Installment: Barcelona, Spain by Elliott Hester
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am sitting with a Spanish friend at Orígens, a tiny, jam-packed
Catalan restaurant in the newly gentrified neighborhood of El Born.
"You haven't been to Barcelona," she says, "until
you've eaten toast the Catalan way."
Diana reaches over to my starter plate and peels the skin from a
garlic clove. Like an artist wielding a burnishing instrument, she
rubs the garlic into a length of toasted bread. She then takes a
halved tomato, rubs the pulp into the garlic-polished toast, pours
olive oil on top, and completes the Catalan tradition with a sprinkling
take one cautious bite, then a passionate one. The appetizing bread
melts in my mouth, priming my taste buds for the next course.
Although Spanish cuisine is renowned for paella (rice with
shrimp, clams, muscles, tomatoes, vegetables) and tapas (bite-size
portions of tripe, snails, pork rinds, calamari, and a variety of
delectable appetizers), Catalan fare is virtually unknown outside
of Spain. Born here in Catalonia, one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions,
Catalan food, like the language, is quite different from that which
Common dishes include fricandó (veal sautéed
in tomatoes, garlic and onions) and escudella (a heavy, soup-like
broth made with meatballs, carrots and sausage). The meat used to
make escudella stock is served as a second course.
As is the case with old-fashioned home cooking, Catalan food is
hearty and efficient.
As far as local restaurants are concerned, Orígens is a breath
of fresh air. For one thing, the service is prompt and attentive.
Having returned to Barcelona on three or four occasions since my
first visit in 1989, I've patronized a number of lackluster eateries
where the "wait" staff compelled me to do just that.
from good service, Orígens provides something previously
unheard of in Barcelona's restaurant culture: extended operating
hours. Traditionally, most restaurants open from 1:00 P.M until
4:00 P.M. for lunch, and from 9:00 P.M until 12:00 A.M. for dinner.
But the distinctive Catalan eatery opens at half past noon and doesn't
close its doors until 1:30 A.M. It's a break in tradition that liberal
diners welcome with open mouths.
Until recently, a sit-down dinner before 9:00 P.M. was indeed a
rare event. Locals staved off hunger by visiting one of Barcelona's
omnipresent bars and ordering a bocadillo. Love 'em or hate
'em, this time-honored Spanish sandwich a less appetizing
version of the aforementioned toasted bread (topped with cheese
or perhaps an omelet) has quieted many a growling belly over
But a new crop of cafés feature light meals throughout the
day and night. Sandwich & Friends, for example, serves up salads,
mini pizzas, and an eclectic collection of 59 hot and cold sandwiches
which are rolled, double-decked or made with freshly baked baguettes.
(A scrumptious combination of chicken, sweet corn, mushrooms, Edam
cheese and béchamel sauce, the rolled "Jaume" is
until a few years ago, dining in El Born was a limited experience.
After all, the neighborhood once served as a wholesale market area.
The narrow winding streets were crammed with faceless shops selling
canned goods, seed, textiles, eggs, tuna, sardines anything a retail
shop owner might need to purchase in bulk.
When Barcelona was named host of the 1992 Olympic Games, however,
the announcement sparked a massive city-wide renovation that never
let up. El Born is the new hip neighborhood. Ancient buildings
that once housed textile shops, now boast fashion boutiques, trendy
bars, and a plethora of new restaurants.
Japanese. Italian. Moroccan. Internationally eclectic. The foreign
food invasion brings a new dimension to a city not known for culinary
Although the neighborhood and the city in which it thrives have
changed dramatically, I hope one tradition remains the same: the
menú del dia. Because Spaniards tend to eat their
largest meal at lunchtime, most restaurants offer a menu of the
day. The three-, occasionally four-course feasts are a godsend to
hungry lunch-goers on a budget.
Taira, the best Japanese restaurant in El Born, I enjoyed a four-course
menú del dia: miso soup, maki roll, a large bowl of rice
smothered with chicken and mushrooms in a teriyaki sauce, and chocolate
ice cream. A glass of wine was included with the meal which cost
For an upscale lunch, a friend and I wandered into Little Italy
Ristorante. The menú del dia provided three elegant courses
and a bottle of wine for two. The price? Twelve dollars per person.
My favorite lunchtime hangout is Restaurant L'Económic. The
aptly named Spanish institution drew a cost-conscious crowd long
before El Born became Barcelona's restaurant mecca.
Hidden beneath a stone arch at Plaza de Sant Agustí Vell,
L'Económic boasts an $8.50 menú del dia that keeps
locals coming back for more. A constantly shifting line-up of five
entrées includes fish soup and mixed salad. Among five daily
main course offerings, you'll find pollo a la plancha (seared
chicken), grilled salmon steak, or grilled cheek of veal. For desert,
whole green apples can't be beat. The food is simple. The confines
are pleasurably cramped. The service is fast and furious.
now I am sitting at Taller De Tapas, a four-month-old culinary gem
in the heart of El Born. Unlike traditional tapas bars, which are
casual at best, Taller De Tapas represents the new breed of upscale
tapas restaurants. Following in the footsteps of Orígens,
it's open every day from noon until midnight.
Handsome wooden tables surround the gleaming wooden tapas bar where
I am perched. My server delivers plate after plate of delicious
Spanish treats. Marinated anchovies from L'Escala. Fried artichoke
shavings. Grilled asparagus blades. Cured Iberian ham canapé.
Spinach with pancetta and chickpeas. Fried potatoes with garlic
mayonnaise and hot paprika sauce. It's a feast fit for anyone with
a schizophrenic palate.
My plates range in price from about $1.40 to $5.25. It's not the
menú del dia, so lunch is an expensive one. But they say
you haven't visited Barcelona until you've eaten good tapas. Having
dined at Taller De Tapas, perhaps I have finally arrived.
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IF YOU GO:The following restaurants are located in El Born,
Barcelona's newly gentrified restaurant mecca near the city center.
Taller De Tapas:
L'Argentería, 51 Tel (34) 93-268-8559 (open daily, noon until
L'Económic: Plaza de Sant Agustí Vell,
13 Tel (34) 93-319-6494 (lunch only, closed weekends).
Orígens: Carrer Vidrieria, 6 - 8 Tel (34) 93-310-7531
(open daily from 12:30 P.M. until 1:30 A.M.).
Taira: Comercial, 7 Tel (34) 93-310-2497 (open 1:00 P.M.
until 4:00 P.M. & 9:00 P.M. until midnight. Closed Mondays).
Little Italy: Rec, 30 (34) 93-319-7973 (open 1:00 P.M. until
4:00 P.M. & 9:00 P.M until midnight. Closed Sundays).
Sandwich & Friends: Passeig del Born, 27 Tel (34) 93-310-0786
(open daily, noon until midnight).
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