lundi 28 janvier 2013

Barcelona : Gastronomic Dining

I visited Spain for the first time in 2001 as part of a whirlwind tour around Europe. I couldn't understand people who raved about Spanish food. The food served to tourists on bus trips is generally lacking flavour and unexciting. All this changed last year when I stayed with Isa and Julio in Andalusia. What a revelation. 

In January this year, in addition to tapas, I was fortunate to dine in the Michelin starred Cinc Sentits restaurant in Barcelona. The restaurant showcases contemporary Catalan cuisine and is owned by brother and sister duo, Jordi and Amèlia Artal, the chef and maître d'. We contacted the restaurant via their website to book and promptly received a response. 

The restaurant in Eixample was accessible by foot from Las Ramblas where we were staying. We were warmly greeted by staff and shown to our table, one of only 10 in the restaurant. Plenty of space between the tables and dimmed lighting make it an intimate spot for dining with a loved one. The decor is minimalist without being cold. It provided an ideal contrast for showing off the elaborate presentation of the dishes. The staff were very pleasant, enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable about the dishes and the wines. Always attentive, but never intrusive, there was a sense of theatre about the service. The philosophy of the restaurant is around sourcing fresh, high quality ingredients. Staff elaborated on how they not only choose wines but regularly review them.

For an apéritif we chose Gran Juvé y Camps Gran Reservaa local sparkling white wine which we really enjoyed and reasonably priced at 8€ a glass. The restaurant does not serve à la carte. We had a choice of 2 tasting menus, the 8 course 'Sensacions' and the more rustic 6 course 'Essència'. We chose the Sensacions menu and the Spanish wines to match.

After the last of our savoury dishes, our waiter brought to our table what looked like a large mint on a small glass dish. Armed with an atomiser he meticulously described the various spices and flavours of the spray. He sprayed the mint-like object which swelled to the size of my thumb. No additional cutlery was provided, so we assumed we were to eat it with our fingers. I bit into it... my teeth came to a sudden halt in this solid, fibrous mass. The waiter did well not to laugh as he explained that in fact it was a towel to wipe our fingers. Up until then, I had done a reasonable job of impressing them with my sophistication. In five seconds this was all undone. The real girl from Wollongong (an industrial city in Australia) and the naive boy from Woodenbong (rural backwater in Australia) were instantly revealed.

Each dish was truly a feast for the five senses. The wines were perfectly matched, enhancing the dishes. It was one of the most memorable meals I have ever enjoyed. I would highly recommend Cinc Sentits to those who enjoy great food, wine and service and who like to indulge. It is a very special restaurant for a special occasion.

* No photos of the amuse-guele, tapas or cheese courses.

Gran Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva
Albacore salad - smoked apple sorbet, pickled onion, green beans and olive air
Caramelised foie gras 'Coca' - pastry crust, chive arrop and leeks
Razor clam - crisp green bean, mini potato, traditional pil pil sauce
John Dory - salsify, brussel sprouts, bone marrow, green olive, almond bread crumbs
Squab from Araiz - red wine poached pear, red fruits, croqueta

Not so delicious hand towel
Tangerine - passionfruit, fresh herbs
Banana - warm salted caramel, black beer, hazelnut
Tentacions - coconut marzipan; cannelé; chocolate and mint truffle; frozen peanut sandwich
Cinc Sentits
Aribau 58 E 08011 Barcelona

dimanche 27 janvier 2013

Barcelona : Tapas and Casual Dining

I have been expanding my horizons beyond France with a four day visit to Barcelona in Spain. After the grey skies and cold in northern France it was a relief to arrive to warm sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. I use 'warm' here as a relative term. It was a mild 16°C. Certainly nothing like the mid 40°C that family have been experiencing in Australia.
High on my priorities for Barcelona was eating tapas. Here are some of the tapas bars that I have tried.

Ciudad Condad
I found this standout tapas bar thanks to a recommendation from staff in our hotel. It is only a short walk from La Rambla. There is an area with table service but it is much more fun in the bar area. I ended up chatting away with people from Andalucia, Catalonia, and Italy. As it was crowded the strategy for obtaining a seat at the bar is just to hover around and catch the eye of the patient and helpful staff behind the bar who will help you secure a stool. 
The tapas are a little dearer than I tried elsewhere but the quality are also a step up. I found them to be good value for money. They do have standard offerings which are supplemented by the daily specials of approximately another 12 tapas. Some are pre-prepared, whilst others such as the seafood are cooked to order. The ingredients were very fresh and tasty. A menu in English is available on request but we found that pointing to what others were eating and those already prepared was actually better than trying to pick from the English version of the menu. The daily specials are not included in the translated menu. Without doubt some of the best tapas anywhere. I have never tasted olives so bursting with flavour and with such perfect texture. Neither too soft nor too hard. I finally tried the shellfish that I had seen in a tapas bar in Seville. It appears to be a very popular choice but I found it not really to my taste.
As the food, service and atmosphere was so good we went back a second time and were thrilled that our server remembered us. This bar is highly recommended. 
Fresh produce makes great tapas
A part of our tasty selection
Unknown shellfish 
Pinotxo  Bar
This institution in the Mercat (Market) de la Boqueria was recommended by a Spanish friend. Like Ciudad Condad it is well known, appearing in many travel guides hence there may be a bit of a wait for a stool. This is all part of the fun giving you a chance to observe the activities at the neighbouring market stores.  One of the staff managed 'crowd control' so that it was fair for everyone.  He was able to confidently translate into English the day's seasonal offerings from his list. 

I made the mistake of assuming that the dishes would be very small 'tapas-size' servings. The servings were generous and approaching main-course size. It become evident very quickly that I had over-ordered. I was so enthused by what they were offering I wanted to try lots of dishes. As with tapas, the dishes were brought out as they were prepared. We enjoyed the tastiest rabbit dish ever, variety of fried mushrooms, toast rubbed with garlic, tomato and olive oil, grilled lamb, chickpeas, chevre and the list goes on. The dishes were not the prettiest but they well and truly made up for it in terms of flavours.

More casual than Ciudad Condad, I would highly recommend it for brunch when you visit what I think is one of the best food markets anywhere.



Bar Lobo
Jamon on bread
This bar, only one street back from the hustle and bustle of La Ramblas, provides a haven with delicious food and a laid back atmosphere. It may have been the time that I was there, but it has a much quieter, slower pace than the exuberance and noise of Ciudad Condad. A great place in terms of food when you want to be able to sit back, relax, chat with friends etc

Quirky fun setting with lights made from books and huge old fashioned meat safes or cold storage set into the walls.
Spot the problem. Not an ideal location for those in a wheel chair.
Sagardi Euskal Taberna
I found this tavern in the El Born area by chance. This tavern has seated outdoor eating, standing in the bar area and a seated restaurant area.  The tapas (Basque style)  is available in the bar and outdoor eating area. It is more expensive when eating outdoors. Another menu is available for the restaurant. The tapas is self-serve which makes it much easier when you don't speak the language. All tapas was served either on bread, or in a roll or croissant. The roll I had was not as fresh as I had at other tapas bars. It was a pleasant meal sitting outside at night (under a heater) in January. I certainly was not cold. I probably would not rush back here for the food given the superior quality available at other locations. The atmosphere outdoors in the pedestrian only square however does make it worthy of another visit.

Olives, anchovies with green peppers; croissant with crab; anchovy and red cabbage 

Bar Cañete
This bar was one of three recommended by the concièrge at our hotel. Like Ciudad Condad and Bar Lobo we really enjoyed this bar. Don't be put off by the dingy sidestreet of Las Ramblas where it is located.  There is no menu in English but pointing at what others eat makes it easy to order. The standard of the food was again excellent as was the service. The bar is narrow and, noisy but provided us with the perfect vantage spot to observe the skills of the cooks in the kitchen. The kitchen is completemy open forming part of the bar area. Lightning fast and exceptionally well organised we watched as if in a trance. Cooking and serving staff seemed to dance around each other. It appeared that there may be more seating next door but it was undergoing renovations.  If you would like something more substantial, they do serve full size dishes and desserts. 

Observing the cooks was highly entertaining

Only one of the waiters appears to be allowed to slice the jamon
Group enjoying côte du boeuf

Ciudad Condad
Rambla de Catalunya, 18, 08007 Barcelona
Open every day 8.00am to 1.30am

Pinotxo Bar
La Rambla, 91, (Barcelona). Boqueria market, 66-67
Closed Sundays

Bar Lobo

Carrer Pintor Fortuny, 3, 08001 Barcelona
Open 9.00 to 12.00am (Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 2.30am)

Sagardi Euskal Taberna
Placeta de Montcada, 1-3, 08003 Barcelona
10.00am to 0.30am (Saturday and Sunday until 1.00am)

Bar Cañete
Carrer Unio, 17, 08001 Barcelona
1.00pm - 1.00am Monday to Saturday

mercredi 2 janvier 2013

Celebrating Christmas in France

My love for La France is intrinsically linked with my passion for food. I have been extremely spoilt in staying with Valérie who is a generous and wonderful cook. In France the main meal at Christmas time is usually on Christmas Eve. Valérie's son Grego offered to prepare this meal. Having lost weight for a film role he had been dreaming about an extra special Christmas Eve dinner. He devised the dishes, bought the ingredients and then he and Valérie worked as a team to create the dishes.

We started with champagne, foie gras on toast, radishes, carrot, foie gras and fig macarons from Pierre Hermé. I was rather sceptical about the foie gras and fig macarons as I have only ever known macarons as a sweet rather than something savoury. They however worked very well. I even bought some for New Year's Eve.

For entrée it was aumônière: parcels of chevre, sundried tomatoes, and dried duck breast. They were fiddly to make but the outcome was a huge success. This was followed by lamb crusted with gingerbread accompanied by rice with truffles, a cheese platter, homemade Christmas biscuits and bûche de Noël.  
Carré d'agneau en croûte de pain d'épicé
Bûches de Noël
There were nine of us for lunch on Christmas Day. Christmas gifts were exchanged at different times throughout the lunch. I really like the way that this was done rather than the focus put on the gifts before the meal in Australia. Of course, this may just be the difference between different families rather than that between different countries. We again enjoyed foie gras and many other tempting nibbles with our champagne. Our main course were châpons (castrated chicken and turkey) with potatos cooked in the duck fat. Cheese and a chocolate bûche de Noël completed our meal. There was so much food that the young ones were sent off with large doggy bags that I am sure they are still eating.

Wine on window sill for cooling

Thank you Valérie, JeF and your families for the privilege of sharing these wonderful meals with you.
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