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.
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.
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.
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.