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Archive for May, 2009

ultra-rare "Iberico" steak on black beans at Le Baratin, Paris

ultra-rare "Iberico" steak on black beans at Le Baratin, Paris

Because Jon and I were in Paris during a French holiday weekend, a lot of the places I wanted to try (Jadis and L’Epigramme, among others) were closed for the holiday.  Luckily, the hard-working husband-wife duo of Le Baratin in Belleville kept things open that weekend.

What I read online indicated that this out-of-the-way bistro is where Yves Camdeborde, Pierre Hermé, Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse like to eat when they’re off duty.  And well, if it’s good enough for them, it’s definitely good enough for me.

The bistro had the buzzy feel of a neighborhood favorite, and compared to the boho chic of the French-speaking diners around us, Jon and I were painfully over-dressed.  But we quickly got over our self-consciousness when it became our turn to read the menu on the chalkboard, which was brought over to our table as soon as the last table was done ordering.  True bistro style.

pollack tartare with raspberry dressing at Le Baratin, Paris

lieu jaune (pollack) tartare with raspberry dressing at Le Baratin, Paris

Still feeling a bit full from our lunch, I started with a tartare de lieu jaune (pollack) served in a sweet-and-tart raspberry dressing.   The dish was light and fresh, though some of the pollack was a tad stringy (odd).  After seeing a mouthwatering, generous portion of seared foie gras go by, I regretted not getting that starter instead.

Jon’s Iberico steak (I’ve never seen Iberico as an adjective to anything other than pig) with black beans was stellar. The dish wasn’t much to look at, but the steak was juicy and raw-in-the-middle, and our marriage might have ended had Jon not granted me more of the accompanying thick, creamy, almost-fluffy black beans (apparently smoked in a Japanese style).

braised joue de cochon (pork cheeks) at Le Baratin

braised joue de cochon (pork cheeks) at Le Baratin

Main courses were simple and delicious.  Nothing fancy about them, which is perhaps the draw for all those Michelin-starred chefs who are looking to escape everything that reminds them of their jobs.  I ordered joue de cochon (pork cheeks), which were braised perfectly (until unctuous and fork-tender) and served with classic limp French vegetables.

raie (skate) at Le Baratin

raie (skate) at Le Baratin

Jon’s order of (yet more) skate was golden-and-crisp-skinned, and not only was it prettier than the version we’d had at Le Gaigne (where we’d expected seafood to be a strength), but also it was tastier.  Butter is the key.

Because the portions were so generous, we didn’t have room for dessert.  Starters were 11-12 euros; mains hovered around 25 euros.  The place isn’t cheap, but it’s packed with French speakers, very lively and is homely-looking enough to feel “authentic.”  What we ordered amounted to high-quality ingredients prepared in a satisfying,  home-style way.  I would’ve been thrilled to have stumbled upon the place by accident while exploring the neighborhood, but as a much-hyped destination restaurant, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

With a coffee and a 36-euro bottle of wine, our total for two starters and two mains came to 100 euros.

Le Baratin, 3, rue Jouye-Rouve, 20th, +33 1 43 49 39 70; closest metro: Pyrenees or Belleville (11); closed Sunday and Monday.

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interior of Restaurant Le Gaigne in the Marais, Paris

interior of Restaurant Le Gaigne in the Marais, Paris

There’s a time and a place for everything, and in the case of Restaurant Le Gaigne in the Marais, I suspect its small, intimate dining room would be brilliant for a romantic dinner or relaxed night out with friends. For lunch on a Saturday afternoon, though, it was too empty and quiet. And at 100 euros for two starters, two mains, and three glasses of wine, it’d be well-priced for dinner, but was a bit expensive for a relatively-quick lunch.

Perhaps it was empty because the lunch menu on Saturdays is priced identically to the dinner menu. Or maybe it was because it was a holiday weekend and all the Parisians left town? I was baffled by Le Gaigne’s emptiness because the place has gotten a lot of glowing press recently (see e.g., eGullet’s John Talbott here and Gourmet‘s Alexander Lobrano here).

In any case, Le Gaigne’s chef/owner Mickael Gaignon has quite a pedigree (Le Pre Catelan, Pierre Gaignaire and Gaya), and the Marais is one of my favorite neighborhoods, so Jon and I looked forward to some outstanding food (especially of the marine life variety given the Gaya thing).

There’s a five-course tasting menu for 39 euros, which would’ve been amazing value if we’d been up for a long meal, but because Jon and I had places to go, people to see, we went a la carte. Starters on the brief menu were 12-18 euros; mains 24-26 euros; and desserts were all 8 euros.

chilled sweet pea soup and mackerel tartare at Restaurant Le Gaigne in the Marais, Paris

chilled sweet pea soup and mackerel tartare at Restaurant Le Gaigne in the Marais, Paris

Based on our amuse of rich, creamy feve (broad bean) soup and my petits pois veloute, I’d say soups are a strong point at Le Gaigne. My starter tasted the way fresh, sweet petits pois should – like a warm, sunny garden. And the mackerel was powerful (salty and oily) enough to cut through the peas’ sweet creaminess. The chorizo crisp was sadly flavorless, but it did add a nice splash of color to the dish, which was otherwise not much to look at.

Jon’s asparagus starter was good, though there was a lot going on on his plate. The green and white spears of asparagus were sweet and soft-firm, and they would’ve been great on their own. But served with chevre and herbs on a blini along with a confit of duck gizzard, the asparagus was just one of three independent starters that happened to be sharing a plate.

l'encornet Breton (pan-fried calamari rings from Brittany) at Le Gaigne, Paris

l'encornet Breton (pan-fried calamari rings from Brittany) at Le Gaigne,

My pan-fried calamari was tasty and well-prepared (i.e., tasting of the sea and easy to eat/not rubbery), but perhaps again, there was too much going on on the plate. The accompanying “caviar d’aubergine et legumes printaniers” sounded a lot better in French than it tasted. The eggplant puree was super salty and a bit gloppy, drowning the wonderful veg underneath. I also didn’t like how my food was shaped to look like a fish. It seemed silly and childish rather than clever and charming. (Maybe I’d have thought differently under the soft lighting of evening bistro dining).

skate with capers at Le Gaigne

la raie francaise farcie aux capres et a la moutarde a l'ancienne (skate stuffed with capers and grain mustard)

Jon’s skate was beautiful:  buttery-crispy skin with moist, sweet flesh.  A bistro classic well executed.

Overall, it was a good meal, but I wondered if perhaps the kitchen’s A Team was away on holiday. The ingredients were beautiful, and most of the cooking was very tasty. But the dishes needed some paring down. Then again, it could be just a case of mis-matched expectations: I was looking for a simple, relaxing-but-not-too-long neo-bistro meal, and the restaurant is much more ambitious than that, I think.

Service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive, so if you go and you’ve got the time, you definitely should choose the 39-euro tasting menu over the a la carte.

Restaurant Le Gaigne, 12 Rue Pecquay, 4th; +33 1 44 59 86 72; closest metro: Rambuteau (11).

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Galerie Vivienne in Paris

Galerie Vivienne in Paris

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a francophile. For example, when I was 18 years old, one of my university applications asked me to describe my ideal roommate, and my answer was: “Her name is Chantal. She’s French.” And while that particular preference went ungranted, I did spend a couple of years at university learning to speak and write half-decent French.

In any event, one of the many things I love about living in London is the proximity of Paris. So, hot on the heels of our trip to Barcelona, Jon and I found ourselves on the Eurostar, pulling into Gare du Nord to celebrate our six-year wedding anniversary.

sixth-floor room at the Grand Hotel Francais, Paris (11th)

sixth-floor room at the Grand Hotel Francais, Paris (11th)

Having had a great experience at the Grand Hotel Francais the last time we were in Paris, Jon and I decided to return. Zyad, the hotel manager, remembered us, and upon hearing we were in town for our anniversary, he upgraded us to a large top-floor room with a small balcony. At 120 euros a night, the hotel’s standard rooms are a strong value, but our upgraded room was really a steal. If you’re looking for glitzy infrastructure (i.e., lavish lobby and floral arrangements), give it a skip. But if you want to stay in a hotel with friendly staff and stylish rooms in a quiet, pretty neighborhood on the right bank, give GHF a try.

In addition to enjoying two relaxing, tasty meals at much-talked-about Le Baratin and Le Gaigne (which will get their own posts), Jon and I were finally able to visit the no-frills-yet-high-end kitchenware shop, E. Dehillerin. (In the past, we’ve managed to visit the shop only when it’s closed). The place basically has no back inventory room, so everything they sell is jumbled onto rickety shelves, as if you’re shopping in – well, a back inventory room. There are no price tags, which is a bit of a hassle, because it means that if you’re interested in buying something, you have to hand the goods to a sales person who then looks up the price in a catalog that appears to have been printed using a dot-matrix printer (full employment, anyone?). Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find Mauviel copper pots and pans at a better price elsewhere.

cheeky, funny packaging at Pierre Herme

cheeky, funny packaging at Pierre Herme

In addition to loading up on passionfruit and salted-caramel macarons (with a little Ispahan sorbet thrown in) at Pierre Herme, we noticed that Pierre Herme has some cheeky (though, happily, sturdy) new packaging for his macarons. In case you can’t make it out in the photo above, the macaron boxes now show a series of Paris landmarks, followed by an image of Pierre Herme “and his famous macaron.”

mini financiers from Maison Kayser

mini financiers from Maison Kayser

At Zyad’s suggestion, we bought not only the usual outstanding baguettes, croissants and pain au lardon (aka bacon bread) at Maison Eric Kayser, but also mini-financiers in plain, chocolate and pistachio flavors. I loved these little guys. Nutty and sweet, with a moist, chewy center. Growing up, I loved eating chocolate Dunkin Donuts Munchkins, and these financiers brought those to mind (except with these financiers, you can taste real bittersweet chocolate instead of just cloying sugar icing).

The weather being fair and sunny, we velib’d everywhere, including to the Pere Lachaise cemetery, which we’ve never visited before. And it really isn’t as depressing as it sounds. It’s more like a park that happens to have graves in it.

Of course, all that biking and walking around made us hungry again, and one of the best things about Pere Lachaise is that it’s not far from Belleville. And on a Sunday, that means it’s banh mi time (because, frankly, almost every other place you’d want to eat is closed on Sunday).

porc banh mi at Dong Tam in Belleville, Paris

porc banh mi at Dong Tam in Belleville, Paris

This time, instead of visiting C&Z’s highly-recommended Saigon Sandwich, whose sandwich skimped a bit too much on the pickled crudite (but which I liked because the guy making the sandwiches took such obvious time and care to craft each sandwich), we tried the bustling, crowded Dong Tam (which uses the same font and coloring as the Dong Huang restaurant down the block, but above the awning it still says “Panda Belleville”).

Three women behind the counter were assembling sandwiches at lightning speed, and I liked that they were piling on the pickled carrots. You can get a speciale (porc and poulet lamine) for 2.80; a poulet (grilled skewers of moist, dark chicken meat) for 2.80, a normal (pork roti and pate de porc) at 2.50 and a vegetarian for 2.20 (not sure what’s in there).

Jon and I ordered two speciale and a poulet and then hopped on the metro to enjoy our banh mi while watching the crowds in the Tuileries.

Pluses of these banh mi: 1. tons of pickled veg – I love that sweet-vinegary crunch. 2. fresh coriander and cucumber. 3. creamy-sweet kewpie mayo. 4. generous, juicy portions of grilled chicken (on the poulet). 5. crunchy baguette. 6. low price.

Downsides of these banh mi: 1. still skimpy on the roast pork (i.e., three microscopically-thin slices in our normale, and the pate is a bit rubbery, like cheap bologna slices; and 2. no chilli peppers.

Still, it made for a perfect lunch in the sunshine, and heaven knows I’ve searched Kingsland Road in vain for banh mi in London. But next time I’m in Paris, I’ll continue looking for the perfect banh mi.

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th; +33 1 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A)

Le Baratin, 3, rue Jouye-Rouve, 20th, +33 1 43 49 39 70; closest metro: Pyrenees or Belleville (11); closed Sun and Mon

Restaurant Le Gaigne, 12, Rue Pecquay, 4th; +33 1 44 59 86 72; closest metro: Rambuteau (11); closed Sun lunch and Mon

E. Dehillerin, 18 rue Coquilliere (cross: Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau), 1st; closest metro: Etienne Marcel(4); closed Sun

Pierre Herme, 4 rue Cambon, 1st; +33 1 58 62 43 17; closest metro: Tuileries (1); closed Sun and Mon

Maison Eric Kayser, 309, rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine, 11th; +1 49 79 01 76; closest metro: Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A); closed Sundays [though the Rue Monge location near Maubert Mutualite is open on Sunday, which is fab]

Dong Tam, 16, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro:  Belleville (11)

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interior of a Cafe Viena in Barcelona

interior of Cafe Viena in Barcelona

When Jon and I arrived in Barcelona, we arrived hungry. Because it still was too early in the day for a real meal, when we read this April 2009 New York Times description of Cafe Viena as serving “a perfect snack,” we thought we’d give the place a try.

So we asked our B&B owner (a super-in-the-know Barcelona native) where we could find this place, and it was like we’d asked him where we could find a McDonald’s.

His answer (in a brief summary) was: It’s a chain. Go there only if you want to eat total junk. It’s on Las Ramblas. Enough said.

The thing is, after years of following Mark Bittman’s recipes and enjoying his European travel articles, we couldn’t believe the guy would be so wrong. And we eventually found ourselves on Las Ramblas anyway, passing by Cafe Viena. So we popped in.

First indicators were not good. The place is wedged in between a lot of busy high-street shops. And hanging next to the front door is this cheesy reproduction of Bittman’s original shout out in October 2006:

signs at Cafe Viena flog a 2006 Mark Bittman quote

signs at Cafe Viena flog a 2006 Mark Bittman quote

But you know what, the jamon flauta (ham on a baguette) turned out to be pretty tasty. My crappy photo below doesn’t do it justice. There was a crispy baguette and slices of fatty, salty, melt-in-your-mouth jamon. Simple and good.

jamon flauta at Cafe Viena

jamon flauta at Cafe Viena

For under 6 euros, the Cafe Viena sandwich was a *far* superior version than what we had a few days later at Fast Good, Ferran Adria‘s “fast food” venture.

I admire and support Adria’s idea that fast food doesn’t have to use cheap ingredients. (Allegedly, the ingredients in Fast Good come from the same purveyors Adria uses at El Bulli).

jamon panini at Ferran Adria's "Fast Good" restaurant

jamon panini at Ferran Adria's "Fast Good" restaurant

But food snobs beware: Cafe Viena did a much better job than Fast Good when it came to fast jamon sandwiches. The bread on the Fast Good version was burned. All I could taste was charcoal. And the thing cost almost 8 euros (i.e., it was more expensive than our Cafe Viena friend).

groovy interior at Fast Good in Barcelona

groovy interior at Fast Good in Barcelona

I’ll give style points to Fast Good. But for a fast, cheap meal, Cafe Viena works. It’s not the “best sandwich” of my life, but Jon and I enjoyed it immensely.

Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis, 115; +34 93 317 14 92; northernmost bit of La Rambla; closest metro station: Catalunya

Fast Good, Carrer de Balmes, 127; +34 93 452 23 74; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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Bar Mut exterior from Barcelona Unlike

Bar Mut exterior (photo from Barcelona Unlike)

Although I’ve always read that Barcelona is no tapas town (this article, for example, explains how Catalunyans historically preferred a full sit-down meal), Jon and I couldn’t resist the siren call of small plates in Spain.

On the high end of the tapas spectrum was Bar Mut, which is a short walk from Diagonal metro in Eixample district, where you’ll find Gaudi goodies La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia. (If you think the area feels like the Upper East Side, you wouldn’t be far off the mark).

Bar Mut is a small, French-looking spot complete with marble-topped counters, brass-and-frosted-glass fixtures, a blackboard menu, and that hazy gold lighting that characterises all charming late-night spots. I’d read only rave reviews of the place, and Bar Mut’s open for business on Sunday, which was a big plus.

The restaurant is extremely-well-known, so when we turned up for our 10:30 pm booking on a Sunday night, it was still packed.

marinated anchovies for 13 euros at Bar Mut

marinated anchovies for 13 euros at Bar Mut

Understandably, the restaurant sent us the one server who spoke fluent English, but he turned out to be sort of an arrogant, condescending guy, insisting that it’d be easier if we left the ordering to him. In a good mood from our aperitifs, we agreed, and he proceeded to skip all the dishes on the blackboard that we couldn’t quite make out, and instead ordered us basics like jamon iberico and marinated anchovies. High quality, beautiful stuff, but I couldn’t help feeling that Jon and I needn’t have traveled to Barcelona to eat expensive, good-quality basics.

ventresca con tumbet (tuna)

ventresca con tumbet (tuna belly)

An order of ventresca con tumbet (tuna belly) sounded promising, but turned out to be very good-quality tuna that had been cooked until it tasted canned. Based on its melt-in-your-mouth texture, the tuna was probably brilliant when it was raw, and it seemed a shame (to me) to have cooked it up and shredded it on a slightly-limp green lettuce salad.

cochinillo (roast suckling pig)

cochinillo (roast suckling pig)

The cochinillo at 18 euros was very good, making it the one dish that our server recommended that was especially noteworthy. The skin was incredible – thin and crispy, and extremely easy to break apart. Apparently, the kitchen first cooks the suckling pig sous vide before crisping the skin on the grill before serving. Much as I loved the classic oven-roasted version we ate in Segovia in the Ribera del Duero, the skin on the traditional version was sometimes a bit too shiny and hard to eat easily, so I’d say Bar Mut’s contemporary version was a real improvement.

carpaccio huevos fritos (our superstar dish of the night)

carpaccio huevos fritos (our superstar dish of the night)

Still hungry, Jon and I used pidgin Spanish to ask another server what he’d recommend, and without hesitating, he pointed us to the carpaccio huevos fritos. Unsure what would be raw (i.e., the carpaccio bit), we figured anything with fried eggs would surely be a winner, and at 14 euros, the dish was the highlight of our night: fried shoestring potatoes on a bed of raw egg yolk with some veg thrown in. The crunch-creamy textures were great, and the comfort factor of all those potatoes mixing with the rich egg yolk is not to be underestimated.

With a bottle of Carmelo Rodero crianza for 25 euros (I love the relatively-low markups on wine in Spanish restos!), our tab for two before tip totaled 110 euros. It was a lot of money for an inexpensive wine and five or six tapas dishes. I’d have been more wowed if we’d gotten more of the interesting items on the menu. So if you go, try to order on your own, and definitely go when there’s shellfish available. Bar Mut knows how to source, and I’ll guess that when there’s shellfish on offer, it’s the best money can buy.

Go for high-quality versions of tapas classics. Go if you’re touristing out in the neighborhood gawping at the Gaudis. And if you really want to be wowed, eschew the help of the English-speaking server and order the dishes you’ve never heard of from the blackboard menu.

Bar Mut, Pau Claris, 192; +34 93 217 43 38; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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egg "souffle" with vegetables at Gresca restaurant, Barcelona

egg "souffle" with vegetables at Gresca restaurant, Barcelona

Jon and I really enjoyed most of our meals in Barcelona, but the stand-out for us was dinner at Gresca.  This July 2008 NYT article on “bistronomia” described the restaurant thus:  “Gresca practices bistronomia, which means it’s one of a growing number of Barcelona restaurants dedicated to offering high quality, contemporary — and yes, occasionally clever — cooking at reasonable prices.”

How could I resist?  An elegant break from tapas and seafood at reasonable prices – I rang up right away and booked for 10 pm on Saturday.

grilled sardine with pancetta "film" and sesame seeds

grilled sardine with pancetta "film" and sesame seeds

I’m glad we showed up at 10, not only because I wanted to eat when the locals eat, but also because I doubt anyone in the kitchen was concentrating on much except football earlier that evening.  *Everyone* in Barcelona was watching the Barcelona-Madrid football match.  It was, after all, El Clasico.

Without being anywhere near a TV, Jon and I felt like we’d watched the game with every groan and cheer that we’d hear coming from homes and bars in Barcelona.  And lucky for us, Barcelona won, which I think put everyone (including the kitchen) in a happy mood by the time we arrived at the restaurant for dinner.

45 euros per person buys  you a treat of a tasting menu, which included the beautiful egg white souffle pictured at the top of this post.  An egg white, whipped up and somehow baked and stuffed with a runny yolk, on top of a bed of fresh, firm vegetables.  It was both simple and a big surprise.  And delicious.  Runny yolks and fresh veg make a perfect partnership, and the souffle added a bit of magic and wonder.  And that’s how I’d describe most of the dishes at Gresca – classic, good-tasting combinations, but prepared in a sometimes-surprising and interesting way.

Things got off to a strong start with a single grilled sardine covered in a thin layer of translucent pancetta fat and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.  Meaty, nutty, salty.   You’d never know you’d eaten a fish.

salted mackerel on a bed of egg yolk crumbles

salted mackerel on a bed of egg yolk crumbles

There was no mistaking the salt-marinated mackerel as fish, though its oiliness blended well with crumbled bits of egg yolk to create a soft, cream mayonnaise taste (which I suppose makes sense – egg yolks + oil = mayo).   I liked that simply crumbling egg yolk into crumbs made it unrecognizable at first.  I thought they’d be pop rocks or some other gimmicky ingredient.  But no, just rich, soft yolk.

hen-of-the-woods and chanterelle "ravioli" at Gresca

hen-of-the-woods and chanterelle "ravioli" at Gresca

The mushroom “ravioli” was beautiful.  They looked like calla lilies and fittingly tasted delicate.  Light wonton-style skills perfumed by fresh, high-quality mushrooms.   It both looked and tasted wonderful.

Gresca onion soup

This dish – a version of French onion soup – looked kind of scary.  The dark blob in the middle (that looked a bit sea monster-ish) was a whole mushroom, which added a chewy earthiness to the soup and covered a wonderful chunk of melting cheese.  The tangy-sweet onion broth, the cheese, the rich mushroom – all combined to create the most intense french onion soup, but in an elegant-looking way.  I watched the well-dressed, older guy next to us tip his bowl into his mouth to make sure he didn’t miss a single sip.

seared scallop and tiny shrimp at Gresca

seared scallop and tiny shrimp at Gresca

The single, enormous scallop was excellent.  Sweet and seared the way I love – crunchy brown on top, warm, pink and intensely sweet inside.  The crispy, fried baby shrimps added saltiness and crunch to balance out the scallop.  I must confess all those pairs of little black, beady eyes were mildly disturbing, but not for long.  Someone should sell those things in a bag – they’re perfect for snacking.

sweetbreads at Gresca

sweetbreads at Gresca

By the time the meat courses started arriving, I was flagging.  But when the sweetbreads showed up, I knew stopping would be a travesty.  The inside was that nice creamy meat flavor you get from offal, without the heaviness of, say, foie, and the delicate slices of scallion and coriander lightened things up further.

pigeon at Gresca restaurant

pigeon at Gresca restaurant

Pigeon.  Rat of the sky.  My favorite.  Again, beautifully cooked.  Juicy and rare with a crisp, salty skin.  But thank god it was the last savoury course.  I must be getting old, because I don’t see why, at 10 pm, I couldn’t easily polish off all this food.

"lemon sorbet" at Gresca

"lemon sorbet" at Gresca

When the sorbet course arrived, I was, at first, horrified.  At quick glance, it looked like another fish course, covered in pistachio and garnished with onion.  But no, thank goodness it was a light lemon sorbet with a good bite to it thanks to the preserved lemon.

"pina colada" at Gresca

"pina colada" at Gresca

And we ended dinner on another playful, refreshing note.  The restaurant’s version of a pina colada.  That’s a crunchy milk chocolate crust you see, filled with coconut and pineapple sorbet and liquer, I think.

At 45 euros a person, people should be pounding down the door at this place.  Gresca isn’t big, so book.  And enjoy.

Gresca restaurant interior

Gresca restaurant interior

Gresca, Carrer de Provenca, +34 93 451 61 93; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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Gaudi's Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Gaudi's candy-colored Casa Batllo, Barcelona

The first time I visited Barcelona was in November 2005, and back then, I made the mistake of not making any dinner reservations in advance, which meant that by the time I rang up highly-sought-after Barcelona restaurants, I was too late. So instead of swanking it up at the likes of Comerc 24, I ate several highly-forgettable dinners in indifferent tapas bars (you know, the randomly-chosen type that look crowded with locals but turns out to be filled with locals who must not care what they’re eating)

Still, there’d been bright spots last time – enough to make me long to revisit. I remember lunch at Cal Pep, for example, where my neighbor at the counter, an old Spanish guy, grabbed my right hand (which was holding my fork) and forced me to stab some of the braised calamari right off his plate.

So Jon and I returned last weekend for three full days of good food and relaxation, dividing most of our time between the winding medieval streets of the Born and the upscale gridiron of the Eixample district, where we stayed in what was effectively our own enormous flat for 90 euros a night (rented out as “the Chimney Room” by BarcelonaBB).

Because it was a holiday weekend in Spain, too, Cal Pep was closed. But having become a much more seasoned eater and traveller over the years, I had in mind lots of other options. (Many thanks to this August 2006 post by Chocolate & Zucchini, and to this July 2008 article and this April 2009 article from the New York Times, as well as the very up-to-date TimeOut Barcelona guidebook).

We had very good (2 pm, of course) lunches at ready-for-franchising Taller de Tapas and grande dame seafood specialist Els Pescadors and smile-inducing snacks at Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria, and even at a local chain, Café Viena.

Dinner on Sunday was at 10:30 pm at the super-lively Bar Mut and on Saturday night, we had a truly outstanding, I-can’t-wait-to-go-back dinner at Gresca, each of which I’ll blog about in upcoming posts.

spacious and gracious interior of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, Barcelona

spacious and gracious interior of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, Barcelona

We enjoyed the browsing, tasting and yapping of buying Spanish wines at the Vila Viniteca, which also happened to be steps away from Santa Maria del Mar, whose interior spaciousness and natural brightness is both surprising and memorable. (We ignored it the last time we were in Barcelona – it was on our way to Cal Pep – but having just read Ildefonso Falcones’s melodramatic-but-touching novel, Cathedral of the Sea, Jon and I were especially keen to see the place this time around). And inevitably, we ate a lot of gelato (courtesy of the fresh-and-fast Gelaaati!).

Of course, research and planning only take you so far. We had a pretty horrendous snack at Bar Boqueria (in the Boqueria, which goes to show you that there are truly miserable tourist traps even in Food-Lover’s Ground Zero) and a mediocre lunch at Ferran Adria’s foray into fast food, Fast Good. We also spent almost an hour searching out Jamonisimo, the jamon sh0p where Adria, Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon buy their cured meats, only to find that the shop inexplicably closed on Monday (and no, it wasn’t siesta time).

Sometimes you just get unlucky.

Still, we were so lucky to have been able to go back to Barcelona. I ate my weight in navajas (razor clams) and jamon and enjoyed the warm, sunny weather. It was the perfect weekend break.

Taller de Tapas, Carrer l’Argenteria, 51; +34 93 268 85 59; Born district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Els Pescadors, Placa Prim 1; + 34 93 225 20 18; Poblenou district; closest metro station: Poblenou

Bar Pinotxo, practically the first stall you hit in the Boqueria as you enter from Liceu metro; closest metro station: Liceu

Gresca, Carrer de Provenca, +34 93 451 61 93; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis, 115; +34 93 317 14 92; northernmost bit of La Rambla; closest metro station: Catalunya

Bar Mut, Pau Claris, 192; +34 93 217 43 38; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Vila Viniteca, Carrer de Agullers, 7; +34 902 32 77 77; Born district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Gelaaati!, Carrer de Llibreteria, 7; +34 93 310 50 45; Barri Gotic district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Fast Good, Carrer de Balmes, 127; +34 93 452 23 74; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Jamonisimo, Carrer de Provenca, 85; + 34 93 439 08 47; Eixample district; closest metro station: Hospital Clini

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