Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tickets, Barcelona




There are a few restaurants in this world whose reputation precedes them to the extent that the desire to eat in them is surpassed by the feeling that you, in fact, already have. The Fat Duck, for me, is one; The Hand and Flowers another. And outside of the UK, that restaurant, for me, was Tickets. I had digested so many reviews, read so many articles and seen so many photos, that it nearly felt like I had eaten there - without, of course, the pain of shelling out a couple of hundred euros in cash.

...but everyone said, "Go!", "You'll love it!", "It's amazing!". Given the two month waiting list online, and the fact that it was now just a couple of weeks 'til we set off on our jollies, I didn't believe we'd, er, be partaking in a spherified olive in our time in Barcelona. We'd debated trying for a walk-in, but by the fifth night of our stay in the surrealist city, we'd found so many other places we were dying to try (and one that we even wanted to visit twice), we'd crossed it off our list.

Cue charming waiter, who delivered the best service we've experienced at a restaurant, and a suggestion he could bag us a table for a couple of night's time. Well, it sort of felt rude to turn down such an offer.

Two days later, we sat outside the restaurant on a bench, watching staff mill between Tickets and its neighbour, 41 degrees. The anticipation was building and we began to let ourselves get excited. It was Jamie's birthday and I was excited to treat him to a meal in a restaurant that had seemingly nailed mass-market molecular gastronomy.

And, we found, it had. More or less. The food - for the most part - was pretty perfect. Spherified olives with a skin you could barely taste - explosive flavours of brine and garlic hitting the roof of your mouth. Watermelon infused with Sangria - a dish I really didn't want, but that Jamie did - and y'know, it being his birthday an' all. Well, it was... watermelony. Like, the best watermelon with a hint of red wine.

There were the Manchego cheese puffs we painstakingly watched a chef compose. Like Quavers on acid, I could eat a Grab Bag of these things (it might cost 40 euros for the pleasure, but man, I could eat them... coming to a Spanish petrol station near you, soon!).

The little nori-wrapped cone of tuna made me feel like a baby mermaid (would a mermaid eat fish? Hmm.); the anchovy with a film of olive oil was deliciously flaunty, the superficial skin being just that. Octopus with a take on kimchi didn't live up to the tentacled creature we ate at Suculent on the first night of our trip, and the accompanying salad to the crab cannelloni was something we could have made at home (though the crab wrapped in avocado itself was pretty divine).

The mollettes (a sort of soft bun, containing pork and mustard) were wonderfully comforting (and thank fuck they were, after waiting 25 minutes for the buggers) and the basil macaroni was, perhaps, one of the best 'pasta' dishes I've ever eaten. It was almost worth the visit just for that last dish.

But why did the service feel like we were being waited on by dancing bears, kept captive in a circus they wished to be no part of? Like teenagers given detentions in the heat of summer, few staff members seemed to want to be there, let alone permitted to experience fun. With stern-faced managers and steely sous-chefs watching over everything with distaste, it felt difficult to really enjoy the experience - which, I had hoped, would be the main point of this restaurant. A small break-through came when I dipped into the 'cortado', and a chef spotted the smile on my face - visibly pleased at the delight of a diner; and later, again, when the bored waiter made a crack about the 'broken' espresso cup (the crockery was intended to have its side cut away).

The manager appeared to care less that I found the service so dire it impacted upon our experience. Why should he care that we holidaymakers were shelling out a substantial amount of cash on a visit when they had an American TV crew in, filming? Perhaps if they'd mentioned this at the start of the visit, we might have empathised a little more. However, it was hidden from the customers - apart from, of course, the fact that the producers were sat behind us throughout the meal, with earpieces in, demanding shots of Albert Adria through the lobster tank.

Yes, really.

I don't wish to impart upon you the feeling you've already been to Tickets, especially because I wouldn't really wish my experience of Tickets on anyone, so I've gone easy on the photos and light on the description. I'm sure if you go, your dinner will be more fun than mine, and the food is undeniably skilled and tasty; though, if on entering, you spot anyone with a battery in their back pocket, let the curtains fall and exit stage left.

Tickets
Avinguda del Paraƀlel 164, 
08015 Barcelona, Spain

Bookings via the website here.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Neon Jamon, Liverpool

Neon Jamon wasn't intended for my first blog post in 2014 - I've been meaning to write up a trip to the Clove Club since early December. It's failed to materialise thus far, and since Jamie kindly took my iPhone for a swim in my handbag, there's little chance I'll have photos to compliment the post, should I ever get round to writing the meal up.

Anyway, surely it's nicer to start the year with a restaurant I love - not one I mildly despise (sorry, CC). Neon Jamon had been recommended a little while ago by Pedro, a beer and food lover we met at Liverpool Food and Drink festival. Regularly pining for the little dishes I've enjoyed on several trips to Barcelona, a day trip to the 'Pool to dissipate January blues seemed the perfect excuse to visit.

A little way from the city centre, a black cab journey took about 15 minutes and was under a tenner. We arrived early, around half 6, as there's a no bookings policy - except for larger parties (I'd like to think in a very Spanish way, rather than in a 'that London' way). It's a narrow space, with tables over two floors. A convivial atmosphere, complemented by an excellent playlist (Joy Division, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys), if tables weren't so in demand, I'd have happily stayed there all night - I know: I'm selfless, right?

In true Spanish style, all four Cavas are served by the glass - not a one over four quid. A lovely aperitif - accompanied by a generous portion of plump boquerones nardin (anchovies in olive oil, garlic and parsley). Seeing huge plates of pan con tomate drift past made it hard to resist the beloved staple - but I knew I'd be hard pushed to eat everything I wanted to if I filled up on dough first.

We could easily have spent the evening devouring the charcuterie and cheese platters - and I'm fairly certain we'll be back to do just that - though on this occasion we chose a small plate of the Trevelez IGP jamon. The menu explains the meat is cured at altitudes of over 1,200m; I'm no curing - or altitude - expert, so can't quite tell you why this is done - but it has a sweet depth of flavour which left Jamie and I fighting over the last pieces.

L-R: bravas, padron peppers, ribs
Padron peppers and patatas bravas practically order themselves as soon as we step foot in a Spanish restaurant - and the latter are usually a good judge of the kitchen's standards. For the first time in my life, we both finally experienced a flippin' spicy Padron. They say eating these fried capsicums is a bit like Russian roulette, as supposedly around 1 in 5 should blow your head off. On this ratio, I feel sorry for the folks who've been eating my mouth-burning share, as the meal at Neon Jamon was the first time I'd ever tried a truly hot one. I think I preferred life mild.

Patatas bravas were crisp and salty, topped with a rich, smokey tomato sauce. Lemon alioli was served on the side and eaten so indulgently one would have thought we'd been starved of decadence over the Christmas period. The Malaga style little squids were perfect little fishy bites, used to mop up the garlicky mayonnaise as if gravy at the end of a roast.

Malaga style little squids with lemon alioli
The only dud dish was the left-field ordering of Iberico pork ribs in membrillo & sherry vinegar. Though not unpleasant, some proved tough to eat and the sauce tasted too heavy on rosemary for my liking. A slower cooking time and using smoked ribs could improve the dish tenfold, I reckon.

There was also a specials menu, which we were saving for the end. I tried to persuade Jamie to share the cheese platter (I'm tempted to resort to veganism as an escape route for my affair with dairy), but he sensibly suggested choosing only the semi-hard goats cheese (name forgotten, possibly La Flor de la Hiniesta), accompanied by a Moorish chutney (raisins, apricots, spices, you know the score). Possibly the star of the meal, the waitress's suggestion of a Manzanilla La Goya, a dry, light and nutty sherry complimented the cheese wonderfully and served to ensure the meal ended as perfectly as it begun.

The service at Neon Jamon is friendly and knowledgeable. Despite our visit taking place on the first weekend in January the restaurant was heaving, demonstrating the popularity of this place. Prices are reasonable - though certainly not as inexpensive as tapas bars in Spain - and their wine list shows real attention to detail. I drank a beautiful Catalunyan white with my meal, which I'm desperate to seek out again! From my sole dining experience here, I'd suggest Neon Jamon is as authentic as they come in the UK. If you're used to the tapas of La Tasca or - at the other end of the spectrum - Tickets, this place might not be for you, but if simple and well executed floats your boat, then get eating.


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