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Spain's Visionary Cuisine

Sister Act

Restaurant Hispania,a half-hour drive north of Barcelona, is a midday retreat run by sisters Paquita and Lolita Rexach. Its location, right off a busy seaside road, is redeemed by a cheery faux-rustic interior best described as barnyard modern. The uproarious lunchtime crowd--that's on a workday--quickly dispels the Castilian myth of Catalonia's dour efficiency.

The sisters swoop down on my table, proffering menu suggestions that border on commands. The prized Montserrat tomatoes have just arrived, and "The seasonal is sacred!" Indeed, these tomatoes, dressed with foamy tomato pulp and fragrant olive oil, inspire worship. In another starter, the world's fattest, silkiest anchovies ride batons of pa amb tomàquet,the region's classic tomato-rubbed bread.

Hispania's entrées range from coastal classics to seasonal caprices to solid family fare from the inland region of Ampurdàn (squid-and-potato stew, roast duck with cêpes). The sisters intervene again, inducing me to follow their sumptuous paella with grilled lubina (striped bass). It's a lustrous slab of fish, embellished with trickles of oil and a dusting of sea salt. A beautiful wine, a silky crema catalana (thin crème brûlée), a reasonable tab. The meal sings.

Gerona: Second to None

Not long ago, Gerona, Catalonia's second city, was derided as "dark, humid, depressing." But a recent restoration and its own public-relations campaign has transformed it into one of the most marchoso (happening) cities in Spain.

In response to a chorus of recommendations, I lunch at El Celler de Can Roca, a restaurant just outside town run by three young brothers (all with fabulous haircuts). The interior--remember the sponged, marbled look?--betrays the restaurant's age (12years), but the food is state-of-the-art. Avocado purée topped with gazpacho and a pickled sardine is a tingling, velvety slurp. The Catalonian fetish for pigs' feet is translated into a funky carpaccio: paper-thin slices of trotters paired with prized white beans. Luxurious lobster, resting on a carpet of potato purée, is Michelin material (the restaurant has one star), but more stylishly Mediterranean is a hunk of incredible veal, served with grilled vegetables and a clean olive-oil emulsion.

Ruins and Romesco

Once a strategic port of the Roman Empire, the city of Tarragona (formerly Tarraco) is a veritable banquet of archaeological riches. Even more rewarding than the ruins is the city's fabled romesco--the garlicky, terra-cotta-colored sauce that is the sine qua non of local gastronomy.

I almost reserve at the celebrated Sol Ric restaurant, but the concierge's tiny smirk gives me pause. Does he have a better idea?Yes--Ca'l Martí, a modest seafood house in Serrallo, the fishermen's quarter. At lunchtime, Ca'l Martí is purepandemonium. Gargantuan heaps of crustacean shells cover each table. Sunday regulars prod, crunch, and munch, shouting with their mouths full. I'vestruck gold.

Tiny fried fish, calamari, and satiny seafood croquettes give way to my favorite Catalan dish, arrosejat, vermicelli "caramelized" with garlic and oil and cooked in a seafood broth. But the star here is romesco Ca'l Martí. It arrives, an apotheosis of messiness: shrimp, prawns, and langoustines, all in their shells, with three kinds of fish, aswim in a pungent lava of sauce. In minutes, romesco drips down my chin, elbows, and knees. But mira,it's the stuff one could happily drown in.

The Restaurants

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi, Rosas; 34-972/257-651;
degustation menu for two $172.

Torre del Remei
Camí Reial, Bolvir de Cerdanya; 34-972/140-182;
dinner for two $77; doubles from $175.

Hotel El Castell
129 CarreteraLleida-Puigcerdà, La Seu d'Urgell; 34-973/350-704;
dinner for two $100; doubles from $120.

Cal Teixidó
Carrer Sol de Vila, Estamariu;
34-973/360-121; lunch for two $33.

Ristra
548 Agua Fria St., Santa Fe; 505/982-8608;
dinner for two $75.

Restaurant Hispania
54 Carretera Reial, Arenys de Mar;
34-93/791-0457; lunch for two $70.

El Celler de Can Roca
40 Carretera Taialà, Gerona;
34-972/222-157; lunch for two $66.

Ca'l Martí
12 Sant Pere, Serrallo, Tarragona;
34-977/212-384; lunch for two $50.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.

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