L’Auca, meaning ‘the story’ in Catalan, was launched with barely a whisper. This wouldn’t be surprising except that as the offspring of one of the most emblematic restaurant-cafés in town—Els Quatre Gats—you’d have expected a certain fanfare. Els Quatre Gats may not offer the greatest food in the city, but it does have a certain celebrity that makes it a must on the culinary agenda of pretty much any Barcelona first-timer.
Els Quatre Gats opened in 1897, L’Auca opened just a few months ago and, my, what a difference a century makes. It’s not austere exactly, but it does have that faintly echoey Eixample mood about it; the red, the black, the formal maitre’d and staff bustling about somewhat nervously and occasionally getting it wrong. If you’re complimented on the food, smile graciously; don’t say, “I know” and stalk off.
So far so familiar. ‘Un Nuevo Concepto en la Cocina Tradicional Catalana’ is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past couple of years: traditional Catalan dishes given a modern twist and set in something like a designer atmosphere. At L’Auca the food is contemporary certainly, but it’s also unfussy and the portions are huge.
The wine list is short and snappy, much of it familiar, and ranges between €16 and €22 a bottle, which seems fair. Our visit coincided with a general menu change, and so after our first two choices weren’t available we ended up with Nuestro 2006 from Ribero del Duero (€21.50), a reliable red that does well with most food. With it came a small mountain of arbequina olives, and good crusty bread to nibble on.
Whatever you do, don’t go overboard on the nibbles, because it’s the celebration of real food at L’Auca that makes it shine. We begin with ensalada de tomate del payés, cebolla tierna y sardinas en escabeche, a simple dish of two fist-sized beef tomatoes cut in half, and topped with four fat, juicy pickled sardines, zingy with vinegar, balanced with sweet onions confit and crunchy raw ones, and drizzled with a bright parsley oil to bring it all together. Nicely done.
We also have a cazuela de patatas, setas y hierbas gratinadas con queso curado de oveja de los Pirineos. A two-man terracotta dish filled to the brim with wafer thin potatoes cooked down in a rich stock studded with meaty wild mushrooms and sprigs of fresh thyme. Over the top there’s melted sheep’s cheese and a whole fresh egg just cooked enough to let the golden yolk run into the viscous brown casserole. It was a new dish for me, big on flavour despite the frugal ingredients, and a true hallmark of Catalan country cooking.
Fish dishes feature lots of bacalao, mackerel and sepia, all good I’m sure but we didn’t try them. What carnivore, after all, can resist super-size, ultra-sticky ribs glazed with honey and vinegar on trinxat, (cabbage and potato mash from the Cerdanya), even if it is the kind of pig-out dish that screams “roll on winter”.
The shoulders and legs of a couple of rabbits had been slow-roasted so the meat was falling off the bone. Each had been slathered in alioli, returned to the oven and were served caramelised, bubbling and hot with a side of L’Auca’s version of patatas arrugadas, a Canarian specialty of wrinkled, salted potatoes topped with a piquant salsa verde.
There was just room for a heap of Requesón de Fonteta, a local version of cream cheese, served with candied nuts, honeycomb and a porron of moscatel—a nice finishing touch I mused—before I began to feel like Monsieur Creosote and forced myself to stop.
Once upon a time at L’Auca then, there were some truly soul satisfying dishes that call to mind the benevolent, force-feeding you get at Grandma’s house. I came just as the spring menu changed into summer, but if this is anything to go by I’d say there’s a good chance of a happy ending.
Three courses, plus wine, €40. Menú del día: €10.50. Executive menú: €18.50.
Open daily, 1-4pm, 8pm-1am.