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From left: Bernat Bermudo and Oswaldo Brito—the bright young chefs behind Mano Rota.
It’s been obvious to me for some time now that Poble Sec (PoSe among its friends) is where it’s at when it comes to food. For a start there’s the axis of Adrià, whose mini-empire spans the frontiers of Poble Sec and Sant Antoni, drawing food-loving adventurers from all over the world; there’s Xemei run by the irrepressible Venetian duo who not only serve fabulous home-school Italian cooking, but also dole out bonhomie like it’s oxygen (po-faced is over, mark my words, these days the dining public just wants to have fun); there’s Damien Bolger’s Box Social (see last month’s review) and the more humble, but no less excellent La Pizza del Sortidor that surely makes the finest wood-fired pie in town, the perfect precursor to a craft pint at Brew Pub Le Sec. And that’s before you factor in stalwarts like Quimet i Quimet and Casa Jose Montalban.
Now, there’s Mano Rota too, which pretty much seals the neighbourhood’s position as the foodiest barrio in town. Run by two pals who met when they were training at the Escuela Hofmann and subsequently went on to work the stoves of the late Jean-Luc Figueras and Gaig in Barcelona, Mugaritz in San Sebastian and Lima 27 in Peru, chefs Bernat Bermudo and Oswaldo Brito have finally got their own place in which to shine. And like so many young chefs these days, they refuse to be pigeonholed: the cosy, red-brick lined restaurant is not new-wave or traditional, neither bistro nor fine dining—it’s somewhere in the middle. You can sit at the bar and order one plate and a glass of wine, reserve a table and do the standard three courses, or opt for one of two keenly priced tasting menus. The wine list is interesting too, featuring lots of small, boutique wineries. We were steered towards a Bruja Avería garnatxa from Madrid (not normally my favourite grape, but by these makers it had similar qualities to the peppery, boysenberry end of a Pinot Noir). Think fresh, wild, zippy and an all-round excellent red for lots of different courses. It was so good, in fact, that we ended up calling a wine-loving friend who was staying nearby to come join us for a drink after dinner, and he was so impressed that he immediately booked a table for the next night. That’s what good neighbourhood restaurants are all about, you see; the glue that binds local communities together, places where life happens.
Bloody good food helps of course, and what I loved about these guys’ cooking was that their dishes were creative and vivacious without being in-your-face trendy or maddeningly ill-conceived. Theirs is confident cooking. Bold flavours to kickstart your tastebuds like cucumber and green apple gazpacho, at once bright yet soothing; salty anchovies criss-crossed over the creamiest puddle of hummus and scattered with earthy oven-dried black olives; and yucca and scamorza (Italian cows’ milk curd cheese) croquettes with a punch of lemony mayonnaise so perfectly crisp you can hear folk crunching them across the room.
Writing this and perusing the photos I took, I’m overcome with an urge to return this very night. To try again the salt cod with blood orange foam and green olive tapenade that was curiously funky. And I’d happily zip into the bar for a bowl of tender ribbons of courgette stuffed with the oozing heart of a pristine burrata, garnished with toasted hazelnuts and basil. There’s such extraordinary beauty in simplicity and if I had to choose one stand out dish of all my eating thus far in 2015, this would be it.
Corvina ceviche with aji amarillo seems to have been the seafood dish of the year—I’ve lost count of the places I’ve had it—but in the hands of Bermudo and Brito it seems to be particularly fine tuned and delicate. As is the mollete (a steamed bun), filled with meltingly tender pork jowl and pickles, and finally, a hunk of beef cheek on celery puree with an ingenious apple and fennel slaw that picked you up just enough for the finale. Indecently thick yogurt, bright red berries, sweet white chocolate and two teaspoons of dark chocolate ganache spiked with sea salt and olive oil.
This is what I’m talking about: proper, not-show-offy, grown-up food that’s still madly creative. The sort of food that makes you want to go out for dinner.