From the first moment the cool ajo blanco soup of chef Nabil Benhammou bathed my tongue with its rich and rustic texture, I knew I was in for a greater treat than I had ever imagined. Ajo blanco—chilled almond and garlic soup—is a humble dish of pre-Colombian-Spanish origin, but never before had I encountered a version like Montiel’s, with its tart apple foam, roasted apple purée and mandarin juice. The little garnish of micro shiso leaf finished off what was a highly optimistic start to one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, and my admiration for the chef’s talent and the manager’s flare for service grew throughout the evening.
For a decade, Montiel has been quietly serving ‘gastronomic experiences’ with a strong Catalan influence on the narrow and charming Carrer dels Flassaders. I can’t believe I hadn’t tried this place sooner, in which case, I would have been recommending it for years! With a casual wine bar feel to the bottom floor and a more formal, white tablecloth dining room upstairs, Montiel could just as easily be a spot for a couple of tapas and a drink, as for a full eight-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings and cheese course. At €70 per person for the tasting menu (€100 per person with wine pairings), Montiel isn’t most people’s idea of a casual weekday dinner. However, considering the quality, creativity, ambiance and service (all superb), I would say that you could easily end up paying much more in Barcelona for a far less fulfilling meal.
I was extremely surprised to notice, after the fact, that the entire tasting menu was gluten and lactose-free. Impressively, the food was complex, sophisticated, flavourful and accessible to those whose diets usually make it very difficult to enjoy fine dining. One can also order the vegetarian tasting menu option for €60 per person, which I’m game to try in the future.
Montiel is like the movie Physco, and it seems that the chef is Mr. Hitchcock
Of the many dishes we devoured over the course of a leisurely meal—a repast of nearly three and a half hours, which ended with dessert wine as co-founder and maitre’d Marcos Eiras serenaded us with his guitar and classically-trained voice—my favourite single bite had to be the ‘green caviar’.
It turns out that ‘green caviar’ is the kitchen nickname for tiny, tender green peas from the famous pea-growing region of El Maresme. Ultra supple and incredibly sweet, these round little gems were gently cooked with baby squid in a mint broth and garnished with crispy morsels of pork jowl confit. Seasonal ingredients of exceptional quality shine at Montiel, and these pristine peas spoke for themselves. The restaurant estimates that some 80 percent of everything they serve, from produce and seafood, to olive oil and wine, derives from small, local producers.
On the service side, Marcos Eiras certainly knows how to manage his dining room, and he has some cinematic ideas about food that he eagerly shared. “[Montiel] is like the movie Psycho,” he explained. “You think the ‘plot’ of your meal is going in one direction, and then the protagonist dies and the night takes an unexpected turn.” It seems that the chef is Mr. Hitchcock, planning each dish as a director would an establishing shot, essentially using one plate to prepare diners for the flavours to come. Instead of the dishes being stand-alone culinary masterpieces, the tasting menu at Montiel is progressive and intriguing (like a well-constructed film), with the chilled ajo blanco soup preparing your palate for a spicy sea bass ceviche, which in turn establishes a mood that quickly shifts with the arrival of a slow-cooked egg nestled in turnip purée with wild mushrooms and braised calçots.
Needless to say, I highly recommend Montiel, and I really look forward to going back to sample their à la carte menu. With so many new places opening up in the Born, it’s great to see a true neighbourhood institution hold its own. The next time you’re looking for a special meal, I suggest you try Montiel for yourself.