Roig Robí has been a stalwart on Barcelona’s uptown dining scene since it opened over 30 years ago. Beloved by the Catalan foodie contingent who like their dining experiences solid and familiar, and men in suits from the nearby financial district who use it to lubricate deals over boozy lunches (Roig Robí actually has a business club for the purpose), it nevertheless remains curiously off-radar: one of those places that nearly everyone has heard of, but almost nobody has been to. Indeed, it’s taken me 15 years to make a reservation and that was inspired mainly because I happened to be mooching along Carrer Sèneca one afternoon looking for ideas for a restoration project—the street is best known for its vintage furniture stores—and stuck my nose around the door. I’m a sucker for anywhere with a walled garden and a menu that reads like a love letter to seasonal highlights, like spring artichokes, peas and white asparagus, autumn mushrooms and truffles. I especially loved the look of the D30 lunch menu, which makes treating yourself to a posh lunch in a walled garden way more affordable.
The nattily named D30 sounds like some sort of edible spitfire, and in some ways it is: think classically Catalan in style, but with a slightly wilder, more modern side. I don’t mean madcap techniques, the cooking here is less showy than that, but the dishes ooze a certain cool confidence that means you know you’re going to get a perfectly cooked piece of fish unencumbered by hefty add-ons, vegetables taut and tasting deeply of what they are, and occasional flourishes of flavour from other Mediterranean countries combined with efficient service that warms considerably as lunch flows on. Then there’s the setting. Not the dining room so much, which is smart but a little serious, but said walled garden flanked on two sides by bright conservatory dining rooms and shaded by thick stalks of bamboo, tumbling ivy, lush ferns and stately palms.
It is, in short, the perfect place to celebrate the first days of dining al fresco, so I took a friend for his birthday and we spent a jolly afternoon speculating wildly on the affairs of other diners, sipping cava and tucking into May’s D30. It features trotter terrine with lentil vinaigrette, vegetable couscous, a house-made burger that looked fantastic and coconut ice-cream with bitter orange, but we’re after the fresher, lighter, brighter flavours of spring and so opt for salads and fish. The sweet, zingy flavour of oxblood-red Raf tomatoes here is beefed up with a big pile of peppery watercress, which I love and rarely see on menus in Spain so we’re off to a good start. My friend orders pulpo (octopus) smoky with pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) and tender as butter nestling into a bed of silky textured hummus, served slightly warm. I’ve rarely come across happier pairings of flavour and it’s exactly this sort of precise cooking that gets me excited these days.
My second course is hake ‘Roig Robi’ style, which translates to a snowy-white hunk of fish beneath a light, crunchy ‘cloud’ of fried, shoestring courgettes that are not greasy at all and pop with a summery sweetness that is simply delightful. The hake itself yielding succulent chunks of impeccably cooked flesh that I can still taste even as I write. My friend’s monkfish tail and langoustines is more classically Catalan, enriched by a sweet, velvety stew of slowly braised onions and likewise a study in fish cookery perfection. Elsewhere the most popular dish seems to be rice with espardenyes (sea cucumbers) and artichokes and is exciting sighs of pleasure from all around. I store it in the list of ‘things to try before I die’ box in my head and turn my attention to pud.
When in Barcelona, the true test of a place is a Crema Catalana. Here it’s golden and flecked with darkness like a fully-formed sunflower, and it splinters and cracks like ice when you whack the top with a spoon to reveal an unctuous creamy inner. Perfect. Yogurt mousse with mango sorbet provides just the right hit of sweetness to a smooth, rounded finish. No wonder Roig Robí has stood the test of time. The secret to their success? Quietly getting down to the serious business of turning out solid, accomplished cooking, day after day after day.
Carrer Sèneca 20, Sant Gervasi. Tel. 93 218 9222 www.roigrobi.com
Open Mon-Fri 1.30pm-4pm, Sat 8.30pm-11.30pm, closed Sunday. D30 Menu €30 (not incl. drinks, weekdays only); Tasting menus €42.90 - €64.90 (not incl. drinks); bottle Torello Llopart Cava €30.