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Federal Café 2
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Photo by Lee Woolcock
2010. It was a momentous year.
The one that marked the end of the first decade of the noughties, and the stunning news that El Bullì in Roses, Costa Brava—for years the most influential restaurant on earth—would close its doors for dinner in 2011. It was also the year, as many of us felt the grip of the recession tighten, that we began to place greater value on breaking bread with our friends, family and neighbours. We stayed home, cooked more and spend our Euros in the markets. Michelin starred chefs downgraded to tapas bars and bistros (Ferran and Albert Adrià will open their new tapas venture, Tickets Bar, on Paral.lel in February, but its open for cocktails as of next week) and we saw the rise of gourmet burger bars, sandwich joints, and sit-down deli’s. Places that were affordable, but fancy enough for a night out.
Mediterrasian – combining the delicacy of Japanese cooking techniques with the products of the Mediterranean - established itself well and truly on the dining landscape and Vietnamese restaurants out-opened Japanese ones. Pop-ups didn’t much happen in Barcelona, though I’d say keep an eye out for them in 2011, but private dining rooms in people’s apartments flourished (ditto). El País reported the rise of restaurants polivalentes (multi-purpose) where dinner also came with books, literature, art or performance; menus became digitised; and we shouted less about organics and more about locavores.
As usual I ate and drank my way around more than my fare share of places some memorable, some memorably grim. On the whole though, I felt that standards had risen as people demanded more for their money and seemed less willing to put up with that old nonsense of style over substance. Producers like Carpier, purveyors of anything smoked, and Els Casals fine charcuterie are becoming the new foodie stars, outshining the chefs. The same is generally true of wines, particularly the small, maverick makers some of whom are eschewing the D.O. in favour of dancing to the beat of their own drums.
I’m still waiting on a great, new breed of cava makers to emerge. For now my favourites remain as they’ve always been: Albet I Noya, Llopart, Parxet. But I’ve drunk some fantastically good wine for under €10. The best white of 2010 for me was the multi-award winning Alma de Blanco, 2009 Godello, from the D.O. Monterrei in Galicia. It’s crisp and fresh with bright notes of pears and spices. It goes brilliantly with everything. In the red camp I loved Este 2008 from the Bodegas Alto Almanzora in Almeria, which is a Vino de la Tierra. It combines several grapes and is big on berries with sweetness and silkiness on the tongue thanks to French and American oak. For just trying wine by the glass, the best newcomer was tiny Bar Zim in the Barri Gòtic, run by the charming Francesc who chooses extraordinary small production suppliers and sells them by the glass.
In the world of cocktails the Bankers Bar at the new Mandarin Oriental wins hands down for a sultry, elegant environment and a lemon, ginger and cardamom martini. Their mixologist has since gone on to pick up the high accolade of mixologist of the year.
Some of my favourite restaurants of 2010 were new places, many of them were not. For high end dining my loyalties still lie with Jordi Artal and the team at Cinc Sentits who go from strength to strength and little piece of my heart will always be with the diver scallop on sunchoke puree. I also enjoyed some of the new wave of high-end restaurants located within the five star hotels, notably Enoteca at the Arts and Moments at the Mandarin Oriental who both picked up their first Michelin stars in 2010. On the whole though, it was the more casual places that stuck in my mind.
I’m still dreaming of the shitake and prawn albondigas that I had as a starter at Can Kenji, back in the summer. Crisp, gooey and oozing Asian-Catalan flavours, they were, to my mind a practically perfect interpretation of the Mediterrasian concept. I also loved the leeks slowly braised in Jerez vinegar and conserved at La Perla in Poble Sec, and the plump and luscious truffled canelones at Fonda Gaig.
The best main course I had was over lunch with Genevieve McCarthy from Cellar Tours at Embat: pigeon cooked three ways, a memorably rich, earthy, deeply flavoured and gamey dish, but nicely balanced so it wasn’t too full on. But my best lunch menu goes to L’Antic Magatzem in Sant Antoni, a proper Catalan family eatery serving a hale and hearty three courses like revueltos with wild garlic shoots and prawns and Abuela’s slow roast lamb for €9.50. A shout out to El Atril also in the Born, which serves solid, honest food in a warm environment that begs lingering.
For tapas I rediscovered Taberna de la Clínic with the author Chris Stewart and returned just last week with a few friends. Dishes are familiar but given a modern twist, the quality of products is stupendous and the cooking is skilled and precise. They also serve interesting wines by the glass.
Burgers have become big business and I know of at least two other places that will open in 2011. For now, my vote still goes to the Cerveceria Jazz in Poble Sec for the best burger in town. It’s followed by closely by those at Bocao in the Born, which outdoes those at Jazz if you count their twice-fried chips, which blow Jazz’s packets of crisps out of the water.
For my money the best affordable Asian still goes to Mosquito in La Ribera, particularly their superb, hand-made dumplings and interesting pan-Asian tapas, although service could do with speeding up a bit. I got a little bored of sushi last year so in 2010 I focused more on traditional fish restaurants. The best of these being a tiny sliver of a place called Casa José Montalban, which serves the most delicate little steamed clams and simply grilled slabs of turbot ever. For paella the inauspicious looking Villoro remains my favourite place on the beach, though the true arroz aficionados are Elche in Poble Sec. I’m glad to say that service is now done with a smile, a vast improvement on the first time I visited several years ago.
I’m not a massive dessert person, but Kate Preston’s Eton Mess (meringue, cream and berries) at Casa Delfin is one pudding that I’ll make sure I save room for and it’s such a pleasure to get something different to the ubiquitous tart tatins (usually poorly made), chocolate coulants and custards elsewhere.
Finally, lets talk about breakfast. Never a city to bother much with it, the opening of Federal Café at the end of the summer saw a new dawn for Barcelona’s early birds. Their baked-eggs with spinach and grilled mushrooms, sourdough toast and butter on the side, has become my favourite way to start Sunday.
Here’s wishing you all a wonderful 2011 and a lot of great eating and drinking ahead.