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If you love restaurants, and I really, really love them, there’s nothing quite like the frisson of expectation before a new opening. Like a first date with someone you’ve fancied for a long time, it brings with it a heady combination of excitement and nervousness. Will you like each other as much as you hope? Will it lead to something more? Will it be love?
The opening of Jose Lombardo and Kate Preston’s latest venture, Ajoblanco, was rammed with people loving it. I’ve rarely seen the good folk of Barcelona look so glam, but it’s always hard to tell what a place is really like at a party. So I returned for lunch a few days later when calm and order had been restored, and I stood half a chance of admiring the nigh on miraculous job that wizard of restaurant interiors, designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán, had done with the gaping white cube of a place featuring low ceilings and no natural light. Talk about an ugly duckling into a swan, for Ajoblanco now boasts a long and elegant cocktail bar clad in creamy, textured tiles especially commissioned from a firm in Alicante, and backed by salvaged shelves from an old ferreteria. Bubble-light chandeliers shine a soft, golden glow above a mix of tables, round, square and oblong, bordered by soft leather armchairs; and Violán’s trademark mirrored panels bounce flattering light around the room, ensuring everyone looks beautiful, while stylish wood floors soften the chatter. There’s a small annex off the main dining room, tucked away behind recessed shelves stacked with wine that comfortably seats a party of 12, and honestly, you’d happily live in the bathrooms. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for a restaurant that pours feel-good factor straight into your heart.
In many ways I thought it the perfect brasserie—a bit of an unfashionable term these days—but one that does encapsulate the vibe of the place. For me that is somewhere I can go alone or with a gang of pals; where you can show up at any time, from an early lunch to a late dinner, and scoff anything from a light salad or a few shared tapas, to a bloody steak, or, a soupy rice with lobster. It’s a place that buzzes, bustles and bristles with the love of an army of regulars and the discovery of newcomers. That anyone can achieve all this within days of opening is testament to having pitched it just right.
Ajoblanco opens at noon with early birds sipping freshly-juiced Bloody Marys and ends in the small hours fuelling the club crowd (Bling Bling is right next door) with proper cocktails and tapas. Somewhere in between, from 1pm to 6pm say, the hora de apero is in full swing—Casa Mariol vermut pimped with a splash of gin and bitters, which was how I began what turned into a long and jolly lunch. This menu is fun. Preston isn’t scared of a bit of retro dining based on prime products spiced up with seasoning from far off lands. And so, among the velvety, house-cured anchovies (it’s worth coming for these alone by the way) and crisp, yet fluffy buñuelos de bacalao, there is also fish of the day (from Vilanova or Barceloneta) turned into South American ceviche, martini glasses of thoroughly American, spiced tomato seafood cocktails that wake-up your taste buds a treat, and creamy Russian salads generously heaped with chunks of tender lobster tail. There is an arroz brut (the naughty-sounding ‘dirty’ rice beloved of Catalan home cooks) studded with creamy sepia and crunchy fried artichoke hearts (an inspired innovation on the classic), tataki of Basque beef served blue with a streak of ultra British horseradish sauce strong enough to make you sneeze, and Pyrenean lamb chops with Lebanese-inspired rosemary spiked hummus. For pudding think Eton Mess (another deeply British invention of meringue, whipped cream and berries), proper apple crumble served hot with vanilla ice-cream, or cinnamon buñuelos (fritters), drenched in brandy and flambéed at the table, that beg for one final glass of cava.
So despite being named after the staunchly traditional chilled garlic and almond soup of Andalucia, Ajoblanco is sparklingly unconventional, and because of that, to my mind at least, it captures the spirit of Barcelona brilliantly. That devil be damned approach to the rules, the enthusiastic regeneration of a space crying out to be loved, and an overriding sense that here, in the face of austerity, you shall feast well and the good times will roll.
Carrer Tuset 20 (Eixample)
Tel. 93 667 8766
Open daily 12pm-3am
From €25 for two courses / shared tapas plus wine.