We stumbled out of a costume store, the Basque and I, gripping shiny cellophane packages and an orange balloon he had snatched from the counter “sinpa”. It was Halloween in Barcelona and I was ready to play, as I do each year regardless of where I happen to find myself. In the past 5 years I’ve been “flowers” in DC, a disco ball in Hong Kong, a gringa bitch in Buenos Aires, a go-go dancer in Santiago de Chile and whatever the hell this is in Boston. This year I’d play it cool and just dress in black with a bright pink wig, which nevertheless transformed me into a creature of the night. The Basque toted a massive fro and a pinstriped knit sweater, his idea of a black guy from the swingin’ 70’s.
After a few negronis we found ourselves at the basement bar of Tapas 24, poring through the menu that doubles as a holder for silverware, stopping at every 2nd or 3rd tapa to ask “what is..?” (Neither of us reads Catalan.) All stools face a central kitchen visible through the bar. A boisterous crowd sips vermouth or beer as they await plates of Michelin starred tapas. The bar is a fun side project, a place for El Bulli trained Chef Abellán of Comerç 24 and Bravo24 in the W to play around with the classics, sticking truffles and foie in places you might not think to look. It’s all very informal and there are no reservations, which makes the place accessible outside the dinner rush. We gave up on choosing and told our barman to bring us everything that he would order if it were his first time there. When we started to feel full we’d ask the food flow to stop. A pan con tomate came to fuel our appetites as we waited. It was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. A thin slice of warm, crunchy bread with the mildly sweet juice of a ripe tomato caught up in its toasted grooves. The bread soaked in the tomato rubbed over it, but remained perfectly crunchy; a feat I’ve witnessed few p.c.t’s achieve. The oil drizzled on warmed up from contact with the bread, unlocking deep, vegetal flavor and a hint of bitterness that faded as the kick of the coarse salt came into play. Only a small pinch of the latter was sprinkled over the surface, bringing the simple flavors of bread, tomato and oil to the forefront. A brilliant reminder of what this popular snack is supposed to be and a major upgrade from a horribly soggy version we had had at some run down bar just a few hours prior. “Bomba de la Barceloneta” wasn’t something I would’ve ordered if left to my own devices. It didn’t seem like a very light dish at all and I generally tend to shy away from anything with “Barceloneta” in the name. But that’s because I know very little the city Barcelona and really I know even less its food scene and culinary traditions. The bomba is actually a dish said to have been invented during the Spanish Civil War by a Barceloneta bar owner by the name of Maria Pla. At that time Barceloneta wasn’t quite as polished and preppy as it is now. In fact, the neighborhood was a sketchy port surrounded by slums that provided plenty of cover for the anarchist activity that was basically headquartered there. The weapon of preference for these radicals was a round iron ball stuffed with explosives that would be ignited by a string fuse. Pla designed a potato croquette, plating it with two sauces to mimic the bomb, its fuse and the effect of its explosion. Call it morbid or call it a way of making light of a heavy topic with which people at the time were probably kind of fed up. Either way, there’s a story there.
Tapas 24’s version is great for the hungry, designed to share for those who aren’t. A ball of smooth potato mash is lightly breaded and fried to a coarse and crunchy consistency. Inside the dense bomb of papa is a nucleus of minced beef that is crumbly and moist, though nothing too special in flavor. Flavor comes from the sauces instead, the garlicky white cream of whipped goodness that is the classic alioli (this one doubtless made in house) and the bright red “blood” that claims to be extrapicante but is only just so. Rub these all over a cross-section of the potato and meat, and you’re good to go on this house specialty that comes highly recommended. Next, the Bikini Comerç 24, inspired by the Chef’s other Barcelona venture. It’s a toasted finger sandie with gooey mozzarella, jamón ibérico and bits of black truffle slathered on, and it’s a cheap trick, but one that works. The crustless bread is thin enough to offer no more than its caramelized crunch to each bite, leaving the emphasis on the fillings. Velvet- smooth buff mozz flooded my mouth shamelessly as I bit through the toast. The slightly sweet cream flavor of the melting cheese providing the perfect canopy for the aged, cured funk of the ham, which was sliced at the bar in front of us and passed casually to the guy manning the sandwich press in the kitchen. The truffle elevated the already flawless ham and cheese by adding an earthy depth, that slightly dirty umami thang that stretched itself sultry on the clean bed of mozzarella. The perfect bar snack, good especially with vermouth. If the bikini is flirtatious, the McFoie Burger is nothing short of slutty. A toasted, buttery bun is pressed around a wad of quite rare beef that pours steam forth from minced flesh that feels like it’s still breathing. There’s just enough salt and a bit of caramelized onion to accent the wonderful flavor of perfectly (un)cooked meat dripping with juice. The bottom bun soaks some of this up, but remains so damn crunchy against the angel soft pillow topping it. The halved burger is wrapped in diner-style parchment paper the very touch of which suggests something cheap and greasy and wonderful. In the ramekin next to it is not a two-pump dollop of ketchup but a glossy quenelle of foie mousse to smear over the burger or to rub all over yourself or really to do whatever you want with since you paid for it anyway. It was a dense and dangerously rich spread served in way too generous a portion, with the nutty and mineral flavors of the foie soothed into a beautifully delicate liver butter. A madness took over me and I did not talk to my dinner companion as I took biting bits of burger, smearing other bites with foie, then spooning foie directly into my very willing face. I can see myself returning weekly to Tapas 24 just for this dish and a glass of vermouth. That very first bite made me a regular. Pinxo de Cordero “Alhucemas” was the only dish of the night that didn’t stand out to me at all. Bite-sized chunks of lamb were pierced with a skewer and grilled to a nice texture with subtle hints of a Moroccan spice rub and some fresh green herbs sprinkled on. A good lamb dish but not unlike brochetted meat I’ve had before. Some sort of chutney or cream sauce or maybe a thin bread to wrap the meat into might have spruced this one up. As it stood, this dish seemed a bit incomplete. Our meal had started with a refreshingly simple classic, left untouched by the retouch brush of the Michelin starred kitchen; it ended just the same, with some ous remenats on patates rosses and boti negre. That’s fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and slices of blood sausage, a dish with a very wide range in quality 100% dependent on who’s making it. Needless to say, this was one of the better versions I’ve had (and I’ve had some despicable renditions of the same…) The potato wedges here were fried to a pleasant crunch with no excess oil weighing them down, gluing them to the plate. The eggs were nice and wet, delightfully undercooked and giggly, with the silky yolk adding richness to each bite. And the morcilla was that good kind, soft and airy light in texture but densely packed with flavor. It was sweet with a mineral edge but salty and nutty on sides that had sizzled up against the heat of the pan. The perfect combination of stick-to-your-ribs ingredients making for a hearty hug of a dish that almost makes you wish you were hungover and in need of that hug more. This one goes with beer. Don’t think to pair it with anything else.Our dinner at Tapas 24 came to an end with a shared dessert, a decadent chocolate mousse with thin slices of toast, olive oil and coarse salt that I was apparently too excited about to remember to take a picture of. The dish was dense and interesting and a definite upgrade from fun-sized Snickers and pumpkin-shaped Reese’s of Halloweens past. It was a very cool way to end a wonderful meal, one of the first of many in Barcelona.