Chefs in Spain's culture capital are turning the tables on food scientists and getting back to basics. Well, almost. Anya Von Bremzen puts foie gras dust behind her and takes a bite of things to come.

Anya von Bremzen
May 01, 2009

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-garde–obsessed 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.

Hot Tables
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 Bulli–trained 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 ibérico–infused 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, 19–21 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.

If the dramatic plunge of the dollar won't stand between you and an exquisite meal, make a beeline for the breathtakingly expensive Drolma, at the Majestic hotel, where I had an unforgettable game dinner presented on Versace china. A specialist in grand, traditional dishes—lièvre à la royale, whole roasted jarret de veau—Drolma's Fermí Puig is among Spain's greatest chefs. In a sumptuous salon that seems plucked from an old master painting, he pampers local businessmen and politicos with seasonal menus that might include langoustines with artichokes, potatoes, and a surprise hint of caramel, or ventresca (buttery tuna belly) enlivened with caviar and a palate-cleansing Chantilly. If formal dining is your cup of consommé, this is the place for that epic five-hour meal. Smelling salts with your bill?We're sure the well-drilled staff will oblige. Hotel Majestic, 68 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-496-7710; dinner for two $385.

Catalan Contemporary
A few years ago Barcelona saw an explosion of small chef-run restaurants—Saüc, Colibrí, Hisop—withchic-on-a-shoestring looks and kitchens determined to innovate without scaring the masses. You'll eat well in each of these spots, but Alkimia offers the best glimpse of where post-Adrià cooking is headed. The white-on-white room is a testament to the effects of good lighting and is packed with architect types sporting the latest fashionable eyewear. They are so busy enjoying themselves, the inventiveness behind chef Jordi Vilá's seemingly easy-eating cuisine probably passes them by. The bracingly bitter cocoa broth that accompanied my seared foie gras was an inspired touch that offset the richness of the liver. Beneath the salad of cèpes and potatoes lurked a layer of lentil "meringue" dotted with pork cracklings—amplifying the earthiness of the dish.Tradition?Vilá delivered with capipota, Catalan calf's head, completely free of gristle and sauced with brown butter and capers. Pastry chef David Inglada is justly winning awards for triumphs like peach gazpacho veiled with yogurt mousse and fruity olive oil. All this at bistro prices. A table mañana?Good luck. 79 Carrer Indústria; 34/93-207-6115; dinner for two $154.

It takes chutzpah to open a restaurant in a food-obsessed city like Barcelona without having had a stint at El Bulli or Can Fabes. And if the aspiring restaurateur is a norteamericano who worked in Silicon Valley and has no deeper culinary credentials than cooking for dinner parties?Well, in the case of Jordi Artal—a young Canadian of Catalan origins who moved to Barcelona and opened Cinc Sentits a year ago—he lands on a hit. Locals, tourists, and even those grouchy Madrid restaurant critics adore the place, and not just for the modestly stylish look and the gracious multilingual service, courtesy of Artal's charming sister and mom. The opening shooter of maple syrup and cava sabayon with a crunchy accent of sea salt; the dreamy pumpkin velouté intensified with sliced quail breast, chanterelles, and drizzles of organic hazelnut oil; the beautifully moist fillet of sea bass poised on an orzo risotto enriched with shellfish reduction and mascarpone—Artal's creations comfortably hold their own against those of his more pedigreed competitors. "How do you do it?" I ask. Artal just smiles and shrugs. 58 Carrer Aribau; 34/93-323-9490; dinner for two $102.

ANYA VON BREMZEN is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure. She is currently at work on her next cookbook, Tasting Spain, about new Spanish cuisine, due out from Workman this fall.

Come Saturday, Barcelonans escape out of town to eat at Catalonia's most famous restaurants. Here, two worth a trip.• Reached by a scenic one-hour train ride from the city, the Michelin two-starred Sant Pau, in the seaside village of Sant Pol de Mar, is currently my favorite restaurant in the country. Chef Carme Ruscalleda's minimalist Mediterranean style is showcased in nuanced dishes like just-caught prawns accompanied by artichokes in three textures, or braised goose with steamed black turnip cake. 10 Carrer Nou, Sant Pol de Mar; 34/93- 760-0662;lunch for two $255. • To keep up with the times, Santi Santamaría (Ferran AdriÀ's Michelin three-starred archrival) recently redid his Can Fabes with an interior as contemporary as the cuisine is traditional. He also added Espai Coch, a casual chef's table set in a strikingly designed nook off the kitchen, where $64 buys guests an unimpeachably delicious four-course Catalan meal—crunchy-macaroni-and-wild- mushroom bake, bacalao with tomato jam and burned garlic cream—and matching wines. Use the money you save to book one of the five fabulously sleek new guest rooms above the restaurant. 6 Sant Joan, Sant Celoni; 34/93-848-4384; dinner for two $130 at Espai Coch, $323 at Can Fabes; doubles from $311.

WHERE TO STAY
Thanks to a recent boutique-hotel boom, finding stylish (and centrally located) accommodations is no longer a challenge in this popular city.

Hotel Casa Fuster
Floral Art Nouveau details; 96 plush guestrooms done up in shades of café con leche in a 1908 landmark building by Lluis Domènech i Montaner. 132 Passeig de GrÀcia; 34/93-255-3000; doubles from $480.

Prestige Paseo de GrÀcia
Starkly handsome guest quarters and a lobby and library stocked with design books—all in the heart of Barcelona's main thoroughfare. 62 Passeig de GrÀcia; 34/93-272-4180; www.prestigehotels.com; doubles from $307.

Hotel Neri
An intimate 18th-century palace that blends old-world romance with funky Catalan chic in medieval Barri Gotic. 5 Sant Sever; 34/93-304-0655; www.hotelneri.com; doubles from $279.

Can Fabes Restaurant

Sant Pau, Sant Pol de Mar

Cinc Sentits

Since 2004, the Canadian-Catalan Artal family has engineered a big success in this clean-lined, minimalist space, appealing to hip, young locals with Catalan products and original cookery, and to visitors with explanations of recipes and wines in the language of Shakespeare. Jordi Artal, the chef, offers a brilliant omakase (trust the chef) tasting menu featuring chef’s up-to-the-minute whims (such as sea bass with a shellfish fideuà, foamed aioli, and squid ink), along with expert wine pairings.

Alkimia

Chef and alchemist Jordi Vilà runs the kitchen at this Michelin one-starred restaurant in the Sagrada Familia district of Barcelona. At Alkimia, which is named after the Arabic word “al-kimia” (the art), Vilà creates deconstructed Catalan dishes inspired by chef Ferran Adrià, the molecular gastronomy pioneer who shuttered his flagship restaurant, El Bulli, in 2011. Dinner at Alkimia provides a look into the future of post-El Bulli cuisine. Playful preparations include red mullet with seawater (a soup of blue fish and herbs) and cuttlefish with squid ink and ginger. The formal setting includes a starkly contrasting black and white palette, billowing fabrics, and crystal chandeliers.

Drolma

Named for Tara, the female side of Buddha and the embodiment of truth in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Drolma—and chef Fermín Puig—turn out a classical Mediterranean and Catalan cuisine that strives for that ideal every time out. Orchestrated in a plush and peaceful corner perch overlooking Passeig de Gràcia, his dishes feature top products from the region—from wild-caught Mediterranean sea bass and gilthead bream to grouse from Scotland or ducks from the Delta del Ebro. And when one of Puig’s polyglot staffers approaches with what looks like a box of the crown jewels, prepare yourself for a liberal helping of giant white truffles from Piedmont, Italy.

Caelis

Located in El Palace Hotel, this Michelin one-starred restaurant serves French and Catalan fare from acclaimed chef Romain Fornell. A high ceiling hung with crystal chandeliers creates a sense of drama in the dining room, which also contains a fireplace, gilt mirrors, and eight tables ideal for private conversations. The menu changes seasonally but might include options like wild sea bass topped with Baeri caviar, and grilled scallops with avocado, apple, and watercress. A glass-walled cellar contains an extensive selection of French and Spanish wines.

Restaurant Gaig

This Catalan, Michelin-starred restaurant was founded by chef-owner Carles Gaig’s great grandmother, in 1896. Originally located in Horta at a 19th-century inn, Gaig moved to the current space at the Hotel Cram in downtown’s Eixample District, in 2004. The menu still has traditional family dishes, ranging from steamed pig's feet seasoned with morel to the more approachable cod fillet and samfaina (vegetable stew). House-made desserts include crema catalane, a crème brulée served with lemon jelly and toffee ice cream. In the dining room, draped picture windows face the city-streets, and burgundy leather chairs surround tables topped with white linens and stem-less wine glasses.

Arola

Catalan chef Sergi Arola—from Michelin two-starred Sergi Arola Gastro in Madrid—opened this tapas restaurant at the Hotel Arts in Olympic Village, in 2004. Located on the second floor, the terrace has prime views of Frank Gehry's bronze whale sculpture and Barceloneta Beach. This is a pica-pica style restaurant, meaning nibble-sized-portions are served in stages and shared by the table. Seasonal cold and hot small plates range from heavy (fried potatoes filled with chili sauce) to light (sardines marinated in olive oil). In the dining room, rows of two-tops are situated between cream-colored, wrap-around chairs and cushioned benches with purple pillows. Local DJs spin nightly.

Moo

The ever-creative Roca brothers have made the Zen-like restaurant in the Hotel Omm a local favorite for haute Catalan cuisine (think, slow-cooked baby goat in a rosemary honey glaze).

Hotel Neri

An intimate 18th-century palace that blends old-world romance with funky Catalan chic in medieval Barri Gotic, the neighborhood where Picasso lived, studied, and painted many of his Blue Period canvases. Dine on wild-mushroom risotto at the hotel's velvet swathed restaurant. Stay for breakfast served on the rooftop terrace.

Prestige Paseo de Gràcia

Casa Fuster

The hotel is the last Art Nouveau hotel still in operation in Barcelona. The 96 plush guestrooms are done up in shades of café con leche in this 1908 landmark building, the last designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner. Book one of the east-facing rooms that look down the Passeig de Gràcia and let in ample morning sun.

Can Fabes

Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona

The Neoclassical Hotel Majestic is located at the center of Barcelona amidst the city’s most popular Modernista architecture: the Sagrada Família, La Pedrera, and Casa Batlló. Built in 1918 and renovated in 2011, this Eixample district property is decorated in 1920’s Vanguardista art and features 275 rooms with neutral tones and marble bathrooms with rain-effect showerheads. Entertaining evenings may be spent at Las Ramblas, a 10-minute walk away, or at the hotel’s rooftop bar—the Antonio Obrador -designed La Dolce Vitae—where guests sip cocktails and DJs spin bossa nova tunes. The hotel’s El Patio del Majestic restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine.

Hotel Cram

Close to the University of Barcelona, this design-minded property in the Eixample neighborhood is also close to Casa Mila and La Sagrada Familia. What hotel's the 67 rooms lack in size, they make up for in decor: guest rooms are decorated in beaux arts style with hardwood floors and beds by Treca de Paris. White-tiled bathrooms with rainshower heads and jetted tubs (in some rooms) are simple and pristine. The social scene is lively on the rooftop deck lounge, and foodies retreat to Michelin-starred Gaig Restaurant, where fourth generation restaurateur Carles Gaig serves Catalan and local market cuisine.

Hotel Arts

Stay in this tower of blue glass and steel that rises 44 stories in Port Olímpic (the Olympic Port) with stunning views of the city, water, and Frank Gehry's Fish sculpture. Some Catalonians find American architect Bruce Graham's ambitious design a bit too, well, American for their tastes, but visitors will welcome the many amenities, notably the efficient check-in, unparalleled Ritz-Carlton in this service-challenged city. The lobby affords an always-entertaining scene, as do the pool and alfresco restaurant, which have impressive views of both sea and skyline. There's also a well-equipped gym, a feature that cannot be found in other hotels (perhaps because chain-smoking remains this city's favorite form of exercise).

Ritz Barcelona

This venue is closed.

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