Photo by Richard Owens
Cafe Emma is one of those places that opened to the sound of ringing bells. Why? Because of the pedigree of the chef of course or, in this case, the pedigree of two. Romain Fornell came from the one-starred Caelis restaurant in the hotel that we all thought was The Ritz but turned out not to be, and Michel Sarran who hails from a two-star joint in Toulouse. They’ve opened it on the site of the old Relais de Venise, which long-time residents of Barcelona will remember as the place to go for steak frites. I was sad when I realised it was no more—not that I’d been for a long time, but in the back of my mind it was always reassuring to know it was there. Hey ho, times move on.
In the case of Fornell and Sarran, they’ve come together not to open a ‘bistronomía’, which by now everyone seems to have agreed is an idiotic term created and used with gay abandon by writers like myself to describe a mid-range restaurant put together by a generally destitute, but talented chef. Rather, they’ve simply opened a good, old-fashioned bistro serving sturdy, unpretentious dishes that won’t make you cry when you get the bill.
For the most part, it’s very successful, though there are some elements of bistrodom missing. It’s a big space filled with tiny tables, which is great if you want to foxtrot to the bathroom, a pain if there’s nowhere to put the Le Creuset your lentils came in. The heated porch at the front is warm and welcoming with its faux wicker chairs and dark walls, but inside, the pale greys and greens, lit by cold, white eco bulbs in the chandeliers, are a tad gloomy. Grumpy service doesn’t help the fantasy.
Still, it’s packed to the rafters on a Wednesday night and our request for a bigger table so we can pig out is denied. Around us are families with kids, dapper old gents out for a mid-week supper, cooing couples and giggling friends, and the menu immediately makes you feel at home, if home is France. An all-French wine list features bottles from the Loire to the Languedoc, with the vin du table going for €14 a bottle, and the most expensive Bordeaux a not-too-terrifying €43. A map on the back of your placemat shows you exactly where everything came from and on the other side there are cuts of the steer, so you can tell your aiguillette from your bavette.
Elsewhere, the menu offers classics like the humble salad niçoise for €6.50, a cheese omelette for €8.50 and moules frites for €12. There’s an oyster bar and the excellent bread is baked in-house. All signs of something solid though I order none of it. Instead I have my first ever oeufs muerette, which I argued blind with a friend not so long ago didn’t exist and am suitably shamed that something so great has managed to pass me by these past 40 years. Here, a perfectly cooked egg is poached in a rich wine sauce and served on a slab of sour dough toast with wild mushrooms and a generous shaving of truffle on the top. I would go back for this dish alone. It was the stand-out of the evening.
My companion’s cep soup was a little cold, though tasty enough and his lentils with Toulouse sausage verging on the bland. “It needs salt,” he declared, which, let’s face it, is unusual for sausages. But my onglet—a much under-rated cut from the diaphragm—‘con escaluñas’ (shallot sauce), was spectacularly beefy if a little bloody. I’ve come to the conclusion that al punto just isn’t right for this cut. It needs to be pink and juicy in the middle with plenty of crusty char on the outside to bring out the rich flavours, medio hecho in other words. But the frites were great and the cheese plate a joy to behold.
A couple of days later I went back for the club sandwich (OK, but nothing to write home about so I won’t) and a triumphant one-man tarte tatin topped with gooey, caramelised apples, pert as babies’ bottoms on a disk of buttery pastry. Oh la, la!
Long live the plain old bistro I say: the perfect place to spend this Valentine’s.
Cafe Emma, Pau Claris 142,tel. 93 215 1216, www.cafe-emma.com.
Open Mon-Fri, 8am-12.30am; Sat and Sun, 9am-12.30am. Approx €40 for three courses with a mid-range wine.
Tara’s rating: ✪✪✪