La Perla is one of Poble Sec’s oldest restaurants, yet until now it’s never crossed my radar. Occupying a corner block just below the Grec Theatre it is, by all accounts, something of a neighbourhood institution—the owner at the excellent nearby tapas bar Quimet y Quimet put me onto it—popular with good old boys wanting man-size, no-fuss fare, and dedicated smokers, wanting, well… a place to puff in peace.
Hence, the air on the day of my visit was thick with the smell of black tobacco. Ducados I’d say if pressed, a smell I always used to associate with Spanish airports, but had forgotten about since the EU set about enforcing a mass give-up. The truth is, although the smell brings back fond memories, it is a bit off-putting, but persevere—an all-out ban of smoking in public in Spain is due in January—and La Perla genuinely is a bit of a jewel, run by several generations of a family who are obsessed with the food they put on the table.
At the long, Art Deco bar, six old men are lined up tucking into small mountains of toffee-coloured paella (the sign of a good sofregit—long-stewed onions and proper seafood stock) richly studded with monstrous langoustines and generously piled with socorrat (the crunchy bits). Elsewhere tables are laid with white paper tablecloths and by 2pm the joint is full. Wine and general joie du vivre is free flowing, apart from our waiter who takes exception to my naïve request for a smoke-free table. “Everyone smokes” he shrugs, though does concede to move us from a particularly smoky corner.
In the end it’s not so bad, and he brightens considerably as we pass back plates practically licked clean. “You like?” he smiles, thawing slightly. Oh yes, we like very much.
Take my advice and turn up with the appetite of a lion for everything is colossal, almost as if they are feeding Romans. We start with leeks gently stewed in aged Jerez vinegar. They are as soft as butter, velvety as cream, sweet as molasses, and I’m told, come in a can with the date of vintage stamped on it. As conservas go, there’s no doubt they are among the best I’ve ever had, and make a superb foil to the salty, pink anchovies cured and marinated in a secret in-house recipe.
Canelones, when they are eventually found beneath a lake of béchamel and cheese sauce, are tightly packed with lovingly seasoned stewed pork. Granted it is probably not the kind of food you should be eating too often, though there’s no doubt in my mind that half the customers in here come daily, but there’s something so honest and hearty about it all that it gladdens your very soul.
Next up is prawn, monkfish and scallops stuffed into the shells of the latter and also laden with béchamel this time stabbed with a little nutmeg. I can almost hear my arteries screaming “Stop dammit, no more” yet I’m powerless to resist. No wonder obesity in Spain is on the rise, I think, vowing not to eat another bite, and then of course I do, because by this stage you’re in too deep and even starting up smoking is seeming like a good idea. Doesn’t it combat fat?
So pleased is the waiter by now with our performance that when we waiver on the subject of dessert he brushes us off. “You have to have dessert,” he says, this being a more-is-more kind of a place. So we polish off a deep, home-made apple pie which comes, you’ve guessed it, with a gallon of whipped cream.
Remarkably, and aided by a shot of marc de cava, we manage to eat the lot, and go back to work.
Passeig Exposicío 62, Poble Sec
Tel. 93 329 2052,
Open: Tue-Sat 1pm-4pm, 8.30pm-11pm. Approx €40 per head incl. wine