Tuesday, 4 September 2012

"Are you sure we're in the right place...?"

Researching where to eat in Barcelona was a mixture of highs and lows. Highs, because practically everywhere we read about sounded delicious; lows, because nearly all of those places are closed in August.

We were staying in Sant Pere, a small area close to nearly everything - it neighbours Eixample, el Born, & el Barri Gotic. We found the apartment through airbnb and I would thoroughly recommend staying there if visiting Barcelona. It is small but perfectly formed, very reasonably priced & in the heart of everything.

It was also just a five minute walk to the well-known Santa Maria tapas restaurant - located on Carrer de Comerç, also home to the relaxed Picnic, and popular Comer 24 - owned by Adrià disciple, Paco Guzman. We'd heard a lot of great things about this place, and having previously had fantastic experiences in Gelonch and Tapas 24, other restuarants owned by ex-el Bulli chefs, were hoping for great things.

Unfortunately, like every other restaurant we really had our heart set on going to in Barcelona (with the exceptions of Igueldo and Gresca), it was closed. We found this out on our first day in the city, but remembered later in the week that there was a note on the door which seemed to imply it had moved locations. Stuck for somewhere to eat on Friday night (please see earlier frustrations with the month of August), we went back to decipher the Spanish map stuck to the door and decided it had moved to just the other side of the Parc Ciutadella.

Walking up Passeig de Pujades, we were concerned in relation to our attempts at translation. It didn't look like somewhere that would house a restaurant owned by someone who'd been taught under one of the best chefs in the world. We finally found it, and whilst rather fancy looking inside, it was totally empty. Realising that we still needed to adjust to the Catalunyan way of life by eating dinner after 10pm, we decided to have a drink at a nearby, er, 'pizzeria', a place where ex-Spanish mafia and O.A.Ps mingled. But hey, £6 for 4 beers, who's complaining?

We realised no-one had entered the restaurant in the whole time we'd been drinking our cervezas, but our bellies were forcing us to make a move, and so we began our expedition into what began as one of the most awkward dining experiences of our life (perhaps even more so than our first date at Ramson's, with the ever-"charming" Chris).

Even in Barcelona in August, it seemed odd that at 10pm on a Friday night there would be no-one in Guzman's restaurant. Maybe people hadn't realised they'd moved we thought? As a big Spanish momma sat us down and told us that she spoke 'very very little English', I started to worry. Fortunately, Jamie has spent time in South America and has a relatively good understanding of the language, even though he doesn't speak much of it. She took us through the menu and we anxiously ordered the menu degustacion. At this point, I'm not sure why we ordered it. We were sure we were in the wrong place (even though it said 'SANTA' above the door in the biggest writing I've probably ever seen) and we were the only people here on a Friday night. I felt much better when Jamie suggested that perhaps an opportunist con-artist had seen that Santa Maria was closed for August, and had popped up a makeshift sign convincing people they had actually relocated to this style over substance restaurant round the corner.

There was no music on, other than the tunes emanating from the kitchen's radio, and at this point we hadn't even been given our wine yet. I definitely needed a drink to relieve the awkwardness of the situation. Upon visiting the bathroom and seeing the cleaning rag left in the sink, I was about ready to bolt for the door.

To make matters worse the first item from the tasting menu was 'nachos'. "Shit Jamie", I said, "what if we really do just get nachos? What if they're just conning naive tourists who are blinded by the lights of anything that mentions an ex-el Bulli chef?"

The big Spanish momma was back, with wine. She offered us a taste. It wasn't good. Oh shit. We've been mugged, I thought. But then, I think five-year-old Anna crept out and saw her name on the wine bucket (not actually surprising considering Anna is a Spanish name - though usually with only one 'n') - and thought, 'this must be a sign, maybe everything's going to be alright...'. We were brought bread and olives, de-stoned and all. And tasty. Really lovely salty, spicy (covered in chilli) olives. I waited in anticipation for the 'nachos'....


And there they are, our nachos. Nothing like nachos. Thank fuck! We're in the right place. Lovely little tasty morsels of something resembling a potato and apple layered tortilla, covered with top-quality guacamole and salsa, with two mild deep fried Padron peppers on the side (I'm not sure I believe what they say about the ratio of hot ones to mild ones, I must have eaten about 25 of the buggers when I was in Barcelona, and not one was spicy!). To the right of the 'nachos', we had seared Iberico nigiri, and out of shot was a lovely little salmon futomaki, strangely fried on the outside, but actually making for a rather pleasant difference, in introducing a bit of warmth to the otherwise room temperature food. There was also a little pot of what I thought was going to be lamb tagine. Prawns had been used in place of the favoured meat, and it worked really well, although I did feel this dish would have benefited from being heated prior to serving. I'd like to say the star of the show were the chicken wings, which we were told (we think) were brined & confited before deep-frying. They were delicious and crisp, but unfortunately lacking in flavour and not particularly well seasoned. They were also sprinkled with - what I think were - Nasturtium petals, and I'm not really sure why. They did nothing in terms of flavour or texture, and I'm surprised that with Guzman's heavy influences from Asian cuisine (he's travelled heavily in the East, and worked as a chef in Tokyo), he didn't take more of a risk with flavour here. Still, pretty to look at...

Chicken Wings

Following these 'starters', we were presented with a deliciously fresh salmon and avocado tartare cheekily interjected with tiny pieces of gherkin. I would never have previously thought of putting salmon and gherkin together (though, thinking about it now - why not? capers and salmon is a classic combo), but it was a clever and witty nod to the classic tartare. We were then given the 'main' of - essentially - lamb kofta with tzatziki and a tomato and spinach salad. Nothing particularly ingenious, but it was tasty, the tomatoes beautifully ripe, and the tzatziki well-seasoned. There was also a spot of romesco sauce on the side, which worked well.

Lamb Kofta

One of my favourite dishes of the night was a beautiful palette cleanser, which we unfortunately didn't photograph: three types of melon, with a lemongrass granita and fine slithers of kaffir lime leaves. Beautifully refreshing and exactly what I needed after that mound of food! However, I felt Guzman defeated the point of this course with his next: pain perdu with tiramisu ice cream. The ice cream was delicious - and I noticed that tiramisu seems to be a hit in Barcelona - but the pain perdu was slightly too chewy, and I felt I would have been happier with a lighter dessert. I've got a photo but I don't think I need to show you what melting ice cream looks like! We were then given chilli & salt truffles. I know these are probably totally passe in foodie circles by now, but I've never tasted them before and they were fantastic.

Meal done, and we're still wondering what's the deal with this place? It definitely isn't the place we've read about, but it's no run of the mill restaurant you'd find in a part of town like this. Enter Paco Guzman to answer our questions. The chef pops his head over the kitchen counter and asks how we liked our meal. We start to chat and he comes round to talk to us for a bit longer. We learn that this chef, wearing his khaki cut-offs and looking distinctly different to the 'celeb chef' style shots we've seen of him in press, is the owner of Santa Maria and this restaurant, Santa. He tells us how he opened Santa five years ago (I believe Santa Maria has been going for around 14 years), catering to more of a business crowd, and where they are busy at lunchtimes. He seems disappointed that many restaurants in Barcelona have stayed open in August this year, whilst he took the decision to close Santa Maria for the month. He tells us he kept Santa open in order to do some work over the holiday period, though he's not expecting many customers, us being the only ones that day. He also vexes his frustration at the new gourmet burger fad which has recently taken off in Barcelona, and the pizzas of el Born stealing potential customers when you can eat at such joints for under ten euros. He also, disappointingly, tells us that he's selling Santa Maria and is keeping Santa as his focus. Reading about Santa when it first opened certainly showcases a more interesting and expensive menu. I try to gage whether his decision to close Santa is to aid a return to his early days at Santa, to showcase more of his creativity, but it seems from his response, that perhaps those years under Adrià hasn't created a molecular chef but someone who - despite their talent and fame - is struggling to make it as both chef and businessman.

Our meal at Santa wasn't out of this world, but it was good quality food, and I would encourage anyone visiting Barcelona to check it out, perhaps at a lunchtime, and not in August if you want some atmosphere (though you might miss out on the conversation with the chef!). It was 25 euros for the menu, inc. IVA (Spanish tax), which - for me - was good value. I feel someone larger than my build might feel there wasn't enough food, though Jamie was definitely sated by the end of it. With the potential for there being only one Guzman venture in the future, perhaps this will give him the opportunity to develop and refine what is already good quality food, and turn it into something spectacular.

Santa Restaurant
Av. Meridiana 2, 08018 Barcelona
00 34 93 309 7078