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(Not so) hale fellow, well-Quimet (Barcelona, pt. 5)

[bread products]The original version, with nicer formatting and many more photos, is here.

17 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Boqueria – Take two. This time we’re not visiting, but shopping. We’re soon staggering under the weight of bags of pork products – if it’s made from Ibérico, we’ve got it by the kilo – cheese, and even some token fruit. One can’t live by pig alone (though here, one could definitely make a go of it).

Unfortunately, my consumerist joy is muted. I’m as ill as I’ve ever been. It feels like the worst flu ever, except I’m not nauseous; the sickness is mostly aches, pains, and sinuses that feel like they’re the size of the Hindenburg (and about as explosive). Whatever it is, there’s also lingering respiratory damage from last night’s cigar extravaganza, and I’m having a good deal of difficulty breathing, or even staying upright.

It’s raining, so I haul our loot back to the hotel via the city’s efficient subway system, while Theresa does some business at an internet café – a dying breed in these wireless days, especially in Europe’s advanced mobile culture. I’m tempted to simply collapse and nap the rest of the afternoon away, but there’s more to do and see, and it seems a shame to waste what little time we have left in the city.

At a small grocer around the corner, I collect a case of bottled water, hoping against hope that I’m not asked some complicated question at checkout. At the wine shop across the street (something Baccus; the name eludes post facto clarification), I do a little browsing and then ask them to assemble a case of wine for me, which they (somewhat amusedly) do. Fortified for the next few days’ travel, it’s now time to worry about today’s first meal. Assuming, that is, that I can even enjoy it.

El Quim – We arrive at this tiny countertop in the immediate aftermath of some terribly bitter argument between the proprietors. I mean, seriously bitter; each looks like they may strike the other at any moment. Our order is taken, and our meal delivered, in near-silence from both. I suspect that, later, someone will end up with a stick of chorizo lodged where it probably shouldn’t be.

In the interim, we enjoy our bites and snacks. This tapas bar specializes in more adventurous (for the international palate) selections, which makes sense as the ammoniated and rather nauseating aroma from the massive display of organ meats immediately behind us casts a restroomy pall over the culinary aromas. No offal aficionados, we decide play it fairly safe…and taking chances with my digestive system is probably unwise at this juncture. Asparagus are fresh, vivid and inspiringly simple, albóndigas are rich pillows of meat, and sardines in an escabeche are small and terrific, but the supreme dish is a plate of intensely-flavored eggs with ham. I think Universal is a little bit better (it’s certainly friendlier), but then again it’s hard to properly judge while arbitrarily avoiding at least half the menu.

Museu Picasso – Since it would be a completely wasted opportunity to ride out my malaise back at the hotel room, we opt to visit a few more sites between lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we’ve missed whatever magic visiting window exists for several destinations – both the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Palau Reial Major are closed, despite our guidebooks’ insistence to the contrary – and so we find our way to this famous museum.

Now, I must confess that I’m not a Picasso fan. To be honest, my interest in what I call “flat art” ends before his ascendancy, though I do appreciate his early work (up through his color-designated periods), and this museum is spectacularly thorough in its presentation of his life’s pursuit. So it’s not surprising that I spend a great deal of time in the museum’s earlier galleries, somewhat less in the middle-period rooms, and then fairly race through the finish. I sit and guzzle a few troughs of coffee while Theresa (who’s much more interested in such things) finishes off her tour. Nonetheless, this museum is, itself, a masterwork, and not to be missed…whether or not one enjoys the contents.

Full of discordia but starting to pine for sustenance, we walk along the city’s peaceful waterfront, passing under giant smiling lobsters and dramatic, artsy archways, and finally just sitting and enjoying the fraying ends of the evening. As night falls, we wander into less touristed, slightly rougher (though by no means “rough”) neighborhoods in search of a place to stand and eat. No, really.

[fish counter]Quimet i Quimet – A lot has been written about this place, and it’s all true: the tapas are primarily derived from the canned, jarred, tinned, wrapped, preserved and pre-made rather than the fresh, the place is impossibly tiny (two micro-tables plus a tiny wraparound counter) and packed to the gills with locals and a few undaunted tourists, it’s standing-room (more like jostling-room) only, and the beverage options are rather staggering. One simply enters and carves out some sort of nook, orders something from the counter, selects a beverage from the wall (higher shelves are reached by a proprietor bearing a long, hook-like device), and gets on with the noshing. More food? More wine? Drinks? Just keep ordering…as long as you can avoid the desperate stares of those waiting for your square foot of real estate. Such a complete lack of pretension or artifice is barely to be believed in these modern times, yet this closet-sized eatery could hardly be more successful.

To the extent that Catalan or Spanish have been necessary in restaurants, I’ve mostly been the one to struggle and mangle my way through. But tonight, I’m too sick and dazed (especially after three successive trips to the pharmacy, with new symptoms to describe each time) to torture another proprietor with my incoherent mumbling. Theresa takes over, finding that French works better than English in the absence of the correct local dialect. A nearby cluster of Russians reaches the same conclusion, but far as we can tell, everyone else is speaking Catalan. That has to be a good sign, right?

Instead of choosing our own tapas, we let the owners feed us, and though the various takes on smoked and preserved fish (with and without accompaniments) are brilliant, the highlight is a stunning plate of Spanish cheeses…the best we’ve yet tasted. And let’s not forget the small dollops of caviar, which has become an unattainably expensive luxury back home; here, they’re practically given away.

Gancedo “Sestal” 2002 Bierzo Mencia (Northwest Spain) – Balanced, with black and red fruit, aromatic flowers on a bed of rich organic earth, and fine structure. While quite flavorful, this is in no way overwhelming; it’s warm-climate, but it’s balanced and pure. Ageable? Probably…a short while at least. Very nice.

Conde de Osborne Brandy de Jerez “Solera Gran Reserva” (Jerez) – Feeling somewhat refreshed by the wine and food, I once again put myself in the staff’s hands, asking for a brandy of some sort. I receive this: simultaneously bitter and rich, with spicy fruit and a keening flor-like note (perhaps just the power of suggestion, perhaps not). Complex and warming. Delicious.

The price for all this elbow-tucking bacchanalia? Just forty-one euro, and we’re both stuffed and suffused with a warm, alcohol-induced glow. (Also, the medication might be at work.) But while it’s an unquestioned bargain, it’s more important to note that this is simply a terrific restaurant.

The stars, like dust

dinner paintingWhile the world’s culinary landscape flows swiftly on to unknown horizons, the lords of French cuisine laze enthroned in their mountaintop fortresses, trapped by tradition and (at times) arrogance, kings of only that which their ancestors surveyed.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative. Like any such narrative, there’s some truth to it. An awful lot of French restaurants are more than content to rest on laurels that have long dried into aromatic irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the center of culinary gravity darts about the globe: Cataluña, Sydney, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chicago, the Basque lands, Copenhagen…even London, for heaven’s sake.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Yes, effortless diners will eat a lot of effortless cooking (I don’t mean that in a good way), and there’s a truly depressing conformity even among places that should know better. But, especially in the cities, there’s life, too. Starting with a return to ingredient-based cuisine – and France, though sometimes it seems to have forgotten, is laden and lardered with incredible ingredients to fill the famished – and moving on from there to the same sort of multiple-input experimentation that has energized dining all over the world.

One category of French restaurant, however, is unusually hobbled by resistance to change: the Michelin-starred. What should, by one standard, be the pinnacle of a nation’s deservedly famous edible narrative is, far too often, merely a vastly more expensive way to eat the same dishes available everywhere else, though with better knife-work and brilliantly-gilded tableware. Only infrequently are dishes less than exceptional works of craft (though it does happen, and it most certainly shouldn’t at those prices), but often that’s all they are. The time when French chefs’ creations were regularly on the tip of diners’ postprandial tongues is now decades in the past. And even when they’re referred to, it’s either a tribute band plodding its way through a hoary classic of yesteryear (like Alinea’s tournedos Rossini, painstakingly authentic and retro by design) or a well-worn yet affectionate quote from a literary master (like Manresa’s “Arpège egg”).

I feel little sympathy for French restaurants who care so little that they coast through mindless repetition of their alleged hits, even if that repetition is reasonably edible. But I do feel some sympathy for the starred, for their temples must sometimes feel an awful lot like prisons. A constant flow of well-heeled tourists and internationalites (as for better or worse, that’s who fills the seats) expecting the pinnacle of French dining, but also expecting it to be French and classic through whatever preconceptions they view those terms. Further, the cost of culinary risk-taking is higher than elsewhere; no one who’s traveled all the way to France and laid down a well-fed AMEX platinum wants the chef’s mid-afternoon dalliances and fleeting notions on the plate. They want the tried and true, but they want it better…well, actually, they want it perfected. That’s a tall order for any restaurant, and unfortunately it’s also the same order, over and over again.

There are several paths out of the trap. One is to give up the yoke of the system, and some chefs have done that…abandoning their stars, toques, and so forth to run focused places with limited menus (and limited seating). That is, in fact, where much of the most exciting French dining is to be found these days, and as a concept it sits comfortably aside the other trendlet: return-to-the-roots caves à manger, which offer the foundational traditions from which so many hidebound restaurants have strayed, but free of trappings and expense, and letting those great French ingredients speak for themselves.

Another is to reject the system on its merits (or lack thereof). Like a winemaker dropping an appellation to which they’re entitled working with strange grapes or techniques, giving up both the help and the restraint of guidebook or critical approval can be the first step on the path to the fullest expression of a chef’s passion. Michelin has learned some lessons outside France (and failed to learn those lessons elsewhere), but in France it remains a rigid defender of Michelin’s France.

The third is to cultivate a reputation for risk-taking from the very start. This is how Adrià, Redzepi, Aduriz, Achatz, and all the rest get away with their high-wire acts of culinary adventurousness, in which only the unwary and unprepared actually expect every dish to be a success. One attends their restaurants knowing one is paying for the performance, not just the script.

But here the French are at a disadvantage, because given their rigorously formalized path of advancement within kitchens, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could rise to the top of the system without many years of predictable tasks, churning out the classics in very familiar trenches; tasks and classics that would suck the energy from even the most determined. French chefs simply don’t move from the line at Momofuku Ko straight to the top job at Le Grand Véfour, whereas talented risk-takers could easily make the jump from latter to the former. And to attempt to stay the course is to become every more firmly lodged in the vise. It’s a beautiful, gilded trap, but it’s still a trap.

There are escapees, however. The barriers are not impenetrable. There are chefs, even among the most renowned and étoile-laden, who push against boundaries both real and imagined. No, I don’t think there is an El Bulli analogue in the DNA of any French Michelin three-star of whom I’m aware (though its worth remembering that Adrià often credited the most creative of his French peers for inspiration), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement.

rabbitIn 2011, I had a double helping of Pierre Gagnaire. The first course was at the fascinating Forum des Images in the in-progress ruins of Paris’ Les Halles, a repository of individually-viewable films and video of all sorts. My French, alas, is not always up to vocal expressions of the native arts, but there was a short documentary about the culinary maestro, and it made for interesting and (more or less) comprehensible viewing.

The takeaway: Pierre Gagnaire is nuts.

Oh, he’s not crazy in the sense that he wanders naked down streets muttering about the aliens living in his brain. At least, I presume not. Rather, he’s the sort of “nuts” common to a lot of ultra-creative types, in which the relentless need – far beyond an urge or even a desire – to create leads not just to obsession, but obsessive dissatisfaction. An obsession that actually keeps him out of his kitchen during service, because his fiddling, nervous presence makes it impossible for his team to execute his dishes.

And this nervous energy, this relentless double-branched drive towards More and Different, is on every plate at his eponymous, lavishly-praised restaurant. At least, every plate I see. If there are restrained Gagnaire classics somewhere on this menu – and there might be – they pass neither my eyes nor my lips. More revelatory is the fact that there’s not only more than one idea on a plate, there’s almost always more than one dish on a plate. Sometimes a half-dozen or more. “Tuna” becomes a mezze platter of notions and whimsy around the core ingredient; whereas a modernist might cause the diner to wonder what they’re getting, Gagnaire leads one to wonder if there’s anything they’re not getting. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, and it’s bound to dissatisfy many as much as it thrills others.

The food at Gagnaire is all over the map. I don’t mean qualitatively – everything I try is extraordinary, and that isn’t a universally-shared experience of this restaurant, even among friends whose palates I usually trust – I mean stylistically. If there’s a center of gravity to this food, other than Gagnaire’s feverish flux, I can’t find it. There are obvious global influences, and Asia is referenced with some frequency, but little is geographically specific. Yet it’s not really “fusion,” either. More like a fan-spread glitter-shower of ideas, visually captivating but feeling refined only to the extent that at some point, someone arbitrarily stops the twiddling and adornment and expels some sort of product from the kitchen. I suspect that in the mind and kitchen of Pierre Gagnaire, little is ever “done.”

What about the ancillary matters? Service is what one wants from this type of restaurant, with more than a bit of cleverness when warranted. Décor is a little on the modernist power-broker side, but still within the expected range. The wine list is long enough and itself a bit modern, but I’ve no trouble finding wines worth drinking (which isn’t always the case at highly-starred establishments…see below).

Krug Champagne Brut “Grande Cuvée” (Champagne) – Rich and heady, but really not all that complex or interesting. It’s like gilding and jewel-encrusting a turnip, frankly; yes, it’s all shiny and sparkly, but what’s the real point? It’s still a turnip, and doesn’t want to be gilt. The wine’s elegant, and maybe the point is that one should feel elegant while one drinks it, but that’s really much more about the drinker than it is the wine itself. (4/11)

Boxler 2009 Riesling Brand (Alsace) – A little sweet, a lot heavy, a fair bit alcoholic. There’s still plenty of honeyed minerality and bronzed musculature, with the stone fruit and gold of the site evident, but it’s just too boozy for my taste, and I’m not sure this is a quality one will want to live with for long. I’d say I was surprised by this result, but a legendarily hot vineyard in a big year…unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. Dismayed because of what it portends for globally-warmed Alsace. Disappointed that this came from an extremely reliable producer. But not surprised. (4/11)

Darroze “Domaine de Rieston” 1990 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Armagnac turned up to 11, or maybe even 12, in darkly-oaked intensity laden with succulent dried fruit. Showy and rather fantastic. It is not, I think, designed to appeal to lovers of older, more reticent and well-matured spirits, but it’s impossible to ignore and, frankly, very difficult not to like. (4/11)

The verdict? I’ve certainly had more adventurous meals in more freewheeling locales. I’ve had better meals in the sense that perfection seemed within their grasp, even from this exact type of restaurant in this very country. But this is without question the most interesting three-star meal I’ve had within the borders of France, and as I leave I’d describe the experience not as satisfaction, nor even as admiration, but instead as an overwhelmed variant of happiness tinged with fatigue.

rodin sculptureAs noted earlier, there are other ways to rattle the shackles, and one of them is to offer a jovial middle finger to tradition while remaining inside it. This is more or less what Alain Passard and his long love affair with vegetables have done at his minimalist, reductive Arpège. To maintain, even escalate, three-star pricing yet serve a meal consisting primarily of roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves takes a sizable pair of something Passard would probably not serve at this restaurant.

For years, the primary complaint I heard from dissatisfied post-Arpège diners was, “this much money for vegetables?” I take the point on its economic merits, and Arpège is breathtakingly expensive, but never agreed with the assumption behind it: that there is something inherently unworthy about vegetable cookery, that the heating of flesh is self-evidently more valuable. One doesn’t spend three-star money for ingredients, which – with rare exceptions, and (somewhat ironically) Arpège provides a number of them – a little work could procure for any home cook’s use. That three-stars tend to lay on the truffles and fattened liver rather thickly is, again, not something one needs three-stars for. Rather one pays a stratospheric tariff for the skill with which those ingredients are utilized. And it has rarely been said, even by his detractors, that Passard can’t cook.

Just a few steps down the street from Arpège is the Musée Rodin, filled with nakedly passionate revelations of the essential, in which that revelation animates qualities unknown to the medium without the intervention of the artist. That describes what a fair number of chefs do, as well. Were Arpège a museum of sculpture, it’d be filled not with recognizable objects, or even chips and shavings, but with the undefiled rocks and stones whence they came.

Passard remains a gracious host, and any chef this famous willing to sit in an empty corner of his restaurant during service and graze, slurp, and smile at departing patrons has a refreshingly comforting notion of what it is that he does; it’s fairly apparent that he sees himself less as a performance artist than as a cook. And that, whatever flaws he may or may not have, an inability to relax is not one of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the fact that, by the time I finally make it to his restaurant, animals are back on the menu reveals some slight diminution of focus. Every truly great dish I encounter is either entirely or in the majority comprised of plants, while the most disappointing bites are those in which plants play little to no role. Case in point: a plate in which nothing other than an array of seasonal vegetables, each cooked differently but with a perfection beyond perfection, is one of the most extraordinary statements of pure essentialism I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, turbot – my favorite swimmer, and a fish that can be breathtaking in its singular complexity – is drowned in a gloppy cream and vin jaune sauce that utterly obliterates the fish (and doesn’t do much for the sauce, either). A you-can-read-through-it beet nigiri is an exquisite, naked pair of two perfect flavors (the beet and the rice), a beet “merguez” on the aforementioned place of vegetables is so good I fail to repress a gleeful laugh at the audacity of it, but chunks of poularde with another mélange of plants are nothing special and completely overshadowed by the continuing excellence of the vegetables (and, in this case, fruit).

The nadir is a chocolate mille-feuille that tastes like a pile of stale ashes and, aside from its wet core, is almost completely inedible. I have no idea whether this is a failure of intent or execution, but a failure it is. In fact, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.

The décor is really nothing at all, I’d suspect by intent. Service is on the casual side of what one might expect, which I think reflects the chef, but does no disservice to itself. The wine list is somewhat of a disappointment in that it shows neither the deep bench of classics some diners will expect, nor much interest in new directions in wine. That said, not “much” is not “none,” and there are a few dabblings with natural wine. Still, if one isn’t prepared to shower coin on still-too-young Names, drinking here is not as rewarding as it might otherwise be.

Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut Cuvée Rosé (Champagne) – Pink, and tastes of it. Sharp, fruity, clean, soon dead. Next. (11/12)

Alexandre Bain 2011 Pouilly-Fumé “Pierre Précieuse” (Loire) – Sweet, flabby, and more than a little bit insipid. I get that this is natural, but it’s horribly boring as well. Maybe it works as an apéritif. But it doesn’t even have the nervosity to be a German riesling stand-in. (11/12)

Comte de Saint Victor “Château de Pibarnon” 2000 Bandol (Provence) – Halfway to excellence, but the halfsies are evident in the disjointed structural imbalances, which are slightly stewy and tending towards the fluffy at the moment. That’s not, I think, where this wine will end up. Otherwise, there’s blackened meat liqueur and herbal tincture…a pretty classic Bandol signature, with a rocky underbelly seemingly characteristic of this house. Wait on it. (11/12)

Lhéraud 1973 Cognac Petite Champagne (Cognac) – Forcefully classy. Like drinking fine pastries, with a boozy core. Is it as complex as an Armagnac of similar age? No, but it’s silkier. There’s your tradeoff. (11/12)

I want to love Arpège. I do like it, the disaster of a dessert excepted. But of course, a restaurant at its externally- and internally-imposed level – and here I mean both reputation and price – doesn’t retain the freedom to just be liked. It needs to be loved.

And that is also part of the trap.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place (or, when there are no wine notes, an alternative indication will be provided). Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

Kill the wabbit (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 4)

[dried stuff](The original version, with many more photos (including pictorial essays on La Boqueria and the Cathedral of Santa Eulàlia), is here.)

16 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Rambla – This busy, heavily-touristed pedestrian avenue is filled with rolling street carts selling everything from cheap, logoed tchotchkes to live chickens and bunnies. No, really: bunnies. Does one walk around the rest of Barcelona with a freshly-purchased chicken tucked beneath one arm? Do tourists stuff a few in their carry-on luggage for later consumption? Or is this the land-based equivalent of a “catch-your-own” fish restaurant?


La Boqueria – Food markets just don’t get much more famous than this. Perhaps the Rialto in Venice, or (going back a few years) Les Halles in Paris. In more modern, organized terms, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza might come to mind. But when a shed full of food vendors becomes a destination for even non-foodie tourists, labeled in every guide book as a “must-see” sight, it’s clear that critical mindshare mass has been reached.

Viewed objectively, the market isn’t all that much different than major markets anywhere else. There’s produce, fish, meat, cheese, bread, wine, oil, some specialists…the usual array of products, tilted (as one would expect) towards local specialties. The only real differentiator is the striking ubiquity of ham. It’s mostly Ibérico, of course, with Serrano taking a strong second place, and then a handful of alternate appellations filling in the corners. What registers and overwhelms, however, is the amazing variation within each category…different cuts, different producers, different preparations…that makes it a little difficult to decide where to start. And given the staggering price of Ibérico, some guidance would be welcome. I curse my unusual unpreparedness, but anticipate the taste of last-minute cramming as I collect several pricey parcels of porcine pleasure.

Aside from ham, the majority of vendors seem to sell produce, which is itself strongly dominated by fruit in lieu of vegetables. There are a few exotics which we resolve to acquire tomorrow, on our way out of the city, but little that’s completely out of the ordinary for a food-focused traveler. Fish vendors exhibit their usual regional specialization, and though we won’t have the opportunity to buy any, we spend a long time studying the options, comparing and contrasting them with other Mediterranean markets we’ve visited. Meat in its muscular form is equaled in quantity by what some euphemistically label “variety meats,” though here the “variety” is rather larger than what we’re used to. Clearly, these are people who love their “parts” an offal lot. (Sorry.) Cheesemongers, on the other hand, seem to sell as much foreign product as domestic, which is a little dismaying (and since we’ve had most of the domestic products on offer, we’re fairly disappointed in the options), but the massive range of domestic oils is proportionally exciting.

Inevitably, staring at food for an hour or so makes us ravenously hungry. Many vendors offer various snacks and tastes, and those on a tight budget could probably assemble a fine graze from these nibbles, but there are tapas bars within the market that are neither pricey nor ill-thought of. Several of the recommended options are already closed for the day (and many vendors have shuttered as well; we’re here pretty close to the local lunch hour), but one bustling counter is still open, and we grab seats the moment they’re available.

Kiosko Universal – There’s an odd sort of Africa-in-Florida, “Livingstone, I presume” theme park style to the signage here, which is a little strange. But the food is authentic enough…fresh, as intensely-flavored as it is simply-prepared, and served with frank rapidity…and the price can hardly be beat. We sample flawless squid with potato “fries” (not crisp, but – like the tentacle segments – drenched in zippy olive oil), fried artichokes dusted with a vivid, complex sea salt, and a stunning row of baby clams bathed in even more oil. But the “killer app,” as such, is octopus gallego in its spicy sauce (though it is, once more, soaked in oil…not a bad thing in any of these three cases, but a little repetitive); the texture and taste are truly definitive. I wash it down with three glasses of a crisp, light, refreshing wine (probably a Penedès, but I don’t ask and they don’t tell), and feel absolutely exhilarated at the end. We’ve done the adventurous, and tonight we’ll do the higher-end, but here’s yet another important side to the ravenous Barcelona food culture. In a way, it just might be our favorite of the three.

We continue our stroll down La Rambla all the way to the broad expanse of the waterfront. It’s a beautiful day, and we pass some time on a short cruise of the harbor; a fairly boring procession of passenger and cargo ships, with only the rise of Montjuïc and the distant ridge of Tibidabo breaking the industrial scenery. At least we get to sit for a while.

[old man against wall]Barri Gòtic – From the waterfront, the entrance to Barcelona’s oldest district is a little forbidding, with tiny, dark alleys featuring neither businesses nor signage. It’s a little like Venice without the water (or the lulling quiet). But soon enough, we emerge into brighter areas: sun-lit golden-brown plazas milling with visitors, and narrow passageways lit up by the glow of commerce and enlivened by the bustling noise of passersby.

The city’s principal cathedral, Santa Eulàlia is oddly situated, hemmed in on all sides by auxiliary and connected buildings, and without a truly grand façade in most directions. Its one ornate face – the front – is masked by scaffolding. Inside, things are grander, with the usual soaring architecture and lovely cloisters (in the middle of which are fenced a rather chatty gaggle of geese, for reasons that remain unclear to me; perhaps they’re guarding the fountain). The nearby Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar is darker, quieter, and much more ethereal, like something out of a distant time. Every whisper and foot shuffle is amplified and echoed (the church is renowned for its acoustics), and the contrast between the two houses of worship is striking and wonderful.

Gaig – The entrance to this luxurious and much-praised establishment immediately throws one into a trichromatic otherworld of white, black, and blood red. But what it lacks is any sort of food whatsoever. That’s because it’s a hotel lobby…stark, spare and highly designed (like so much else in this strikingly visual city). When we arrive, it’s empty. We hesitate, uncertain. Are we in the right place?

As if on cue, a hostess descends the lobby’s grand staircase, escorting us upstairs to the restaurant’s crescent-shaped dining room, itself a dark wonderland of red and white (but mostly red). It’s not ornate, exactly, but rather fashionable in the vaguely minimalist, modernistic vein of our two previous evenings’ restaurants; what differs is that the color is overtly “aggressive” to an extent I’m not sure many restaurants would venture. I picture a bull, a matador, a cape. I feel the warm onrush of freshly-slaughtered livestock. I smell the intense fruit of a vivid red wine. It’s rather captivating, and the mood is instantaneously rendered. It’s invigorating, enlivening, exciting.

Unfortunately, imaginary wine isn’t all we smell.

Moments after being seated, a table just across the narrow room – a hirsute older man and two female companions, both of whom look rather dramatically younger than him – seems to be finishing off the last of their meal. The women light cigarettes…no real problem, and it’s hardly uncommon here, though one young lady goes through eleven of them while carrying on a 90-minute conversation on her mobile…and the man lights a cigar.

And another.

And another.

At first, it’s only a mild irritant. It does fill the room with its intense, overpowering aroma, but we assume it will be over soon – who chain-smokes cigars? – and concentrate on our menu. Amuses arrive in the form of breadsticks with a saline anchovy “dip,” which we nibble to great satisfaction as an accompaniment to apéritifs of flowery cava and shockingly good Manzanilla (the identities of which I do not acquire, unfortunately).

More amuses follow: peanut crisps, little balls of cod, other small bites and tastes…each a focused statement of purity and flavor. We’re given menus, but less than a minute later, a waitress arrives to take our order. She seems highly put out that we’re not yet ready. Do they actually hope to turn our table this evening? In any case, and somewhat inevitably, we choose a tasting menu, a wine from the extravagant (albeit adventurously-priced) list, and settle back to await our meal. And to wonder if we’re going to be battling cigar smoke all night.

The early service issues don’t immediately abate, however. We sit…nursing the dregs of our apéritifs, shoveling the crumbs of our amuses to and fro, waiting for our first course. Or for someone to take our wine order. Either would be welcome, at this stage.

Twenty-five lonely minutes pass.

The mildest possible blood sausage is the first course to (finally) arrive – just a morsel, and as refined as one could imagine from this thoroughly rustic ingredient – with quail egg and a creamy sauce that provides delicious contrast to the frank sanguinity of the sausage.

Muga 1998 Rioja “Prado Enea Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – What I actually order is the ’96, but they bring this without apology, only explaining that they’re out of the earlier vintage after I inquire (which, in halting Spanish, is not rapid enough to stop them from opening the wine). I’d actually prefer to make another selection in this case; however, the retrieval of this wine – which doesn’t arrive until after we’ve completed our first course – takes long enough that I shrug and let it go, figuring I’d rather have a wine on the table than wait any longer. Unfortunately, my original instincts prove well-founded. This is tight, tannic and oak-laden, with obvious fruit (that only emerged after extended aeration) and spiky acidity. By the end of the night, there’s a little more spice to the fruit. Of course this is a wine meant to age, but right now it’s obvious and more than a little clumsy, and had I known that the ’96 was unavailable, I’d have ordered something a little more advanced.

Then: a pretty but simple course of scallops and artichokes that, with the excellence of its ingredients, manages to very nearly define both elements. But the next course, a shockingly good filet of sea bass with basil oil, is even better, and once again a cream sauce provides counterpoint.

[cathedral chandelier]By now, the cigar smell is actively irritating. My eyes hurt, my throat is dry, and I’m beginning to lose the aroma of both food and wine. Which is a shame, because the fourth course – a bit of a signature here – is pure decadence: cannelloni stuffed with some sort of rillettes-like meat-based substance, with a black truffle cream sauce. It’s ecstasy in every bite, a culinary climax on a plate. If there’s a niggle, it’s that it’s the third course of the last four to feature a cream-based sauce.

…and we have now reached the limits of our tolerance, as señor lights his fourth consecutive postprandial cigar. Isn’t this sort of like shotgunning Cognac? I feel nauseous, and Theresa’s eyes looks like they’ve been through a funeral. Desperate, we ask if there’s any way to move farther away from the offending table…a request which they quickly oblige, but that only helps a little bit; cigar smoke is hard to escape. Still, a little respite is better than none at all, and there’s not much the restaurant can do about it in any case.

Foie gras is next, and it may be the best I’ve ever eaten. (Do they make it locally, I wonder?) It’s served with a neon-red fig that tastes of strawberry (which works) and a sugary, mint-flavored candy (which doesn’t). This is followed by a loaf of rich suckling pig…soft on the inside, crispy on the outside…served not in a cream sauce, but with a sort of apple cider/applesauce purée. However, to nitpick once more, the texture of the pig is highly reminiscent of the cannelloni stuffing.

Desserts commence with a “deconstructed” crema catalana presented as custard with a foamy center – and only token caramelization – served in a martini glass. I don’t really see the point. What follows is a little orgy of chocolate: bitter, intense mousse and a clean, direct stack presented in puff pastry. Honestly, both desserts are disappointingly timid, and – other than the quality of the chocolate – a letdown at the end of such a grand meal.

As is my custom, and determined not to let the smoke “win,” I ask them to surprise me with something interesting from their selection of liquid desserts. They come up with a wine I could swear I’ve tasted before.

Mas Estela Garnatxa de l’Empordà “Estela Solera” (Cataluña) – Sweet roasted nuts and caramelized orange with toffee, burnt coffee, and a thick, heated edge. The finish is watery, and the overall effect is decidedly average. And one more thing: the wine – from a newly-opened bottle – is almost opaque with sediment, which would seem to be a minor service flaw, though of course it has no appreciable effect on the taste.

So, the verdict. It has been, in most important ways, a terrific meal…excellent by most standards. And yet. And yet

The service has been off all night. The early timing problems eventually settle themselves into an efficient routine, and our move to another table is carried out with aplomb, but in any case the meal is far too quick; less than two hours for seven courses, and that with nearly a half-hour delay at the beginning…it all adds up to about ten minutes per course, which is unacceptably accelerated for a meal of this magnitude. Other meals in Barcelona have been quick, to be sure, but given the expense and richness of this food, one hopes for something more respectful of the cuisine. This bothers us more in the aftermath than in the midst, but that is almost solely a function of the oppressive cigar smoke, for which the restaurant is not responsible; the meal would have been just as speedy were the cigar-mainlining patron not in attendance.

Beverages have also been a problem. In addition to the wine-related service issues, water has been rather grudgingly supplied, and then sloppily sloshed about the table when served. It seems there’s a sort of schizophrenia at work, wherein some elements of the restaurant are as comforting, luxurious and elegant as one could want, and others are haphazard and indifferent.

But the food…oh, the food. Apart from the most minor complaints about textural repetition, it is exquisite. In France, perhaps, we’d adore this meal for its adventurousness, but here in Cataluña we question its reluctance…fair or unfair though that contextualization might be. Separated from those expectations, however, there’s no denying either the quality of the ingredients or the skill in the kitchen, and it’s important to remember that the rejection of tradition is not, in itself, an inherent virtue. The restaurant is, in the main, truly excellent. Still, it must be said: of our three meals so far, I prefer both Cinc Sentits, and especially Hisop, to this establishment.

One excellent espresso later, we stagger out into the cool Barcelona night. Smoke clings to our clothes, our hair and our lungs. Thankfully, the next time I’ll need my nice jacket is two full weeks away; by then, the smell might have diminished. But upstairs, through the hotel’s prodigious windows, we can see our puffing tormenter, lighting up yet another stogie (perhaps his sixth or seventh). From a distance, at least, one has to admire his stamina.

8 – This bar, on our hotel’s roof deck but featuring almost no view whatsoever (aside from the dark Barcelona sky), is open until…well, that very much depends. On a busy night, with the hotel fully booked with a nightlife-oriented crowd, it might stay open until the very wee hours it advertises. But now, in the off-season, our bartender clearly prefers to make an early night of it (“early” being defined, Barcelona-style, as somewhere around 2:30 a.m.). I share quiet poolside recliners and the near-silence of the late-night Eixample with a small table of young French tourists, sipping the overly sweet succulence of some local brandy and almost blindly scribbling in my journal. It’s a peaceful way to end the evening. And – blessedly – smoke-free.

The unfinished dribble castle (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 3)

[Olssens sculpture](The original version, with zillions of photos, is here.)

15 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

Sagrada Familia – I realize, as we approach this in-progress church, that in my subconscious, this has always been the symbol of Barcelona. Blame the Olympic telecast, I guess. Certainly, on the ground it’s but one of many. But seeing it here, now…well, it’s…um, it’s…uh…

The thing is, see, it’s not done. And it’s not done in some fairly major ways…the central tower, for instance, which will dwarf the already soaring apostolic spires, is nowhere to be seen. What is done is covered with scaffolding, which is no way to assess a monument. And yet…

There are things I definitely like about it. The depressing, almost oppressive Passion Façade, for example, which is soul-destroyingly morose; Mel Gibson at his most tortured would not find much to disagree with in the sculptures and depictions. (The Nativity Façade, while more “beautiful” and possibly more important, is too busy for my taste. And it’s going to need a good cleaning, soonish.) The interior, rich with organic elements, is impressive and almost breathtaking in its suggestion of infinite space, even in its barely-begun state. But then there are the candy-shop pinnacles of the bell towers, which look like someone spilled a dessert on a sacred relic, and the eye-numbing clash of architectural styles, and…

I don’t know. It’s just too hard to assess. Maybe when it’s done, which is a long way off. Will I ever see that day? Couldn’t they just hire Vegas contractors, who’d have this thing up in a month? (It would fit right in, too.) In any case, while I’m conflicted but optimistic, and think I’d probably appreciate its finished form, Theresa has no qualms about stating her unchecked loathing of the structure. “It looks like a dribble castle” is her opening volley…from a certain perspective, she’s not wrong…and things get worse from there.

Tapas Gaudí (Avenguda de Gaudí) – Tired and ravenous after our long attempt to understand the inexplicable, we settle for an indifferent meal at this mini-chain, lacking the energy to search for something better. I’m carrying a list of about 75 recommended restaurants, but not one of them is within twelve blocks of our current position. I order defensively, finding much to like about vivid Ibérico chorizo, pimientos, garlicky olives and oily, peppered shrimp from a series of small plates. Theresa, however, errs in choosing a paella, which is difficult to prepare correctly in the best of circumstances, and isn’t particularly successful here. Thankfully, this will be our last mediocre meal in Spain.

Faustino VII Rioja (Center-North) – From a blasé list of nondescript mass-market beverages (we’d probably be better-served ordering sangria; I want a rosé, but it’s not available by the glass), this is smooth, plain and utterly ordinary. There’s red fruit. That’s it, and that’s all the descriptor this wine deserves: just red fruit. I may fall asleep from utter boredom.

Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau – The sunny pedestrian walkway from Sagrada Familia to this working hospital is very pleasant, and there’s reward at the end. The diversions and colors of the modernista architecture are here melded into more traditional forms and structures, which renders a more prosaic result, but one far less jarring to the unprepared eye. If one must convalesce, this would be a good place to do it. That said, it’s a little odd to be snapping pictures while patients hobble around in bathrobes.

Parc Güell – From the hospital, it’s another long walk – one not on any tourist itinerary, and definitely not beautiful (or pleasant, aside from the exercise) in any way – up to this beautiful, sculpted oasis that overlooks that city. Most will enter at the park’s bottom edge, through a network of Gaudí-designed buildings, staircases and artwork, but we come in a side entrance, and thus are surrounded by the much more subtle greens and browns of nature and Gaudí’s enhancements thereof. For us, we soon realize, his style belongs in nature, into which it blends much more naturally than elsewhere, taking the essential forms of the organic and working them in stone and space. I wish we’d come here before seeing Sagrada Familia, because it really helps put that work – indeed, all his work that we’ve thus far seen – in context.

As for the park’s more famous sights – buildings, railings, mosaic lizards and “the world’s longest bench” – they’re nice enough, but absolutely littered with people. Elsewhere in the park, one can actually find some peace. We sit on a bench…normal-sized this time…gazing over the city to the sun-whitened blue of the ocean, while beautiful green birds flutter and chatter overhead, contemplating life, architecture and our next meal.

Casa Vicens – Back down the hill, this time along a well-traveled route full of guidebook-toting tourists, is another (very early) Gaudí-designed structure, and while it would look plenty adventurous in most settings, here in Barcelona it seems almost tentative. Thus, it’s far more pleasing to Theresa’s eye than anything she’s yet seen. And at this point, we – somewhat sadly – resolve to abandon any further visits to modernista sights, freeing us concentrate on the as-yet unexplored Barri Gòtic. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we’ve got to figure out where we’re going to eat.

La Polpa (c/Enric Granados 69) – It’s the same problem we have in France: where to eat on the nights that the natives stay home? From the States, we’d contacted a few places, finding them either closed or full. Thus, we arrived in Barcelona with one gaping hole in our dining itinerary: Sunday night. But, of course, the real problem isn’t finding any old place to dine – there are plenty of options on most major streets – but rather avoiding the showy, touristy spots that tend to be open on non-traditional nights for this very reason. In other words, the goal is to avoid a Catalan version of The Olive Garden. Thankfully, the quiet streets near our hotel provide a few good options…set up to handle tourists if they’re in the area, but not some three-floor extravaganza on La Rambla drawing the unwary with flashing lights and six-language specials boards…and we peruse a half-dozen menus before deciding on this place, which just a few steps from our hotel.

La Polpa is a reasonably spacious restaurant, built on three mismatched levels in a single high-ceilinged room, but tonight it’s extremely quiet; there’s just one other occupied table in the front (probably non-local) section, and a few people nibbling tapas at the central bar. As we dine, a few more locals (and one elderly English couple, who remain vocally but stereotypically septic throughout their meal) arrive.

The menu’s extensive and a little insane, throwing all manner of strange combinations at each other in the hopes that some will stick. In general, dishes are “healthier” than is the local norm (though not everything conforms to that standard), with a lot of elements that might be identified as Italian, Asian or even Californian sneaking into the mix. I order a mesclun salad with raw salmon, papaya and a lemon granita…it’s a little strange, but it works despite the vagaries of temperature, and the granita eventually becomes a sort of sweet-tart dressing for the remnants of the salad…followed by a much richer dish of monkfish accompanied by seasonally-ubiquitous ceps and drenched in a parmesan cream sauce. It’s heavenly. It’s also ridiculously cheap.

The absurdly low prices carry through to the wine list, which is so full of low numbers that I initially assume everything is being offered by the glass. But no, these are bottles. If only this sort of thing could be done in the States, people would drink a lot more wine. Of course, a list like this requires one to have a deep understanding of values and hidden gems, which is not something I possess for most Spanish appellations. Thus, a stab in the dark:

Dos Victorias “Viñas Elias Mora” 2004 Toro (Castilla & León) – A big, doofus-fruit wine full of blackberry, black cherry and blueberry, with walnut-infused tannin adding some structure. The finish is so short as to be almost absent. In other words, while it’s perfectly pleasant for what it is, and good enough for the price, it won’t survive pointed questioning, or even a stern gaze. Drink, don’t think.

Castilla “Montecristo” Moscatel Dulce (Navarra) – Moroccan spice perfume, peach and mixed citrus candies. Simple but nice.

Alvear 2003 Pedro Ximénez (Montilla-Moriles) – Blended chocolate, coffee and prune with raisin-studded plum pie and an endless, sticky finish. Very spicy, with a little apple-toned acidity emerging somewhere in the sugary din. This is to wine as crude oil is to high-octane gasoline. I do like PX, but a little goes a long, long way.

TN: "It’s ugly" (Cataluña/Roussillon, pt. 1)

[street tile](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

12 October 2006 – Boston

How do you say “omakase” in Catalan? Or, for that matter, in Spanish? Never before has such a ridiculous question consumed so much of my thought.

After a long, difficult summer, I’m on the road again. And I’m doing it alone; Theresa is in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, speaking at a conference, and will be meeting me at my destination a few hours after my arrival. I, on the other hand, know less than five words of the native language at my endpoint, I probably don’t even speak at infant level in their secondary language, there are many large and uncharacteristic gaps in our itinerary (some of them as proximate as two nights hence), and I would feel slightly terrified were I not completely exhausted from about forty straight hours of last-second freneticism.

And I really, really wish they’d let people – like, say, me – bring deodorant on the plane.

But will I be able to get myself to the hotel? What if the luggage is mishandled and I can’t speak to anyone? What if…?

No. No time for worry now. I need sleep…

12 October 2006 – somewhere over the Atlantic

Given all the things we’ll do on this trip, my excitement is oddly ordered. I’m most intrigued by the new destinations, both urban and rural. Food is a major focus. But while wine has certainly played a role in the general shape of our itinerary, I’m strangely unmoved by it. Unanticipatory. No more than a day or two over two and a half weeks are promised to the dedicated pursuit of wine knowledge. That’s…unusual, for me.

And certainly, no wine knowledge is being imparted here, on British Airways. This is an airline I quite like, and the food – even in steerage – is usually tasty, in context. Today it’s beef, lasagna, salad, cheese and chocolate cheesecake, plus some trimmings. Oh, and wine. Or rather: “wine.”

Despagne “Château Tour de Mirambeau” 2005 Bordeaux Blanc (Bordeaux) – Tart green grass and underripe green apple with a plastic finish. Yuck.

And there’s another problem, too. Since departure, I’ve known that my seatmates are going to be a problem. The woman next to me is uncomfortable, and keeps stretching, half-standing and wiggling, each time poking me with her elbow or rubbing me with her sweaty, flabby triceps. And, of course, she feels that I’m deeply interested in her medical history. She also seems like a nervous traveler. Further, despite my attempts to show her how to use her armrest media control, she keeps thumping and pushing at her view screen, trying to change the channel or volume; a half-dozen irritated stares from the lady in the seat that she keeps jostling do nothing to stop her. Next to her, however, is someone far worse.

Now look: I try to be understanding of buffoonery. We’ve all been there, in some sense and at one time or another. But my tolerance decreases as the volume increases. And in any case, I definitely have my limits. Which this guy – I think he’s the annoying woman’s husband, but I don’t care enough to ask – reaches and passes within minutes of takeoff. Everything he says is repeated…not once, not twice, but at least three times. Sometimes many more. And at top volume, too.

The absolute nadir comes during dinner service, when he chooses sparkling wine (some kind of sekt, I think) as his apéritif, decides he doesn’t like it as-is, and asks for one of those tiny bottles of Cognac when the beverage carts return. He announces that he’s going to mix it with his sekt (which, of course, he calls Champagne). And here is what the rest of us in the cabin are treated to: “I’m going to mix my Champagne and my Cognac. I’m going to mix Cognac and Champagne. I’m putting Cognac in my Champagne. Cognac in my Champagne. I’m having Champagne and Cognac.” A pause. “This is Champagne and Cognac. I’ve got Cognac in my Champagne.” He sips, and with the apparent tolerance of a gnat, gets rapidly drunk, slurring his words and doubling his volume. “ChampagneandCognac. There’sh Cognac in my Shampagne. Hey, y’should try thish. Cognac in the Shhhhampagne. Hey…hey…get some Champagne. Put thish Cognac in it. It’sh Cognac and Champagne.”

And so it goes, for a good forty-five minutes, until everyone has been individually informed of his mixology, then reminded, and then reminded yet again. I speculatively eye the emergency door release a few feet away, considering how I could get him near the door without trouble from the crew. Would the explosive decompression be worth it? It’d probably be quieter.

A flight attendant, apparently sympathetic to my plight, loads me up with extra wine. It’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, but she’s at least trying.

Sichel “Prieur des Jacobins” 2004 Bordeaux “Les Jalles” (Bordeaux) – Green, ultra-shy canned black cherries. Slightly bitter. This is as boring as a wine can possibly be.

I finally manage a bit of sleep, as the C&C guy slurs his way into alcoholic slumber and the twitchy woman next to me loses feeling in her legs and collapses within the boundaries of her seat. I wake to mediocre breakfast pastries and surprising silence from my seatmates. Have they been gagged or otherwise tranquilized? Because that would be most helpful.

13 October 2006 – Heathrow Airport, London

Pre-dawn Heathrow is a cold, heartless shuttling of multicolored masses from one enclosed metal tube to another. Yellow and black signs with arrows point, and point, and point, until anyone with claustrophobia would be tearing their hair…finally disgorging their human refuse into long queues with no clear direction for continuance on display. A security gate, a passport check…and then more tubes, signs and arrows, this time punctuated with escalators and elevators. And still, absolutely no indication of where I must be to catch my connection. This terminal? Another? Given the long transits involved, it matters, and I’d really like to know.

Finally, a helpful sign. People crowd around, scanning. It takes a while…Heathrow’s a big airport…and here’s the dismaying news: I have to change terminals. I check the clock. It’s going to be a close thing.

Down stairs. Along endless hallways. Up stairs. Through another gate. Into another queue, waiting for a bus that just seems to sit there with doors closed. Then a long and crushed stand on the bus, through tunnels and featureless grey access roads, turning and turning and turning again. Will it ever get to the new terminal? It does, fifteen minutes later. More halls. Another escalator. Another security queue. And then…finally…civilization. Stores, just opening for the morning. The smell of coffee. But where are the planes? My scheduled departure is in twenty-five minutes, but the overhead signs still provide no gate information for my flight. Yet they say that a trip to the most remote of the gates in this terminal will take twenty minutes? Is this reasonable? What if I were infirm?

Still feeling a back-of-the-head buzz of uncertainty, one now amplified by the stress of intra-airport commuting, I buy a tiny English-Spanish dictionary. It’s gotta be useful, right?

13 October 2006 – somewhere over France

At long last, difference. Of late, our travel has been in a bit of a rut: France, New Zealand, California, France, California, New Zealand, etc. France has long been warmly familiar, New Zealand is like a second home…and California is like a second home on which we cannot afford the taxes or maintenance. But one first notices that difference in the faces. Are they darker? Swarthier? More Mediterranean, but reaching farther around the circumference of that fabled Old World sea? They don’t look Sicilian, though. And they don’t look much like their South and Central American descendants, either. They’re…well, they’re different.

Oddly, this thought helps the stress recede. It’s the truly unknown that terrifies. “Different” is, for me, a sort synonym for “intriguing.” And anyway, despite the faces, everything else is the same. Businessmen (and women) in suits, clacking away laptops. The morning paper (in three languages). A cheese panini, fresh fruit, fromage frais, and a pot of coffee. I settle back, smiling, though still utterly exhausted, fighting for a few moments’ rest. It’s going to be OK after all.

Below, the frosted peaks of the Pyrenées – their heights already thick with snow – fence the known (France) from the unknown (Spain). And yet, they’ll be “home” soon enough. Just a week away. Excitement builds. Sleep is off the table.

13 October 2006 – Barcelona

I’ll say one thing for Barcelona Airport: you’ll never want for shopping. The whole thing is one high-rent strip mall, and no path from point A to point B fails to pass dozens and dozens of retail outlets. But the customs/baggage experience is relatively painless (an experience that will not be shared by my wife), and soon I’m blinking in the bright Barcelona sun.

Through consultation with my guidebook, I’ve tried to master one simple Catalan phrase that will lead a taxi to my hotel. No such luck. Spanish and some gesturing get the job done, and without too much delay (though €20 lighter) I’m in the midst of the swanky Eixample.

Nice neighborhood.

Granados 83 – Highly designed, with an intriguing mélange of materials – metal, glass, brick, wood, light and shadow – and dotted with Asian accents and old Asian art that just sits there, right out in the open. Our room is narrow, leaving little space for suitcases or residents (no surprise in Europe), but cleverly-arranged despite its lack of size, and with a spectacularly modernistic bathroom. There’s also a small balcony overlooking a courtyard in which school children recess and older women carefully tend greenery.

There are slight signs of wear, however, and a quick touch-up might be helpful in certain spots; also, there is a lingering smell of sulfur near the bathroom after each shower, and this is a problem the hotel does not appear to be able to contain. These are relatively minor issues, however. Perhaps the only truly irritating thing is the lack of an iron on the premises; laundry must be sent out, at exorbitant expense. The staff are very helpful, and (of course) fully multi-lingual, which eases everything.

I walk around a bit to get my bearings and a brief sense of the neighborhood, return to the hotel, and nap for an blissful hour or so. Theresa’s phone call breaks my repose – she’s in the airport, trying to figure out how to re-penetrate security to get to her inexplicably misdirected luggage despite not speaking Catalan – and I take the opportunity to unpack and shower.

Casa Milà – With Theresa arrived and similarly unpacked (she was, though unexpected recollection of high school Spanish, able to find the necessary words to retrieve her suitcase), we spend some time walking the beautiful streets of the district. We quickly find that design-mindedness isn’t just a function of our hotel, but pervades the city. It seems that every third store sells shoes. Window shopping is the norm, as snappily-dressed natives almost always slow to gaze into the window of any fashion or furniture store. And the streets themselves (especially in the Eixample, which is itself the product of conscious design) are beautiful, tree-lined, and crowned by wrought iron balconies of regularly exquisite delicacy.

But there is another style that infuses this city, and that is the relentless experimentation of the modernistas. Aside from the old gothic quarter, little of the city escapes the wild flights of fancy practiced by these architect/artists, which simultaneously draw and confound the eye. The first example we encounter is Antoni Gaudí’s second most famous work.

I’m intrigued. As so many have commented before, the building seems to defy codification or description, virtually mocking both convention and rationality. But I glance at Theresa, and I can tell she’s far less positive. She squints, cocks her head, shades her eyes, and stares. Finally, a conclusion is reached.

“It’s ugly.”

Oh dear. This is going to be a long vacation.

The line for the interior tour extends well down the block, and the last bits of fading sunlight are now only a memory, so we don’t go in. (If I have one lingering regret from Barcelona, this may well be it. But at the time, we feel we might stop by early one morning, beating the touristy crowds. How little we understand the rhythms of Barcelona.) Besides, hunger is growing. And it would be close to dinnertime in the States, which here means that it’s time for that great Spanish tradition: pre-dinner tapas.

Taverna Mediterránea – On the same block as our hotel, and given its location probably serving mostly tourists, this small bar serves the small-plate basics with casual indifference, although it can get smoky as business accelerates. We manage to point and stutter our way through an order of octopus on potatoes (an interesting contrast of textures), chocos (wow, are these good), and standalone albóndigas (soft and rich, perhaps even a bit mushy). Intense olive oil – usually with salt and pepper, sometimes with smoked paprika – is the dominant sauce, dressing, and condiment, and as with so many Mediterranean cuisines, it has a surprising lightening effect versus dairy-infused culinary traditions.

Parato 2005 Penedès Blanco (Cataluña) – Simple, clean and fresh, showing citrus and grass. Finishes pure and direct, with a little bit of bound carbon dioxide prickle on the back of the tongue. Refreshing, and before we know it a bottle’s gone. There’s no complexity here, but that doesn’t appear to be the point.

Cinc Sentits – A classy, modern, living restaurant, which (at 9:30, our reservation time for our entire Barcelona stay) is just barely getting ramped up with their first, tourist-oriented seating. This is something we’ll find over and over; we arrive about mid-meal for the early-dining tourists, and just as we’re leaving (usually somewhere around midnight) the restaurant is fully repopulated by natives at the beginning of their meals, which go late into the morning. When do the waiters sleep?

What would be flights of culinary adventure back home are the norm here, and Barcelona is one of the more exciting culinary cities on the planet, but this is not “molecular gastronomy” as it is commonly understood. Rather, it is adventurous modern food with a close regional focus, utilizing a number of the techniques of the avant-garde, but making few of those techniques overt on the plate. What results is a more comforting approach, wherein the interested may deconstruct and enthuse at their leisure, but those who are simply out for a good meal may nosh in unchallenged comfort. While the techniques may not appear cutting edge, however, the same cannot necessarily be said for the flavor combinations, which are creative enough to regularly skirt the edge of disaster. It’s high-wire gastronomy, and it doesn’t always work. (Though it should be pointed out that Cinc Sentits does not push the boundaries as aggressively as some of its brethren.) But when it does, it feels like a revelation on the palate.

Two more generalizations must be made before diving into the specifics of this restaurant. First, the level of service is very, very high. Efficiency is perhaps prized more than it is in, say, France or the American temples of gastronomy, and without pushback meals will proceed at a fairly rapid pace. But all of our meals – casual to fancy – are not only error-free, but a pleasure to conduct, with service appropriate to their level. That’s saying something.

Second, meal costs seem to be a regular percentage below what one would pay for an equivalent meal in the United States, or France. Perhaps 20-25% lower, at all price points. This may be a measure of how much they value dining in Cataluña (this would be but one sign among many), or it may be a matter of tradition, or it may just be inertia. But whatever the reason, it’s a most welcome thing, for it helps dissipate the dollar/euro disparity, and makes dining out less oppressively expensive than it is elsewhere.

As for our meal, it’s a delicious procession of surprises that suffer a bit from their newness; we spend a little more time deconstructing than we should, and not quite enough time sitting back and enjoying. Despite this analysis, I fail to note any of the meal in my journal, other than a shockingly good slice of pork fat with pumpkin seed “salt” that, yet again, reveals how much I love lardo and all its cousins. And there are two dishes (one savory) that employ maple syrup, which we’ve found is an ingredient that seems to fascinate European chefs. We should remember to bring some next time. Who knows what doors it might open?

Oriol Rossell Cava Brut Nature (Cataluña) – Rich and deep; it tastes like red grapes, though it isn’t made from any. It finishes dry and structurally austere, though the length is unquestioned. I know this isn’t a tiny artisanal producer, and I have no idea of how it’s viewed by Spanish wine gurus, but it wipes the floor with all the bland industrial cava we get in the States. I could drink a lot of this. (And, it turns out, I will.)

Pujanza 2002 Rioja “Norte” (Center-North) – Bright, fruity cherries with untamed, wilder berries lurking in the background. Whatever they’ve done to their French oak, they’ve made it taste profoundly American: coconut, rather than vanilla. Though there’s no dill, which is a good thing. It’s big, boisterous, spicy-hot, and coconut-infused…in other words, it’s zinfandel. That’s not necessarily a criticism, because I do get a good measure of goofy enjoyment from the wine, but it’s a little dismaying nonetheless.

Vichy Catalan (Cataluña) – This is water, not wine, and – alongside the horrid French Chateldon – one of the worst waters I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. Note to self: avoid this at all costs.

We conduct our dinner in four languages – mangled Catalan, pidgin Spanish, French and English – depending on which waiter is tableside. This is something that will happen over and over again in Cataluña, and we’re grateful, because otherwise we’d have to resort to a lot of pointing. But in the end, the most satisfying translation is the one we won’t have to make. For here, right in the middle of the menu, is the word I’ve been so desperately searching for. The word that’s caused me such fits of anxiety. And I have Cinc Sentits to thank for it.

The name of the seasonal, surprise menu? “Omakase.”

Who knew?