Insights on Mediterranean food from the Hotel Pulitzer
My memories of eating Mediterranean food in Barcelona were among my top not only in Spain — up there with the seafood soups of the País Vasco and the succulent lamb of Burgos — but in the world. That was 25 years ago when I had Mexican poet friends who lived in town to show me around…
Butifarra, aioli (garlic and oil, sometimes with mayonnaise), fresh and fat green peppers (pimientos padron), pa amb tomàquet (toasted bread scrubbed with a fresh clove of garlic, tomato, salt, and olive oil), creamy veal scented with green peppercorns, bacalao (cod – bacalla in Catalan) and, in the atmospheric Barceloneta – the old sailors’ quarter – arroz negro (black rice flavored with octopus ink – arròs negre in Catalan) and tiny baby squid, deep fried fast and whole in batter, crunchy and crisp outside and tender and juicy inside.
We read up on what to expect for 2015 in terms of Mediterranean food in Barcelona, and what made some typical dishes, like the Escalivada different (it is a bit like a ratatouille – but the skins are charred to give a smoky flavour) and what makes sauces special (they are not thickened with flour, but with a mixture that includes almonds, called a “picada”). We also tried to get to the bottom of what “tapas” means (a small portion, often “montadito” – i.e. mounted on a piece of bread, like a canapé) and “una racion” (a large serving, perhaps half or a third of a meal) and “una media racion” … but in practice the best idea was to go to a tapas bar, order a caña (small draft beer), spend a few minutes watching everyone else, and then point to what you want, as well as read the day’s specials on the chalkboard always on display.
Where to eat amazing Tapas in Barcelona
Our first taste of modern Mediterranean food in Barcelona was in La Tramoia Tapas and Grill, just off Plaza Catalunya (on Rambla Catalunya 15, www.latramoia.com), where the bar of tapas on display was like a boutique of jewels. I chose crabmeat in mayonnaise perched on a disc of pan de cristal (typical local bread, very light and airy), crowned with sweet peppers, soft and scarlet, and topped with fleshy green olives … and a plate of “pimientos de padron” to share while my son chose succulent grilled chicken. But there was a multitude of appetising and aesthetic concoctions, and still more arriving hot from the kitchen. When we arrived at 9pm, the place was packed. By 10pm, it was quiet. Times for dining in Barcelona are on the later side – peak lunch time is 2pm, when you may have to wait to get a table. Tapas, however, is also enjoyed as an early evening snack with a drink before going out, around 7pm.
Our second meal was in Cuines Santa Caterina, an elegant outdoor eatery by the entrance to the stylish Santa Caterina market, with its coloured “awnings” made of tile. Just a couple of minutes from the Gothic cathedral, this restaurant has its menu in four languages (French and English as well as Spanish and Catalan) – great fun for linguists trying to figure out local words. Typical dishes were there alongside intriguing tapas, such as fried aubergines (alberginies) with honey, tuna (tonyina) tataki with guacamole and Thai chicken (pallastre) with prawns (llagostins). The freshly squeezed juices were an inspiration, with carrot apple and mint, papaya, grapefruit, raspberries and lime. Desserts were international and included a selection of cheeses (“formatges” in Catalan, resembling the French fromage more than the Spanish queso).
Dining at the Pulitzer with Chef Rafael Valle
But we did best when we stayed at “home” at the Hotel Pulitzer Barcelona. We had already fallen for the breakfasts (served until 11am) – three meals in one, with different juices, cereal, yoghurt, nuts; eggs and sausages and spinach quiche and beans; fuet (a thin, hard type of salami), melon, grapes and baguette; and an assortment of sweet croissants, patisseries and cake, teas and coffee. But the lunch, devised by head chef Rafael Valle, has become a legend in the locality. The extraordinary quality and very affordable prices as well as its beautiful setting, either inside or out, set it apart. Unlike most hotel restaurants, it fills up with people in the know, especially an enthusiastic business clientele and you are advised to arrive before 1.30pm or book if you are to get a table – it is that popular.
Rafa, who changes the menu very month, told us about his approach to Mediterranean food in Barcelona. Originally from Andalucia, he likes to use a “pincelada muy suave” – a deft touch of the paintbrush – using his creativity to blend in a variety of regional specialties. Of course, on the coast, he uses a lot of seafood, and in general he follows the season for vegetables and fruit to serve only the freshest.
We started with a 2013 glass of sparkling rosé Castillo Monjardin – one of the house wines included in the menu price (15 euros full, 11 euros express). When do Catalans drink rosé? I asked. “Rosé wine is good for talking and good for a hot day; it is timeless and has a low graduacion (alcohol content),” Rafael said. White wine is more popular now than five years ago when people would have chosen red. “But red wine makes you sleep, and white wine peps you up.”
Our first dish was “Albondigas de salmon in aurora” (a creamy tomato) sauce, like meatballs but with tender minced salmon, bread, egg and spring onions, very delicate – both in taste and texture. Next a cream of carrot soup with a bright splash of “aceite verde” (a delicious, Spanish olive oil with just a light whiff of oregano, crunchy croutons bringing in a tang of salt.
While we tucked into our green salad, with pine nuts, soft-cooked apple, spinach and rock salt, Rafa told us about Biosphere Responsible Tourism, a UNESCO certification which combines ecology with employee involvement, “making sure the employees are happy.” The hotel had recently introduced recycled napkins and holds team meetings where staff at all levels can contribute their ideas on sustainability, and positive working practices. Certainly the staff – mostly young – of the Pulitzer seemed very motivated, multi lingual, attentive to detail and prompt (we never had to ask for anything twice).
Next we tasted a rich Pasta a la puttanesca, with a very thick and tasty sauce of reduced tomato with onions and capers; that seemed to have a more Spanish than Italian touch. It was enlivened by a dash of chilli powder which Rafa says he adds in the end, just enough to give a sparkle, but not a kick. Feeling thirsty, we tried Vichy Catalan, Spain’s best-known mineral water, high in minerals and also in Sodium and Bicarbonates (so good for digestion).
We shared toasted “pan de cristal”, layered with tuna, anchovies and sweet peppers, just to try, which was heavenly, and then enjoyed the fresh prawns fried in panko breadcrumbs and served with salsa tartare — very crisp and fresh. “It is called pan de cristal because it is like glass and air,” says Rafa, “very fragile and light. It weighs nothing, just 100g for a large bag.
The following dish was a revelation, Duck tataki, with orange chutney. The duck is seared so just a millimetre or two on the outside is cooked, and then, dark and tender inside, it is sliced and simmered in orange juice, onion, peach, raisins, tomato and sesame seeds. Prepared “con amor” (with love), Rafa says, his face in an otherworldly smile.
I was looking forward to the next plate, chipirones (baby squid) being one of my favourite dishes. The squid is from the Atlantic, which Rafa says is best, as the Asian squid are more rigid. This he cooks on a very hot grill and serves in a green sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil. Just the right balance of tender, chewy and pungent.
I will confess that we tried tasters of all the desserts (5 choices): the Sorbete de limón y menta (a pre-dessert freshener to clean the mouth); the wonderful cookie-flavored Cremoso de galleta Maria, which looked like a flan, but no flan in sight. A sliver of moist and rich Chocolate and peach cake; little pastry sachets of apple and cinnamon, the pastry delicate as lace and lightly salted. And last of all the melon and kiwi carpaccio, with shavings of green and white melon, curled with those of kiwi, making a rose shape and glorious combination of delicate flavours. Evidently also “con amor.”
As I sipped my coffee, Rafa told me of another certification “Healthia,” for top notch hotels – like the Pulitzer — that also offer guests healthy eating options at all food and beverage points (including bar and mini-bar). It meets the needs of vegetarians, those with high cholesterol, diabetes and also allergies and weight control. It was touching to see the Pulitzer’s eagerness to excel on all fronts, and its success. And it was endearing to see the way Rafa is transported when he speaks of his art. “You can’t cook anything you won’t eat. Cooking is passion. You can express your feelings in a creating a meal … it is about convivir (being with others, being social) and it’s divertido” (fun)!
Next time he is going to treat me to the hotel’s most popular vino verdejo, the Palomo Cojo (limping pigeon), with a funky label and image of a bird’s footprint on the top. “This is the nickname for gays in Cadiz,” he winked, “the way of walking!” I look around at the happy tables of men and women in suits. At 4pm, the restaurant was still rumbling with the chatter of male voices beneath the pale wooden-domed lampshades, all savouring the delights of one the best venues for Mediterranean food in Barcelona.