Photo by Sam Zucker.
When you open a restaurant specialising in seafood just steps from one of the city’s most iconic food markets, there is no excuse for offering anything less than the freshest, most pristine product possible. At El Català, the nautical-themed decor may be a tad kitsch, but the food has nothing to hide. Clean, classic and seasonal is a winning combination, so El Català has claimed a niche in a city full of new ideas and trend-hunting culinary concepts. Located just outside of the Mercat de Santa Caterina, the spot isn’t overly modern or expensive, nor is it a dark, dim shrine to the city’s past; rather, it’s delightfully airy, bright and a little bit fun.
The name El Català comes from the famous song ‘El meu avi’, written in 1968 by Catalan legend, Josep Lluís Ortega Monasterio, about the Spanish-American war of 1898. In the first lines of the song (which appears in its entirety on the front page of the restaurant’s menu), the singer’s grandfather ‘sailed to Cuba, aboard El Català, the best war ship on the sea’.
This song was written in the style of a habanera—a slow, melodramatic shanty full of heroic imagery and nationalist pride. Lines from the song also adorn the walls, and you can’t help but feel just a wee bit closer to the Costa Brava when taking your seat in the high-ceilinged dining room.
In keeping with the restaurant’s patrimonial theme, El Català’s menu is rich in Catalan classics, from Mandonguilles amb sepia (meatballs with cuttlefish) and Canelóns de pollastre de pagès rostit amb beixamel (roast chicken cannelloni with béchamel) to Trinxat de la Cerdanya (cabbage and potato with bacon) and Fideuà (thin noodles cooked in the style of a paella). To further cement their local pride, El Català had their opening party on September 11th last year—the National Day of Catalunya, La Diada.
El Català caught my attention right from the start; a seemingly popular restaurant on a previously uninteresting corner behind my neighbourhood market. Through large shopfront windows, plentiful natural light spills across the blonde wood and white tiles, inviting diners to settle in and enjoy peeling succulent prawns in the filtered sunshine.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
Though the atmosphere is relaxing, the service did feel a bit rushed. We had to send our eager waitress away three times while we debated what to order amongst ourselves. However, this could just be attentive service, something often forgotten while living in Barcelona.
We finally came to an agreement and began with a platter of seasonal vegetables, charred on the flattop grill (planxa); a mix of tender artichokes, asparagus, aubergine, courgette and tomato, nicely cooked and seasoned, served with a smear of nutty romesco sauce. The dish was enjoyable, but a little small for €8. This dish, plus the obligatory goat’s cheese salad, are the only vegetarian offerings available (something that could be rectified in order to better capture Barcelona’s growing veggie crowd).
With artichokes at their peak, we doubled down with a delicious plate of tangy artichoke slices sautéed with botifarra negre (blood sausage), caramelised onions and shaved parmesan cheese. The familiar flavours of the earthy sausage, crispy artichokes, savoury cheese and sweet onions all sang their tasty song in perfect harmony. For a final starter to ease into the main event—a classic paella marinera—we ordered half a dozen grilled razor clams (navajas), which were market-fresh, supple and plump. A shellfish that can become overcooked very quickly, these were prepared beautifully. Often prone to grittiness, razor clams have to be enjoyed with the idea in mind that a telltale crunch of sand is normal (unless you are dining in one of the rare restaurants that snips out the dark digestive tract one clam at a time). In a clever move, the chef of El Català has embraced the crunch and showers the grilled navajas in crispy-fried minced garlic. I was impressed with the execution of this simple garnish, which made these some of the best razor clams I have eaten in recent memory.
Photo by Sam Zucker.
To finish things off, and to make it a true weekend meal of leisure, we contentedly tucked into the paella while polishing off the rest of our bottle of fruity, floral ‘Mysti Blanc’—an easy-drinking Penedès blend of Muscat and Xarel·lo grapes. The paella was that sought-after colour of brownish red that comes from a proper sofrito (sauté) of garlic and tomato, which has been simmered with cubes of cuttlefish until the sugars in the tomatoes begin to caramelise. Studded with bright-red prawns and juicy little clams, the star of this paella was the rice—packed with flavour from the seafood broth and maintaining just a hint of firmness at the core of each tiny grain.
El Català is not revolutionising Catalan cuisine, nor are they the first restaurant in Barcelona to blend curated design and local history with contemporary Mediterranean dining. However, this inviting restaurant has managed to keep things simple while transporting guests up the coast to the seaside xiringuitos of the Costa Brava (albeit the slightly posher ones). For a taste of Catalunya’s bounty—both land and sea—that is easy on your wallet but with hardly a fault, climb aboard El Català.