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Photo by Patricia Esteve
Ken restaurant 1
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Photo by Patricia Esteve
Ken restaurant home
The Japanese restaurant Ken is something of a Sarrià institution, beloved by residents and evidently by Carles Puyol, the current FC Barcelona captain who recently cited it as his favourite place to eat.
By 10pm on a Tuesday night it is abuzz with neighbours crowded elbow to elbow around a speckled grey half-moon bar. Two Japanese teppanyaki chefs work hot plates with steel spatulas and dangerous knives, tossing and slicing the components of individual dishes before passing them off across the bar still sizzling and steaming to the softly murmuring crowd.
To our right is a well-known Barcelona food critic dining alone, and a number of the glitterati saunter in and off to tables at the simple restaurant at the back. In front of us, eight medium-sized clams are slowly opening their hinges while the chef mixes a sticky batch of finely chopped shallots with soy sauce and Japanese ‘kewpie’ mayonnaise, a popular condiment that lends a silky sweetness to the sauce. This, he speedily piles on top of the clams just as they blossom open and serves them immediately.
Simultaneously, he lays two flat lettuce leaves on the grill while searing opalescent whole squid stuffed with ground pork, ginger and scallions. The lettuce seals the calamars in a sweet, tender envelope, four deft cuts of the knife expose its succulent stuffing, and that too is plated and served within seconds of completion.
And all this in the time it takes to order a glass of sake. In Japan it is said that you must first eat with the eyes and then the stomach, and it’s certainly true here. The sheer speed of the kitchen is mesmerising, while the savoury aromas filling the small bar area send maddening shock waves through the brain. Deciding what to order is beyond frustrating when there are only three of you and the glutton within taps on your shoulder saying, “one of everything, one of everything.”
We settle on a bowl of fresh tofu, soft and sensual as clotted cream and quite the best I’ve ever had in Barcelona, in a steaming vegetable broth. Sliced scallions crown the top and add a short, sharp stab of piquancy. The broth itself is light, delicate and almost translucent, fragrant as a spring day and perfect for refreshing and opening the palette ready for the parade of dishes to come: something the Japanese take very seriously.
We have tuna tartar chopped up with soy, green ginger and scallions producing a fresh, aromatic, butter soft paste that melts in the mouth. A platter of spoon-tender sashimi of salmon and yellowtail by contrast is unadorned and pure as deep ocean water.
Next comes a round of medium-sized clams steamed in sake and served piping hot in a throw-away foil container, to save on washing up or to give a certain Japanese picnic theme to the whole thing I’m not sure. It’s hard to say how ecologically sound that is, but they were certainly clams that meant serious business; plump, juicy and cerebrally addictive. I have thought of them often since.
The only vaguely disappointing dish was a mountain of fresh egg noodles, slapped on the plancha with sliced carrots, onions and cabbage. Stir fried with Asian ketchup the taste is a little artificial: more pot noodles than hot wok.
On the whole though, this uptown Japanese restaurant is the real deal, positively bristling with atmosphere and a passion for food. It’s also a far more affordable treat than one might expect for the neighbourhood. My only regret is that I didn’t have room this time for the rare beef fillet (not Kobe alas), or the seared tuna with straw mushrooms, or the...well, you get the picture.
Ken: Benet i Mateu 53 (Sarrià), Tel. 93 203 2044. Open—Mon to Sun, 1.30-4pm, 8.30pm-midnight. Closed Monday lunchtime. About €40 per head for four to five shared dishes plus drinks