The day: 10 November 2009, Dinner.
The place: Industria 79, Barcelona
The venue: Alkimia

Closest Airport: Barcelona (BA, Easyjet), Girona (Ryanair)
The food: Modern Spanish

The drinks: Strong on Spanish with some very strong international

This is the first of two starred experiences in a chilly and beautiful November Barcelona. Semiformal, young and English speaking service greets you at the entrance of the stark, modern, elegant room. Behind the stoves, chef Jordi Vilà.

We order a €35 Priorat and the wine waitress asks us whether we have noticed the section at the end of the wine list, which contains the ‘top wines’. Let’s have a look. Mmhh, prices ranging from a handful of hundred euro bills to teens of hundreds. Does she really think we can suddenly change our mind? Yes, she does. Man jokingly orders a €1,700 Pommerol and then has to frantically stop the obliging sommelier who in all seriousness was going for the bottle.

Of the two available menus, both tasting, we are forced to choose the shorter because of the lack of capacity in our stomachs. Unfortunately this is also the one designated ‘traditional’, but with chef Jordi Vilà it is always going to be a very modern traditional.

We begin with the famous and many-times pictured amuse bouche of Alkimia: tomato water with breadcrumbs, the glass covered by a thin slice of fuet (a Catalan sausage).

We want to compete in the category ‘worst picture’ (there weren’t the conditions to use a flash), but please do not be put off: it is a high note of pure concentrated flavours and fun cooking, setting high expectations indeed.

Yet, our dinner will be ups and downs (even if ups and downs always remaining at a very, very accomplished level of cooking).

There is a vein of true genius in this cuisine, with a sense of adventure that we really appreciate and admire. A veloute’ of Jerusalem artichokes with root vegetables was amusingly presented (the tips of the roots which one would normally throw away emerging from the liquid) and wonderful, as were the cauliflowers in two ways (pickled and pureed) accompanying our monkfish fish.

It is a cuisine that can split opinions: Man thought a sorbet of lychees wonderfully complex, with a resinous jelly adding a further dimension; whereas Woman found the jelly ‘medicinal’.

But we agreed that, to our subjective taste, there were sometimes hiccups and also, we have to say, some occasional heavy-handedness and seasoning excess, a certain lack of balance, of precision, and of attention to details. We found several chicken bones, large and small, in the gorgeous chicken cannelloni (more on them below). The sauce of a wonderful and nicely cooked suckling veal was really too concentrated.

There were different cookings of our two pieces of monkfish (one almost raw, the other better done), and similarly for the otherwise beautiful crayfish on our rice.

A nice selection of Petit four concludes our dinner

The service
The service is correct but a bit cold, robotic and brusque from one member staff. The dishes are not described nicely but instead quickly and as if in a hurry, the cutlery almost thrown on the table (are we sooo unpleasant? Sigh). No apologies for the bones in the chicken, the menus are not explained – indeed, only later we overhear a conversation with another table from which we understand we could have gone for a shorter version of the innovative menu: surely something you should be told to begin with! The manager however, as well as the wine waitress, are helpful and courteous.

The low: the dessert
To our taste this was a mess of clashing flavours. Essentially a millefuille filled with coffee, sealed with caramel, and sitting on a lemon cream, plus a vanilla ice-cream. Picture this: you try and cut through the generally aethereal puff pastry, only now you cannot, as the caramel encasing makes it gummy. But you brave on, and the millefeuille still smirking at you, bend but does not break, till the pressure squeezes out the coffee cream, that shoots straight into the lemon sauce… well, we later discovered elsewhere (more on this story later…) that lemon and coffee can work together: but this definitely is not it, the lemon and coffee flavours were fighting, the ice-cream wasn’t sweet enough, and the caramel reduced the millefeuille to a gluey texture.

The high: Chicken cannelloni
It takes guts to serve chicken cannelloni in a fine dining restaurant, but the gamble pays off. So, despite the aforementioned bones, we nominate this the dish of the evening. With such intense and yet delicate flavours in both the hand-cut mince and in the side, soberly presented, chicken reduction with vinegar (we think), this dish also exudes a minimalist elegance that makes it an example of how a rustic combination can achieve fine dining heights. The perfect balance of that reduction also shows that this innovative chef could equally well cook classical dishes. Pity that our picture does not make justice to this beautiful dish!

The price
Now, where is that bill? Anyhow, the traditional menu we went for was priced at €58 (while the more adventurous Alkimia menu has a €74 price tag) and the wine, and considering how the pound has dived, we were confortably over our (upgraded) £110 rule, but not by far.

This is a restaurant to try if you are in Barcelona. The cuisine will surprise, amuse and please. But don’t expect consistency and be prepared for some disappointments.


Windsor (Barcelona)

The day: 4th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: Corsega 286, 08008 Barcelona, Spain (tel: 93 2377588)
The venue: Windsor
The food: Modern Catalan Cuisine
The drinks: Good list, very strong on Spanish.

As you may know, Windsor is in Spain. It sits in the middle of Barcelona’s elegant Eixample area. It advertises ‘cuina catalana’, and it is our second and completely casual choice for tonight, as on a friend’s strong recommendation (hello M) we wanted to try ‘Alkimia’, but it was booked up: next time…

We are lucky and with no booking we get in. The interior is striking: after crossing a vast lobby, you enter even more vast spaces, organised in several rooms and environments. There is high bourgeois elegance, with large mirrors, light colours, a veranda. Numerous sharply dressed room staff move around. The tables are comfortable and extremely well spaced (unfortunately not enough to prevent the booming voices of an American couple making us privy to their private lives).

The menu offers interesting proposals, such as Tataki of tuna with mango, fennel, broccoli puree and herb oil (€19) among the starters, the risotto of langostinos and artichokes (€20.50) in the rice section, and, among the meats/beef, attention is attracted by the Wagyu beef cutlet, served with ‘a little salt and nothing else’, at € 48. There are also two set menus, a ‘light menu’ at €55 and a tasting menu at €60.

The bread arrives: once in the while they allow us to choose from the tray (see our last experiences here and here).

As you know, it takes a lot to impress us with bread, so let’s say: OK (at €4 apiece, as we discover later, it’d better be at least OK!).

But here arrives an amuse-bouche:

It’s a vichyssoise with gambas (prawns) and onions. Extremely fresh and pleasant overall, the prawn lends a delicious sweet flavour, well accompanied by the equally concentrated flavour of the dehydrated onions. There is a fat texture which is exactly enough to add body without becoming unpleasant. If our theory that you can predict the entire chef performance from the amuse-bouche is correct, we are in for a great evening…

Our choice of starters is liquid:

– Cold soup of Montserrat tomatos (€17 NOTE: ALL PRICES DO NOT INCLUDE VAT)

– Special of the day soup (ajoblanco) (€17.50)

The tomato soup enthuses with three consistencies (ice, ice-cream, and liquid). The iced part is the watermelon, very sweet, combining harmoniously with the delicious basil flavoured ice-cream. This dish is quite something. Look at it: there are just three main ingredients (tomato, basil, watermelon), all of them humble: a perfect demonstration of how extreme goodness can emerge from extreme simplicity.

The special soup is an almond soup. It is as visually impressive as the previous one (the red you see here is watermelon), and it is sublime. The soup itself is light and thin, with a nice consistency provided by shards of grape flesh on the bottom; the ensemble is balanced, ravishingly cool, with absolutely top material (the crab is fantastic).

We come to the mains:

– Special of the day tuna (€26.50)

– Souquet de rape a la nostra manera (Monkfish ‘our style’) (€26)

Many gastronauts get impatient with seared tuna, they have had too much of it, everybody makes it, and they find it banal. Not us. When tuna is so, so good, and cooked so precisely, the fish lover can only be awed. Really one would not ask for anything more in the dish (and the portion looks generous indeed). But there is more! The combination with the cherry chutney works impressively, and the ‘ravioli’ filled with finely diced veggies (we note courgettes, tomato, aubergine) are tasty and sweet and wonderful (when we came back the following night –aehm- we tried the tuna tataki and we were equally ravished by the material and the preparation).

The monkfish is another large portion, and –more crucially- the quality of the material is immense, too. What fish, what cooking, what seafood (there are also clams and prawns). The intense reduction (saffron?) almost risks shading the fish. This dish is sheer bliss, and there is also the playful reinterpretation of ‘souquet’ (traditional Catalan seafood stew or soup).

And finally our desserts:

– Crema catalana ‘our style’ (€8)

– Biscocho music (€9)

The crema catalana: to our taste this is not a very balanced dessert (the cinnamom is too dominant), but the iceacream is good, and the main part of the dish is a quite airy interpretation of the catalan classic, very smooth, luscious, which still retains its ‘gluttony’ appeal.

The ‘biscuit’ is soft and pleasant, with dried fruit, the honey ‘tiles’ are good and so are the accompanying pistachios, but the ice cream, not well made, with ice crystals, is a real spoiler in this dish. Overall, these desserts, while still good, do not fly quite at the same stratospheric level of the rest of the dinner.

Well, finally finally, there are the excellent petit fours (orange peel, amaretto, and chocolate):

Including a litre of water (two half bottles) at a silly €8, bread at a silly €8, an excellent Albarino Terras Gauda Rias baixas 2007 (€23) suggested by the excellent sommelier, and VAT at 7%, the total comes to €153,01, near our £100 mark. These prices are reasonable for central Barcelona for a fish dinner with these portions and cuisine, only we are slightly irritated by the water and bread at unadvertisedly excessive prices: it would be far nicer to the customer to just hike the dish prices a bit.

The service at Windsor is really good. The sharp, smooth room manager is young and leads efficiently a mostly young and obviously well trained team. The sommelier is what you look for in a sommelier: pleasant, with a long, data filled, story to tell you on any wine you enquire about, and psychologically apt. The cuisine, as you might have guessed, is impressive. The foundation are raw materials of absolute excellence – with fish and seafood like that, it would take some effort to spoil a dish! But you have seen how even starting from humble ingredients great dishes were made. We liked the sharpness and freshness of flavours, the cooking precision, the balance between traditional/catalan and modern/international ideas (the following night we had a fantastic turbot and orange risotto), a certain restrained exuberance. Only the patisserie department was just good instead of stunning (on our return visit they were better, though). In the city of Adria’, where inane imitators probably abound, chefs like this who use modern techniques and concepts for a purpose, and not for their sake, are to be admired (mercifully we did not see a foam or a spherification in the whole dinner). There is an abyss between Windsor and our previous experience at Silvestre, yet according to Michelin only a fork separates them (Windsor has three), a situation that surely cannot persist: go to Windsor while it is still so affordable!


Silvestre (Barcelona)

The day: 2nd July, Dinner.
The place: Santalo’ 101, Barcelona

The venue: Silvestre Restaurant

Closest airports:
Barcelona (BA),
Girona (Ryanair)
The food: Spanish

The drinks: Short list, mainly Spanish, quite ‘friendly’.

As happens relatively often, we are in Barcelona…you must have seen zillions of photos and critiques of El Bulli or the other celebrity restaurants, so we are going to show you something else – and we didn’t go to El Bulli anyway 😦.

What’s restaurant life in this great city just below the firmament, say at the 2-3 Michelin fork level? Come with us and see.

We begin this week with a neighbourhood restaurant (OK, a rather wealthy neighbourhood) near the Muntaner metro station, near the Eixample and Gracia, and especially near what must be the most expensive market in Barcelona, Mercat Galvany: we hope Silvestre Restaurant sources from there as the stuff is really sublime (more on this story in a few days…).

The interior is bright, soberly elegant (waiters in formal attire), with well-spaced tables and a calm atmosphere (sorry, no photo). Several mostly senior and obviously not too poor customers, all local, sit around us. We are always curious to see how the locals eat, so it looks like we are in the right place.

The menu looks, to be frank, a bit tatty, contrasting with the rest of the decore, and an aloof waitress serves us random bread from a tray.

Anonymous, but definitely on this side of acceptable.

The menu offers a few ‘ensaladas’ for about €12 (e.g. Tomato with tuna ‘ventresca’ and onion, or Spinach salad with small sardines, quail eggs and grilled tomatoes), first courses in the €11-14 range (e.g. Creamy ‘risotto’ of small vegetables and mushrooms), and several mains of fish and meat not far either side of €20 (Cod with chickpeas and pork feet form the fish list, and Boned shoulder of pork with rosemary and lemon gives a flavour of the cuisine style.).

Some complimentary croquettes arrive:

Unmemorable, one-dimensional. Mmh, not a sprinting start.

Our choice of first courses is:

Bacalao ahumado (smoked cod) with avocado, green onion and tomato €12.50

Arroz caliente (Warm rice) with squid, langostinos (squat lobster) and clams

The cod dish is nice looking but on the palate it feels a bit messy and amorphous, with the actual cod in reduced quantity. Nevertheless, it is tasty, with a gentle smoked flavour. The fats (oil, avocado) are slightly excessive and not too pleasing to our palate, but are well integrated with the acidic and the pungent onion and lemon. A smuttering of sesame is a good addition. Overall, no memorable flavour, but no unpleasant flavour either.

The rice (way overcooked for us Italians) is a strong dish, ‘grandma style’ with a very rich and reduced sauce and bold flavours coming from sea and land: alas, the langostinos and especially the clams probably do not come from Mercat Galvany, as they are not top notch and come across as a little subdued and exhausted. The pork is dominant. A rustically pleasant ensemble, to enjoy without thinking too much.

At breakneck service speed (do they want us out of here? Yet there’s plenty of space…), our mains are next:

Monkfish fillet with tomato puree’ and aubergines ‘chips’ €20.50

Boned rabbit with langostinos €€17.50

The worst thing in the monkfish is the soggy aubergine, still dripping frying oil. Better to move on. The fish however this time is quite good, and also skilfully cooked, accompanied by an excellent tomato based sauce (probably with some sweet spice in it – reminiscent of romesco). Once again, this is robust cuisine of the traditional type, and within these confines, apart from the awful aubergine, it is definitely satisfying.

The rabbit, like the fish, is cooked very well indeed, with plenty of moisture. The sauce is too salty, too liquid, and the puree verges on the disaster. The langostinos with the rabbit are for us an interesting and unusual combination that works very well, with the langostinos themselves of reasonable quality. A mixed dish, which once again will reward focussing on the main ingredients without too much thought.

For desserts (all at €6) we are going to have

Millefeuille of strawberries with crema pasticciera.

Fillo pastry with cramelised pear and light cream

The millefeuille has a robust consistency. The raspberries are pleasant, with their sauce also quite intense, though it has a vaguely unnatural taste. The ‘pasticciera’ sauce is nice if a little bland, lacking punch, colour and density.

The fillo pastry is supremely light, as is the rest of the dish, but not at all insipid: most pleasant, in fact. The pears are cooked perfectly, just exactly sweet. A delicate offering which is most welcome after this type of dinner.

With a bottle of fresh and pleasant Cristiari Costers del Segre 2007 at €13.25, bread and cover charge at €3.80, 1 litre water at €3,10, and VAT at 7% (beware), we end up with a very reasonable bill of €93,48.

As we said, the service was too fast, and the waitress was not particularly lovable. What looked like the room manager/sommelier, however, was most helpful and kind. This is quite attractive as a neighbourhood restaurant, for the locals or for tourists like us staying nearby. It offers quite homely and tasty cooking, complete of homely mistakes and screw ups, using good even if not top materials, at prices that are very decent by central Barcelona standards. It does not deserve venturing far away from your location, however: so although we by no means regret the experience, we do not think we shall return except for convenience. But there is a place in Barcelona where we shall return…and you’ll see it soon!