Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Due to excessive enjoyment of self in northern Catalunya this week, the remainder of the Tapas Month entries will be posted in July. For the next few days, I intend to while away my days skinny-dipping in the rocky coves of the Costa Brava, climbing the Pyrenees, and skulking around cava vineyards.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

San Juan

It was a year and two days ago that I met Felipe at the verbena de San Juan (Sant Joan in Catalan), the all night party prior to the day of San Juan on June 24th. The verbena is a celebration of the shortest night of the year, somewhat belatedly, mind you, as the summer solstice in fact usually occurs on June 21st. In Catalunya, the night is celebrated with street bonfires (hogueras; fogueres in Catalan) and an inebriated beach party complete with DIY pyrotechnics, which every year rob the citizens of Barcelona of some three hundred eyes and fingers.

Like New Year's Eve in North America, la verbena de San Juan is the night on which the past is laid to rest, as symbolized by the burning of old possessions, and a new beginning is ushered in to the booming sound of fireworks. These, unlike in the blithely litigious and highly regulated world across the Atlantic, are randomly set off by the young and the dim witted in every imaginable corner, giving the city the sound and smoke filled look of war torn Bosnia.

It's also a night when sex is in the air and the atmosphere is rife with expectation. Everyone, from the packs of pink British boys to the bronzed American blondes to the scantily clothed Brazilians of both genders, wants some. And, on the night of San Juan, they're likely to get some, particularly if they wait long enough. By 4 or 5am, with the joints smoked and the ecstasy dissolved and the bottles dry, there's little to do in the sand other than kiss. And 6am, when the weary police enter to disperse the crowds and make room for the dutiful clean up crews, is the moment to take your San Juan sweetheart home, bobbing alongside you like the magical, if slightly deflated, balloon your parents tied to your wrist at the town fair so many years ago.

Of course, if you're anything like me, you won't let your new love upstairs after the two hour walk home from the beach, leading the excessively proud gentleman, or lady, as the case may be, to refuse your number and walk off in a huff. If that should happen to you, don't worry. Repentance for actions taken in haste is swift. In other words, you may get your fairy tale ending yet.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tapas - Basic - Part 2

If you're on your way to Barcelona, you'll be happy to know that the heat has broken and the rage-meter is again ticking along at a reasonable level, somewhere between slight misanthropy and grudging contentment. You might also benefit from the remaining recommendations in the basic tapas category.

I wouldn't necessarily think of these spots as the burnished steeds of Barcelona tapas; they're more like the work horses, really--serviceable, hard working and, generally, very busy.

Cerveseria Catalana (C/ Mallorca 236, tel. 932 160 368, Eixample)- I have to confess that--partly because of its convenient location, partly because Felipe and I are now morning regulars and it would be a shame to mess with that relationship--Cerveseria Catalana is my go-to place for inexpensive tapas of reliable quality. It's also the go-to place for half of Barcelona. In the summer, you'll find crowds spilling out onto the side walk. Because of the high turn over, there's nothing stale or sub-par here and the tapas basics, as well as the montaditos, which are put out at around 6pm and priced at a bargain 1.25 euros for the most part, are a thorough survey of the traditional favourites; seafood dishes and daily specials are usually especially tasty. Cerveseria Catalana is also handy because it opens at around 830am (9am on weekends) and stays open right through to midnight; useful if you've missed the usual lunch hour (130pm-400pm) or if you want to eat dinner earlier than the average Spaniard (i.e. before 930pm-10pm). Bar seats are hunt and swoop; for an indoor table, you have to give your name to the hostess, who will call you when your table is ready; there's a separate list for outdoor tables, maintained by one of the men in blue at the door. If you arrive after 9pm, the wait can be as long as an hour for a table, but you can always order a few drinks from the bar while you're waiting. (By the way, Ciudad Condal, a little further down Rambla Catalunya and under the same ownership, has similar tapas offerings and a terrace well suited to people watching, but for some reason, I never seem to end up there.)

Bar Mundial (Plaça de Sant Agusti Vell 1, tel. 933 199 056, Born) - When I took my sister and her boyfriend to Bar Mundial last year, the first few minutes in the low ceilinged back room of this scruffy joint provoked some purse-lipped disapproval. Things changed, however, when the steaming parillada, a mixed seafood grill, came out. The seafood is simply, but exquisitely done and is without a doubt Bar Mundial's specialty; in fact, there's little else to choose from on the menu, so don't go if you have an aversion to the beasts of the sea. Bar Mundial does take reservations and it's worth making some on the weekend as it fills up quickly. If you get claustrophobic in poorly ventilated, windowless spaces, ask to be seated in the front room rather than the dingy back.

El Xampanyet (C/ Montcada 22, tel. 933 197 003, Born) - If you've ever walked down the Born's Calle Montcada at night, you've seen the throngs of people (mostly tourists) spilling out of the tiny space that is El Xampanyet. The tapas, mostly conservas, cheeses and cured meats, are not necessarily anything to write home about, but the atmosphere is fun and the house drink, xampanyet (a poor man's cava), is a euro a glass. For that price, don't expect to sit down.

Mam i Teca (C/ de la Lluna 4, tel. 934 413 335, Raval) - Mam i Teca is a tiny hole in the wall in the Raval with a mostly local clientele, meaning that the expats of the Raval frequent it, rather than the tourists of the Barrio Gotico. In contrast to the three bars above, it's often quiet during the week and on Sunday evenings. And, while the regular menu has some very pedestrian pastas and other dull offerings, the daily specials are always worth the trek into the depths of the Raval.

La Bodegueta (Rambla de Catalunya 100, Eixample) - La Bodegueta has a dusty charm that's not typical of the usually upscale Eixample. In summer, its terrace is normally full, but there's often room in the cozy interior. In addition to serving reasonably priced plates of cured meats and cheeses, La Bodegueta does fabulous patatas bravas (cubed, french fried potatoes topped with spicy and mild sauces) and mouth watering huevos estrellados over fried potatoes ("smashed eggs", as they say).

I might also mention that Taller de Tapas (www.tallerdetapas.com) and Lonja de Tapas/Celler de Tapas (www.lonjadetapas.com), both Barcelona chains, generally offer traditional tapas of solid quality practically around the clock and have useful locations throughout the Old Town and along the Rambla Catalunya, for when your energy is flagging and you're wondering where to go in a pinch. Don't order patatas bravas at Taller de Tapas, though, the last ones I had there were absolutely terrible.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tapas - Basic - Part 1

The trendy tapas bars that I told you about last time are generally trying to recapture the glory of the past, albeit in a shiny new package. Well, the past, while slightly scruffy, is alive and well in Barcelona and probably wondering what all the fuss is about.

The bars of today's post have, for the most part, been around for years and generally lean toward straight-forward, traditional tapas. So, I've placed them in the basic category. This is not the basic of "basic hotel room", a basic that might be translated as "no frills" or "modest". Rather, it's the basic of "basic alphabet"--a basic that is elementary, the foundation, or base, of your tapas experience in Barcelona.

Bars of the Boquería - Frankly, one of the best places to discover traditional tapas is the Boquería Market, which houses a handful of bars, featuring some of the freshest tapas in Barcelona. The classic Boquería bar--and a favourite of some of Spain's famous avant garde chefs, Ferran Adria among them--is the humble Bar Pinotxo, run by Juanito (the eponymous Pinotxo), a beloved Barcelona character. There's no menu at Bar Pinotxo, nor is what's available always obvious, so you will just have to ask your server to recommend something. Dishes seem to generally run between 7 and 15 euros. Other spots, like the inexpensive Bar Boquereía at the back, showcase their selection of tapas behind glass and, if you're stuck, you can always point at what you'd like. In Bar Boquería's case, your experience will vary from excellent to so-so, depending on what you order: choricitos (small, spicy sausages, usually served in a sizzling broth), butifarra (Catalan sausage), costillas (pork ribs), and pimientos (grilled red or green peppers) are usually a good and inexpensive bet. Felipe and I have eaten plentifully (3 or 4 sizable dishes) at Bar Boquería for well under 20 euros. The best time to go, if you're looking to snag a stool anywhere in the Boquería, is slightly before noon. Any later and you'll likely do a lot of hunting and waiting; most of the bars are open from the early morning and close some time between 3 and 4pm.

Quimet y Quimet (C/ Poeta Cabanyes 25, Poble Sec) - I discovered Quimet y Quimet fairly late in my Barcelona game and, frankly, it's the kind of you place I wish I'd been going to from the beginning. It's on a dingy Poble Sec street, has a sweetly crusty barman (Quimet, fifth generation), allows for standing room only, and is possibly my favourite tapas bars in Barcelona. It's a charming spot, stacked from floor to ceiling with an impressive selection of wines, liquors and tins of all descriptions, but, more importantly, it serves spectacular, made-before-your-eyes montaditos (small, open faced sandwiches), well-sourced cheeses in enormous quantity and some excellent conservas (canned seafood and vegetables). Especially delicious are the salmon montadito with yogurt cream and truffled honey and the paté montadito with caramelized onions and balsamic. Tapas prices range from 2.50 euros per montadito to 8.90 euros for a tray of cheeses that, despite our most eager efforts, was too large for us to finish.

Cal Pep (Plaça de les Olles 8, tel. 933 107 961, Born, www.calpep.com) - Equally good and equally packed is Cal Pep, the famed Born tapas bar. The difference is that Cal Pep is now overrun with tourists, not that that's a bad thing--especially because the tourists are of the well behaved variety. It does mean, however, that you will have to wait in line. The good news is that the line moves swiftly and, contrary to the often lackadaisical Spanish way, is managed by Pep and his staff with virtually German efficiency. Your wait is also most justly rewarded with some of the best seafood dishes in Barcelona--clams stewed with ham, baby squid with garbanzos and myriad fish cooked to perfection. Again, everything is made-before-your-eyes behind the bar. The Catalans who still haven't given up on Cal Pep tend to reserve one of the tables in the back. You could also do so, but I would recommend the full bar experience, which includes standing in line for 20-30 minutes, the first time you go. Our last tapas meal for two (5 dishes) with 3 glasses of cava ran us about 70 euros, but they nearly had to airlift us out of the restaurant so I would say that we over-ordered by at least one dish.

Coming soon: Tapas - Basic - Part 2.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tapas Menu - Take 2

Remember that nice post I wrote last month about A Picnic in Heaven? The one where cumuli were bobbing on periwinkle skies and everyone was writing in to say how pretty it made them feel? Well, those days are over, punks. It's bloody hell over here in Barcelona. Bloody, smoking, firey pits of hell with an incongruous humidity level of nearly 100%, probably from the blood, sweat and tears of all the condemned souls toiling in the devil's pits of tar and brimstone.

It's the kind of sticky cesspool of sweatiness that makes you want to pull your neighbour from his nicely air conditioned home and punch him repeatedly in the stomach, just for playing that infernal rock'n'roll music, the kind that makes all the small town kids fornicate in the crumb strewn back seats of their parents' sedans. Oh, the devil's work is never done.

It's precisely why crime levels soar in the summer months. If you don't believe me, just ask the New York Times about why I'm feeling my murder-meter rise apace with the raging heat.

Fortunately for the rest of you, my law abiding Canadian roots don't allow me to give free rein to my heat-driven bloodlust other than in recipe form. So, as my lone outlet for this summer's carnage fantasy, I'm making my next tapas menu blood based.

Tapas Menu - Take 2

Pimientos escalivados (roast peppers)
Setas a la plancha (grilled mushrooms)
Pan con tomate (see The Tapas Episode)

My bloody meat of choice is morcilla, a.k.a. blood sausage. I first sampled it on the impromptu trip around Spain with Mike Tkaczuk, the Canadian importer of jamón ibérico, and friends. We were in central Spain at the time, where the preferred variety of morcilla is rice based. Mike was so enamoured of morcilla, which you can't currently get in, or import to, Canada, that he ordered some whenever possible. While I'm generally not a lover of blood based foods (I'm still scarred by my Polish grandmother's duck's blood soup, a delicacy once beloved by my father), the taste for morcilla has stuck with me since that trip.

The best varieties are made with iberico pig blood mixed with rendered fat. Here, in Catalunya, onion is usually added and the sausage is often referred to as butifarra negra (black butifarra); in the centre and south, it's rice that's added, which gives the sausage a sweeter, more delicate flavour, one which I far prefer. The former is available at any charcutería in Barcelona; the latter, I've usually picked up at the Boquería, where one stall identifies it as morcilla de Burgos.

Because it's a substantial sausage, morcilla is a great (and adequately bloody) anchor for a meal of tapas. In the centre of Spain, it's frequently found in tapas bars removed from its casing and mixed in with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), sometimes with raisins; it's difficult to imagine if you haven't had it served this way, but it's actually indescribably good. The simplest way to serve it, though, is to slice it thickly and grill it in a lightly oiled pan for 1-2 minutes on each side--you have to be careful not to overcook or let it stick, which it is wont to do.

When we order it at the tapas bar in our local market, we usually also get a side of peppers escalivada (roasted red or green peppers). These are easily prepared at home by placing halved peppers, seeds removed and skin side up, on a lightly oiled baking sheet in a 220 C oven for about 25-30 minutes, until the skin begins to brown and puff up. You can let them cool and remove the skin before slicing into strips, seasoning with a little salt and pepper and drizzling with a little bit of good quality olive oil. If you'd like to go all out and make a more elaborate escalivada, which would also fit in well with this menu, have a look at the post titled The Charred and the Seedless.

As a final touch, mushrooms are nice. The chanterelles pictured are not in season yet, but this menu is well suited to late summer and early fall when they start to flood stores. For now, you can replace them with another type of mushroom--almost whatever is available will do; shitake, for example, though not particularly big in Barcelona, would make a great substitution. To prepare, you'll need to remove loose dirt first. I use a slightly damp paper towel, trying not to wet the mushrooms too much. I then sautee them for 4-5 minutes (until soft) in a little bit of olive oil (a tablespoon or two for 300-400 grams of mushrooms; you can add more if your pan starts to dry). The trick is not to salt them until the very end so that they don't start to release water. Just before you remove them from the heat, you can add a finely chopped teaspoon of flat leaf parsley mixed with a clove of very finely chopped garlic and stir for about thirty seconds. Drizzle with a good quality olive oil to serve.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Summer Bargain Hunting

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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tapas - Trendy

So, as visions of choricitos in cider and patatas bravas have been dancing in my head this month, I've also been mulling some of the best tapas bars in Barcelona. There's a wide variety, but, in my mind, virtually all fall into one of three categories: "trendy", "basic" or "different".

Let's start with trendy. These are the places that have a big name chef; a dressed up look (even when they claim to be an homage to old school, they're not long on the scruffy old school look); and, if they deliver on the food, a long lineup of tourists and locals undeterred by the usually jacked up prices.

I consider the contenders in this category to be the following:

Tapaç24 (C/ Diputacion 269, Eixample, www.comerc24.com) - This is the tapas baby of Carles Abellan of Comerç24 fame (click here for stories of my blissed out foray into Abellan's haute cuisine--also tapas style--at the mother ship). It provides traditional takes on classics like patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce), stewed tripe and pescaito frito (tiny fried fish), alongside more inventive daily specials. For dessert, don't miss the bread with chocolate--possibly my favourite way to end a meal in Barcelona.

Inopia (pictured above, C/ Tamarit 104, Eixample, www.barinopia.com) - Bustling, bright and pared down (or as pared down as you can get with a doorman running the not-so-velvet rope at the front door), this is the brain child of Albert Adria, the brother of Ferran Adria, godfather of modern haute cuisine and chef at (have you heard? it's the best restaurant in the world) El Bulli. Don't expect foams and boxes of air here, though. In classic tapas bar style, the menu focuses on olives, anchovies and other high quality tinned goods as well as house specials such as patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad).

Bar Mut (C/ Pau Claris 192, Eixample, tel. 93 217 4338) - This pijo spot appeals as much for its moody, dimly lit atmosphere (not a forte at most tapas bars) and varied wine list as for its eclectic tapas specials, particularly the market fresh seafood. Even though it's not particularly Catalan, don't miss the (richer than Bill Gates) brownie for dessert. Also keep in mind that, unlike at the other spots, which have a "strictly lineup" policy, it's virtually impossible to get a table at Bar Mut without a reservation, particularly on weekends: of the two sittings, the earlier (830pm) is for tourists, the later (1015pm) for locals.

Cuines de Santa Caterina (Mercado de Santa Caterina, Avda. Francesc Cambo 16, Born, www.grupotragaluz.com/santacaterina) - I don't know why, but I don't make it down to Cuines de Santa Caterina very often. Maybe it's the cavernous space and slightly indifferent service, which makes it feel just a tiny bit soulless despite the exposed beams and indoor trees. When I do go (it's a good option when wandering about the Old Town), I always eat well; the place is located in a market (El Mercado de Santa Caterina), after all. No reservations here, but it's usually possible to get a table without a wait. The bar at the front serves more traditional tapas fare and is open all day; the back is open for lunch and dinner only and has a more varied, market based menu with some Asian and Italian touches.

Bar Lobo (C/ Pintor Fortuny 3, Raval, www.grupotragaluz.com/barlobo) - Another slick product of the Grupo de Tragaluz, also responsible for Cuines de Santa Caterina, Bar Lobo suffers from the same lack of soul as its cousin and some of the worst service in Barcelona (which is saying a lot). This probably won't matter to you when you realize that it also possesses one of the best terraces in the Raval; shaded by an awning and with a pillowy bench at the back, it is virtually irresistible. It also has the advantage of being open until 2pm, outlasting most other tapas bars by about two hours. On summer evenings, when it is overrun by pretty foreigners, Bar Lobo has a fun, almost clubby vibe. The tapas menu consists mainly of classics that are competently executed, but in no way mind blowing, particularly at the tourist adjusted prices.

Now, if you were to ask me which spot I would choose as the best tapas bar in this category, I would have a tough time picking among the first three. If pressed, I'd probably admit that Tapaç24 just edges out Inopia and Bar Mut. It has less attitude than Inopia and a more interesting selection of tapas, though the basics (patatas bravas, croquetas, ensalada rusa) are available and well done in both locations. Both Tapaç24 and Inopia are also far cheaper than Bar Mut, which is the most elaborately priced of the three. The latter is a winner on lighting and atmosphere, though, and hands down the location of choice if you want a side of romance with your tapas.

More on basic and different tapas bars coming soon.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tapas Menu -Take 1

It's a summer Saturday. Heat ripples the air, there's barely a breeze, and you're still slightly smarting from the revelry of the night before. You'd crawl into your hammock, if you had one, and spend the rest of the day sipping cool, life-giving water through a bendy straw under the shade of the lone tree in your back yard. If only you could. As it happens, you're expecting your in-laws for lunch.

This is a scenario that clearly calls for Tapas Menu Number 1:

Navajas a la plancha (grilled razor clams)
Langostinos a la plancha (grilled prawns)
Surtido de quesos y embutidos (selection of cheeses and cured meats)
Pan y aceitunas (bread and olives)

Assuming you have access to a good market, you're set. If you spend more than twenty minutes in the kitchen, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

To assemble this mini-feast, you should start by soaking the razor clams (you'll want at least 3 or 4 of these per person)...they're sandy and need to sit in warm water for about 10 minutes before you put them on the grill. You can also give the prawns (about 3/4 kilo or more, depending on how hungry you expect your in-laws to be) a rinse and shake them off in a colander.

For best results, you should get everything ready and on the table before you cook the seafood so that you can bring out the steaming platters of shrimp and clams as the crowning pièce de résistance. You should put out the olives and sliced bread along with a good extra virgin olive oil and salt. The cheese can go out sliced or whole, in the latter case with its own knife.

There's an enormous selection of Spanish cheese. One of the most popular varieties is manchego (pictured), a hard sheep's milk cheese from central Spain, which comes in fresco, semi-curado, curado y viejo varieties, a scale from youngest (softest and mildest) to oldest (hardest and sharpest). Another favourite is idiazabal, a yellow sheep's milk cheese from the Basque country. Other delicious goat, cow and sheep's milk cheeses abound in Spain and each region usually has a specialty or two. You should ask at your cheese shop about the different varieties and don't feel the need to limit yourself to just one.

The cured meats should go out sliced. Jamón iberico (pictured) or the much less expensive jamón serrano should be sliced paper thin at the shop. Embutidos (sausages) such as chorizo, fuet, longaniza or morcón (pictured) can be hand sliced at home. Chorizo and morcón (a larger, more coarsely cut version of chorizo) are flavoured with paprika and may be purchased in mild to spicy versions. They provide a nice counterpoint to the slightly sweet jamón iberico. Fuet and longaniza are also good choices--they have a subtle, slightly peppery flavour.

Now that the cured meats and cheeses have been taken care of, you can turn your mind to the seafood. Remove the clams from the warm water in which they've been soaking and give them another rinse under cold water. Set aside to wait with the shrimp.

Heat about a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large frying pan, preferably one with a lid. Once the oil is hot, add a few slivers of garlic for flavour, stir for a moment and add the prawns. Sautee on medium high heat for a 3-4 minutes until the prawns have just turned a bright pink on all sides and not a second longer. (For more about cooking prawns, see The Tapas Episode.) Remove to a warm plate, clean out any obvious shell residue with a paper towel, add a little more oil to the pan and the razor clams. Cover with the lid. The clams only need about two to three minutes on the grill at medium-high heat, but you should turn them once (with tongs is easiest). Be careful of the sputtering oil and water combination. I might also have garnished the razor clams pictured above with a teaspoon of finely chopped thyme and about the same quantity of chopped, sauteed garlic, but this is absolutely not necessary--if you want to, though, you can throw these ingredients into the frying pan for a few seconds before you put in the razor clams. The clams should be completely open when you serve them. Feel free to serve with a little lemon on the side, but, again, absolutely not necessary when you have good, fresh seafood.

Bring the mouthwatering plates of seafood out with the appropriate pomp and ceremony and pour some cava (Catalan sparkling wine) all around. Your work is done.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June Is Tapas Month

You might remember that, some time ago, I promised to return to tapas, first addressed with the help of my saucy sous-chef, Stephen, in The Tapas Episode. I think it's been more than half a year since that promisory post, but tapas have been on my mind, not to mention in my belly, since then and I've taken some important steps to bring you more about tapas--primarily these were eating steps, interspersed with relatively random cooking, researching and photographing steps. As a result of these selfless efforts, I am now ready to usher in--I believe a drum roll is in order--Tapas Month.

Oh, the succulent treats and spicy bits of information that Tapas Month will offer! Oh, the delectable photo spreads! Oh, the trusty recipes! Oh, the coveted tapas bar recommendations! Oh, if only you could trust me to deliver. Ahem.

Well, deliver I will! And, as an amuse bouche of good faith, I'm going to first serve up some juicy tapas trivia. Well, maybe not that juicy. Actually, probably just this side of dry. Still, the point is that I'm making an effort. An effort you might look upon kindly next time you're on the verge of taking me off your reading list after an embarrassingly long absence of posts.

There is a problem with tapas in Barcelona about which you may not know. Tapas, despite their near ubiquity in the city, are not really a Barcelona thing. Sort of like churros. Despite the fact that you can get them, Spaniards will tell you that they're not really as they should be.

What does it mean to be so prevalent and still not to be a "Barcelona thing"? Well, for one, the tapas tradition--that of accompanying an afternoon or evening drink with a small serving of food--really arose south of here. In parts of southern and central Spain many bars serve a free tapa or two with the purchase of a drink, such that the "tapeo", or going from bar to bar sampling tapas and drinking your face off, is sort of like a regional sport. The only bar that I know of that upholds this tradition in Barcelona--only occasionally and sometimes only if you look like something of a local, which apparently sometimes I do and sometimes I don't--is De Tapa Madre (c/Mallorca 301, www.detapamadre.com), a dependable spot in the Eixample. The rest often charge an arm and a leg for the small tidbits that some southerners consider to be their rightful due with the purchase of an alcoholic beverage. This is what Spaniards really mean when they say that tapas aren't a Barcelona thing--they're not free; they're not even cheap. (One of the exceptions to the "not cheap" rule is El Xampanyet in the Born, pictured above and to be discussed in another post.)

That said, there are many excellent tapas bars in Barcelona and, if one looks at expense issue from another perspective, Barcelona is probably one of the best spots in Spain to sample some high quality, highly inventive, highly eclectic tapas. More on that later.

For today, I will leave you with this slightly unappetizing thought: The word tapa (from the verb "tapar", literally to cover) is thought to have evolved from the centuries old practice of using a piece of bread or cured ham to cover glasses of wine in bars in order to prevent flies or dust from falling in. Happily, we currently live in more hygienic times and your ham is now (usually) served on a plate.