people keep coming back because the food is consistently good, and the vibe is always one of excitement and expectation.

To be fair, the kitchen seems to work at breakneck speed and once orders are taken, the food generally comes out reasonably promptly. They have an English menu but it is always worth asking what the daily specials are (the staff speak some English and the specials on the chalkboard are usually written in Catalan).

The thing we order every single time we come here is the 'bikini' aka 'the best ham and cheese sandwich we have ever eaten'. We reckon it is the thin bread, mozzarella cheese, iberico ham and generous use of truffle spread which makes it so special. It has never disappointed.

The specials of the day, the sweetbreads on mash potatoes were also very good.

'Gambas a la plancha', i.e. grilled prawns, which were to be eaten by hand and were addictive.

Another old favourite was the grilled baby squid which was excellent as always.

The recommended dessert this time was the chocolate ice cream drizzled with olive oil and with sea salt flakes sprinkled on it. Strange combination, we thought, but somehow it worked very well.

We had almost every breakfast in Barcelona in Tapas 24 (except for Sundays when it was closed). Our default order would always be the 'bikini' and the xuxos (pronounced "chuchos") which was an airy pastry with the exterior consistency of a croissant but filled with some custard inside.

But for a more substantial breakfast, we usually ordered the fried eggs with fries and chorizo, which were simple but quite incredible.

Final Thoughts: We do not claim that this is the best tapas in Barcelona (Cal Pep, Pinotxo and El Quim, amongst others, probably make a better case for that, and our meal at Paco Meralgo was also very good), but for us this has been our comfort food place whenever we are in the city. The idea of waking up early, going down to grab a cafe solo, a juice and a bite of that wonderful 'bikini' always gave us the motivation for an early start to the day.