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The Barcelona Experience


We spent the third week of September 1999 in beautiful Barcelona. A week of 'hard-labour sightseeing, leisure and pleasure dining and wining, and generally enjoying the fantastic weather and the city's beauty and its easy-going atmosphere.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya, lies on the Mediterranean, in the north-eastern corner of Spain. It is both a part of Spain and not so at the same time. They speak Catalan which is quite different from Spanish, but language is only one of the elements they use to set themselves apart from the rest of the nation.
We settled ourselves in Hotel Claris, a posh "De Luxe 5-Stars" hotel. Superbly located at the very center of the city just one block from the elegant Paessig de Gracia, the Hotel Claris - in tune with many things in Barcelona - is a harmonious combination of old and modern. A restored 19th century 'palace' where four top stories made of glass walls were added to the original three stories. The totally modern glass walls prevent any false pretension of them being a natural extension to the ancient walls, but the external style was faithfully maintained and the overall impression is of a single harmonious entity. The hotel has 125 rooms, none of which are identical. Inside, the "old within the new" or "new within the old" theme continues. The first floor is dedicated to two things. A yummy Caviar Restaurant and an impressive Egyptological Museum! We were told that the collection displayed there (it belongs to the owner of the hotel) is one of the largest in private hands.
The Claris Hotel is affiliated with something called "Small Luxury Hotels of the World". Exactly my kind of hotels... The warm, personal, friendly and helpful attitude we received from the manager Mr. Buissot (and his assistant-manager, Miss Angel) were what make the difference between a 'plastic' luxury hotel and a real one.
Barcelona proper is a large city of many attractions. Undoubtedly though, its most striking element is its architecture. The old city ('Ciutat Vella') and its surroundings, is a charming maze of small streets and allies, traversed by a few relatively modern wide avenues. The ancient Cathedral is the focal point around which scores of old buildings attest to the rich history of the city. Interestingly enough, the real gems of the city are all dated from the 'Modernistas' era, the thirty years period between the 1880s and the 1910s. They are mostly located in the 'modern' area (the 'Eixample'), a large grid of spacious streets and extremely beautiful turn-of-the-century (last...) buildings. The old and new parts of the city are separated by the famous 'La Rambla', a wide and long north-south avenue lined up with stores, stools, restaurants, human-statues, flower market, bird market, food market and what-not.
A city in which the likes of Picasso, Dali, Miro, Domenech i Montaner (whose 'Palau de la Musica Catalan' is one of the most impressive concert halls I've ever seen), and above all Antoni Gaudi - all worked around the same period cannot be a dull city. The works of Gaudi are truly captivating even if they were designed by a 1990s architect. To think that these residential houses, palaces, parks and the incredible 'Sagrada Familia' (which, in its present state, represents about a third of the original plan) were conceived and made a reality some 100 years ago is simply unbelievable.
So we did the streets, we did all the important buildings, we did the Picasso museum, the Miro museum, the Gaudi museum and even a small museum that traces shoes throughout the centuries. So now we were hungry...
Having seriously fulfilled (though scantly reported of) the cultural and intellectual aspects of our holiday, it is time to report about some earthly matters.

Jean Luc Figueras - A small, very elegant French-Catalan restaurant, where the food atmosphere and service are in line with modern Michelin-starred French restaurants. Very expensive, but we ate and drank a lot. I have no idea whether or not this restaurant is indeed a Michelin-starred one, but both Dorit and myself agreed it deserves about a 1.5 stars.

Amuse Bouche:
Spiced bread wrapped in a slice of goose meat and sweetened apple
Paprika and mushrooms cannelloni
Paper-thin cannelloni, filled with shrimps, in tomato emulsion
(directly from heaven!)
Baby calamari with mango and pistachio
Fish and shellfish dark soup with rouille
Roasted Turbot
(crispy skin and soft inside) with garlic, almonds and pears
Duck legs in brown gravy with orange peels and caramel
French and Spanish cheese
Whiskey parfait with figs in caramel

Baron de Ona, Rioja Reserva 1994, Torre de Ona - Strong color, slightly paling around the rim. Fantastic deep and complex nose of ripe fruit wrapped by animalish aromas. Smooth as silk with fruit and minerals on the palate as well as wonderful winyness. Light body, soft tannins and refreshing acidity combines to bring out perfect balance. Superb!
MARK: 18/20.BUY MORE? Yes.

Meal Price (inc. wine and VAT): $190. Overall Mark: 8.5/10. Will return? Yes.
Botafumeiro - Allegedly the best fish and seafood restaurant in Barcelona. A huge wood-panelled place that seats about 500 people, most (though certainly not all) of which are tourists. Highly formal as far as ranks of waiters is concerned, but brisk and not particularly friendly service. The food was mostly good, but rather unimaginative.

Lighter style fish soup
Six flat big oysters
A huge plate of grilled seafood for two:
Different kinds of shrimps
Calamari rings
Baby calamari
Sea Escargots
Scallop in a shell drowned in onions
Spiny lobster
(a bit rubbery)
Strawberries in liqueur
Irish coffee

Cava 'Brut de Brut' - We decided to accompany the all-fish-and-seafood dinner with Cava, the local version of 'Champagne'. Unfortunately, I have not recorded the maker's name. It wasn't a 'vintage' Cava in any event, but it wasn't cheap either. Very dry with nice thin bubbles emanating from the center. Not much of real wine aromas on the nose. More yeasty and minerally. Pleasant enough on the palate and a good quaff to go with the seafood. Good but not more.
MARK: 15/20.BUY MORE? No.

Meal Price (inc. wine and VAT): $166. Overall Mark: 7.5/10. Will return? No.
Merendero de la Mari - One of several similarly looking open-air restaurants situated on the marina quay of the old port. We had an early dinner (or late lunch) there at about 4 pm. Most of the clientele was local at that time. A large non-pretentious place, that turned out to serve better food than one might have expected from past experience in similar places in other port cities around the world.

A soup-like stew of mussels, clams, escargots, sea-cucumbers - all cooked in white wine and ham
Seafood paella
Noodles paella
Creme Caramel
Assortment of tartelettes

1998 Vina Esmeralda, Torres - Almost as clear and as colorless as water. Enticing fruity flowery nose that I could swear belongs to an Alsatian Muscat. Charmingly demi-sec and light-weighted on the palate. Again I could easily be fooled to think this is a nice Alsatian wine. Scrutinizing the label revealed 11% alcohol with 85% Muscatel and 15% Gewurztraminer being the contributing grapes. Very nice wine.
MARK: 16/20.BUY MORE? Yes.

Meal Price (inc. wine and VAT): $66. Overall Mark: 7/10. Will return? Maybe.
Can Majo - A medium-sized open-air restaurant located in a small alley in Barceloneta. The place is famous for its rice dishes (i.e paella, by any other name...). The kitchen is in a house on one side of the street while the diners sit under a the stars on a clearing on the other side. I expected the food to be better than it actually was.

Local air-cured ham (better than the usual Italian prosciutto!)
Grilled shrimps
Grilled calamari
Seafood paella
Ice cream

1997 Ermita d'Espiells 'Blanc Flor', Espiells - A white wine from the Penedes. Light color, grassy nose and crispy taste that reminded me of Sauvignon Blanc. Light bodied. Good-plus.
MARK: 15.5/20.BUY MORE? Maybe.

Meal Price (inc. wine and VAT): $79. Overall Mark: 6.5/10. Will return? No.
Set Portes - Finally we got to the right place! A busy yet 'homeish' old-style large restaurant that is so popular we couldn't get a reservation sooner than three days in advance. The famous (and this time justly so!) restaurant has been serving food for more than 100 years now and is full of authentic atmosphere. People keep coming for dinner as late as 11:30 pm and I am sure there are tables that see three rounds of diners around them in one evening. The pianist (yes, they have one) just starts to play at 11 pm... A truly Catalan cosy restaurant that is patronized equally by local families and tourists. Not a fancy place, just excellent. If I were given only one place to eat again in Barcelona - this would be it.

Senor (something) oven-baked langoustines
Seafood cannelloni in rich sauce
Mixed (seafood & meat) paella
(by far the best we had)
Roasted suckling pig
Creme Catalan
(an impossible-to-finish assortment of ice-creams, flans etc.)

1994 Marques del Puerto Rioja Reserva - Tired-looking color, noticeable clearing around the rim. Sweetish pleasant nose of ripe fruit and some secondary aromas. Mouthfilling with good fruit, nice acidity and surprisingly long and persistent aftertaste. Light bodied, simple and very tasty. Excellent.
MARK: 17/20.BUY MORE? Yes.

Meal Price (inc. wine and VAT): $95. Overall Mark: 8/10. Will return? Yes.
Reach Me? yak@yakshaya.com

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Jacob "Yak" Shaya.