Albert Adrià's latest project is the laid-back Mexican joint with tapa-sized dishes that serve up the best of Mexico.
“I’m going slightly nuts with excitement about this,” I tell my friends over from London as we gallop along the Avinguda Mistral sounding, I realise, dangerously stalkery. The truth is that’s how Albert Adrià’s new projects tend to make me feel. Like a cyber geek’s craving for the latest Apple gadget that has them camping outside their flagship stores in the dead of night, so Adrià restaurants send me ever so slightly over the edge in culinary terms. I’d been waiting for what seemed like an eternity, following innumerable blips to getting the place up and running, to check out Niño Viejo.
Headed by Albert and Mexican chef Paco Méndez, the groovily kitsch little taquería stands alongside the outré new-wave Hoja Santa (gourmet Mexican) next door. It’s laid back and fun, buzzing with margarita-fuelled chatter, and couldn’t be further in look and feel from the Mexican joint I wrote about last month—just in case anyone’s missed it, Mexican is the cuisine du jour—with its brilliantly garish neon-lit bar and cosy, industrial-chic canteen-style dining room, hipsterfied with colourful curve-backed chairs and hand-strung stools designed for derrières of epic proportions (seriously, these are the most comfortable stools I’ve ever sat on), and flowery table cloths in acid green and daffodil yellow. Add in the kind of service that makes you want to burst into song—a shout out to the lovely Estrella who suggested we leave the menu to them—and you will feel nothing less than loved and special all night long.
When you’re eating a la Adrià, or indeed, at the hands of any of their reigning head chefs, it’s always best to let them take control. Which is how we come to find ourselves delving into a tasting menu of sorts, albeit one that is based on tapa-sized hits of comfort food rather than the new wave. It starts with mango de chupar Playa del Carmen. Pudgy little mango cheeks slashed through to form a hedgehog and liberally doused with lime and hot chilli. As appetite sharpeners go it’s a cracker—sweet, salty, sour and hot, all at once. I scribble down a random note to self to serve them forevermore as a precursor to supper, before digging into Guacamole Niño Viejo, which is a purist’s dream. I’d always read that like a good rice dish, a good guacamole is all about the avocado; the diced tomatoes, red onions and boisterous hits of mouth-numbing chilli being a Tex Mex bastardisation. True guaca is voluptuous and cooling, soft and velvety against the crunch of a precisely fried corn tortilla, the balm to a searingly hot salsa. This one is perfection, served with the stone to keep the pea green colour true.
Queso fundido con salsa verde y torillas de harina is a bowl of indecently rich, nutty and maddeningly wonderful melted cheese balanced by a streak of hot green chilli sauce, which we smear onto warm tortillas and devour with smug looks on our faces. And the Palomitos de pollo con salsa jalapeño which are, if you will, the Mexican equivalent of a chicken nugget, are a treat to be dipped first into a green salsa of hot habaneros and then into a cooler red salsa of chile de árbol Tatemada. In the interests of fairness I’m going to award last month’s restaurant, Oaxaca, the best salsa award as theirs was made at table and some nights I still wake up thinking about it, but these hit the spot. After all, we are in taquería land, which in essence is a rather humbler street food.
A salad of nopal (paddle cactus) with tomatitos and queso ranchero was slimey (cactus is like that), there’s no other way to put it, but curiously addictive, and while the corvina (croaker fish) ceviche in a thick smoky tomatoey sauce was lapped up with gusto, I’d argue it’s not as good as the Peruvian version. Tostadas de pulpo con salsa verde, however, were the best use of an octopus leg I can think of, piled up on a crunchy, inky corn disk, doused in green chilli sauce and topped with curls of avocado. One of those dishes you know will reach mythic proportions and you can brag you ate it first.
So, by the time we got to the tacos of Iberian pork shoulder and the baby chicken rubbed lavishly with an adobo of achiote (a sweet, red, nutmegy peppercorn), we were on the verge of explosion, but not quite, and couldn’t resist just a nibble on the flan de elote. A creamy, corn-infused dessert that’s satisfyingly smoky and the perfect partner to a finishing shot of Mezcal. As we parted hugs with Estrella I couldn’t help feeling that, despite its troubles, Mexico must be one of the happiest places on earth.
Av. de Mistral 54, Sant Antoni. Tel. 93 348 2194. www.es.bcn50.org.
Open Tue-Sat 1pm-3.30pm, 7.30pm-11pm.
About€€50 for plates to share plus drinks.
✪ NOT WORTH THE TRIP
✪✪ COULD IMPROVE
✪✪✪✪ VERY GOOD
✪✪✪✪✪ NOT TO BE MISSED