I've always wanted to go to Spain. It's been on my must-visit list for years, and I finally decided that this was the year I was going to go. Being a Virgo, I usually plan trips down to the last minute, but this time around I relaxed and just let things be. I only knew that I wanted to be in Europe for my birthday, and planned around that.
Our first stop was Barcelona, followed by Valencia and finally Amsterdam for my actual birthday celebration. Barcelona, one of the culinary hotspots of the world, was one of my favorite stops, followed closely by Amsterdam. If I could do it again I would have skipped Valencia and spent more time in Barcelona, only because Valencia was a bit weak on the food front for me, although quite lovely as a city.
We started our journey in Barcelona, thinking it was going to be a nice, easy segue into the vacation and that Amsterdam would be the city to really party it up in, but I was completely wrong. Barcelona has a thriving night life and my liver can vouch for that. We arrived Monday, which is a quiet day of the week in any city, and while the city wasn't exactly raging, it was definitely lively and the dance clubs were still crowded. The hotel we stayed in, Hotel 1898 in Las Ramblas, was a wonderful respite from the craziness of Las Ramblas, but I honestly loved the location. I know some people shy away from the very touristy areas, but I found Las Ramblas to be perfect for someone without a plan because you have everything at your fingertips, from food to nightlife to shopping.
The shopping was a real winner for me because the airline we took from our layover in Madrid to Barcelona, Spanair, left my luggage in Madrid, so I ended up in Barcelona with just my carry-on after a 12 hour journey from New York. After the initial shock of having no personal items or my beloved face wash (and many poor me tears shed), I pulled it together and we started our culinary journey of Barcelona. (I've gone into ridiculous detail on each of my restaurant stops, and have included a synopsis for each below. To see photos and read more detail about each, just click through to the relevant post.)
This was our official first stop for food in Spain, recommended by our hotel and was a close enough walk that even after me wasting hours of time emoting about my luggage, and having to buy some emergency supplies (a girl needs her mascara), we still made it in time for dinner, which is typically quite late in Spain (starting usually around 8 or 9 PM). Taller de Tapas is one of those touristy restaurants that almost everyone goes to, which means that it is usually the type of place I avoid, because most tourist spots usually churn out a ton of food and don't pay attention to quality. I was actually surprised that the food was good, not mind blowing by any means, but defintiely edible enough for me to finish a few plates of tapas. Plus, the wine helped me forget about my lost luggage for a while, which is all I really wanted anyway. Highlights: Grilled asparagus, chorizo in red wine & patatas bravas. Click here to read more and see photos.
The next day, recovering from a ridiculous amount of vino tinto, we decided to make our way to Mercat de La Boqueria de Barcelona, which was just a couple of blocks from the hotel we were at. visiting La Boqueria with a hangover is not really recommended.
The market is amazing, but is a complete sensory overload, and despite mainlining Starbucks cappuccinos, I found myself feeling dizzy and not sure what to focus on or where to go. The fruit, the meat and the food all looked incredible, but it was too much for my wine-addled brain to take in. On a side note, we did eventually make our way back to La Boqueria before leaving Barcelona, and it was a far more enjoyabl experience. I even procured some chorizo for 1 euro, which price-wise was suspect to me, but it was awesome.
Deciding we needed sustenance, in the form of pork (naturally), to cure our hangover, we made our way to Tapac 24, run by Carles Abellan (an El Bulli protegée). I wasn't sure what to expect, but people raved about the place online so I wanted to give it a try and am so glad I did. The tapas were outstanding and the atmosphere is what you would expect in any NYC restaurant. Every single dish we ate was outstanding, from the gambas a la plancha, which were incredibly fresh and sweet, to the point of the blood from the head oozing onto my fingers when I took the shell off. I was a wimp and didn't suck the juices out of the head, but Matt tried it and declared it to be "oceany" (our pet term for briny) so I gave it a pass, but if you're into that whole briny, shrimp head-sucking thing, Tapac 24 is the place to do it. Highlights: Omelette, Iberico Ham, Patatas Bravas (notice a trend yet?). Click here to read more and see photos.
For dinner that night we were lucky enough to get a same day reservations at both Alkimia and Moo, two restaurants in the same vein serving modern Mediterranean/Catalan cuisine. We ultimately decided on Alkimia since Moo seems to be falling out of favor with foodies lately.
Alkimia is located in L'Eixample, a lovely area, but not exactly bustling in the evening. We walked through the doors and were greeted with a sparsely furnished, almost gallery-like space, complete white furniture and a somber feeling. It was almost like being in a library, where you feel as though you need to keep your voice down. Still, the space is quite gorgeous and our table was set back in an alcove, which I loved. The lights above our table were strategically positioned in order to light the food at its best. We didn't realize that until we started eating, and I spent the rest of dinner trying to position my plates to catch the light in the best possible way.
When I tried to explain my gluten-freedom to our server, he looked confused, but eventually he understood. In most restaurants of that caliber, the chef will usually alter the original gluten containing dish to be just as delicious, but with something as a substitute in place of the gluten. However, at Alkimia, they simply left the gluten out. So the amuse bouche we started with, which was a deconstructed bruschetta, served as a glass filled with fresh tomato juice, and olive oil ,with a slice of bread on top, was served to me sans bread, thus making it fail completely as a composed taste. The bread would have been the perfect balance to the acidity and oil, but instead it was cold tomato water festering in my stomach, not the most ideal way to start off a meal.
Alkimia traditionally does tasting menus, choosing from a shorter or longer version. I'm not a huge fan of tasting menus because the Virgo control freak within me wants to be able to customize my meal to my taste. They were pretty accommodating about letting us pick and choose what we wanted, but it tacked on quite a bit of cost. If you eat here, I suggest doing one of the tasting menus as is, otherwise you will pay at least 100 euro more than you intended.
Highlights: Saffron Rice with Langoustine. Click here to read more and see photos.
The next day was less memorable on the food front during the day, as we couldn't eat lunch at the beach-side cafe I wanted to eat at, Kaiku. They apparently fill up quite quickly during the lunch rush, and we weren't able to get a table, which was a shame since the food I saw people eating looked delicious. We ended up grabbing a quick bite to eat at the boqueria in Barceloneta.
The main event for the evening was a stop at Albert Adria's Tickets, which we didn't have reservations for. We did however, have reservations for 41 Degrees, which is a mixology focused cocktail bar (also owned by Adria) connected to Tickets through a hallway. At 41 Degrees I had some of the most amazing cocktails I have ever had, not even Milk & Honey measured up in creativity or execution. The menu at 41 Degrees is mostly focused on seafood, and meant to be snacks to enjoy with your drinks. We had amazing food at the bar, sashimi, the famous El Bulli "olives" which explode with delicious olive oil in your mouth, the tuna "tacos" served in fried pork skin (chicharron) which were so incredible we ordered another round, and oysters, which Matt drooled over and were the biggest oysters I'd ever seen.
Highlights: Cocktails (of course), tuna taco, sashimi. Click here to read more and see photos.
At 7 PM I dashed over to Tickets to beg my way into the restaurant and amazingly enough, they were able to seat us. I think it was pure luck and timing, but I'm grateful either way, as my meal at Tickets was hands down one of the best I've ever had. I seriously wanted to weep with joy at moments during the meal, but I'll get into that later. Ordering gluten-free at Tickets is not really a problem as the majority of dishes are already gluten-free, although the few dishes with gluten looked absolutely incredible. The atmosphere in Tickets is meant to mimic a circus. We were seated at a bar facing about 30 Maneki Neko's, those Chinese good luck cats. These particular cats were gold, with arms that waved up and down - all in various moments of up or down. A little cray-cray to look at. The menu was a small book, and we probably ordered half, systematically making our way through as much as we could possibly eat.
Highlights: The lobster (!!), Iberico ham, watermelon "impregnated" with sangria. Click here to read more and see photos.
I felt like Tickets was the perfect way to end our short stay in Barcelona. I wish we had been able to make it to Celler de Can Roca or to the Dali museum, but that will have to wait for another trip. We concluded our stay in Barcelona, hungover and queasy at Bar Lobo, which was right next to the hotel, and really all we had energy to do. The food there was good, nothing to write home about, but not terrible. Although my salad contained such a ridiculously bitter herb that I had to pick around it to eat the other edible bits. From Barcelona we headed to Valencia, but that story will have to wait until next week!