I hadn’t been to Barcelona for more than twenty years and a lot has changed. The city has so much going for it with magnificent architecture – traditional, modern, conventional, quirky; the juxtaposition of beach and city; a strong sense of its culture and history; its Catalan identity; and a palpable buzz. Alongside that – it almost goes without saying in Spain – is a vibrant food culture: local fruit, veg and fish almost taken for granted, innovation, and a casual, relaxed attitude to eating out. It seems less a coming together of food cultures than other cosmopolitan cities, and more a great array of styles under the banners of Spanish and Catalan food.
We barely scratched the surface of the city’s food, but we want to go back for more – and these mini reviews may help anyone else looking for places to start.
The Escribàs are a food dynasty, patissiers and chocolatiers dating back to 1906. In the Picasso Museum there is a replica of the chocolate and confectionary tower Antonio Escribà gave to his friend Picasso – a surreal take on the Columbus monument; he received a painting in return. They still have three prominently-located patisseries. However, Antonio’s son, Joan, took a different route, opening a beach restaurant in Barcelona’s Olympic year of 1992 that specialises in the rice dishes of the region.
Xiringuito Escribà was recommended to us and we would most definitely follow suit. It’s a cut above most beach restaurants. A broad frontage opens to the sand and there’s an open kitchen, but it’s a more stylish space than you might expect on the beach. Xiringuito (or Chiringuito when not in Catalonia) means, according to Wikipedia, ‘a small enterprise, usually a bar, selling mainly tapas and drinks, sometimes made in a more or less provisional building, often on a beach or loose surface, where a more permanent future may be inviable.’ This may be the inspiration for the name, but there’s nothing provisional about this Xiringuito.
It’s a busy, lively restaurant with enthusiastic, helpful staff who seem to take a pride in the place. The rice dishes, most with a Catalan noodle (Fideuà) equivalent, are at the heart of the menu. There’s a shortish but good value wine list – most bottles in the €20s – and the food is excellent and pretty reasonably priced, given the quality, quantity and location.
I am puzzled about how Catalan rice dishes differ from Valencian paella. In fact, Xiringuito advertises itself as ‘the best place for paella in Barcelona’. I have read that Catalan dishes should use a rice grown in Southern Catalonia, but I don’t suppose they all do. They are said not to include saffron, but I have found recipes that have it. They are supposed to be cooked in an earthenware dish, but at Escribà ours was in a paella pan. And a lid usually seems to be involved at some stage, but recipes vary as to when.
Whatever the differences, our rice with fish and seafood was stickier, browner and nuttier than most paellas – bordering on caramelised on the top as well as the base. It worked brilliantly with the seafood: langoustines, mussels, clams, cuttlefish cubes laced throughout, and juicy chunks of monkfish. It was very more-ish. Two women on a nearby table appeared to order a second rice and maybe if we had passed on starters we would have done so too.
Those starters were similarly good. The ‘pica-pica’ selection was four fairly typical tapas but presented in a way that conjured up eating on the beach. There was light and punchy whipped salt cod, cured ham wrapped around what was described as an airbag, actually a balloon of thin pastry, fried squid with Romanesco sauce and lime aioli, and three decent-sized sardines with parsley sauce. All were good and they typified the restaurant – traditional dishes but presented with a certain flair that was both contemporary and elevated the tapas above the basic.
The starters were more than ample for two and after the rice, we couldn’t manage dessert. This was a shame given the family tradition. You need to book Xiringuito Escribà, especially in the evenings, but it’s worth it. Good food, good location, good staff, and it won’t break the bank.
Botafumeiro is a significant step up in price – potentially even more so if you were to go for one of their seafood platters. We didn’t. Part of what you pay for, though, is the experience.
Botafumeiro is a venerable institution and, in the manner of these places, some of the staff have likely been there for decades (was it my imagination or were all the waiters male and all the women front-of-house?). It’s all about fish and seafood. You don’t go there for meat – although a Canadian on the neighbouring table did order suckling goat and looked startled to find a whole leg on his plate.
It’s vast and it’s crazy. There are multiple rooms and we thought we’d need a map to find our way out. Waiters rush this way and that with plates and platters piled high. There must be accidents. On my way back from the loo, I had to give way while six or seven dashed past at a blind corner. It’s you that gets out of the way, not them, and no doubt it would be you, not them, who’d send a huge tray of food crashing to the floor.
Our room was itself the size of a moderately big restaurant. It works because there is a team presiding over each room, with a serving station where they fillet or carry out the final prep. It’s all very efficient, and there seemed to be no issues delivering orders in a timely and accurate fashion.
Some of the food is very good, but there are enormous amounts of it. The menu is the size of a broadsheet newspaper with everything you can possibly think of that can be pulled out of the Mediterranean. Choosing what to eat wasn’t easy, not because we wanted everything but because there’s too much to take in.
I started with Galician-style octopus. It was tender and juicy, each slice yielding to a firm bite at the centre with softer flesh around the edge. It came with just the right amount of paprika. But it was a vast portion, and sitting in the middle of the plate were three sizeable boiled potatoes. I’ve had half one of those as a main course accompaniment and considered it enough. I was determined not to waste too much octopus and by the end I thought I might be growing six more arms. This restaurant must have a wastage issue.
Tuula went for seafood croquetas. They were delicious – morsels of assorted seafood and a rich sauce inside a crisp ball. Excellent, but there were eight of them.
After such starters, surely they would ease up on the mains? Yes and no. My charcoal-grilled hake was accompanied by a more sensibly-sized medley of vegetables – just the right amount. But the tronçon of hake was big. I would have struggled in any case after the octopus, but the method of cooking for a piece of fish that size meant that it became pretty dry. Hake should take well to fire, but it would need to be smaller, in my view.
Tuula’s sole was a little lighter, but there were still four fillets in a cava sauce with mushrooms and topped by four plump, juicy prawns. The tangy sauce held it all together well, and it was a more manageable dish than mine.
It must be difficult in a restaurant of such size and with a big menu to produce first class food. Botafumeiro gets close, which is an achievement; we were sure smaller portions would help. A review told us that Barcelona’s literati eat in the restaurant and I guess they would know better what to order – like sharing a single starter. It was also expensive even without desserts (does anyone have dessert there?) but I am sure that most diners go for the experience. The seafood platters looked extraordinary (and enormous), but with a price tag that, for us at least, would make them for the most special of special occasions.
Mercat Princesa is a tapas market in an old market building. It now hosts 17 tapas and drink outlets with seating scattered throughout, some around small tables, some communal. It was a top choice for lunch before an early evening flight home. We got there early and there was bags of space. By the time we left, it had filled up nicely and we guessed it would be heaving in the evenings. It’s much like a streetfood market, except that the plates are smaller tapas-style – although several of ours came with different potato accompaniments, rendering a visit to the patatas stand unnecessary.
It all seemed pretty authentic, so long as you ignore the burgers that are found on the broquete stand. There’s a great range. Some of the highlights for us were chicken croquetas (from an extensive croquetas menu), broken eggs, pork and mushroom broquetes and, naturally, the cured meats.
It’s casual, it’s fun and it’s worth a visit. Our food was all pretty good and what we saw from the other stalls seemed of the same high standard.
Barcelona is a great place to eat. Much of the food is Catalan-influenced, but it shares that spirit and attitude to food that you find throughout Spain and to a lesser extent around the Med. There is an emphasis on the primacy of the main ingredient, dishes are not over complicated and there is a respect for food that is evident in the food markets around the city, not just the famous Boqueria.
There is deeply traditional food and there are more innovative dishes, but, stylistically, they are not worlds apart, which seems to represent the right type of innovation. I haven’t covered here a more traditional tapas restaurant where we were part of a group of 20-plus, which was also excellent. There are sure to be places that don’t measure up – but the evidence of this short visit is that you’d be hard-pushed to find them. Surely it won’t be another 20 years before we’re back.