I'm taking a day off from tapas to tell you about a few Barcelona bargains. Now, be warned, these are bargains in the way that a $2000 purse on sale for $1000 is a bargain. While the price may be slashed, it's still beyond the purchasing power of many and, even though it may be on your wish list, it in no way qualifies as something you genuinely need. So, if you're the kind of person who is willing to eat canned spaghetti for an entire month because you blew your entire budget on the purse, read on. Take a pass if such frippery horrifies you; likewise, if your closet is stuffed to the gills with $2000 purses and you can't imagine why anyone would wait for a sale to buy one.
What I'm talking about is the high end menu del día. Now, the menu del día is a Barcelona institution. Some time ago, it was legislated in Barcelona that restaurants had to provide reasonably priced, hearty meals to workmen at mid-day on weekdays. Many mainstream restaurants still do so and, in most spots, you can get a substantial three course meal with bread and a drink included for about 10 euros. The truly old school places will bring you an entire bottle of their house red (quality usually somewhat questionable) so that you can drink as much as you wish. I'm not sure if the legislation exists to this day, but it's as a result of this piece of state officiousness that the custom of the menu was propagated and lives on happily to this day.
In any event, I don't know if it's because of the financial crisis or declining popularity or a little bit of both, but the menu del día has recently been ushered in for weekday lunches at some of Barcelona's finest restaurants. It's an absolute boon for food lovers on a budget.
My personal favourite, and Felipe's as well, is the menu del día at Moo (pictured above, www.hotelomm.com). It's 45 euros per person, seven courses and includes everything--water, a glass of wine, bread and coffee. Felipe and I went on the sweltering roses and books day, La Diada de Sant Jordi, when Moo's black and white, minimalist interior in the lobby of the Hotel Omm seemed cool and inviting. While the restaurant was busy, it was by no means packed, so it may be possible to pop in on the spur of the moment if you haven't bothered to reserve ahead of time.
The meal began swimmingly with a complimentary glass of cava, immediately followed by a selection of amuse bouches, which included beetroot and shrimp chips, patatas bravas (the classic fried potatoes with hot sauce and mayonnaise) in a cone, and sobrasada (a type of sausage) in pastry. On the heels of these, came another set of delectable morsels: couscous with trout eggs and a divine sugar and bread crumb crusted foie gras. We were oohing and aahing over the foie gras before we'd even reached appetizer territory.
The actual appetizers kicked off with a timbal de tomate con helado de mozarella, tomato timbal with mozarella ice cream over baby greens. The mozarella ice cream was a revelation. The timbal was followed in short order by appetizers that Felipe and I had selected--his, an out of this world cream of morel soup; mine, cigalas (crayfish). The crayfish centres were served over peas and flowers in a citrus salsa; the legs were served on the side. The crayfish experience was rounded out by a fragrant bisque in a porcelain cup, to be sipped at the end. Amazing.
The mains were no less impressive. Felipe's rabo de buey (pictured above) in an elegant red wine reduction was rich and satisfying; my bacon wrapped monkfish over steamed vegetables and beetroot chips equally so.
We were both already tingling with pleasure by the time the desserts arrived, a platter of golosinas (childhood sweets), which would have tickled the fancy of any 7 year old and which left us giggling and excited. There were tiny servings of sugared raspberries and blueberries reminiscent of hard drugstore candy; amusement park ices in coca cola, coconut and strawberry; cloud like cotton candy wisps; decadent coconut marshmallows tinged with chocolate; a coy sunflower brittle; stray pieces of caramel corn; and even a wry piece of black licorice, oddly bearable in comparison with the black licorice whips I so hated as a kid.
We would have left happy after these, but there was more: a refreshing lemon and mango icecream with frozen raspberry and blueberry jelly and, finally, white and milk chocolate with coffee.
We walked out of Moo feeling like we'd eaten like kings for a relative pittance, the bill--for a feast that included the menus, two cavas, two glasses of wine and coffee--came to not a penny more than 90 euros, as promised, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't touch another piece of food for the rest of the day.
More recently, we treated ourselves to the menu at Arola (pictured, right, www.arola-arts.com), Sergi Arola's outpost at the tony Arts Hotel in the Olympic Port. (It should be noted that Arola is not on location here at all times, working mostly out of his restaurants in Madrid). At 32 euros, the menu includes four courses and bread--all beverages are extra and can rapidly add up to more than the 32 per person of the menu itself. While they claim not to take reservations for the terrace, they did set aside a shady terrace table for us. Their policy is to try to accommodate you if possible and they seem to have plenty of room to do so--I would say that you could even chance it without reservations.
We were greeted with a creamy basil spread with crisps as an aperitif, followed by a traditionally served pan con tomate--that is to say, toasted bread, olive oil, salt, whole tomatoes and whole cloves of garlic. The expectation, of course, is that you make your own (rub the bread with the garlic and tomato (both of which you must cut open), then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt...it's a pleasantly interactive part of the meal, but one that would be helped greatly by a more suitable knife and better bread.
The appetizers, for sharing, came next: signature patatas bravas--tiny cones of potato, filled with hot sauce and topped with creamy mayonnaise (pictured at the top)--that are perfection in both flavour and texture and possibly the best version of bravas that I have tasted; and a rather simple salad of cold, steamed baby vegetables topped with iberico ham.
The star attractions were a delicate hake in light green sauce--the green, we discovered, were peas, parsley and garlic--and a black rice with sepia (pictured, left); you have your choice of one of the two and both were flawlessly executed and generous, though Felipe complained that he could have eaten more rice (the man generally eats for two or three, however, so take it with a grain of salt).
Dessert was lovely: a white chocolate cream topped with an explosive raspberry sorbet, rose jelly and lychee (pictured, left). A second dessert of petit fours (chocolate-banana flakes, coconut macaroons, lemon madeleines and marshmallows) followed with coffee.
After four glasses of wine, a bottle of fashionable water and a cortado (espresso with milk), our bill came to 115 euros. Not bad value, but Moo delivered much more for less.
By way of final notes, the service at both restaurants is generally young and a tiny bit stiff, particularly at Moo, but really that's nitpicking. Both places have a tranquil, modern vibe and the terrace at Arola, with its herb and vegetable planters and view of the tail of Frank Ghery's sparkling fish, is unbeatable. The pillowy sofas alongside the terrace are the perfect place to sip your coffee or a digestif and would be a wonderful spot to while away a breezy evening.
A footnote to this post is the Eixample's Noti (noti-universal.com), which for a long time has had a 20 euro menu del día, a three course affair that is both competent and tasty, but rather on the small side and in no way on par with the elaborate culinary hijinks at Moo and Arola.