MoVida's guide to Barcelona

Author: Frank Camorra
Photography: Richard Cornish

I was in a restaurant dating from the 1970s on the banks of the River Besos researching MoVida's Guide to Barcelona. The waiter, a man who through pure enthusiasm could convey the menu to any non-Spanish-speaker, poured the last of the aged Rioja into my glass. I mentioned to him that I had been born near here in 1970 and he guided to me to an old map of Barcelona, hanging on the wall. Together we found the hospital where I was born: Hospital Generalísimo Franco. It has gone now. So, too, have many of the Spanish street names on the map; after Franco died in 1975, they were replaced by their original Catalan names.

So much has changed in Barcelona since I was born. It is a city determined by change. It's a Gothic city with a Roman foundation perched on the shores of the glittering Mediterranean and a place that has undergone Spanish colonisation but is now proudly, defiantly and independently Catalan, with a separate language and cuisine.

Many people who travel to Barcelona, enticed by the promise of Gaudí architecture and Miró artworks, are let down by the scores of appalling restaurants. The city's main drags are lined with hundreds of tourist traps advertising paella - paella that is pre-made, then frozen. I am constantly asked by my friends and customers, "Frank. Where do you eat in Barcelona?"

So when I was asked by Melbourne University Press to write a guide to Barcelona, it was a no-brainer. The food of the real Barcelona lies off the main drag. It was never a job for one man and his liver so I dragged in my old writing mate Richard Cornish. Together with some locals we ate and drank our way around the city, consuming our body weight in every barri (neighbourhood).

One of those, presented here, is Barceloneta, a triangle of reclaimed land about 70 hectares in size jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea. It is so small it feels more like a village than a barri. This is "little Barcelona", whose 20 or so narrow streets and five slightly broader avenues were once dominated by Barcelona's fishing community, echoed in street names such as Carrer dels Pescadors. Barceloneta has a lively feel, with a mix of younger professionals blending in with the original maritime families, giving the area a range of traditional bars and more upmarket eateries. I love Barceloneta because of this mix of people and good eateries, but also for the scale of its narrow canyon-like streets and the friendly vibe of locals rubbing shoulders, quite literally, as they walk past each other on footpaths no more than a metre wide.

From Barceloneta to El Raval, from Poble-sec to Poblenou, our book is a collection of the places we love, from award-winning restaurants to the smallest bars, and is the culmination of months of research in the field.

Barcelona requires visitors to relax into and be swept away by myriad amazing experiences. You have our permission to be swept away.

Our favourite eating in Barceloneta
1881 Per Sagardi
Perched above the much underrated Catalan History Museum, this restaurant has one of the best views in Barcelona, looking out over the yachts and the city towards Montjuïc. And there's hardly anyone here. The signage is appalling, which probably explains why there are hundreds of tourists dining on the waterfront while only a few curious ones who have paid to enter the museum have made it to the top floor. 1881 is part of a national chain of Basque restaurants. At its heart is a charcoal grill over which great one-kilo pieces of aged Basque ox are grilled. I recommend one of these be shared - by at least four. Plaça de Pau Vila 3, 4th floor (above the Catalan History Musuem), +34 93 221 0050

Absenta
Here a mixed crowd of slightly grungy locals crowd together in a dark, club-like room which has a really good soundtrack of 1970s and '80s indie music. Speak English to the bar staff and you'll get short shrift. Try your Spanish and you'll get their life story. The food here is rubbish but at 2am you're not really that fussy: what you want is good cold beer, 20 different absinthes and table service in the truly delightful outdoor drinking area in the park across the road. Sant Carles 36, +34 93 221 3638

Agua
One of the most pleasurable experiences in Barcelona is to dine beside a sweeping beach on the Mediterranean. Book a table on the terraza, as this place is all about the location. Start with a little jamón, fried calamari or boquerones. While the waves are beating on the shore, try the arroz, perhaps with lobster, then a typical seafarer dish like a thick steak of sweet hake baked on a fondo of caramelised onions and potatoes with tomatoes and herbs, or a dish of monkfish tail finished with hot garlic-infused oil. This is the place to come to enjoy time with friends, while watching the truly eclectic parade of beachgoers, one of life's great pleasures. Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta 30, +34 93 225 1272

Bar Jai-ca
Owner Jaime Cabot's father opened this bar in 1955 and not much has changed since then. Banners and pictures of FC Barcelona hang from the walls and there's a constant chatter of gossip from the locals, some accompanied by their dogs. Consider ordering the baby squid, which are dusted in well-seasoned semolina that soaks up their juices, creating a rustic batter, before being deep-fried and then given a decent dousing in fresh lemon juice. The ladies in the open kitchen behind the bar punctuate the bar-prattle with hearty laughs and when ready will bring some of the fattest tortillas I have ever seen to the bartender to slice and serve while they are still warm. It's rough and ready but genuine fun. Ginebra 13, +34 93 319 5002

Bravo 24
This is the stunning new offering from Barcelona's king of cool, Carles Abellan. The dining room is dominated by nude timber, wool rugs and other natural furnishings. On the deck, the designers have captured the look and feel of a chiringuito, with rustic wooden tables and deep white vinyl couch-like banquettes. Between you and the sea is a sundeck of foreigners tanning and ordering more beer and cocktails. Bravo 24 takes classic Spanish dishes to another level. The food is deceptively simple - the esqueixada is a cold salad of smoked salt cod with pil-pil, an emulsion sauce made with light olive oil and the juices from the fish. This could be followed by a plate of tiny artichokes with fat rings of calamari and sweetbreads with a beef jus. At the heart of the kitchen is a holm oak charcoal grill over which big red Mediterranean prawns are roasted. Ignore the smugness of the staff and consider ordering half serves, which makes it possible to cover much of this very worthwhile menu. Floor E, W Barcelona hotel, Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 01, +34 93 295 2636

Can Paixano
It seems that the prices haven't changed at this old sailors' bar since it opened in 1969. Push past the crowd near the door because there always seems to be a space at the back. The incredibly fast and efficient staff won't serve booze to you unless you eat something. They offer a huge choice of entrepans and sausages: botifarra, chorizo and morcilla all sizzling on the grill, dropped into hot buns wrapped in paper napkins and almost thrown over the counter - it's cheap and cheerful, as this place is all about the crowd and the buzz. Reina Cristina 7

Can Solé
This well-regarded seafood restaurant is a street back from the beach, so you're not paying for views but for top-quality seafood. Owner Josep Maria García is a member of the local food group that aims to keep the traditional fishermen dishes of Barceloneta alive. Behind the large wooden door, covered with a dozen Routard badges - generally a good omen - is a wonderfully dated (1980s perhaps) room, painted in an aquamarine colour scheme. During the day, light streams in through the windows (sunlight is a rare commodity in this cramped city). It is in the simple Catalan braises that García's passion for tradition and the chef's mastery of classic technique really shine. The chef makes delicious suquets and calderetes, but it's her arroz a banda con bogavante - huge live vibrant-blue lobsters, cut into sections and served in a hot cast-iron pot with potatoes in an aromatic fish broth thickened with picada - that really entrances me. Sant Carles 4, +34 93 221 5012

Cheriff
Almost every native Barcelonese to whom I mention Cheriff has a warm affection for this slightly offbeat restaurant. It has a solid heart and is dependable but just a little kooky - like a favourite old uncle. Inside it is decked out in a maritime theme, with strange combinations of wooden boats' wheels, lobster and angry crab sculptures, round windows and the effusive demeanour of the owner. The lunchtime business crowds and night-time families come for the good-value paella de marisco and the really good wet rice dishes, such as arroz caldoso or arroz de bogavante, prepared with the live lobsters in the tanks. It's good quality, fun and just a touch bizarre. Ginebra 15, +34 93 319 6984

Forn Baluard
It was the puffs of smoke above this bakery that made me think twice. Either they were electing a new pope or this was the real deal - a wood-fired oven. Bread is not done particularly well in Spain, except in the north. Barcelona is improving, however, with bakers such as Anna Bellsolà employing traditional techniques to make really good bread. Bellsolà uses organic wheat, sourdough and long ferments to create really tasty breads with crunchy crusts, moist interiors and bucketloads of flavour. Buy a loaf here, wander through the market for some other picnic supplies and head to the beach. Baluard 38-40, +34 93 221 1208

La Cova Fumada
This is home of the classic Barcelona tapa - la bomba! It opened 75 years ago, and since they got the décor right the first time, haven't touched it since. The family gets together every morning around 10 o'clock to freshly make their punchy garlicky alioli, with old Mum peeling the garlic and sons folding in the oil with a few eggs to emulsify it. Order a beer or vermouth and a plate of bombas or wander over to the relic of a chalkboard menu where you'll find garbanzos, a mix of chickpeas and black pudding. It's a really busy place, with the barman shouting orders to the kitchen (the chef writes the orders in pencil on the marble bench), a pall of smoke and a great mix of old and young, locals and visitors. This is my kind of bar. Baluard 56, +34 93 221 4061

Lluçanès
To find Lluçanès, go to the square in front of the Barceloneta Market and face the market. Walk through the casual bistro Els Fogons on the right and head up the stairs. You'll find a space that feels like a tasteful airport lounge, with lots of steel, exposed pipes and diffused natural light. This one-star Michelin restaurant is where chef Àngel Pascual works his blend of modern techniques on Catalan classics. He has strong roots in the Catalan heartland of Osona, where lies the town after which his restaurant is named. He plays with canelones, exchanging pasta tubes for rolled sheets of reduced and jellified chicken stock, the béchamel replaced with a brie cream. Although this restaurant seems a little out of place in the down-to-earth barri, it is casual enough to get away with it. Plaça de la Font (above Barceloneta Market), +34 93 224 2525

Museu D'història de Catalunya
We have never seen so much food in a national museum. More than three levels of this warehouse on the shores of Port Vell tell the story of the Catalans from the Bronze Age to the present. The Catalans' self-identity is founded just as much on what they eat as the wars they fought and art they have created. Maps highlight the Spanish expansion into South America, which brought the staples of potato, tomato, eggplant and peppers. There is a very cute reconstruction of a little kitchen from the 1930s, with a cuina econòmica, a tiny charcoal-burning stove with a hotplate the size of one pot. This explains so much of the Catalan cooking that is still being eaten today - the great one-pot dishes such as escudella or sarsuela. If you are a tragic for food history, block out half a day. Plaça de Pau Vila 3 (Palau de Mar), +34 93 225 4244

Pòsit
The Royal Maritime Club of Barcelona sounds quite posh, but it looks like one of those concrete buildings erected by the Tasmanian Hydroelectric Commission in the 1950s. Here you'll find the abuelos, the padres and all the little chicos dressed in their Sunday best. It's very middle class, with beautiful mums keeping slim with the mixed salad or asparagus and ignoring the alioli and romesco. The kids, meanwhile, are wolfing down fried squid and whitebait. The food here is better than at many other seafood places, and what you pay for the crap bread roll you'll make up for in the generous servings of wine by the glass. Reial Club Marítim de Barcelona, Moll d'Espanya s/n,
+34 93 221 6256

Rosa Canina
This little ice-cream parlour is close and handy to La Cova Fumada. Finish up there and grab a cone with flavours including cinnamon, hazelnut, chocolate and cardamom. Baluard 52, +34 63 602 9129

Set Portes
You know that you're in an establishment with a long history when you feel the chequered marble tile floor dip under your feet from more than 170 years of wear and tear. It is a beautiful room that has been lovingly maintained, and the place has soul - it would be busy even if they served microwaved paella. But the food is good - not great but good. The house dish is Paella Parellada, a rice dish "invented for the wealthy but lazy gourmet" Juli Parellada, who wanted all the meat and seafood shelled and boned. This is still a place for locals, however, and many are older diners who like the slightly starched service and the simple and quite decent classic Catalan restaurant fare. Passeig d'Isabel II 14, +34 93 319 3033

Somorrostro
Jordi Limon is packing out his little restaurant every night with locals and Barcelonese from other barris who come for food from his small but punchy produce-based menu.It's a very comfortable place, with decent bistro chairs and a soundtrack of alternative 1980s and '90s music. There are a few clichéd modernist foams and lots of smearing and blobs of sauce and "soil" on the plates, but Jordi says, "This is not molecular. We are beyond this. We are working Catalan classics into a more artful presentation." He does a terrine of botifarra negra sausage with mushroom and potato or beach fish with risoni and mussels. He loves game, and his wild-shot pigeon is served al punto - dark flavours of pan-seared deep red sanguine flesh with small pockets of sweet rich fat - a stunning dish.Sant Carles 11, +34 93 225 0010

Suquet de L'almirall
This is a gem among a row of tourist traps on the road by the waterfront. Chef Quim Marqués, who has worked in the top Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, is frequently on radio and television and has penned books, is respected for the way he prepares traditional fishermen's dishes and buys his seafood daily from the fish market a hundred metres away. There is a menu of things to share, then a long list of arroces, fideuás, rice and pasta, many fish dishes and a blackboard of specials. If you're going to name your restaurant after a dish you'd better get it right. Here the suquet is sublime - an intense sauce of fish broth, tomato and potatoes thickened with picada surrounding plump clams, baby calamari and morsels of monkfish. Quim lifts traditional cooking to a really good dining experience without the high prices usually associated with seafood. Passeig Joan de Borbó 65, +34 93 221 6233

Vinoteca Voramar
This compact but beautifully fitted out little wine shop also serves Scotch and water. The wines are basically Spanish, with sections dedicated to the Catalan DOs such as Priorat, Penedès, Costers del Segre and a good range of old Rioja. It's reassuring to know that here you can get an 18-year-old single malt from Skye at a moment's notice. La Maquinista 14, +34 93 221 1937

Vioko Gelat Xocolata Experiència
Amid the fish restaurants, Vioko stands alone as a temple to sweet things. Past the macaron-filled perspex columns at the doorway are chocolate truffles covered in gold leaf sitting in glass boxes like precious jewellery - all made in the "chocolate studio" on the third floor above the store. The showroom does a good trade in house-made ice-creams on hot days. There are 35 flavours - we found the crema Catalana flavoured ice-cream to be an amazing achievement of food science, with the flavours of lemon, cinnamon and vanilla sitting pretty well with the "toffee" - liquid raw sugar. Passeig de Joan de Borbó 55, +34 93 221 0652





TOP FIVE MID-PRICED MEALS IN BARCELONA

1. Quimet & Quimet
Wine, tapas, fifth-generation family business, beautiful old room. Poeta Cabanyes 25

2. Granja Elena
Michelin-quality food in an old taverna style setting. Hidden gem. Passeig Zona Franca 228

3. Gresca, Embat
Experience bistronomia and hook into high-end quality food at bistro prices with the set-lunch menus at many of the hot new restaurants in Barcelona. These are just two examples. Gresca: Provença 230; Embat: Mallorca 304

4. Coure (the Bar)
Modern, fun, great value tapas at the bar. Passatge de Marimon 20 (above Diagonal)

5. Freixa Tradició
The best value traditional Catalan food in Barcelona. Sant Elies 22 (above Diagonal)

TOP FIVE SEAFOOD PLACES IN BARCELONA

1. Els pescadors
Wonderfully understated top-end fish restaurant in an old tavern by an old square. Plaça Prim 1 (Poblenou)

2. La Paradeta
A busy family fish barn where you point to the raw fish and they cook it to order. Comercial 7 (Born)

3. Montalban Casa José
Only 24 seats, no view or décor, but great fresh seafood. Margarit 31 (Poble-sec)

4. Can Solé
One of the bastions of old Barceloneta fisherman-style recipes such as rossejat de fideus - oven-finished noodles and seafood. Sant Carles 4 (Barceloneta)

5. Passadís Del Pep
Tell them you want seafood and they will bring it to you until you say stop. Pla de Palau 2 (Born)

THINGS I LOVE: SEAFOOD

Cod guts and hake cheeks? Love 'em. Inside of sea urchin? Served chilled with a pinch of salt - perfect. Sea anemones? Can't get enough. If it's legal and edible and it comes from the sea I will eat it. Spaniards just love seafood and the Catalans are the same. You will come across many sea creatures on your travels, but here are a few that I really suggest you eat.

The first safe bet is salt cod, bacalao (bacallà), which you will find often. Then there's hake, merluza (lluç), a popular fish with soft white flesh. Favoured by many is wild sea bass, lubina (llobarro), sometimes cooked whole in a crust of salt. One of the things I crave but can't get a lot of in Australia is good fatty tuna belly, ventresca. Pink and interlaced with fat, it's served grilled in unpretentious bars and restaurants.

Spanish clams, almejas (cloïsses), caught in the shallow waters of Galicia, are brilliant cooked in a garlicky white wine sauce. Galician scallops, vieira, are fat and sweet, as are the mussels, mejillones (musclos). Goose barnacles, percebes, look like something out of Doctor Who but have a really sweet intense flavour of the sea.

The prawns, gambas (gambes), are great, but low supply and high demand means high prices. You often see prawns from Palamós, big red king prawns, served on a tile of slate, still sizzling from the flat grill and sprinkled liberally with salt.

Calamari, calamares, features heavily on restaurant menus. Don't expect it to be sliced into rings and deep-fried: often calamari hoods are stuffed and grilled. Baby calamari may be rolled in a little seasoned semolina and baptised in a cauldron of boiling oil.

As wild stocks are depleted, farmed fish are becoming more common, so if you're after wild-caught fish look for "extractiva salvaje" on the menu or in the market.

Seafood is king in Barcelona, and when I'm in town I make myself its humble subject.

MoVida's Guide to Barcelona, by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish, is published by Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing ($32.99, pbk).



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