Tasting Tapas in Barcelona II. Beyond The Old City
Tara Stevens continues her personal journey of tapas in Barcelona. In this second feature she visits the neighbourhoods of Eixample, Gràcia, Sarrià and San Gervasi, where modern bars mix up with the most traditional taverns
It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Barcelona suddenly exploded, the old city walls were torn down and Ildefons Cerdà, was brought in to oversee the urban planning of this new extension (Eixample). Considered to be one of the most forward thinking planners of the time his grid-system was modern and practical made up of wide, tree-lined avenues and spacious apartment blocks that were cut off on the bias to allow for the horse drawn-carriages to turn around easily. There were supposed be gardens at the centre of every block – a vision that wasn’t fulfilled – but the area did attract the attention of the great architects of the day, Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who added whimsy and glamour, sprinkling the new neighbourhood with art nouveau fantasy. Fast-forward to the 21st century and it remains a largely residential, middle class hub while the outskirts, former towns like Gràcia, Sant Gervasi and Sarrià, have been integrated into the city, each with a unique flavour of their own. The elegant bars and restaurants that followed echoed this new found confidence and flare, and emerged with a strong, unmistakeably Catalan identity of their own.
In the Eixample Dreta Casa Alfonso is a Barcelona institution that opened in 1934. Paved with worn terracotta tiles and dominated by a deli-style wooden bar turned shiny with age that serves crowd-pleasing tapas. Platters of cheese and charcuterie are the way to go here, along with regional dishes like truffled Canelones, trinxat de Cerdanya (a sort of bubble and squeak topped with crispy bacon), habas a la catalana (baby broad beans with blood sausage) and albóndigas (meatballs with cuttlefish). The drink of choice? A sturdy Catalan red from the Priorat or Montsant.
Crossing town over to the Eixample Isquerra Paco Meralgo is a more contemporary version of the early-established bars with forgiving opening hours (11.30pm sittings are completely normal). Loved by locals for the name (Paco Meralgo is a play on words – para comer algo – to eat something) and by visitors including the odd celeb like Woody Allen, who revel in the impeccable quality of the fish and seafood. The clean, minimalist interior could have come straight from Tokyo, but the dishes are pure Catalan like the garlicky grilled navajas (razor clams) or espardenyes (sea cucumbers) right through to grilled rabbit or goat kid cutlets.
Nearby the Taverna del Clinic is celebrated for its fresh new take on tapas. Creativity is key here, but not at the expense of the food actually tasting good. Rather, careful consideration has gone into complimenting top-flight produce with new flavours like Santa Pau beans with cocks crests and escabeche of mushrooms.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Gràcia finally became an officially integrated part of the city of Barcelona and it has always retained its independent flavour, welcoming migrants from the rest of Spain as well as more far-flung places like Nepal, Pakistan and Lebanon. Just so it’s tapas scene, which tends to the more eclectic end of the spectrum, although one of the original haunts, and still among the most popular remains staunchly traditional. The bar at Botafumeiro – an emblematic fine dining restaurant, which occupies the site of an old fish market – has a livelier atmosphere than the mother ship and fabulously old school, immensely knowledgeable, liveried bar tenders. Pull up a stool beneath the glittering lanterns and feast on pristine seafood tapas like percebes (goose barnacles) and local crayfish paired with a sprightly glass of albariño or two.
Amid the effervescent bustle of La Pepita you get a taste of the culinary cultures that have influenced the neighbourhood: beautifully pink and tender lamb chops on a heap of creamy hummus and squid with kimchi mayonnaise. If its serious buzz you seek, look no further than Bar Mut with its smoked glass and soulful lighting. Owner Kim Diaz is a quintessential showman, often spotted hosting the dining room in a tartan kilt, and personally attending the needs of a mix of uptown residents and well-heeled tourists crammed around small, marble topped tables tucking into the bar’s signature dish of truffled eggs on matchstick potatoes and spoon-tender suckling pig. If you’re good, you might get invited upstairs to an apartment turned private bar and nightspot Mutis.
Clandestine add-ons are becoming the norm of bars and restaurants in these parts. Although better know for breakfast and brunch – the clue’s in the name – L’Eggs is Paco Pérez’s most fashionable haunt, especially among the yummy mummy set for Sunday brunch (there’s a room at the back especially for the kids). But it’s also a great place to kick off the weekend in a sleekly clubby atmosphere over a few updated tapas like tomato salad with tuna belly and chillies, asaparagus and quinoa salad, and Iberian pork dewlap with teriyaki sauce, paired with a cocktail or two.
Next door, the newly opened El Paisana is the hipster tapas bar of the Casa Gracia Hostal, which offers a bargain aperitif hour of Miró Vermut (from Reus) with classical local accompaniments: L’Escala anchovies, boquerones in vinegar, mussels in escabeche, and in a nod to the new wave, canned navajas (razor clams) in a Bloody Mary sauce. Downstairs there’s a gilded, clandestine cocktail bar, which has a DJ and live music several nights of the week and a private room lined by crimson bankers safes should you be looking for an intimate party of say 10.
When Ajoblanco hit the scene at the end of 2014 it marked a sea change in a neighbourhood that had previously been the preserve of glitzy clubs and dancehalls more so than anywhere decent to eat. Now well-heeled uptowners have both. A cavernous restaurant with décor by the city’s favourite designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán who added smoked glass mirrors, intimate wood-panelled dining booths and a private dining room for groups of up to 12, as well as a long, tiled cocktail bar. Again, while the food is very much grounded in the best of Spanish there are some playful touches and influences this time from America (a spiced, prawn cocktail reminiscent of a Manhattan clam chowder, so called because it uses tomatoes not cream in the base) and Britain (aged Galician steak on a streak of creamy horseradish). On Friday and Saturday nights you can dance it off with the DJ.
The most famous bar in this uptown neighbourhood is probably Bar Tomas whose patatas bravas have received column inches all over the world (the debate continues, and will presumably never end, as to who really makes the best). But, another reason to hit the hood is Gouthier, who serve treats like smoked eel and saffron, monkfish liver and pickled quail alongside their primary passion: oysters, hailing mainly from Galicia and the French Atlantic coast.
For an update on the traditional ‘fe a vermut’ experience, the quintessential Catalan aperitif, keep climbing the hill to El Canalla a charming little nook with standing room only at the bar and a couple of dining rooms up stairs. Order a vermut with ice and a slice of orange, a matrimonio (a boquerón, an anchovy and an olive skewered together on a stick) and let those flavour combinations explode. Like so many food experiences in Barcelona – and these are only the tip of the iceberg – it is such a simple thing, yet somehow utterly life-enhancing.
It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Barcelona suddenly exploded, the old city walls were torn down and Ildefons Cerdà, was brought in to oversee the urban planning of this new extension (Eixample)