When it comes to the sport of divining the next great food trend all bets are off in experiment-driven Spain, where traditional notions of dining are being pushed to their limits. Is there life after liquid nitrogen caipirinhas and calcium chloride ravioli?Barcelona hotel restaurants might hold the answer. Though it's home to El Bulli Taller, the lab where Ferran Adrià develops new dishes, the Catalan capital never truly bought into alchemical cooking. This is a city as practical as it is playful, and restaurateurs here understand the need to reconcile progress with profit. So recently, when some of the country's most visionary chefs opened informal places at local hotels, they had to reexamine their cooking in order to please crowds and give those avant-gardeobsessed critics something to chew on. At other hotel dining rooms, restrained neoclassical cooking is the taste of the moment, while young chefs at casual restaurants are busy coining a new urban style. And the crowds?They couldn't be more delighted—happy to revel in the sheer pleasure of food instead of trying to figure out by which miracle of alchemy a block of lemon granita got inside a tea bubble. A return to tradition?Well, that would be radical. Let's just say that the foam is subsiding.
She is Rosa María Esteva, the legendary dueña of the Tragaluz restaurant group, whose establishments have defined the Barcelona look since the eighties. They are the burningly creative Roca brothers, the chef/sommelier/dessert whiz trio behind Celler de Can Roca, Catalonia's most innovative restaurant after El Bulli. When the two parties teamed up at Moo—the design-centric restaurant at Esteva's Hotel Omm—the result was a perfect union of style and substance. The dinnerware was created for Esteva by local artists; the expansive slate-and-steel space dead-ends into a glassed-in bamboo garden. And did we mention the marriage of cocina y vino?Famous for desserts that replicate the fragrances of well-known perfumes, the Rocas have channeled their obsession with scents into revolutionizing wine and food pairings. At Moo, a sommelier doesn't match a wine to a dish devised by a chef independently; instead, the Rocas create flavors that not only complement the wine but actually riff on its aromas. A salad called Verdejo, after a white Rueda grape, echoes thewine's delicate, grassy nose by layering lamb's lettuce, mango, fennel, chervil, rhubarb, and dill oil. The smoky coarseness of the Clos ManyetesPriorat strikes a harmonious chord with the slow-cooked baby goat in a rosemary honey glaze and served alongside a bubbly herb-infused sheep's-milk air. After sniffing out the citrus, vanilla, and saffron notes in your Château Doisy DaeneSauternes, marvel at the uncanny precision with which they are mimicked in a dessert that combines orange cream, saffron flan, honey gelée, brioche cubes, and apricot sorbet. Then again, this streamlined version of the high-minded food the Rocas serve at Celler would taste terrific even with a glass of Vichy Catalan mineral water. Hotel Omm, 265 Carrer Rosselló; 34/93-445-4000; tasting menu for two $167.
With its cushion-strewn banquettes, Jetsons-like chairs, and small plates on the menu, Arola seems to recall a dozen other sceney hotel restaurants from Hong Kong to Hawaii where the DJ outshines the chef. Then you actually taste these tidbits. Having earned two Michelin macaroons and rock-star status for his conceptual cuisine at La Broche in Madrid, the Catalan-born, El Bullitrained Sergi Arola took a populist route at Hotel Arts, offering his whimsical interpretation of tapas. He's succeeding spectacularly with dishes like faux jamón (tuna carpaccio drizzled with jamón ibéricoinfused oil), wood-smoked sardines with a complex seaweed romesco, or a glass of partridge gelée accented with pickled wild mushrooms. One can't help but notice the care that has been lavished on something as basic as pa amb tomàquet: the iconic Catalan tomato-rubbed bread is presented here as a rub-it-yourself affair, with chewy bread, flaky sea salt, olive oil, and those wildly flavorful Canario tomatoes. Even in a city that worships its bar staples—white beans with butifarra sausage at Cal Pep, baby squid with fried eggs at Quim de la Boquería—Arola's reinvented patatas bravas deserve to be enshrined. Instead of the classic fried spuds with tomato sauce, diners are treated to a row of twice-cooked potato "cylinders": soft within, crisp outside, and hollowed out to hold spicy tomato sauce and garlicky aioli. Everyone in Spain can make frozen foie gras dust. To dazzle with patatas bravas—that's genius. Hotel Arts, 1921 Marina; 34/93-483-8090; dinner for two $154.
In the Lap of Luxury
In the late 20th century B.A. (Before Adrià), Catalan haute cuisine was brown, brawny, and bourgeois: pig's feet and veal cheeks, potatoes and bacalao, with an occasional flourish of foie gras and truffles. Its greatest practitioner was Carles Gaig, a chef with an easy-to-love style and an annoyingly out-of-the-way restaurant. Last fall, when Restaurant Gaig opened with a central L'Eixample address in jazzy new digs at Hotel Cram, Barcelonans turned out in such numbers, they seemed to be saying basta with deconstructive cuisine. Decked out in rich reds, blacks, and gauzy metallics, the room evokes a mod Christmas present. The kitchen, however, remains a foam-free zone, sending out retro treats like airy salt-cod cakes, cubes of rare salt-cooked salmon atop a velvety zucchini cream, and brittle-skinned suckling pig accentuated with seared strawberries. My dinner date, the renowned cava maker and bon vivant Augustí Torelló, raised a glass to the "sublime simplicity" of the potato Parmentier topped with poached egg and white truffles. Then he toasted the lushness of the gratinéed cannelloni (a Barcelona classic borrowed from Italy), with a densely flavorful filling of roast turkey, beef, and foie gras. Gaig's cuisine might be old-fashioned, but downstairs, he's got the swankiest-looking restaurant lounge in town. Hotel Cram, 214 Carrer Aragó; 34/93-429-1017; dinner for two $141.
A meal at Caelis, the recently renovated and renamed dining room at the Ritz, proves that these days, neoclassicism comes in many flavors. Fluent in Spanish nueva cocina but respectful of his solid French training at Taillevent and Ducasse, Romain Fornell, the 29-year-old chef, demonstrates—brilliantly—that modern doesn't have to mean cutting-edge. His asparagus royal (custard) is a revelation, so vibrant it tastes like a gulp of vegetable-infused air. Tiny batons of rhubarb and a discreet touch of date purée elevate an already perfect fillet of sea bass. By applying a trendy sous vide (vacuum-packed) method to a leg of Pyrenean lamb, Fornell produces a meat that is both taut and soft enough to eat with a spoon. The cool opulence of the ballroom-like space borders on chilly (note to designers: table lamps would go a long way). But for cooking this articulate, fresh, and refined, one can forgive much worse sins. Hotel Ritz Barcelona, 668 Gran Vía de Corts Catalanes; 34/93-510-1205; lunch for two $116.