It’s hard to tell when walking into Llamber whether the highly-stylised décor of modern-meets-antique is simply a veil to mask the face of another predictable tourist restaurant, or if it represents an appropriate complement to creative Spanish cuisine from a truly professional kitchen. The verdict is that Llamber stands out from the crowd.
Upon entering the well-lit glass and stone space-—built in 1890—you encounter the timber and brick bar with its high, minimalistic tables set against a wall of softly back-lit, rough wooden planks. Many architectural accents at Llamber seek to fit into the nook of ‘repurposed’ chic. Mis-matched glass vases, exposed brick, melted slabs of candle wax, old lamps, potted herbs and fragile tree branches blend with antique desks laden with highly polished silverware and a slightly confusing wall of empty picture frames.
Llamber Barcelona has only been open since December 2012, though the flagship restaurant in chef Francisco Heras’s home region of Avilés in Asturias has been gaining momentum and fame over the last four and a half years. Heras and business partner Eva Arbonés Tomás have always presented themselves as without pretension. Though their website shows vivid photos of highly elaborate plates that undoubtedly arose from Heras’s experience gained during a season at El Bulli, Llamber maintains that, deep down, it is a humble tapas bar respectful of ingredients and tradition (lest you forget while savouring a meticulously-built plate of ‘Cod Marinated According to the Idea of Guacamole’).
To get the evening started, I looked to Llamber’s cocktail menu. In Barcelona, simple mixed drinks of sometimes questionable quality are the standard (can someone explain the current mojito obsession, please?), so I am filled with hope when Campari, Fernet, Aperol and Angostura prevail over the usual—cloyingly-sweet—suspects found on many a signature cocktail menu.
The boozy, bright and bitter Negroni is my aperitivo of choice, and much to my delight, Llamber’s bar stirs up its own delicious, haba-tonka-infused twist on the classic (the Haba-Groni) as part of its impressive and ambitious bar programme, headed by Italian cocktail heavyweight Alessandro Strocchia.
Our first plates arrived around 10pm, just as the energy level in the dining room and bar began to build. A quarter of an hour later, the bar was full and bustling, and the casual couples who had been seated around us began to be replaced by merry groups of friends, carrying half-finished drinks from the outside cocktail tables at which they had been waiting.
‘Cake’ of rock fish with tartare sauce and pickled vegetables was quite different than expected—perfect little squares of rock fish pâté on a long ceramic slab were topped artistically with dollops of white aioli, disks of cornichons and a dusting of pulverised black olives. When eaten together, along with the accompanying garlicky-green aioli and delicately perched caper berries, the familiar flavour of tartare sauce faithfully revealed itself; an old friend shedding its clever, deconstructed disguise.
Next, the simplest dish of the night arrived, but one that shone like a star. Fried aubergine al miel can be found in nearly every tapas bar in Andalucía, but never in my travels have I tasted an interpretation so clean, vibrant and mouthwateringly good. Heras has foregone the traditional and often heavy breadcrumbs in favour of a simple dredging in flour. The meaty hunks of aubergine are then flash-fried and served wickedly hot, not the least bit soggy, and drizzled with a generous amount of sugar cane ‘honey’. An emerald dusting of fresh lime zest and a dash of salt made this twist on a classic really pop.
Barely had we finished with the last bite of each plate when a new dish arrived, ferried to the table by the slightly frazzled waiting staff. Nearly-perfect cubes of golden-roasted potatoes, sliced and hollowed out meticulously by some sure-handed cook, had been piped full of molten hazelnut praline and topped with deliciously-stinky mousse of Asturian Cabrales cheese. Sweet, salty, hot and cool, this dish brought an audible groan of pleasure to my lips for the first time since being seated.
Our main courses came out with a noticeable lag of minutes between the arrival of my monkfish with potato and onion ‘botifarra’ and that of my dinner companion’s much more substantial plate of veal cheek and wild mushroom fricassée. The highlight of the monkfish was, without a doubt, the mock botifarra—a nicely seasoned mixture of ground potato and onion filling in a real hog casing. Surprisingly moist and unctuous, I would never have guessed that it contained no pork, had I not asked our server. Four dense nuggets of monkfish sat perched atop the faux sausage, garnished with a slathering of caramelised onion purée. If it were not for the far-too-salty and mournfully-wilting mound of salad greens in the centre of the plate, this dish would have been a total smash. The wine that was recommended—a grassy verdejo from Rueda—cleverly played off the earthiness of the dish without overpowering it.
The veal, though velvety and rich, was topped with slightly bitter slivers of almond, clashing more than complementing with the young, tannic Rioja that was offered as a pairing. Of the 17 other red wines sold by the glass, I suspect there could have been a more harmonious match. Even so, the stew was comfort food done right, with a dark and concentrated gravy begging to be mopped up by a hunk of crusty bread then unapologetically licked from one’s fingertips.
To wrap things up, a dessert of fried Asturian dumplings—crisp, sugar-dusted purses of puréed nuts and anise—and rosemary ice cream offered an appropriate and satisfying final indulgence, although the rosemary flavour was too subtle to detect.
All in all, Llamber has the vibe of a hip restaurant worth frequenting and the skilled culinary team and dynamic menu to back it up. A busy Friday night, thinly-spread staff, and a one-year anniversary not yet reached may have affected the overall dining experience more than one would have hoped. Yet, with pleasant surprises flying out of the kitchen in a creative blur, Llamber will easily fit into Barcelona’s high-end tapas scene, more than likely paving the way for competitors and imitations.
Fusina 5. Tel. 93 319 6250. Open every day until 2.30am. Dinner from €25-€35 (without drinks). Tapas tasting menu (lunchtime only), €19.50 including drink. www.llamberbarcelona.com