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Photo by Richard Owens
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Photo by Richard Owens
Interior of Ohla's Gastrobar
Gastrobars are basically tapas bars serving slightly fancier tapas in slightly fancier surrounds. They are all the rage in Madrid, less so here in Barcelona, though perhaps that’s just because the name never really took off. You could argue that Tickets, Bar Mut and Paco Meralgo are all gastrobars, but let’s not split hairs here. In the case of Ohla Gastrobar, it makes sense since it’s attached to Saüc, the one-Michelin-starred restaurant of Xavier Franco at the Ohla Hotel, whose cooking is ‘gastro’ par excellence.
Nine o’clock on a Sunday evening, then, and the place is fairly busy. Granted the clientele are mainly tourists, but there are enough of them to generate a buzz aided by the sultry strumming of resident jazz band, the Trio Riders, who unfortunately are hidden away at the side of the bar so we can’t actually see them. It is a slightly awkward space, long and narrow down one side of the building with large picture windows and the kind of gold wood interior with black accents that made Scandinavia king of design in the Nineties. The prime spot to be is propped up at the bar watching the action in the open kitchen, but that only works if there are two of you; we were three, so we sat at a table and pondered a longish menu littered with cute descriptions such as ‘starting strong’, ‘stewed delicacies’ and ‘bursting with protein’. I quite enjoy Spanish menu translations—last week I had the pleasure of some ‘squid jigging on a plate’ somewhere—and it acts as a useful ice-breaker when you don’t know the people you are with.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out that the out-of-town wine journalist I’m with is underwhelmed by the wine list. “Could we get one from Saüc?” I ask our waiter, who is happy to oblige and brings down a hefty tome from the posher restaurant upstairs. We end up with a bottle of Albariño Pazo Señoráns, which appears on both menus. If not madly awe-inspiring, it’s light and bright and makes a good partner to tapas. Keep it simple, I say, when there is a lot of flavour going on.
And Xavier Franco’s big on flavour. What I remember from his days when Saüc was still in its uptown locale is his idiosyncratic approach to tradition. He has talent in spades and a certain fearlessness that means that while not everything is successful—the cuttlefish with beans and blood sausage consisted of a slab of rubbery seafood on a sweet and cloying mess—the rest was a joyous makeover of Spanish favourites.
Take his boquerones. Scattered with natty little cubes of tomato and infused with guindilla oil, they deliver just the right amount of peppery punch to elevate them into something quite sublime. Slivers of salty mojama (air-cured tuna) are counterbalanced by creamy, microplane-fine macadamia nut shavings. The nuts and fish work a treat and I find myself momentarily transported to the shores of Barbate and hankering for a glass of bone dry Fino. I don’t think it’s on the menu. It should be.
A garden salad is nicely dressed and dotted with plump, tender artichoke hearts, and the xató, the revered Costa Daurada salad of escarole lettuce, salt cod, tuna and anchovies all tossed together in a light romesco sauce and scattered with meaty black olives, is earthy and satisfying. Canelons with white truffle butter were madly decadent, but the gambas al ajillo croquettes won out for lip-smacking richness applied with a feather-light touch. The inside, while soft and unctuous, was delicate as Angel Delight and you could hear the shell crunch from across the room when you popped it in your mouth. If ever there was a contender for best croquette in the city, these must surely make the list.
Estrellados (fried eggs cracked over potatoes) with pork neck and artichokes were tempting, but didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the order so I’m holding out to have them for breakfast should I find myself in the area after a big night out anytime soon. Instead we opted for a healthy chunk of sea bass on mixed mushrooms and roast quinoa grains, an inspired combination and classic Franco, as was an unusually light and refreshing steak tartar with sweet mustard ice-cream.
The weakest link was probably dessert, and that’s largely because I’d stuffed myself silly before getting to that part of the menu. Saffron-infused chocolate cream sounded interesting (I’ve been trying to come up with a dessert using saffron for years and have so far failed miserably to make it work), apple pie is always welcome done well, and chocolate coulant, well, 2001 can keep it.
All in all, though, Ohla’s Gastrobar is a welcome addition to the tapas circuit serving proper, interesting food and they won’t fleece you on the way out the door.
Ohla Gastrobar is open daily from 7am-4pm and 7pm-midnight. Tapas and wine for two, approx. €50. Lunch menu €15.