Tasting Tapas in Barcelona. The Old Town
You can learn a lot about where the Barcelona food scene came from and where it is going, when you disappear down the rabbit hole that forms the winding back alleys of the old city. Where once there were mainly traditional tapas bars, tascas (taverns) and llesquerias (a rustic bar serving slabs of toasted bread topped with anything from wedges of cheese and slivers of charcuterie to roasted red peppers and anchovies) the old guard now mingle easily with the new wave and staunchly Catalan or Spanish kitchens have opened their hearts and stomachs to influences from much farther afield: Japan, Peru and Mexico in particular. This rich tapestry of tastes and textures has made the ritualistic tapear (literally to hop from one tapas bar to another) more wondrous than ever, a pleasing cocktail of traditional meets modern as cross-culinary boundaries break down and the city embraces a less rigid gastronomic landscape
El Born is the chicest part of the old city, the place to head to stockpile fashionable clothes and trinkets from young Catalan designers boutiques, and, increasingly, a hub of newly opened, yet reassuringly old school tapas. Along the newly paved Plaça Comercial where the pristinely renovated Mercado de Born takes centre stage a cluster of new cafes and bars have sprouted. Among them Bormuth (Plaça Comercial 1), which sticks to the traditional look with its barrel tables and marble bar, but serves pitch perfect classics such as grilled Burgos morcilla (blood sausage), crunchy fried aubergines drizzled with sugar cane honey, and tender albóndigas (meatballs) with squat glasses of cold beer and narrow tumblers of vermut garnished with olives.
Nearby, is the second home of Bar Celta (Carrer Princessa 4). Here, in the bosom of bright lights and candy-striped wood panelling, you’ll find an outpost of the most staunchly Galician tapas imaginable. Spoon-tender slices of boiled octopus liberally sprinkled with smoky red pimentón piled on round wooden platters, wedges of properly oozy tortilla (Spanish omelette) and those cheeky pimientos de padrón that catch unsuspecting nibblers out with the odd, blow-your-head-off spicy one washed down with white ceramic bowls of albariño.
Said to be one of Ferran Adrià’s favourite bars, La Plata (Carrer de la Mercé 28) hasn’t changed since it opened in the 1960s, colourful azulejos (glazed tiles) lining the walls and barrels of wine stacked behind the bar. The menu is similarly unbending: fried fish (especially plump anchovies), tomato and onion salad drizzled with fruity olive oil, fried sausages for those who insist on their daily porcine fix. With so little space inside the crowd often spills onto the street creating a festive atmosphere on the corner of Merce and the whip-thin Carrer de la Plata, and where, if only for just a minute, you get a glimpse of the Barcelona that was.
One or two ingredient tapas bars tend to be the preserve of Madrid, but Bar Zim (Carrer de la Dagueria 20) is one exception. Tucked into the ancient Roman walls of the old city this pint-sized snug serves a small selection of rare, small production Spanish cheeses and organic charcuterie by Els Casals (a Michelin starred farm and restaurant in La Garrotxa). In a uniquely Catalan twist on the principles of giving out a free tapa with every drink, here you’ll get a petón (a kiss) consisting of a mini-whole wheat bun filled with sobrassada.
These days the beach is awash with hipster treats like pork belly buns, portobello mushroom burgers and craft beers made in house at places like the Black Lab Brewhouse (Palau del Mar, Plaça Pau Vila). It’s sleek black tiles, steel vats, bunting and live weekend music give it an edge over lesser interpretations of the new wave, but the neighbourhood tapas bars that remain are resolutely old school.
La Cova Fumada (Carrer del Baluart 56) is one of the few remaining fisherman’s bars from the old days, tucked behind a couple of creaking arched doorways on the Plaça del Poeta Boscá and still serving pristine grilled sardines and creamy textured sepia (cuttlefish) anointed with garlic and parsley, to a raucous crowd of lunchtime regulars.
Crossing into the west-side of the city is where the biggest changes have taken place in terms of gastronomic provenance. The newly opened Ultramarinos (Les Rambles des Caputxins 31) at the bottom of the Ramblas with its flamboyantly splashy interior by Lazaro Rosa-Violan, tapas that incorporate flavours as far flung as Greece and Mexico, and come paired with cocktails, is a breath of fresh air on the city’s most famous promenade, which for too long has been dominated by pavement cafes serving giant tankards of beer and perilously yellow, microwave paellas.
For more classical bar-side dining in a fabulously electric atmosphere Cañete (Carrer de la Unió, 17, ) is a rare treat. Perch on a stool with a bottle of wine and savour Spain’s regional best: torta de camarones from Cadiz (crispy prawn pancakes), jamón de bellota (acorn fed ham) from Guijuelo, Palamos prawns from the Costa Brava grilled over salt.
Near the MACBA Dos Palillos (Carrer d'Elisabets 9) was the first of the Catalan-Japan fusion places that have sprung up across the city over the last 10 years. The creation of El Bulli alumni chef Albert Raurich, it has two sections: the sultry, bordello-like back room where you can take your tasting menus at the bar or cocooned within a romantic booth, or the arguably more fun, humble looking bar out front, where you can tuck into dishes like kimchi, wonton stuffed with Iberian pork and Delta Ebro eel sushi.
Place the conserva (canned seafood, bottled vegetables) tradition in the modern age and it feels completely contemporary. Quim is the third generation of his family to run old-timer Quimet I Quimet (Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes 25, ) though his legendary open-topped sandwiches and conserva platters evolve week by week along the lines of smoked cheese topped with prawns drizzled with truffled honey and tomato confit enlivened by canned mussels and chopped capers. A tiny space, filled floor to ceiling with wine bottles, it’s by no means off the tourist trail but it is a must-stop on a tapas tour of the neighbourhood.
The new wave of this rather brilliant concept in kitchen-less dining is La Tieta (Carrer Blai 1), which comes with the added attraction of a terrace for dining al fresco. Here the snacks are simpler, but no less delicious, with a special emphasis on local products like artichoke hearts, chickpeas and chorizo, and a killer ensaladilla rusa (chopped potatoes, mayonnaise and other vegetables, topped with tuna), served with a short but oft changing list of largely Catalan wines.
A hop skip and a jump away, brick-lined Mano Rota (C/Creu dels Molers 4), chefs Bernat Bermudo and Oswaldo Brito are purely of the new wave, offering a raft of innovative, ingredients led tapas. Bite-sized plates of explosively crunchy yuca croquettes with citrus mayonnaise, corvina ceviche with ají Amarillo (the earthy, yellow chillies of Peru) and beef cheek with apple and fennel tell you it’s tapas, but not as you know it.
The most radical pioneers of all we save to last. We speak of the inimitable Adrià brothers, Ferran and Albert, who since closing El Bulli have opened now less than six (and counting) restaurants in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood (Pakta being the one exception just across the Paral.lel in Poble Sec) coining the term El Barri Adria. They now offer tours of their venues for the serious food junkie, but for the discerning tapas lover it boils down to three.
Start at the deli-inspired Bodega 1900 (Carrer de Tamarit 91) with a vermut (that most classic of Catalan aperitifs), a spherico olive or two and a few slices of gossamer thin jamón served on a sheet of butchers paper. Then nip across the road to Tickets (Avinguda del Paral·lel 164) where dinner roller-coaster ride of tastes and flavours matched to your whim: oysters with 14 different toppings, wild mushroom carpaccio, a mini ‘airbag’ filled with Manchego foam, desserts disguised as carrots and roses, perhaps a cocktail in 41 degrees afterwards. This being the Adrià’s nothing of course is ever quite as it seems.
Finally, if your mood veers more towards a spicy, raucous night out with football on the telly and a stiff drink in your hand look no further than Niño Viejo (Avinguda de Mistral 54), where the vibe is 100% Mexican, and the cooking is keenly laced with chillies, spice and lime.
You can learn a lot about where the Barcelona food scene came from and where it is going, when you disappear down the rabbit hole that forms the winding back alleys of the old city