Photo by Patricia Esteve
In the wonderful world of food some things never change—they just get packaged differently. Take the latest trend in Barcelona, for example. It’s more than possible that you live and eat in the city and you’ve never heard of it, but mark my words, readers of El Periódico, the New York Times, and food writer Anya von Bremzen will know: the new restaurants are bistros.
Actually, that should be “bistronomía”, a term coined by El Periódico’s food critic Pau Arenós based on the word “bistroteque” that the French food critic Sebastián Demerold came up with to describe the nouveau bistro of Paris in the Nineties. In Spain, the concept became official at the gastro-gathering Madrid Fusion earlier this year when a whole day was dedicated to establishing it as the country’s hottest trend since foam.
According to lore, the word bistro is a Russian term that means quick and it didn’t become widely used in French until the late 19th century and in English in the early 20th century. It always refers to somewhere small where you can get something to eat and drink, generally of a rustic nature, on the cheap.
As Alan Davidson points out in his tome The Oxford Companion to Food: “The concept of simple inexpensive food served in a French atmosphere has wide appeal and as a result, the use of the term, whether as a description of eating places or of food, had, towards the end of the 20th century, begun to be annexed by more pretentious premises.”
The Spanish equivalent of a bistro is a fonda, from the Arabic word fondouq, which is quite literally a place to trade animals, rest and refuel. A less pretentious place you could not hope to find. And the “bistronomía” cult has also smartly avoided anything too overblown, effectively just putting a name to an upgrade: mid-range, nicely decorated restaurants that serve honest food with a creative flourish.
According to the journalist Michael Booth, to be a neo-bistro you need to be “chef-owned and unfettered by tradition.” As such you have to serve home-style cooking updated with an elegant and modern twist, and possibly a couple of exotic ingredients thrown in. You may well have trained at one of the country’s top restaurants—El Bulli, Martin Berastegui, La Broche or Espai Sucre—but will have decided to gather your new-found techniques and use them to stoke the flames of mother’s hearth.
Here in Catalunya that means going lighter on the fried stuff and cleverly disguising the scary bits so that you are fooled into eating them. Trotters turned into melt-in-the-mouth carpaccio delicately lain across gossamer thin slices of pa amb tomaquet, or better still coca, spring to mind.
Ideally the space should be peopled by a young, good-looking staff dressed in black. It must be minimalist so as not to detract from the food, and is nearly always painted in muted shades of grey and beige. You must use over-sized plates and bowls, but the majority of the produce will have come from the local market. Above all, you must strive to fall within the budget of an honest working man or woman; in Barcelona, that is somewhere between €20 and €30. A step up from the menú del día certainly, but far from being bank breaking.
Intrigued by the number of articles appearing about bistronomía, I decided to put the concept through its paces. When I wrote about the restaurant Embat in August, I found it true to its promise of serving sturdy, imaginative food, with a more than generous price tag. Definitely somewhere I’ll be going back for second helpings.
When I trotted off to Catalina however, another hot name on the international circuit, I was confronted by the kind of lunchtime menu that makes you yawn. Melon ‘soup’, omelette on toast, hake wrapped in foil with some julienne vegetables and declared ‘en papilotte’.
Maybe I’m being a fusty old cynic, but in a common old Catalan restaurant this would be a perfectly acceptable menú del día and it would cost you €9.50. At €18 it’s a bit of a disappointment for something so grand as a bistronomía, and the fancy crockery and linen tablecloths weren’t fooling anyone. The service though, was faultless.
Confused, I called up Rafa Peña of Gresca who has become the guardian of the trend at Madrid Fusion, combining just the right balance of passion with keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
“It’s hard to give it an absolute definition,” Peña explained, “but on the whole the concept is the same as in Paris. It’s to make good food at a good price, no more no less. Of course Barcelona has its own flavour, which is grounded in traditional dishes. On our menu at the moment we have a dish of cansalada confitada con acelgas (belly pork confit with chard) that is very Catalan. But I also use ingredients from elsewhere such as soy sauce and ginger, so I’d say we’re not limited by our traditions.”
One thing that he does point out is that to get the bistronomía experience the way it was intended then eating the menú del mediodía is the way to go. “It’s more bistro-style in the sense that it’s quicker and that you can eat for a cheaper price,” reasoned Peña. His own lunchtime offerings at Gresca, such as aubergine baked with mató (fresh cheese), partridge cannelloni and a deconstructed suquet of araña (a local and plentiful white fish) are true to the new bistro philosophy, satisfyingly creative and excellent value at €18.
An off-shoot of the trend is the rise of new-old bistros run by foreigners in the Born and Barri Gòtic, where the old-style bistro of Europe and North America is spirited into Barcelona’s increasingly multi-cultural heart, providing a welcome contrast to the new wave landscape.
El Atril looks and feels just like the kind of bistro you might find in New York’s SoHo. Bustling and vivacious, the American and Australian owners play feel-good favourites like Stevie Wonder to an enthusiastic clientele who clearly love their food, but don’t wish to be accused of “foodie-ism” or, worse, pretentiousness, as they munch on green salads enlivened by proper vinaigrette, plump mussels in a rich Chimay beer liquor and frites and slabs of tender duck magret with green beans and cashews, all the while sipping wine from an inexpensive, predominantly Spanish list.
This rekindled love affair with the bistro perhaps says more about a nation’s hungry desire to return to something deeply embedded in the Catalan culinary psyche. Theirs is not a culture of tapas nor of molecular gastronomy, but rather a love of good ingredients, cooked simply and well, with just a dash of Dalí-esque style surrealism thrown in to keep us on our toes.
Bistromania: Top Five Barcelona
Gresca—Young, fun and daring, this is the king of Barcelona’s bistronomías, offering interesting signature dishes as a regular feature of its lunchtime repertoire.
Provença 230, Tel. 93 451 6193, www.gresca.net ; Menú del día €18
L’Embat—Comfortably placed somewhere between the old and the new, L’Embat satisfies with heart-warming staples such as risotto, polenta and mash with a Catalan twist.
Mallorca 304, Tel. 93 458 0855; No menú del día, approx €25 a la carte
Gelonch—Rising star Robert Gelonch earned his stripes at El Bulli and Gaig, showcasing fanciful pairings like grilled melon with langostinos and cecina (cured beef), with prices that keep things real.
Bailén 56, Tel. 93 265 8298, www.gelonch.es; Menu Gelonch €16.90, Menú Ejecútivo €21.50
Saü—Think old-school bistro when it comes to atmosphere, and incredible value for its one Michelin star. Chef Xavier Franco’s modern interpretations of mar i muntanya include white asparagus with cigalas (Dublin bay prawns) and monkfish with cocks’ combs.
Passatge Lluís Pellicer 12, Tel. 93 321 0189, www.saucrestaurante.com ; Menú desgustación del día €40
El Atril—A classic bistro serving hearty, filling food in a laid-back and jolly atmosphere with a focus on favourites from elsewhere: Buenos Aires, New York and Sydney as opposed to Barcelona, San Sebastián or Madrid.
Carders 23, Tel. 93 310 1220; Menú del día approx. €10