Photo by Richard Owens
When it comes to fine dining, I’m actually quite a simple creature at heart. One of my favourite meals ever was at a restaurant in Copenhagen that started with a pickled carrot and a glass of vintage champagne. It was a shock at first, but for some reason it’s the dish out of what must by now be thousands of dishes that has always stuck in my mind. So when a meal at Albert Adrià’s recently opened Pakta started with a carrot steamed in blood orange juice and gomasio (a Japanese blend of sea salt and sesame seeds) with some crunchy puffed rice ‘octopus tentacles’, I gave a little yelp of glee. This was going to be a good night out.
Located just across the road from Tickets and 41º, and with a vermutería due to open in July, this section of the Paral·lel is fast becoming the axis of Adrià, and one that is moving into a brave new post-Bulli world. Pakta’s focus is not Catalan, but Nikkei, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian styles that developed in Lima when Japanese trade routes started opening up about 120 years ago. Adrià’s head chefs Kyoko Li and Jorge Muñoz (from Japan and Peru, respectively) run the joint while he flits around with the air of a slightly worried-looking maître d’. “We’re still learning,” he told me bashfully. “I think if you came back in about a year we’d be better.” It’s all rather sweet and endearing, as is the place, which was designed by Natali Canas del Pozo and Oliver Franz Schmidt of El Equipo Creativo, who came up with a Peruvian loom-inspired interior where multi-coloured yarns criss-cross the walls and ceilings, adding warmth and texture to an otherwise fairly simple little space.
On my visit there were two tasting menus, the Nikkei (26 courses) and the Fujiyama (21 courses); by the time I wrote this and rechecked the website, it was integrated into one menú primavera of 23 courses. It sounds like an awful lot, but here it is artfully balanced and skilfully executed with dishes that are teasing and satisfying in equal measure. On the whole I think multiple courses do better with something light, fresh and fizzy, rather than the wine pairing. A bottle of Champagne Tarlant Rosé (€69) will, admittedly, ramp up the bill, but it is a magnificent partner to food that rolls out in bolts of bright fun flavour.
Creamy avocado tofu with a slick of yuzu and a pop of salmon roe, tomato ceviche with iced leche de tigre, and blood orange and beetroot were dishes so clean, fresh and vibrant that I actually felt them starting to repair my various over-indulgences of the past 40 years. Spicy tuna tartar with puffed quinoa and soy wafers on a crisp of nori seaweed was sweet, succulent and verging on addictive. A barely seared chunk of salmon on a buttery yellow potato (causa) and fried causa topped with chicken in tangy tarragon mayonnaise were, by contrast, forms of very posh comfort food. The squid nigiri was a masterful stroke. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to get excited about raw squid, but this was creamy and tender as butter and came with nothing more than a light seasoning of Huacatay salt and lime. Tuna nigiri with mirin sauce seemed dull in comparison.
I would probably do pretty much anything for another bowl of Pakta’s sea bass ceviche in a fruity kumquat leche de tigre that packed just enough punch to wake up the tastebuds for the rest of the courses. Eel nigiri was much like any other—not so Iberian pork belly nigiri. I’m pretty sure it’s the naughtiest piece of sushi I’ve ever eaten for unbridled melting fattiness. Suckling pig gyoza? Richly juicy, badly decadent. A chunk of black cod in black garlic and miso sauce with a pickled daikon flower? A wicked way to brighten a slackening palate en route to Iberian pork skewers with grilled pineapple and, finally, a soothing bowl of ají de gallina (spiced stewed chicken).
For dessert, little puffs of mochi with strawberries and vanilla cream were so wonderful we begged for them to give us another serving. Meringues flecked in gold leaf to dip in dulce de leche ice cream that’s been blasted with Pisco were inspired, sweet potato picarones (donuts) with dried fig honey and cinnamon tasted of something ancient and mysterious, while a slab of white chocolate printed with edible Japanese cartoons is the cutest ending to dinner I can think of.
When you’re as successful as the Adrià brothers, you become an easy target for the naysayers. But I’m struggling to think of a restaurant I’ve enjoyed more in recent years (and I include El Bulli in that). I see Albert as the conductor of an orchestra, Pakta the incubator for latent talent. And to our own special waiter—Nicolás Salazar from Peru, who gave us a second mochi although he didn’t have to—we love you.
Lleida 5. Click here for reservations and availability. Tasting menu not including wine, €95.