Eating Barcelona: Alkimia
When Mike and I were planning our ‘splurge’ dinner in Barcelona, we were spoiled for choice. This cosmopolitan city is world renowned for it’s cuisine, both creative Catalonian and eclectic fusion fare. Our top choice was, of course, El Bulli, the premium Michelin starred restaurant which serves roughly 8,000 diners a year, while the other 1,992,000 who try to reserve (no kidding) will just have to wait. We were disappointed but not surprised when we couldn’t get a table. However, sometimes second choice is just as good, particularly when you don’t know what you’ll be missing and can pretend that it simply wasn’t worth the hype anyway. Then, continue to sniffle into the hotel bedspread until it’s time for tapas.
Although we can’t speak to the gastronomic delights at El Bulli, what we can say with great certainty is that we had a remarkable and exquisite meal at Alkimia, another of Barcelona’s Michelin star rated destinations. The creative genius behind Alkimia is chef Jordi Vilà at its helm, who is a driver of the young, hip “New Catalan” cuisine, in easy company with Ferran Adria’s many other disciples. Beyond superb technique, what really makes Jordi’s food noteworthy is the creative handling of traditional Catalan recipes and preparations with fusion ingredients and innovative style. Perhaps that’s why the restaurant was named Alkimia, or ‘alchemy’ in English.
Tucked just a short jump behind Sagrada Familia (Antoni Gaudi’s spectacular cathedral-in-progress), the restaurant is in a quiet neighborhood that has, well, very little curb appeal. However, that just adds to the ‘hidden gem’ ambiance of the experience. Sure, I clutched my purse just a little bit tighter on the walk over, but a bit of unease always heightens the appetite!
Apparently the restaurant has a la carte options for both lunch and dinner, but we had no interest in that. When it comes to fine dining, we are perfectly content to let the chef organize our culinary experience, and I’ve always been a sucker for a good tasting menu. Alkimia has two tasting menu options, at 65 € or 84 € per person. The one caveat, perhaps, would be to decide in advance. If your Special Someone wants Menu 1, but your heart is set on Menu 2, find a quick compromise because the restaurant discourages such split tables. Of course, I chose the larger one and Mike was forced to follow suit. I am nothing if not greedy and overbearing. Also, Menu 2 had cockles, and saying, “I like to eat cockles” never fails to amuse. Although we arrived almost 20 minutes early for our reservations (keeners, I know), the warm and gracious staff led us immediately to our table so that we could begin.
When faced with an unfamiliar wine list, particularly a wine list that exceeds 7 pages, Mike and I are generally happy to defer to the Sommelier for a recommendation. In this case, the charming and husky voiced Sommelier (Lara? Katya? Let’s call her Karen) did not lead us astray. Attentive and with presence at each stage of the meal, she made ready recommendations that were all spot on and encouraged us to try several local wines that we would otherwise have been far too intimidated to choose from. We started with a glass of sparkling local Cava while we nibbled on willowy breadsticks crusted with black onion seed, which may very well have been less of an appetite whetter and more of a centerpiece.
The first appetizer was enough to kick our taste buds into overdrive. A tiny ice cold shot glass was filled with intensely flavored clear tomato water, a drizzle or full bodied Spanish olive oil and crispy toasted bread crumbs. Perched on top was a thin slice of toothsome charcuterie, a peppery cured sausage that was reminiscent of our time in France. The combination was at once light and refreshing but complex and stirring, which is everything I could ask for in an amuse bouche.
The second appetizer was a velvety rich fish liver (codfish?) nestled on top of buttery onion and potato puree with tangy sweet pickled cherries. The liver was gently treated but had a surprisingly strong iodized flavor which was complemented creatively by the assertive tart cherries. Neither one of us had tasted fish liver before and the verdict is…nay bad. The dish was well composed and intriguing and the textures were sublime, even if the flavor wasn’t exactly to our personal tastes.
By now, as you can imagine, the Cava was long gone. ‘Karen’ suggested that we whet our whistles with a robust Catalan white wine to pair with the fish and seafood courses. This wine was a surprising delight, followed immediately by an intense pang of regret that we would never be able to find it outside of Spain. Fresh but incredibly fruity with aromas of rich peach, musky pear, honey, and fresh grass, the wine was layered and intriguing but bold enough to stand up to the varied fish courses we were about to enjoy.
Our official first course was “Spaghettini with Seafood”. Not a very descriptive title, considering that this dish was very light and briny with fresh zucchini peel ‘noodles’, cockles, barnacles, something reminiscent of raw calamari, sea cucumber (?) and some manner of seaweed, dressed lightly with an acidic vinaigrette. If you were expecting a Mediterranean pasta dish, the more fool you. However, each bite was like nibbling your way through the ocean, in the very best possible way.
The second course was “Simple – White Asparagus – Simply”. There was nothing simple about this. Like an incredible deconstruction of asparagus in hollandaise sauce, this dish featured perfectly poached white asparagus over a fresh egg yolk (possibly quail). On the side was a shockingly delicious asparagus cream mousse wrapped in paper thin slices of pickled asparagus, garnished with a gingered pickle and violet flowers. Again, not simple, but utterly delicious. I had never before seen my husband so excited about asparagus.
Course three was “Pickled Oysters with Glazed Pork Cheek and Spinach Sauté”. In a quick left turn away from the light vegetable and seafood dishes, the succulent pork cheek was bathed in what can only be described as liquid umami, perfectly balanced Asian inspired sweet and salty flavors. The barely wilted spinach was a complimentary conduit to both, but the pickled oyster was the biggest surprise. Very briny and fresh but with a fatty texture that I wasn’t prepared for, my first few nibbles were tentative but I certainly didn’t struggle to finish the plate.
Course four was “Cuttlefish with Ink Sauce and Ginger”. The cuttlefish ink was warm, rich, iodized and earthy. Swirled with a nutty golden sauce that may have been derived from miso and coconut cream, the raw cuttlefish was piled gamely on top with thin slivers of bright, fresh pickled ginger. As beautiful to look at as it was to eat, my first official taste of real squid ink (ie, not in a dried pasta from Longos) did not disappoint. If I wasn’t in such polite company, I likely would have licked the plate.
Course five was “Prawn ‘a la mano’ “. This was the dish where we really started to feel like smug judges on Iron Chef. Eating first with the eyes and then the nose, the aroma of this dish was breathtaking. Mingling in a bed of steaming grey sea salt there were charred bay leaves, cloves, and thin slivers of lime zest. The brilliant red prawn, barely touched by heat, had an almost raw texture which was elevated incredibly by the fragrant aromas wafting up from the plate.
A finger bowl afterward wouldn’t have been amiss, mind you, but the extra napkins played their part just as well.
Course six was “Fish of the Day with Beetroot Reduction, Pickled Onion, Onion Puree and Olive Shards”. The fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin and delicate flake. The beetroot puree was pretty more than sweetly earthy, but the beet pickled raw onions made up for that fact. Although the salty dry black olive powder was saline enough to brighten up the dish, the real star of the show was, surprisingly, the onion puree. You could have put that puree on toast and I would have eaten it. Hell, you could have put that puree on a blessed peanut butter sandwich and served it as a canape. Your guests wouldn’t care. It was that good, with a silky texture and a richer caramelized onion flavor than you’ll find in even the best pissaladiere.
Course seven was “Chickpeas with Skin”. Don’t be fooled, he’s just playing with us again (Spaghettini with seafood, indeed). There were neither chickpeas nor any troubling skins on the plate. What we did have was a wholesome and comforting little dish of rich broth with tiny tender pasta balls, nutty enough that they may have been made with either chickpea flour or ground dry chickpeas, and served with a garnish of crispy fish shards and some manner of sea plant. I wouldn’t normally think of pasta as a palate cleanser, but in this case, the ‘chickpeas’ were a welcome divergence from the surf before we entered the land of Alkimian turf.
As we entered the meat courses, ‘Karen’ proffered a glass of Catalan red which was peppery and full bodied like a Californian Cabernet.
Course eight was “Morel Mushroom”. Stuffed with pork, beef and foie gras forcemeat, eating the earthy and luscious morels was an almost sexual experience. Bathed in a rich buttery sauce, redolent of burnished brown stock and mushroom jus, this dish was enough to elicit a whimper of joy. On the side was a simple strip of wilted kale with toasted pine nuts, juicy raisins, and the sweetest twee little white flowers that you ever did see.
Take a deep breath, we’re into course eight, or “Beef with Spring Vegetables and Mustard Seeds”. Perfectly rare slices of tender beef were served under a root vegetable nursery, with infant carrots, baby white beets, parsnips and onions. The tumescent mustard seeds burst in the mouth like salmon roe, and the beef was perfectly complemented by a side broth of garlicky miso in a little well. The rose petals, of course, are just gilding the lily.
By the time dessert was ready, we were slightly past prime. ‘Karen’ suggested a gin and tonic to refresh and pair with dessert. Now look, I’m a gin girl through and through (when I don’t feel like being a whisky woman or a vodka madam), but I was certainly not expecting to pair a cocktail with dessert. However, it turned out to be the perfect light, bright and sparkly pick-me-up to invigorate us for the remaining three (gulp!) courses left to go. And really, coffee with dessert is for when you’ve just given up.
Course nine, or Dessert One (starting the count again makes me feel better about it, somehow) was “Blood Orange Sorbet Carrot Gelee, Pumpkin Seed with Cacao”. After the rich meats and curious seafood dishes, this was a welcome and refreshing cleanser. The blood orange sorbet was tart, sweet and refreshing against the mild and earthy carrot gelatin sprinkled with crispy pumpkin seeds, cocoa nib and a few slivers of bitterly bright lime zest. Again, the balance of texture and temperature was superb.
Dessert two was “Chocolate Brownie with Eucalyptus Gelato, Green Apple Slices, Poached Apple”. Did you ever think that an ice cream which tastes like Vick’s Vapour Rub could be good? Neither did we, until we tried it paired with a dense and fudgey bittersweet brownie, slightly bitter caramelized apples and punchy fresh matchsticks of Granny Smith. This was like hugging Tarte Tatin through a tearful goodbye at grade 8 graduation, and reconnecting 17 years later when T.T. is decked out in Prada heels and puts the bill on her executive chequing account.
Finally, dessert three was a shareable selection of petit fours, including an intensely sweet-tart passion fruit sorbet encased in white chocolate and served as a lolly, shots of cooling cucumber melon water with fresh mint and fruit, peanut butter chocolate bonbons, and…something that I don’t remember because we were in food-coma territory.
At only 84,00 €, Alkimia’s tasting menu was well worth every dollar. Or Euro. Whatever, it’s that pesky food-coma speaking again.