The word made food: La Tertulia
A friend and I arrive at La Tertulia one sunny afternoon after plodding through the unlovely streets of Les Corts and my first thought is, “Oh, it’s cute.”
La Tertulia straddles the corner of a small plaza, three giant plane trees shading each tip of a triangular terrace hemmed in by bamboo stakes. The tables are laid with fresh white cloths and simple glassware, the waiters jolly and enthusiastic as we take our seats. Large windows reveal a pretty dining room with duck-egg blue walls and wooden shutters at the window and the truth is I’m prepared to love it.
But the thing I love most is the menu. Consider if you will something ‘to itch’ (pica-pica). Some ‘muffled marrow sticks’ perhaps, or a ‘thousand leaves of barbecued vegetables’? Some ‘grated hedgehogs of the sea’, or a ‘bass savage to the fennel’; ‘steak tartar to the four likes’ or, my personal favourite, ‘small kid ribs to the pleasure.’ I don’t know who comes up with this stuff but it contains more laughs than Oscar night with Ellen.
For a restaurant that clearly does take its cooking very seriously one can’t help but wonder why no native speaker looked this over, especially with a name like La Tertulia, meaning an intellectual gathering in Castilian. Still it’s all about the food at the end of the day, and chef Monica Iglesias shows plenty of creativity and enterprise in her dishes, though at times one can’t help feeling she’s trying too hard to be inventive while letting the quality of the ingredients slide.
We begin with a cold bottle of Donichardonnay—the viti-creation of sister restaurant the Arrrosseria Xàtiva—to accompany the muffled marrow: thin strips of sweet, tender courgette, doused in breadcrumbs and fried to a satisfying crunch, and ponder the options.
The grated sea hedgehogs are excellent: half shells of very fresh, green-spined erizos de mar (sea urchins) whipped together with cream and cava and baked to produce a mild tasting, briny purée that makes you feel rich just eating it.
And every chickpea must surely dream of one day becoming ‘Chick Peas Tertulia Style’. Slow cooked in a stew of pancetta, garlic and hot-pink pimentón, the result is soft-textured, deeply flavoured, slightly smoky peas iced with alioli and a swirl of earthy black olive tapenade. Lovely.
The “savage bass” is not, as one might expect, an itinerant fish marauding about the plate bullying fennel bulbs, but a brick of pristine fish, cooked to tender, succulent translucence and slathered in, er, gravy. It’s not what I expect, but the hard-hitting perfume of wild fennel and caramelised onions melted into this sun-kissed bronze sauce is actually a good temper to the firm, white flesh, and indeed it’s quite the best fish I’ve had in a while: one of those miracles of cooking that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. It was just as good when I returned a few days later.
Less successful was ‘Monica’s filet of beef stuffed with foie’. A fist of prime filet wrapped in lettuce, encrusted two-knuckles deep in a pan of coarse sea salt and baked is tasty, inspired even, but a shade overdone and overly cloying with the foie. Ditto the ‘duck breast with fruit’, which proved a strange marriage of rather tough duck, banana and strawberries. An admirable try, but it was just plain wrong.
All 21 desserts read well too, with varying degrees of success. There are several variations on the theme of chocolate coulant for example; a tarte tatin that would have been good had it been fresh from the oven—mine was a little chewy; a tasty nougat and spiced bread ice cream; and home-style crema catalana and fresh fruit fondue all promising great things from a promising kitchen.
But what really makes La Tertulia a winner is the terrace. Dine under the stars in the summer, or enjoy a long lazy lunch in the shade of the plane trees, and few places beat this tranquil city hideaway.
La Tertulia, Morales 15 (Pl. del Carmen),
Tel. 93 419 5897. Open daily 1pm-4pm, 8.30pm-midnight. Approx €35 for three courses and house wine. Executive lunch-time menú €18.30. Smoking. Children welcome.