Friday, April 23, 2010


Thick slabs of grilled bread, tomatoes, cloves of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, a rough wooden board—this was the starting point for almost every meal I ate in Barcelona, the makings of pa amb tomàquet, simply, bread with tomato.

The bread has substance, but it’s not a dense-crumbed loaf. We cut the tomatoes in half and scrubbed them onto the bread. “Start on the crisp outside edges of the bread,” said my dining coach, a Catalan native. “That starts to break up the tomato so the pulp is released.”  Garlic is optional, but almost everybody at the table rubbed the toasted slices with cut garlic as well. Then the crowning glory, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, preferably a fruity Arbequina oil from Catalonia.

We were dining at a rustico restaurant called La Parra (the grapevine), so the bread and tomato were presented for us to prepare ourselves. In some restaurants and tapa bars, the toast comes already spread with tomato and oil.

We proceeded through several more seasonal and traditional foods. Spring marks the end of the calçots season, so I was lucky to be able to sample this traditional Catalan party food. Calçots are chunky spring onions with long green tops that are grilled over grapevine prunings until the outer skins are charred and blackened. One of my dinner companions showed me how to eat them: use your fingers to pinch off the root end and peel back the charred layers. Hold the onion by the green tail and dip the white part into romesco or alioli sauce, tip back your head and chomp off bites of the onion. Tasty. A Catalan friend later told me that you shouldn’t eat calçots at night, as eating too many causes gasiness. 

Next followed escalibada, a mixed grill of peppers, onions and eggplant dressed with olive oil; whole artichokes; morels in cream as well as a sauté of mixed wild mushrooms. Then, a massive chuletón, “chop” of Charlolais beef, grilled to rare perfection and sliced off the bone. All this was washed down with a fine red from the MontSant wine district. I passed on the desserts, coffee, brandy that followed. What a feast! 
Taverna La Parra; Joanot Martorell, 3; Barcelona. Tel.: 933 325 134.

One evening, too early for dinner, we stopped for a bite, a tapa, at Dos Palillos—two chopsticks—a small Asian-Catalan bar-restaurant a couple blocks off La Rambla. Albert Raurich is the chef. He spent 11 years working with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, before branching out on his own. The Vietnamese rice paper roll filled with shattery-crisp fried chicken skin was sensational. 
Dos Palillos; Elisabets, 9; Barcelona. Tel.: 933 040 513.

Right on the beach, in the fishermen’s barrio of La Barceloneta, is Restaurant Can Majó serving—what else?—fabulous seafood as well as rice dishes such as paella. Here, the pan catalán, toasted bread, arrived at the table already spread with tomato and olive oil. One dinner companion, Jeffrey Steingarten, who knows what’s good (he is food critic for Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything), asked for some anchovies in olive oil to top the toasts. Perfect.  

Four of us shared plates of shrimp (peel ‘em yourself, suck the heads); griddled razor clams (my favorite), and tiny wedge-shell clams marinera style, with olive oil, garlic and parsley.

Then we split an order of shellfish paella and another of arros negre, black rice, served with garlicky alioli sauce. Seafood stock gives the rice enormous depth of flavor. (Purists tell me that you don’t eat rice at night either, but, hey, how often do I get to Barcelona?) I did skip the mandarin mousse for dessert. We finished with an elegant cava, Kripta Gran Reserva from Agustí Torelló. 
Restaurant Can Majó; Almirall Aixada, 23, La Barceloneta, Barcelona. Tel.: 932 215 455.

I had my doubts about a restaurant at the top of a tower. But, in chef Oscar Manresa’s tower, Restaurant Torre d’Alta Mar, not only were the views amazing, but so was the food. The restaurant is situated atop a cable-car pylon (during daylight hours, red cable cars swing across the water to the Montjuic mountain), with 360º views of the old harbor, open seas and the city of Barcelona. By day the sun sparkles on the water; by night, lights twinkle all around. (Smokers, take note—it’s a long way down for a cigarette.)

We started with cava—Catalan bubbly being the perfect pre- or post-prandial drink—to accompany crunchy, cheesy breadsticks and gorgonzola with membrillo, quince paste. The multiple-course tasting menu that followed showed Chef Oscar’s wit and skill in transforming traditional Catalan dishes into fresh, contemporary ones. A case in point: coca de recapte. Coca is a flat bread with sweet or savory (often sausage) toppings, the Catalan version of pizza. This rendition was a shatteringly-crisp wafer heaped with micro-greens (at long last, salad!), Garrotxa goat’s cheese, and summer truffle.

We continued with scallops with artichoke, potato, asparagus, parmesan and ibérico ham; creamy rice with shrimp, punctuated by morsels of tangy-sweet confit of sun-dried tomatoes; and hake (“rich man’s cod,” said Jeffrey Steingarten) with artichokes, beans and mushroom broth. The main dish was succulent loin of baby goat rolled around a stuffing of foie gras, wild mushrooms and truffle. (Jeffrey had the chef drawing pictures of a goat, in order to pinpoint the cut of the meat.)

I couldn’t resist sampling the version of crema catalana, custard with burnt-sugar topping.  Chef Oscar turned it upside down, with a caramel gelée under the creamy custard and a streusel topping for crunch. And, more cava to finish a festive dinner.
Restaurant Torre d’Alta Mar; Psg. Joan de Borbó 88, Barcelona. Tel.: 932 210 007.

On my last day in Barcelona, friends took me for breakfast to Granja M. Viader, just a few steps from the great Boqueria market (read about the market here). Hot chocolate thick enough to stand a spoon in; hand-whipped cream from the owner’s dairy farm (granja is farm); mel i mató, honey and fresh cheese, plus luscious-looking pastries were some of the tempting choices.
Granja M. Viader; Xuclà, 4-6, Barcelona. Tel.: 933 183 486.

And, a last lunch—at Casa Alfonso, a brasserie sort of restaurant. More Catalan toasts, then salad with croquettes and, my favorite dish, artichokes, sliced and fried crisp with nothing but coarse salt. Wonderful finale before returning to southern Spain.

Casa Alfonso; Roger de Lluria, 6, Barcelona. Tel.: 933 019 783.

Pan Catalán
Catalan Toasts

The Catalans call this pa amb tomàquet, but elsewhere in Spain it’s known as “Catalan toasts.” Serve it for breakfast with café con leche or as a tapa with wine. At its best, the toasts are prepared individually—the bread toasted over a wood fire, then rubbed with a cut tomato to impregnate it with the juices. But if you’re serving a party, toast the bread under the broiler and prepare the tomato pulp in advance.

Serves 8.

8 thick slices country bread
2 ripe tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, cut in half
extra virgin olive oil
thinly sliced serrano or ibérico ham (optional)
anchovies in olive oil (optional)

Toast the bread under a broiler, over a wood fire or in the toaster. Cut the tomato in half crosswise and grate it coarsely, discarding the skin. Rub each toast with a cut clove of garlic and spread the tomato pulp on top. Drizzle each with  oil. Arrange sliced ham or anchovies on top. Serve immediately.


  1. ddgelb: yes, fabulous eating in Barcelona--I need to go back for a second course!