A few days into my father’s visit to Barcelona we had grown a bit weary of tapas. We were craving the opposite, a thoughtfully assembled entrée complete with a protein and a side or two. No more bar snacks, no more homogenous mounds of just one thing, no more small plates designed to share. Of course, our relationship is such that we’d end up splitting whatever came to the table. But we were craving a composite, harmonious creation for once, instead of a spread of small, simple things.
At that time I didn’t know too much about restaurants, such as Can Punyetes, that specialize in classic, grandma-style Catalan dishes like grilled half-rabbit, quail, pork cheek and braised pig’s feet. I had encountered these homey, hearty dishes in restaurants around Priorat, but blanked on finding them in Barcelona. On retrospect, I should’ve found my hungry father a grilled longaniza sausage with fried white beans, a half guinea hen with a side of escalivada or samfaina, or nice big hunk of secret de porc (the tasty lump meat under a pig’s shoulder blade). Maybe a nice carpaccio de bacalao (thin slices of raw salt cold) to start. A porrón of wine on the side and some vi rancio with mató whey cheese for dessert. But, alas, he visited too soon. He came before I knew these things were available. So we settled for the refined, bistro-style Taverna del Bisbe next to Santa Eulàlia Cathedral in Gótico, in hopes that it would at least offer a decent steak or a nice fish filet. It definitely did…along with a long list of tapas. Faced with such a tempting variety, we eventually gave in and ended up ordering most of our dishes from that tapas list. But we also got a bleeding chunk of meat to share.
The tapas I tend to crave more often than any other is the ever-present bowl of pimientos de padrón. Light, delicious and perfect for sharing, these little guys are available at any tapas bar in town. Most non-tapas restaurants even have them on their menus as appetizers. They’re hardly ever prepared incorrectly, as the recipe is a real no-brainer: 1) flash-fry peppers until the skins blister and pop, 2) sprinkle on a generous dose of sea salt. Most of the peppers are naturally sweet, with the exception of one or two in each bunch that are said to be a tad spicy (I’ve never been fortunate enough to find a hot one, though.) A simple way to start any meal, and del Bisbe’s version is as good as any other.
A good tapas to order when you’re hungry is the ensaladilla rusa, which is basically a thick and goopy “salad” of canned tuna, peas and minced and boiled carrots and potatoes bound with an impressive scoop of mayonnaise. Sometimes a hard-boiled egg is shaved over the top or mixed in for extra texture. It’s the Spanish take on what is perhaps Russia’s most misunderstood (or, I guess, “adapted”) dish, the Olivier salad. While the original is also prepared with mayonnaise as a binder, there usually isn’t so much of it. The fattiness of the mayo in the original is balanced with the tartness of chopped pickles and the heat of mustard also mixed in. There is also usually a generous sprig of dill to give the salad a soapy, clean flavor and aroma. T del B’s “Russian salad” has a very nice flavor and consistency, as far as the Spanish tapas version goes. It is, however, pretty dense and heavy, and certainly not to be mistaken with a leafy green salad. Best to share between two or more diners hungry enough to handle it.
I can’t quite get away with not ordering blood sausage when either of my parents visit me, and this meal would turn out to be no exception. We saw cazuelita de morcilla y choricitos and didn’t hesitate long to order it. This dish is, in fact, not to be missed. A cozy clay pot of salty little chorizo links are mixed with mashed lumps of murky, sweet blood sausage. Slivers of sautéed onion serve as the bridge between the meats. I enjoyed most the contrast of textures here. The choricitos offered an exciting snap of tightly stuffed casing when bitten into, followed by a flood of burning hot, paprika flavored pork grease. The mushy interior of the blood sausage was wrapped in a wonderfully crunchy coat formed by searing the thing against a hot metal surface. Not the healthiest dish by any means, but one I never seem to get tired of. And hey, we did have some “salad” right before, right?
The solomillo (sirloin) was from Galician Blonde beef, cooked to a perfect warm rare. It had been allowed to rest so as to maintain a juicy, plump texture on the interior against a seductively crunchy crust on the outside. The steak was beautifully lean and mild in flavor, seasoned minimally with black pepper and sea salt sprinkled over the top. Good mustard and pink peppercorns were available on the side to smear on for extra heat. The steak was served with a tower of gratinated potatoes that crackled under the fork but was creamy smooth and decadent on the interior. A very well executed meat-and-potatoes dish, though not one with too much Catalan flair. Nevertheless, it did the trick. After months in a land of pork and tapas, it’s nice sometimes to have a juicy hunk o’ beef.