Photo by Patricia Esteve
For a long time I’ve wanted to write something about the emerging Asian food scene in Barcelona, but the time has never seemed quite right. Generally speaking the scene is on slow simmer, that hasn’t quite reached a rolling boil; I’m still waiting for that elusive Thai or Vietnamese joint that will take my breath away. But when it comes to interesting Japanese, especially the sort that fuses itself with a liberal helping of Spanish cooking, it’s a slightly different story.
Can Kenji opened in May earlier this year as Chef Kenji’s first self-owned project. He’d worked at Mosquito Tapas as a sushi chef previously, building a name for himself and a loyal clientele who would follow him wheresoever he may go in the process. These days you’ll find him in the Eixample Dreta at a humble little venue just over the Diagonal, where the walls are papered in Japanese faux brick, the kitchen is small but open, the staff pleasing and cheery. Most importantly the tables are rammed, which tells you what you need to know: this grub is good.
Based on the izakaya concept (essentially a Japanese pub, though perhaps more accurately described as a kind of Japanese tapas bar) Can Kenji serves exactly the kind of fare you might expect to find in such a place in Tokyo. Sushi naturally, along with what is possibly the best sashimi in town, aided by soy sauce so delectable I could have drunk it by the wine glass full. But you also get the more traditional, rib-sticking nourishment of Japan, beloved by everyone from businessmen to students, in shareable yet rather dainty portions.
Contrast and balance are key, split fairly between Japanese and Spanish ingredients. Meat, fish and vegetables. Broths, sauces and condiments. Fried, steamed and raw. Hot and cold. Wet and slippery. Fresh and lively.
It helps to take a few friends along to get the most of this sensory adventuring, and so, armed with five hungry dining companions, the orders started a-flowing.
One wanted sushi. Another didn’t want to waste valuable stomach space on rice. A third was determined to get stuck into the nasty bits such as they were (Kenji’s offal offerings are fairly tame), while a fourth demanded udon. As for myself, I quietly got on with ordering the lot while nobody else was looking and thus a riot of dishes quickly appeared, in no particular order, though one suspects the pacing was carefully considered.
We begin with Kenji’s legendary sashimi—mackerel, bream, squid, salmon, a scrap of excellent wasabi—all so fresh it’s almost flapping, and so good we order a second round. Then we tuck into hot, crisp albondigas (ball-shaped croquettes) that pay homage to the über Catalan mar i muntanya dishes of the Empordà. These combine shitake and prawns and it strikes me a rather good way of not conforming to tradition. Tataki of bonito (Atlantic mackerel, large) is good and meaty, thickly sliced with just the faintest searing on the flesh and laid across a thick pool of the Córdoban cold soup: salmorejo. It works well enough, though to my taste both dishes stand better alone. Ropes of udon in a pure, light caldo come generously studded with purple-lipped clams and chunks of sepia (cuttlefish), a brilliant contrast to the crisp tempura of creamed octopus buñuelo style.
I liked the beef tongue, grilled rare, sliced thin and served with asparagus tips, though being such a lusty cut the seasoning could have been cranked up without destroying anything. I loved chunks of beef filet dipped in sesame seeds that we ground ourselves at the table in a suribachi (the ridged, ceramic pestle and mortar used in Japan specifically for this purpose) and mixed into a citrus dashi sauce.
Most of all I loved the fact that finally, here is a stimulating little restaurant, doing interesting things with local ingredients. And above all, it’s doing it at a price we can all afford. This I know for sure: I’ll definitely be back.
Calle Rosselló 325
Tel. 93 476 1823
Open Mon-Thurs midday - 1am
Fri & Sat midday - 2am
Selection of Japanese tapas to share plus drinks €30