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.
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.
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. (10/06)
Copyright © Thor Iverson