Photo by Pablo Pariente de Torre
Tatami Room 1
One good thing about the economic crisis here in Spain is the will of restaurateurs to up their game. I’m not just talking posh eating here, I’m talking a general overhaul in standards. Top chefs opening wallet-friendly places, likewise the up-and-comers and established neighbourhood joints giving you more bang for your buck. Across the board people seem to care about the customer, and the experience, more. In many ways, you could say, there’s never been a better time to eat out.
The Tatami Room in Poble Sec has muddled along quite nicely since opening, but without any clear direction. The home-made noodles were great, but you never knew when they’d have them, the craft beers a slightly off-centre addition to the Japanese concept. But they’ve brought in a hot new chef, Nori Tamada, brimming with ideas fresh from Japan, and new manager Daniel De Sousa, previously in the butlering world, now a service-minded consultant tasked with paring back all the ideas and corralling them into a much clearer, cleaner experience.
This is no fancy pants eatery, mind you. It’s a homey atmosphere where you take off your shoes and snuggle your legs under the sunken tatami tables within the red-brick basement dining-room, but the food is more coherent on the whole, and occasionally exceptional. Our ‘Shanti’ salad with oranges and flecks of sesame could have been livelier—on inspection of the menu I noted the promised fennel and macadamia nuts were missing, and the wasabi was but a whisper of its eye-watering self—but there were some wonderful surprises in store.
I’m still thinking about the nutty, delightfully chewy-in-the-middle-crunchy-on-the-outside rice cubes filled with spiced tuna and chives a week later, and Japanese style chicken ‘nuggets’ were juicy and tender, encased in a crunchy panko jacket and served piping hot in a way that normally eludes this kind of thing. If you were at a drinks party and these were the nibbles, you’d be pushing old ladies out of the way for them. But it is worth saving room to try at least one of their Catalan-California hybrid rolls. We start with a Nagoya, a lavish creation of king prawns in tempura, wrapped in great rice, then succulent salmon, sprinkled with white sesame, finished with a nib of caramelised onions and splodge of miso mayo. Tender, fresh, crisp, chewy, creamy, oh my. There’s a triumphant bit of fusion for you. I was less enamoured of the Dragon Roll, which I found overly rich and generally too much on every level. Here Tamada combines foie and creamy avocado AND the house eel that they buy live and prepare in-house. Admirable as this is, this eel was a skinny creature with a skin-to-flesh ratio of about 50/50, which didn’t stop it being any less fat and the roll fell flat.
Foie nigiri? Meh. But I did enjoy the eel nigiri, which was simple and clean and let the eel speak for itself. Skinny or not, it’s an impressive effort to go to in a small restaurant and details like this abound. Such as with the negima, chicken yakitori skewers grilled over proper white, bincho-tan volcanic charcoal, which, because it doesn’t release smoke like other charcoals and burns for longer, seems to impart a particular deliciousness to whatever it cooks. In this case, it was that magical combination of slightly bitter, faintly sweet that turns a chunk of workaday chicken into something rather special.
And so to the kobe burger. With the soft, voluptuous texture of tartar it felt like a treat, and one that the menu says comes with foie. It was either chopped into the beef to enrich the texture (which is clever, but you have to wonder if Kobe beef really needs it?) or perhaps the ever-watchful Danny had clocked my lack of enthusiasm for the stuff and simply taken it off? Like I say, the man is good.
After that little lot you can imagine dessert was not exactly top of my mind, or stomach, but Danny did show up with a couple of glasses of chilled sake in a bamboo box. They do this in Japan, evidently, in order to catch your spillages—any drips from the glass fall into the box, then you knock the remnants back at the end of the night, the sake having absorbed just a hint of bamboo. You’ve got to love Japan!
As for The Tatami Room, they’re well on the road to becoming a neighbourhood favourite and, I’m told, have much more up their sleeves for the coming months. Make the reserva. They just might surprise you.
Poeta Cabanyes 19, Poble Sec. Tel. 93 329 6740.
www.thetatamiroombcn.com. Open daily, 1.30-4pm and 8.30-11pm. Tasting menu: €17.50 (not incl. wine); lunch menu: €8.50 (not incl. wine & not Sundays).