Bistronomy in Barcelona. Creative plates of contemporary catalan cuisine at a good price
TINY white flowers dot the tuna tartare at the austere Gresca restaurant. At first you think they are just garnish, a bright, pretty contrast to the ruby heap of diced fish. Then you taste them: garlic. The blossoms are a clever way to add flavor to the silky flesh without overpowering its sweetness. But then, you’ve come to expect cleverness on the plate. This is Barcelona, after all.
Stefano Buonamici for The New York Times
A table at Hisop, among the most ambitious of Barcelona’s “bistronomic” restaurants. More Photos »
What you may not expect is to get that delicious pile of fresh tuna, along with two other courses and an amuse-bouche, for just 18 euros, about $29 at $1.59 to the euro. But Gresca practices bistronomia, which means it’s one of a growing number of Barcelona restaurants dedicated to offering high quality, contemporary — and yes, occasionally clever — cooking at reasonable prices.
Barcelonans have Pau Arenós, a journalist who writes frequently on food for the local newspaper, El Periódico, to thank for the term. “I was noticing this new kind of restaurant, places opened by young chefs, without investors or a lot of money, but with excellent technical training,” he said in an interview. “I needed a word to describe what I was seeing to my readers.”
The solution? A combination of bistro (a nod to the traditional dishes that form the starting point for these chefs) and gastronomia (a reference to the haute cuisine techniques used to update them) produced bistronomia. The fact that the same word can also encompass economía — or economy — only made it more appropriate. Mr. Arenós didn’t discover until later that a journalist, Sebastián Demerold, had earlier used the same term to describe a similar Parisian trend.
There are at least 15 “bistronomics” in Barcelona now, from Ápat, one of the earliest to adopt the formula, to La Mifanera, which updates the classic rice dishes beloved by Catalans, to the imaginative Toc, where even a simple steak might share the plate with a “plumcake” of garlic shoots. All partake of a certain aesthetic. Frequently run by couples, they tend to be located in the Eixample, that stylish part of the city north of the Plaza de Catalunya, whose broad boulevards blend modernist architecture with trendy shops. But the restaurants themselves are hardly paragons of design: their small, narrow spaces lack almost entirely anything recognizable as décor.
Instead, all the attention goes toward offering creative, well-prepared food at prices that won’t break the bank. Embat, one of the newest bistronomics, exemplifies the ethos (Mallorca 304; 34-93-458-0855; http://www.restaurantembat.es). Its two chefs, Fidel Puig (who is in charge of the savory dishes) and Santi Rebés (who handles sweets) and their maître d’hôtel Cristina Torras, met working at Espai Sucre, Barcelona’s cutting-edge dessert restaurant. “Working at Espai really marked us,” said Mr. Puig, 31. “So even though we might make something really traditional like lentils with pigs’ feet, we’ll play with it a bit by adding foie gras.”
At Embat, the white stucco walls are unadorned, and the lighting that falls over the restaurant’s 10 tables comes from nothing more than bare bulbs draped in bronze-colored netting. (“We decorated the place ourselves,” said Mr. Puig.) The restaurant is most popular during lunch, when Mr. Puig and Mr. Rebés offer a reduced selection that might include a fresh cheese ravioli with lemon and bacon, or a cod with wild mushrooms and prunes (those two courses, plus a dessert, run 21 euros).
But even at dinner, when the menu is a little more ambitious, the place is packed, and the prices are still reasonable. On a recent night, the 38-euro tasting menu included a succulent scallop and pork jowl combination, and desserts like a chocolate sponge with coffee “sand” that showed off Mr. Rebés’s avant-garde training.
With its exposed brick walls and simple black-and-white photos, Catalina (Anglí 4 bis; 34-93-206-1791; http://www.catalina.es) looks as though it belongs on the 1990s Upper West Side. But its owners, Josep Lacambra and Catalina Ballesté have infused their tiny neighborhood restaurant with an air of sophisticated bonhomie. With 12- and 18-euro lunch menus, you won’t find any of those dazzling techniques that contemporary Catalan chefs are known for — no spherifications, no airs — and like other bistronomics, the staff is pretty much limited to the place’s owners.
The snack that opens the meal is, refreshingly, nothing more than olives and salted peanuts. But it’s quickly followed by an amuse bouche of tiny sweet peas poached in a hot fruity olive oil and topped with a single, salty cockle. And from there, through the fried and roasted calçots with romesco, which taste like the best onion rings you’ve ever eaten, through the flaky cod poised on a swath of brandade, Mr. Lacambra’s cooking, with its deft combination of textures and skillful repetition of flavors, offers a sensory lesson in the bright pleasures of new Spanish cuisine.
At the other end of the bistronomic spectrum is Hisop (Passatge Marimón 9; 34-93-241-3233; http://www.hisop.com), perhaps the most ambitious of the city’s new breed. There is more than one waitress here, and they all dress in black smocks that lend them a vaguely Matrixesque air. Diners get their choice of breads and oils, and a slate of elaborate petit fours accompany coffee. Yet for all the high-end touches, Hisop’s bistronomic credentials are still evident in its physical layout, it’s black-and-red-and-not-much-else color scheme, and in a lunch menu that, while on the high end at 25 euros, is nonetheless one of Barcelona’s best culinary bargains.
Like Coure, its well-regarded partner in bistronomia across the street, Hisop incorporates avant-garde technique to delicious effect. Its chefs, Oriol Ivern and Guillem Pla, dress a single grilled razor clam in thyme foam and blood orange emulsion and top a cool slice of tuna with a ball of salt that shatters when touched by a fork. More robust dishes work just as well, from a delectable rice — the grains creamy as polenta — with caramelized baby squid to a spiced venison loin sauced with ground cocoa beans. And a dessert of chocolate cake, olive oil and shaved black truffle literally made me want to cry, so profound and earthlike were the flavors.
But bistronomia may have no greater spokesperson than Rafa Peña of Gresca. The 31-year-old Barcelona native was hardly born to the calling; he worked for years in information technology, and got his first kitchen job at a pizzeria. But his natural talent has made Gresca (Provença 230; 34-93-451-6193; http://www.gresca.net) one of the city’s best young restaurants.
Recently, his lunch menu started off with a single grilled sardine, draped in a rectangle of pancetta as translucent as cellophane and sprinkled with sesame seeds that gave the whole fatty package a delectable crunch. A single souffléed egg looked like a Vienna roll atop its mound of savory vegetables, and never collapsed — its white had been separated from the yolk, whipped until stiff, wrapped in plastic so the yolk could be reinserted, then cooked at low heat, in a high-tech treatment that miraculously transformed the simplest of ingredients.
At a presentation on bistronomia that he gave earlier this year, Mr. Peña recalled the famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s statement that a good sardine is always better than a mediocre lobster. That ethos — using high quality, if lowly, ingredients — drives Mr. Peña’s menu planning. After I had polished off his delicious tuna tartare, Mr. Peña told me how he did it.
“I can’t get atún de almadraba,” he said, referring to the famous, and costly, fish that is caught in a maze of nets off the coast of southern Spain. “I have to buy smaller fish, no more than four kilos,” he said. “For 18 euros, I have to think about my costs before anything else.” Words, in these difficult economic times, to give hope to the gourmand.