In Barcelona: Tapas 24/7

 

 

Special to The Washington Post

It is absolutely fitting that the entrance to Barcelona's grand food market lies just across La Rambla from the Museu de l'Erotica, Spain's preeminent erotic museum.

La Rambla is Barcelona's carnivalesque pedestrian boulevard lined with fantastically painted mimes creating human statues alongside sellers of exotic birds, reptiles and rodents.

On the east side of La Rambla you have the temple to the flesh. On the west side is Mercat de la Boqueria, a monument to gastronomic sensuality.

I have been to many markets across Europe, but I had never seen food displayed so dramatically as in the stalls of this glass-and-steel-covered century-old market. There were mountains of ripe melons, huge avocados, miniature mangoes, striped eggplant and lipstick-purple pitaya (Vietnamese dragon fruits). Plump green olives formed perspiring heaps; schools of gleaming fish were piled on crushed ice in the market's fish rotunda; Serrano hams hung over refrigerator cases displaying tripe by the square yard next to beef tongues.

"Beauty will be edible," Salvador Dali once said, "or it will not be at all."

Dali's native coastal Catalonia, surrounding Barcelona, has for centuries drawn on seemingly incongruous ingredients from around the Mediterranean and the world to produce a cuisine that is not merely beautiful, but, it should be said, almost lewd.

And when it comes to eating, there is nothing as easy, and at the same time rewarding, as tapas -- those appetizer-size servings that beckon customers along the bars of Spain. Whether they are montados (mounds) of ham or stuffed pepper or squid stacked on a small round of bread, or small porcións (portions) of just about anything, you point, you get, you eat and you move on to the next. The origin of tapas is often debated. But it's commonly accepted that tapas were served more than 100 years ago as tidbits of food on a slice of bread -- or paper, or a saucer -- placed on top of a wine glass to keep flies out. Tapas were not traditionally popular in Barcelona, but have caught on in recent decades, where they're interpreted with Catalan flair.

There are few better places to sample tapas -- and typical Catalan food -- than at Bar Pinotxo, taking up two stalls of the Mercat de la Boqueria.

My wife and I arrived after 2 in the afternoon and waited about 15 minutes for vacancies at two of the bar's 14 metal stools.

Bar owner Juan Bayen worked behind the counter in his signature striped vest and matching bow tie, firing off the orders to the busy cooks behind him:

"Caracoles!" (Snails.)

"Champiñones!" (Mushrooms.)

"Gambas!" (Prawns.)

"Mejillónes!" (Mussels.)

Two and three plates at a time arrived: steaming potatoes, fried Padron peppers, sauteed scallops and more. After taking our places, we ordered glasses of cava, the popular white sparkling wine, which Bayen poured instantly from an iced-down bottle behind the counter.

The bar has no written menu, and Bayen asked us what we would like to eat: "Pescado?" (fish) or "carne?" (meat). "Pescado," we responded, and Bayen rattled off a list that went right over my head. With a series of nods and mangled Spanish, we managed to order grilled gambas brochettes, mussels, grilled peppers and a few other things.

The first dish was something altogether different -- a warm plate of baby squid and light beans called chipirónescon mongetes, the bar's specialty. Bayen seemed to be saying that we needed to try this.

It was the best dish I'd never ordered, bathed in a warm sauce of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The other dishes appeared, except for the mussels, which Bayen said were "finished." I switched to bonita, and out came a small portion of baked tuna in a delicious creamy onion sauce.

It was a meal I would willingly choose for my last, except that it all happened too quickly. And there was no time to sit back and linger. It was 3 o'clock and the Spanish lunchtime was in full swing, with a line of people pressing in behind us, ready to take our places.

'Round the Clock

Barcelona is today probably the youngest, most cosmopolitan city of southern Europe. And as such it wears several faces: the center for pierced and tattooed tribes in old Barcelona; the party town of waterfront discos; and the bourgeois Barcelona, with its chic boutiques, cafes and eccentric, turn-of-the-20th-century buildings by Antoni Gaudí and contemporaries.

No matter where you go here, however, people seem to be eating and drinking something good all the time. Considering that dinner is often not taken until most of the restaurants of Europe are closing their shutters, it's not surprising that people need something to tide them over -- usually tapas.

To keep up with Spaniards' irregular eating hours, many tapas bars open at 6 a.m. for breakfast and don't close until 1:30 the following morning. This suited our plan for a carefree, no-reservations-required weekend -- walking everywhere and eating as the urge struck.

Saturday afternoon, we made a lunch of seafood at Cerveseria Catalana, where we marveled at clams so fresh they were actually moving with some agility in the display case on the counter.

That night at Estrella de Plata, what may be Barcelona's fanciest tapas bar, we lingered over a full-bodied red wine from Ribera del Duero accompanied by tapas of Cod Cheek Esqueixada (a small round cake of cold fish, diced tomatoes and onions) and toasts of warm duck liver in port sauce.When we arrived at 8 p.m. the place was deserted; at 10:30 it was packed.

Fighting for a Place

Our globetrotting friend who considers Barcelona one of the three most exciting cities on Earth gave us one piece of sound advice -- which we didn't listen to: "Be sure to take a siesta in the afternoon or you'll never make it through the dinner hour which is, like, 11 o'clock."

Our first night in town -- siesta be damned -- we planned our own tapas bar crawl in the medieval district of La Ribera. It's a common way of enjoying tapas: sampling the food and drink in one bar after another.

First stop was El Xampanyet, a family-run bar that opened here in 1929. We squeezed up to the bar and stood -- heck, it was only 8 p.m. and all the stools were taken. We ordered wine accompanied by El Xampanyet's specialty: anchovies that were piled into sort of a large bundt cake on the bar.

These anchovies were nothing like the salt-encrusted pieces of shoelace you buy in cans or find on top of your delivery pizza. These were five-inch, delicate filets in good olive oil. They were served with a staple of Catalan cuisine, pan con tomate (bread with tomato), made by simply rubbing a ripe tomato -- seeds and all -- on toasted bread, which is then drizzled with olive oil. When done well, the result is one of the simplest, tastiest dishes anywhere.

Our next stop was just up the street at Euskal Etxea, which refers to itself as a Basque restaurant and "centre cultural." Here, laid out on the polished wood bar, were platters of Basque pinxtos -- small portions ranging from cured hams and cheese to octopus and red pepper, all skewered with either a toothpick or miniature plastic sword. You serve yourself and later the barman tallies the toothpicks (about $1.75) and the swords on your plate (about $2.90) to figure your tab.

Again, we stood at the bar, which was filled with what seemed an international gathering of yuppies -- all drinking and aging fast from chain smoking. We drank wine in large Basque tumblers and began to figure out an important law of tapas tourism: After about four hours of walking followed by two drinks in a standing position, your calves ache and your knees want to buckle.

Following what seemed like more than a half-hour, a group stood up, freeing three seats at the bar. We took two of them. The third was taken by a fresh-faced young Spaniard who walked in the door just at the right moment, sauntered over next to us, sat down and started flirting with the female bartender.

Obviously he'd had his nap.

As the evening developed and we moved on, the chair situation became dire.

We went to La Vinya del Senyor, a renowned wine bar with a list of hundreds of Spanish wines, precious tapas of foie gras and local cheeses, and black-clad waiters with attitude. What makes up for the bar's faults is the pretty setting -- particularly the six tables outside on the intimate Plaça Santa Maria. Of course, those were filled, and the people who'd snagged them weren't going anywhere soon.

I went inside to hunt some places at the bar. After about 10 minutes, I had two, and waved my wife over. But at just that same moment, a guy with a lot of open buttons on his shirt started to make for one of the stools. I grabbed it, blurting out something in Spanglish that could have sounded like I was going to marry the barstool.

He turned away and muttered something in Catalan Spanish that sounded like he would perform the ceremony on the spot.

It was long past our dinner time and the night was still young.

Robert V. Camuto, a writer living in the South of France, is a frequent contributor to The Post's Travel section.

Details: Tapas Trail

GETTING THERE: Barcelona's international airport is accessible from European cities and New York's JFK. Delta Airlines recently quoted a 30-day-advance round-trip fare from Reagan Airport though JFK to Barcelona for $489. KLM quoted a $492 fare from Dulles with a connection in Amsterdam.

GETTING AROUND: Barcelona is a compact pedestrian city in which you can walk almost anywhere. The city also has buses, a subway and affordable taxis. A taxi ride from the airport to the center city cost us about $25; from the center city to the waterfront, about $5.

WHERE TO STAY: The chic district known as L'Eixample, in and around the Passeig de Gràcia, offers the widest variety of accommodations, including famous four- and five-star palaces. Alternatives include the smart, newly renovated Hotel Condes de Barcelona (Passeig de Gràcia, 73-75, 011-34-93-445-00-00, www.condesdebarcelona.com), where doubles cost about $240 per night; the ultra-hip modern Hotel Omm, with its restaurant Moo (Rosselló, 265, 011-34-93-445-40-00, www.hotelomm.es), where the weekend double rate is about $265 per night; and the charming but long-in-the-tooth Hotel Granvia (Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 642, 011-34-93-318-19-00, www.nnhotels.es) for about $140.

In old Barcelona, try the small, designer-sleek Hotel Banys Orientals (Argenteria, 37, 011-34-93-268-84-60, www.hotelbanysorientals.com), where the double rate runs about $115.

TAPAS BARS: In L'Eixample you can't do much better than the upscale Cerveseria Catalana (Mallorca, 236) for fresh seafood and other tapas. A satisfying lunch with beer cost us about $37 for two. It's open daily from 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.

Just off La Rambla in the main market, don't miss the counter of Bar Pinotxo (Mercat de la Boqueria, stalls 66-67), open for breakfast and lunch (till 4 p.m.) every day except Sunday. Figure about $20 per person for lunch with wine.

In old Barcelona's La Ribera quarter, El Xampanyet (Montcada, 22) is a family classic to start the evening. A couple of glasses of wine and a few tapas, including the signature anchovies, cost about $12. A few steps away, find a taste of the Basque country in the yuppified Euskal Etxea (Placeta Montcada, 1-3), where tapas on the bar run about $1.75 to $2.90. Or try a huge selection of Spanish wines at the (somewhat pretentious) La Vinya del Senyor (Placa Santa Maria, 5), where tapas, including foie gras and local cheeses, run from about $1.50 to $12 and a list of daily wine selections ranges from about $2 to $6.50 a glass.

Near the waterfront, in the shadow of the Catalan Governor's Palace, Estrella de Plata (Pla de Palau, 13) offers gastronomic fusion tapas like "Ox Tenderloin and Roquefort Crunch." A full dinner cost us about $60, without wine.

INFORMATION:Barcelona Tourism, www.barcelonaturisme.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto