Market in Barcelona
My friend Andrew is a master world traveller, with several more levels in “International Man of Mystery” than I possess. Predictably, he’s been to Barcelona, and when I saw him two weeks ago, he had only one recommendation – “commerÃ§ 24. Make sure you’re hungry.”
Now, as those who know me are aware, I’m always hungry. One of the reasons I picked Barcelona as a place to kill 48 hours was the possibility of walking a lot and then eating huge quantities of good food. Before last night, I’d had mixed reviews for the Barcelona food scene. I had one excellent light lunch of tapas in the back of the Boqueria market, a middling mixed paella on la rambla, a decent, but very pricy arroz negro by the harbor, and a terrible assortment of bad tapas at the aquarium. As is almost always the case in foreign travel, the further I got from tourist joints that spoke to me in English, the better the food got… which meant that I don’t always know what the best dishes I had actually were.
As I read up on commerÃ§24, I realized that the restaurant was Catalonia’s outpost of the wacky “kitchen as lab” cuisine that’s making Madrid the favorite city for foodies these days. Indeed, the chef who runs the place worked at El Bulli, the best known restaurant in the world of insane Spanish cuisine. As for whether I’d need to come hungry, it didn’t look like it – the menu posted online made it look like the restaurant was a very expensive tapas bar.
And it is, in a sense. I suspect if one were to actually order off the menu, there’s be small, tapas-lie treats on it. But I never actually saw the menu. I was the first person to be seated at the bar, and I saw a lovely wine list, but no menu. Instead, the waiter explained to me that I should try the Menu Festival, a tasting menu that would let me try several different things. (He said this in Spanish, which I speak poorly, so I may have missed the nuances.) I later heard the pitch given to a group of eight American ladies (sorority girls from the south, I think) and the waiter explained, in English, “If you don’t like something, don’t worry about it. In five minutes, you’ll be eating something else and will have forgotten all about it.
He’s a blow by blow of the menu:
Bread, olive oil and salt, which showed up with the wine – Embruix, a tannic, deep red with a strong blackberry flavor.
A baseball sized mass of cotton candy, which when nibbled away, revealed a kebab of sardine, cherry tomato and basil leaf. (No, I didn’t eat all the cotton candy – enough to get a flavor for it and to figure out what was going on.)
A large white tray, covered with bar snacks: a single green olive, stuffed with a peeled section of orange; plaintain, yucca and potato chips, served with anchovy foam; puffed wild rice, spicy and sweet homemade corn nuts, and spicy-sweet caramel peanut clusters, served in testtubes in a testtube rack; a small glass of creamy Catalonian liquer.
Two miniscule sandwiches, made from thin, lightly toasted crustless bread, one containing a dried ham and buffalo mozzerella, the other containing unseasoned stalks of asparagus. Both were about the size of a large postage stamp, but were perfect in every respect.
A largely unidentifiable custard. The base layer was red, and tasted vaguely of tomato, perhaps heavily mixed with egg. The middle layer was a sharp green sauce, more herbal and aggresive than a pesto. The top layer was a white foam, flecked with balsamic vinegar.
A long rectangular plate, laid out with a long, thin line of white paste – pureed cod – a line of lentil and barley salad, and four pieces of raw scallop.
A large piece of calamari, covered with chives, sesame seeds and pink caviar.
A plate of sashimi, featuring four pieces of deeply red tuna and four whitish-pink pieces of sea bass, amply seasoned with ginger and served with a citrus-ginger vinagrette.
Three pieces of tuna, lightly cooked, and two morel mushrooms served in a rich brown sauce.
Three short pieces of rigatoni, stuffed with an asparagus cream, stood on end in a field of truffle-flavored brown jelly, accompanied by a large pile of shredded parmesean.
A strip of thinly sliced, extremely rare veal, and two halves of a fingerling potato, served in a chimichimi sauce (oily, peppery red sauce).
Those ten courses showed up singly, or in pairs, with amazing rapidity. I’d take my time over a part of the meal, and the other dishes would start to queue up behind me. As the bar filled in, I got to watch two other diners start the sequence, enjoying their bafflement over the cotton candy as well. In the kitchen, off to my left, I watched a sous-chef make ticks on a checklist, ensuring all the diners got their courses in the proper order.
The waiter explained each one, quickly, in Spanish, and I did my best to use that, comments from the women behind me and my kitchen experience to help me figure out just what I was consuming. I made the decision early on – when the cotton candy showed up – that I was going to eat everything put in front of me, within reason, and that I wasn’t going to worry about the cost. (My only exception was to leave most of the cotton candy untouched, and not to finish the custard, which I deeply disliked – but I ate half anyway.)
It’s an odd feeling not to have control over what you’re eating. I suspect if something obviously inedible – concrete, live mice – had been presented, I’d have opted out. But otherwise, I decided I was going to embrace the situation fully, ignoring the preferences I usually express. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much we tend to control what we eat, how rarely as an adult you have to eat something you dislike, how rare the experience of encountering an entirely novel flavor is. I was also reminded of how often my favorite experiences with foreign travel involve a leap of faith – trust that following someone else’s lead, not knowing what’s going to happen – will lead to something rich, strange and unique. Halfway through the meal, I felt much the way I felt during my Turkish massage, and was making similar noises of pleasure.
The dishes ranged from interesting but painful (the custard), fascinating and tasty (the small sandwiches, the test tubes of corn nuts, the cod paste and lentils), up to utterly sublime (the sashimi, the tuna and morels, the veal). Had the tuna and morels been served by itself as an entree, it would easily have qualified as the best meal of my life. I anticipate spending a good part of the next decade attempting to recreate the sauce the morels were served in. (R, you’ve been warned.)
I finished with a cheese plate, two soft French cheeses and two soft Spanish cheeses, one of which – Tarta del Casan – had the most beautiful blend of smooth and bitter I’ve ever tasted. Just to ensure that it was a truly excessive meal, I closed with a glass of Talisker and an espresso.
And yes, the bill came to 94 Euro. To be fair, 35 of that was a drinks bill – the Festival Menu itself will set you back 48 Euro per person. I know it sounds silly, but I think that’s a bargain. I’ve eaten dozens of $40 a person meals that were less interesting, challenging or memorable than any of the dishes I ate last night. $60 for ten impossibly creative dishes is a helluva deal. If I could do it again tonight, I would. If you ever find yourself in Barcelona, you should, too. (I’ll probably lend you 100 Euros if you ask nice.)