Going Vegetarian in Tapas-Happy Barcelona By SETH KUGEL
The escalivada, a Catalonian specialty that’s vegetarian friendly, at Sésamo.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I play one in this column.
Shortly after landing in Barcelona earlier this month, I met up for lunch with a friend of a friend, who asked what I wanted to eat. Not in town to write about food and not feeling particularly contrarian, I said what I’d guess many travelers to Spain would say: “Tapas.” He took me to Ciudad Condal, a spot on the Rambla de Catalunya long ago flooded by tourists but still good enough to attract locals ready to wade around them.
Behind the long bar was a feast: trays loaded with Iberian ham and chorizo and octopus and razor clams. Normally, in this kind of situation my mouth would water and my desire to gorge would trump all other brain function, including empathy. But this time, for some reason (jet lag?), my mind turned to others. “What a nightmare this would be for my vegetarian friends,” I thought.
And so I spontaneously decided to spend my four days in town as a vegetarian. More problematically, a tapas-loving vegetarian in this pig-and-shellfish crazy city, is a bit like a rock fanatic who won’t listen to guitars.
For the purposes of my meat-defying efforts, I defined tapas broadly to include montaditos (mounted on bread), Basque pintxos (skewered with a toothpick) and platillos, another common item on Barcelona menus, which literally mean “small plates.” (That’s how we often translate tapas into English, anyway.) I also decided to add Argentine-style empanadas, which are sold across the city and would be a crime for vegetarians to ignore.
I can summarize the difficulty involved in this decision in the blank stare I got when I told the bartender at Cervecería Catalana that I didn’t eat meat or fish. I’d guess vegetarians know it well, and vegans better — something between “Well, then what are you doing here?” and “Are you even a human being?” I settled for a small plate of pasta that the bill categorized as “rice.”
Others, though, were more sympathetic, offering the obvious patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce, usually tomato-based and sometimes spiked with paprika and chilies), and tortillas (Spanish omelets, which for some reason I despise). Quite often I’d spot an otherwise gorgeous eggplant or cheese or sun-dried tomato creation, only to realize on closer inspection that it had been sullied by an artful ribbon of anchovy. At the Vermuteria del Tano, one of Barceona’s traditional (and newly chic) vermouth bars, a nice woman stared at the clams before her, then speared a tart pickle, an olive, a bit of red pepper and cocktail onions on a toothpick and handed it over. It wasn’t good, but I was actually there for the house vermouth, which will remain vegetarian until a trendy entrepreneur decides to infuse it with bacon.
The scene at Gasterea, a spot that offers multiple options for vegetarians.
On to the highlights – and, luckily, there were quite a few. Another friend of a friend joined me at her favorite spot in the Gràcia neighborhood, an L-shaped bar called Gasterea, assuring me it was both reasonably priced and that there were plenty of vegetarian choices. I started in on the cold choices (1 euro, about $1.28, each), displayed pintxo-style on the counter: thin crispy eggplant slices with a scoop of creamy cheese pinned on with toothpicks, for example. But my favorites were the hot pintxos (1.90 euros) and cazuelitas, tapas-size “little pots” of goodies (2.65 euros): artichoke tempura with romesco sauce, the red pepper and nut-based sauce native to Catalonia. A small portion of mushroom risotto. Potatoes, presented not in bravas style but romescadas, like the artichokes. Seriously, how hard was that, I thought.
Soon I discovered the magic word for any vegetarian tapas-seeker in Barcelona: escalivada. It is the rare Catalonian specialty that somehow evolved without requiring meat: roasted eggplant and red pepper, usually with tomato and onion, frequently topped with a disk of heated goat cheese and often draped over toast. I ordered it everywhere I saw it, a total of five times, and though it was usually more expensive than other dishes (6 or 7 euros), it was also hearty enough to have a main-course feel. (Sometimes anchovies replace the cheese, so beware the word anchoas in Spanish or anxova in Catalán.)
But the best escalivada, I’d say by far, was at Sésamo — an actual vegetarian restaurant that I simply happened upon near Raval Rooms, the rather cramped and vaguely prisonlike (if well-located) pension. I stayed at it, in the Raval neighborhood, one night. (It was later recommended to me, making it especially satisfying to have “discovered” it myself.)
Compact and pricey (7 euros) but hearty enough to be half an entrée, Sésamo’s version had a pile of the three vegetables with two disks of caramelized goat cheese drizzled with rosemary oil and decorated with a balsamic reduction. (There was a seven-course tapas tasting menu for 25 euros, too rich for my blood but a good splurge for real vegetarians.)
Vegetarian empanadas at Rekons.
The highlight of the escalivadas was usually the warm goat cheese, but the only noncheese escalivada I sampled was just as delicious, if less filling. It was at Nou Candanchú (6.50 euros), another Gràcia spot right on Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, one of the charming squares that define the traditional-turned-hip neighborhood. This escalivada was long and low, eggplant and red pepper strips laid along tomato-rubbed toast and topped with scattered black olives.
One afternoon, I strolled the gauntlet of bars on Carrer de Blai, the main pedestrian drag of the Poble-Sec neighborhood where – travel-writing cliché alert – a taxi driver told me he brings his family for affordable tapas. (It’s also popular with travelers staying at nearby youth hostels.)
Most spots were the typical ham-and-fish-heavy fare. But a few had decent options, most notably the oddly named Blai Tonight, a cozy spot where I loaded a plate with self-serve 1-euro pintxos: bread topped with cream cheese and walnuts, a feta-stuffed piquillo pepper and a mushroom croquette. Finally, there was the especially hearty combination of a thick avocado slice and chopped-up tomato. Except that when I bit into the tomato, I realized it was salmon — my only slip-up of the trip.
Though my informal stroll turned out fine, I did conclude that vegetarians can’t really rely on the more formalized neighborhood rutas de tapas, or tapas crawls, that have become popular in the city, offering a cheap tapas-and-beer combination. Testing the new Sant Antoni route, I found slim pickings in the vegetable-only realm. One on the list, however, did stand out: Rekons, a bright, high-ceilinged “bistro” – really more of a cafe – that specializes in Argentine empanadas. (See, it’s not just me that classifies empanadas as tapas.)
Rekons is not so much vegetarian-friendly as vegetarian-BFF. The fillings of most of the 2-euro empanadas (and all the most interesting ones) are meat-free: asparagus with goat cheese; celery, Roquefort and walnuts; mushrooms with Emmental; zucchini with almonds … need I go on? It’s a good deal at any time – two make a meal – but during tapas crawl hours (4 to 9 p.m. through May 31), you get a free Moritz beer with each empanada.
Perhaps the best creations I had, though, were from a spot I almost gave up on after scanning the meat-adoring menu (Iberian pork cheek, tuna in partridge sauce, foie gras with volcanic salt). I was about to walk out of the celebrated and minuscule tapas bar Quimet y Quimet, when my eye caught a cheese display on the bar that looked pilfered from a Michelin-starred restaurant.
So, though I feared yet one more humiliating moment, I decided to elbow my way through the early-evening crowd to the bar and declare for all to hear that I wanted something with no meat and no fish. And here’s what happened: The bartender took two round pieces of toast, topped the first with a wedge of Colston Bassett Stilton, diced pickles and red peppers; and on the other, a couple wedges of Brillat-Savarin triple-cream with mushrooms and onions, and drizzled both with a balsamic reduction.
I took out my camera, which is nothing new. What was new was the French guy next to me pulling out his camera too – and asking my permission to take a picture. Others looked on with what appeared to be envy. Suddenly, if fleetingly, I was no longer the pariah of the tapas bar but the hero.
I suppose the conclusion for readers is that there is hope for vegetarians in Barcelona, even without resorting to pizzerias, self-catering and a handful of vegetarian restaurants, if you choose your spots carefully.
But was there any lesson in it for me? I’m still not ready to give up meat, but at least I now know that if I did I would neither suffer from gnawing hunger nor lead a life bereft of enjoyment. And I have vowed to choose the vegetarian dishes as often as possible, unless I’m in a place where meat is the star attraction – like Southern-fried chicken joints, Brazilian steakhouses or – sorry — tapas bars in Barcelona.