Monday, July 9, 2012

Restaurant 7 Portes

Address: Passeig Isabel II, 14, 08003 Barcelona, Spain. 34 93 319 30 33 / 93 219 29 50.

Review: So, Barcelona is as close to the Mediterranean as Homer Simpson is dumb. Alright, alright, that comparison makes absolutely no sense, but it does contain one eternal truth: Barcelona is stinkin' close to the Mediterranean. And being right up on the sea shore, seafood is king, queen, and all the peons. Now, my wifey no likey seafood (because she plumb crazy), but she indulges me every so often, and tonight was one of those times.

Initially, we ordered jamon iberico with pan y tomates (Iberian ham with a Catalan staple, bread with tomatoes). Good quality ham, and pan y tomates is one of the better things you can eat. Then, the main event: 7 Portes Zarzuela with 1/2 spiny lobster. This is a seafood stew that came with: sole, hake, squid, mussels, the biggest frickin' prawn I've ever seen, and 1/2 of a spiny lobster.

Alright let's start going over this in systematic fashion:

1. Squid: Simple rounds, very tender which indicates it was cooked very well.

2. Mussels: Nothing particularly special, but juicy and good. (Note: I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska, and mussels were phenomenal there. Compared to those, these were okay.)

3. Sole: Great steaky texture. Perfectly cooked. Great stuff. One of my new favorite fishes.

4. Hake: Tender flaky white fish. Again, perfectly cooked.

5. Shrimp: Only one of these, unfortunately. Large, tender goodness. Didn't even bother taking off the shell to eat it, that's how tender and flavorful it was.

6. Prawn: My goodness, this prawn was huge. It was, literally, the size of a small lobster. The tail meat was mild and a bit without personality. On the other hand, the head portion was full of flavor thanks to the tomalley (alternative spellings seen: tumale, tamale). Of course, tomalley refers specifically to the digestive portions of a lobster found in its head, but it seems applicable to this massive prawn as well. In any case, it was intensely briny and tasted like the sea. It mixed with the little bits of meat found in the head made for wonderful eating.

7. Spiny lobster: First things first, spiny lobster is entirely different from Maine lobster. Spiny lobster has a much more assertive flavor, and assertive in a good way. And this lobster was, like everything else, juicy, juicy, juicy. Of course, lobster suffers from one serious problem: it just doesn't have as much flavor as crab. It's a wonderful crustacean, but it's just a little light on flavor. That noted, I ate every single inch of meat and tomalley this bad spiny boy had to offer.

Overall, the second best seafood dish I've ever had. (First is, without a doubt, freshly caught, killed, and steamed king crab drowned in butter. Could anything be better than that?)

Oh, and my wife ordered vegetable cannelloni.  

The dish can be summed up thusly: Spaniards do not make good Italian food. Stick with the seafood.

In the end, this picture sums up my experience at 7 Portes.

Rating: 8/10 (5/10 is average).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rincon de Aragon

Address: Carrer del Carme 28, 08001 Barcelona, Spain. 34 93 302 67 89.

Review: So, we've been in Spain for a week, and we haven't tried a single tapa. After taking in a voice recital in a 16th century hospital turned library, we ducked into the rather unassuming Rincon de Aragon for, you guessed it, tapas. Rincon de Aragon means "corner of Aragon." I thought the name was a simple approximate rhyme, and therefore, a play on words of sorts. However, my wife informed me Aragon is a region of Spain directly to the west of Barcelona. Good thing one of us in this family is intelligent.

We began the meal with that Catalan staple: bread with tomato smeared on top.  

I was slightly worried because the bread was neither grilled nor crisped in any way. No matter. The bread was wonderful and light, just the way it should have been. In fact, our son ate about half the bread. Little punk.

And then came the tapas. I was looking forward to some snails and sweetbreads (i.e., thymus gland), but they were out, so we settled on the following: heavily spiced chorizo marinated in white wine; jamon iberico; and black pudding (forgot the picture of that one).

Let's start with the chorizo. Now, there is a scene in Rio in which the Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, of Social Network fame) confesses he thinks all sambas sound the same, and then he mimics the beat. So, yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about chorizo. It's good, don't get me wrong, but all the chorizo I've had thusfar tastes about the same. This noted, Rincon's version was certainly the best and highest quality.

Next, the jamon iberico. As an Italophile, my point of reference is prosciutto crudo. But prosciutto crudo and jamon are about as similar as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Both are professional basketball players. Both are hall-of-famers. Both are among the best the sport has ever seen. However, they are entirely different in temperament, style, and color (and I don't say color gratuitously; just follow along for a second). Likewise, prosciutto and jamon are both cured hams, but they are entirely different. Jamon is meatier, saltier, has a more assertive flavor, and is imminently fattier. Prosciutto is sweeter, more delicate in flavor and texture, and is slightly drier. It is also lighter in color. And from what I understand, jamon is aged longer than the average prosciutto, which might explain the more assertive flavor. In any case, the jamon served at Rincon was beautifully oily and tender (a byproduct of the aging process). Bread would have only diluted the taste, so we enjoyed this jamon with our mandibles.

Lastly, the black pudding. Black pudding is, essentially pig's blood with rice stuffed into a casing and cooked until the blood congeals. Aragon black pudding introduces pine nuts into the mix. We've had black pudding before in Ireland, but that had nothing on this stuff. This pudding was luscious and rich. The pine nuts added a nice earthiness. The casing was natural and crackly after being cooked. Great, just great.

Dessert: flan.

I'm only nominally into flan, to be honest. That is probably because my experiences have been with bad flan. (Except for one made by a Puerta Rican woman who knows her stuff; that flan was phenomenal.) this was very good flan. The flan itself had a wonderful natural custardy feel. Nowhere was that gelatin mouthfeel you get with lesser flans. The coagulant present here was simply egg proteins from low and slow cooking. The caramel was equally well done. Dark and rich and not too sweet. In fact, it was dark in that beautifully almost burned way that comes from cooking it right up to that point of over-caramelization, and then dialing things back. This creates all sorts of interesting compounds that adds depth to what would otherwise just be liquidy sugar. The combination of caramel and custard made this flan a raging success.

(Note: after the meal we inquired about the conchinillo (i.e., suckling pig). Suckling pig is the one item I wanted to try more than anything else on this trip. The waiter explained the cooking process in such detail and expertise that he totally sold me. Thus, suckling pig will be enjoyed very soon. Photos and review will follow.)

Rating: 8/10 (5/10 is average).  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bar Restaurant Novecento

Address: Carrer Diputacio, 437, 081013 Barcelona, Spain. 93 246 13 94.

Review: Dem was at a new location today for school, and it was a bit outside my guidebook, so we were forced to employ our what-place-looks-good radar to find a good lunch spot. There is definitely a way to discern good, reasonably priced untouristy restaurants from the sell outs, which invariably serve crappy food at exorbitant prices. Here are a few ways to quickly identify the sell outs:

1. The menus are in English, or they have a tourist menu.
2. There are pictures in front of the restaurant explaining the menu.
3. Some guy is standing in front of the restaurant begging you like a puppy to come in.
4. There are flashing lights of bright colors in the advertisements.
5. You know every dish on the menu.
6. Lots of other patrons look like you.

Of course, there are many more sell out giveaways, but those are probably the six most prominent. (Oh, one more specific to gelato shops. If the gelato protrudes beyond the top of the display container, run like the wind. Not only will the gelato be of, at best, nominal quality, it will also be dry.)

Armed with these heuristics, we chose Bar Restaurant Novecento. After asking what was on the menu, it was written unabashedly in Spanish and Catalan, I began with the gazpacho.

 I almost hate to admit this, but this is my first gazpacho. I've had a number of other cold soups, but they were all French in origin. This gazpacho was as duly impressive as it was refreshing. The tomatoes were obviously the most prominent flavor, although there was a hit of garlic and cucumber. 

And then came the main course: hake steak cooked on a grate, served on a rake with my friend Drake. (Sorry, coulnd't resist.) No, but honestly, it's a hake steak cooked on the flat top accompanied by ratatouille. 

Hake is a light white-fleshed fish. Flaky but it keeps its texture when cooked. And this hake was cooked well. Nice and juicy on the inside with a nice crust. Lemon, as it so often is with seafood, was the perfect sauce. And now the ratatouille. Oh my good golly. Amazing, and I don't really like squash, and I can take it or leave it with eggplant. This ratatouille was so well cooked that it essentially melted in the mouth. The tomatoes was the perfect acidic offset (which also made it a great accompaniment for the hake as well). It's not often one experience can completely change your perception of a dish, but this was one of those experiences. All ratatouilles eaten from this time forth will be compared against this gold standard.

Dem ordered a grilled beefsteak for her entree. It was also served with the aforementioned, heaven-sent ratatouille. 

Good quality beef cooked simply, and pretty darn well to boot. I must say, portions were a beautiful medium rare, and then some thicker portions were rare in the middle. Either way works for me, but it really should have been evenly cooked throughout.

Oh, and Elliot liked the bread.

To finish the meal, we had pineapple and watermelon. I as hoping for a cooked dessert since the food had been so good throughout, but the fruit-only selection was great. The fruit was high-quality and unadorned. So satisfying on a hot summer day. (This is actually a great lesson for restaurants everywhere. If desserts are not in your wheelhouse, don't serve them. It's far better to do something yourself well than have desserts made out-of-house and trucked in.)

Rating: 8/10 on the strength of the ratatouille alone (5/10 is average). 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Juicy Jones

Address: Carrer de l'Hospital 74, 08001 Barcelona, Spain. 934 439 082.

Review: There are some things I understand and some things I don't (far more that I don't, but that's beside the point). One of those things is veganism. As a matter of logic, I understand the arguments made in favor of veganism, although I find them somewhat simplistic, mostly spurious, and ultimately unconvincing. What I don't understand is how you could volitionally commit to such unnatural and restrictive dietary constraints. (Note: I know a good many vegans. They're all rational beings whom I respect, but don't entirely understand.) 

So, what was the purpose of the preceding paragraph? To let you know my biases before reviewing Juicy Jones (Juicy), a hip little Barcelona vegan restaurant a skip-and-a-jump from where my wife is studying this summer. 

You walk into Juicy and you instantly know you're entering the den of some lively hippies. 

We ordered the fix menu lunches. My starter was the hummus. (Another quick word about vegans. It is apparently a doctrine of the vegan church that all vegans must inordinately love hummus, and consume it in copious quantities. This I fully understand.) 

Thus hummus was downright tasty. And since every meal comes with baskets of homemade whole wheat bread, my appetizer experience consisted of getting as much hummus as possible on oval pieces of bread. The sesame seeds and paprika were a nice touch.

My main course was a variety plate of Indian sauces, basmati rice, papadam, and other incidentals.

It was okay. The rice was nice, but nothing special. The individual sauces were okay, but nothing that makes me think they make better food in Barcelona than they do in Salt Lake City. The incidentals made little sense, to be frank. 

My wife had a sort of baked vegetarian coucous pie that came with a tapenade, sprouts, carrots, and a green herbacious sauce.

This was an interesting idea well done. The pie had good, savory veggie flavor. The carrots and sprouts added crunch, if not much taste. The tapenade was quality, although I wondered how well it meshed with the rest of the dish. The green sauce added some necessary fat content and flavor. Well done.

And then came dessert. I ordered the apple cake, and Dem had the apple crumble.

The apple cake somehow managed to look moist and be dry as a bone. The crumble had very little sugar (now, European desserts tend to have less sugar than American desserts, but this was darn near devoid), and the crumble was hard as a rock. I don't know if it's just that difficult to make desserts with strictly vegan ingredients, but these were quite poorly executed.

We also ordered an organic drink called "banarama" for our son. It was made with bananas, avocado, soy milk, and cane sugar. Quite good.

Rating: 5/10 (5/10 is average).

Rita Rouge

Address: Carrer Carme 33, 08001 Barcelona, Spain. 934 813 686.

Review: Rita Rouge is both a restaurant and a lounge. For lunch, we picked the restaurant side and ordered from the fixed daily menu for 9.90 euro. Fixed menus are a standard deal in Europe, and are quite common in Spain (much more than I've noticed in other European nations). This one came with a starter (usually a salad or gazpacho of some sort), a main course (usually meat involved), and a dessert, plus bread and a bottle of water. If you can deal with the limited selection inherent with fixed menus, they are a very economical way to eat.

I started with a green salad accompanied by a salad of tomatoes and seafood something (more on this in a moment). 

The green salad was lettuce with corn topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. Didn't really taste the corn, but okay. The tomato and seafood portion was topped with a deconstructed balsamic vinaigrette containing (you guessed it) balsamic and oil. The seafood component, far as I could tell, is mixed seafood pieces suspended in a watery mayonnaise. It tasted like seafood, but it was entirely indiscernible what type of seafood.

My wife ordered the carrot, pumpkin, and coconut milk soup.

It was served cold, which is a great way to serve soup when it 95 degrees outside. The soup's flavors were muddled. If the menu hadn't informed me there was pumpkin inside I wouldn't have had the first clue. In fact, the coconut was about the only discernible taste.

My main was a timbale of cod. It was topped with a custard filled with caramelized onions and cod. The next layer consisted of eggplant and zucchini. And the base was a mix of potatoes and cod.

This I liked. Cod simply isn't the best fish, but cooked well it has a silky quality that tastes pretty good. Both times I've had cod in Spain it's been paired with creamy products (the first time with an aioli, and this time with a custard). This pairing was far more successful. The base of potatoes and cod was especially good since the silkiness of the potatoes complimented the silkiness of the cod. The vegetables were vegetables. They didn't really add much (eggplants add almost no flavor to anything ever). The caramelized onions, on the other hand, added sweetness, which was very much appreciated.

Demaree ordered the grilled veal.

The cut chosen was, again, a rib meat cut, which I imagine is popular because (1) it's cheap, and (2) Barcelonans have been eating it for centuries. I don't get it personally. Very tough when grilled, and fatty like a beached whale. The potatoes though. My goodness, Spaniards know how to fry them. And then the meat juices run onto them, it's like the best ketchup in the world.

And then dessert. I had the apricot tort. 

This was stellar. Nothing but apricots (and there is nothing better than European apricots) and a light pastry crust. So light, so refreshing, so flaky. Money.

And then there was the panna cotta with honey.

Little too gelatinized (it should be slightly looser), but other than that, very good. The honey chosen was thick and sweet and was great with the inherent lightness of the panna cotta. (If you don't think panna cotta can be light and satisfying on a hot summer day, then you haven't had good panna cotta).

In fine, there were some strengths and some weaknesses, like most restaurants. Overall, I'll come back for the desserts any day of the week.

Rating: 6.5/10 (5/10 is average).