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Rias de Galicia (Barcelona, Spain) – Reference Seafood

It’s sad to compare United States seafood to the rest of the world. The freshness is rarely noteworthy and the variety is downright limited, as evidenced by my surprise live sea urchin find months ago. On a stroll through a Spanish grocery store, there were six different kinds of prawns, all twitching, three different squids, countless clams and mussels, and endless varieties of fish. Presumably, the unadventurous American palette, combined with the treacherous American work week, has left little discriminatory demand for the tastiest food on the planet.

Rias de Galicia was billed as an “old school” seafood spot where a respected chef told me that I could expect to eat “reference” items (i.e., seafood that I would compare all others to.) After an earlier disaster that week at Combarro in Madrid (largely described similarly by others), I was apprehensive. But it was the last day of the trip and a bad seafood meal in Spain might be better than a good one here in the US.

Barnacles (Percebes)
Who would expect barnacles would be so tasty and so much fun to eat? Twist the claw-looking thing from the teflon-like tube enclosing the meat and try not to squirt barnacle juice everywhere. The meat has an excellent iodine inflection while being satisfyingly chewy. They are usually the most expensive item on the menus, aside from maybe langostine, but completely worth the price. Very Good.
Rias de Galicia (Barcelona, Spain) - Barnacles (Percebes)

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Espai Sucre (Barcelona, Spain) – Desserts in Old Town

Espai Sucre, the restaurant, is tucked away inside the Old Town of Barcelona, its beyond-hip design protected by a locked glass door. Their mascot is an ant, presumably Huesped impenitente de azucareros, that’s attracted to sweet plants, sugar, syrup, and honey. Slightly threatening but sufficiently edgy for a cooler-than-thou dessert restaurant. It was established in 2000 and it is credited with inspiring the current dessert bar/restaurant movement in New York City today.

Espai Sucre, the movement, appears to be a school for exploring the culinary terrain of desserts and their roles in meals. They purport to respect the raw ingredients and tradition with an eye toward the future of technique. Pastry chefs can apply for stages at the restaurant, or school, through the web site.

This was the five course tasting menu:

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Jamonisimo (Barcelona, Spain) – Call Me a Ham Snob

Based on my ham-loving-friend’s recommendation, I stopped by Jamonisimo for lunch. He told me the “Salamanca was life-changing.” Spain has a reputation for the world’s best ham but “life changing?” Yes, that ham was magical. As usual with these sorts of things, I can never go back.

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Jamonisimo is a retail store specializing in Montanera (free-range) bellato (only acorn-fed, highest quality) Iberian ham. They have a tasting room in the back where you can try various selections of ham (textures or regions), a few cheese selections, and various other cuts (including, but not limited to, chorizio & lomo.)

This will always be my lunch, no matter where I am within the city or how long I happen to be visiting. Exquisite stuff. I neglected to get producer/farm information but the store is dedicated to procuring the best artisanal hams in Spain – I’m a believer. For those that haven’t had grand ham, a decent analogy is this is to average ham what toro is to tuna.

The hams are presented below from lesser to most intense flavor (and fat.) Each has its own subtle characteristics that need to be tried. These are 1/2 portions, 12.50 euros each. On my 2nd lunch, I just got a big plate (25 euros) of the Salamanca.

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Richart (Paris, NY, SF, Barcelona, & More) – Intense Citrus

It’s easy to mistake the San Francisco Richart store for yet another shoe store in Union Square – a generic window filled with a slew of white and gray boxes evokes the necessary minimalism to sell high heels. I walked by many times without a moment’s glance before someone told me it was a chocolate store. Intrigued, I bought boxes of the Citrus and Floral chocolates. One bite and I was instantly hooked – never had I had such clean, intense flavor in a chocolate before.

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El Bulli (Roses, Spain) – The Mad Scientist

El Bulli – I didn’t know what to expect. Our excitement at obtaining an El Bulli reservation for a Sunday lunch late in May led to the planning of a month-long European adventure. Many 2- and 3-star restaurants were added to the itinerary (as you’ve been reading hopefully) but El Bulli was the centerpiece and spark for it all. We knew it would succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

Why the excitement? Ferran Adria is considered the father of “molecular gastronomy” – cooking that takes its nod from science (and some would say theater too.) Some of his techniques have become ubiquitous in today’s kitchens (can you say foam?) but Adria takes 6 months off each year to retreat to his lab in Barcelona and create new dishes. Some decry it the demise of great food because it relies on chemistry (some would say trickery) instead of great execution and grand ingredients. Nonetheless, El Bulli has spawned a renaissance in Spanish cooking where the Michelin stars are piling up quickly. In America, Alinea (Chicago), Moto (Chicago), WD-50 (NY), and Minibar (DC) take El Bulli as their influence (either directly or in spirit) and try to push the cuisine in explosive new directions.

El Bulli is located a few yards from the ocean in a small bay. The restaurant itself is in an old Spanish building that has been given a bulldog motif. Bulldogs are everywhere – paintings, pictures, sketches, and photographs. It has a charm, decidely Spanish, and the surroundings definitely bely what transpires in the kitchen.

1. Gin & Tonic Cocktail

Lemon w/ skin on ice, gin was syringed into the lemon table-side. Very refreshing way to begin the meal, not too acidic, and the carbonation (maybe it came w/ the gin?) takes off the sting of the acid. Very Good.

El Bulli - Gin & Tonic Cocktail

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