My first thought on entering Fermí Puig’s new restaurant, with its low ceilings, tables lined up in straight lines against the walls and men in suits, was that it looked and felt like some sort of office. “Couldn’t we have a table in that golden looking place near the back?” we asked immediately. It glowed invitingly, looking like just the kind of place where you’d be happy to be cocooned one chilly winter’s evening having an intimate tête-à-tête, but alas, we were told, it is only for groups. Boo. Still, things went upwards from there thanks to warm service that ensured that the cava flowed freely and soon we were basking in the bubbly-glow of a mini-fest all of our very own.
Food-wise, this is the kind of restorative Catalan fare that is just right after a long winter’s walk. Think pig’s trotters and beef cheeks, slabs of hake, chickpeas and cabbage, wild mushrooms and offal, all washed down with an excellent wine list. It probably won’t appeal to vegetarians, but no wonder the suits like it. Not since the early Nineties have I eaten anywhere quite so male and, I confess, when it comes to solid food, that’s generally a very good sign.
And it was good, just not mind-blowing. I loved the crunchy finger of toast spread thickly with anchovy butter and topped with a slow-cooked, ultra porky strip of pancetta. Any old-school cook will tell you that anchovies and lamb are a match made in heaven, but who knew this was equally true of pork? Delicious. My pal’s trinxat of wild mushrooms was a formidable mound of mash, I’ll give it that, but the potatoes were mushy rather than creamy, and it seemed a bit of a waste of the season’s beautiful shrooms. “It’s what I’d cobble together for my six year old out of leftovers,” she said sagely. My rabbit and chicken terrine was a pretty slab of meat studded with pistachios and apricots, deeply savoury with a gentle sweetness cleverly offset by the tang of pickled carrot and courgette ribbons. You would be very happy with that and a glass of wine for a more moderate lunch.
My friend had the pilota d’escudella, which is, aside from being the oldest referenced soup in Europe, a dish deeply connected to Christmas if you’re in the mood for something traditional, and madly comforting if you’re simply cold and crotchety. I defy you to find a better one in town than this with its meaty broth, strips of green cabbage that retained a bite, plump and creamy chickpeas, tender and juicy pork, parsley and garlic balls, but it is what it is. I had line-caught hake (palangre) in a stew of romesco, tomatoes and the silkiest potatoes. It was beautifully cooked if a little under-seasoned, but strangely underwhelming. Perhaps it’s just me but after all the rave reviews I was expecting to be wowed just a little bit more, though I suspect the rather clinical setting (save for the golden room, of course) doesn’t provide quite the right frame for the classics in the way you’d hope.
Desserts, curiously enough, didn’t get us going on paper, but made for sensational eating. Finally, here were the fireworks in the form of little slices of borracha (booze soaked cake) with darkly exotic flavours like rum and coffee and chocolate, and that special something you get from having a very hot element and a very cold one together on the plate. Likewise a piña colada-inspired creation of ice-cream, granita and fresh fruit to give one last, clever, palette-cleansing blast.
When the bill came, it was a neat €70. I was expecting the usual extras—the glass of cava we had separately to our bottle as an aperitif, a few euros for coffee, maybe something for the bread basket—but it had none of that, which left us with a warm and satisfied glow. Puig is, after all, one of Catalunya’s greatest chefs, and now that he’s found a place to call his own, he’s doing a fine job of honouring his culinary heritage.