In December I visited Albert Adrià’s Bodega 1900, the go-to alternative to Tickets across the street. I was new back then to the world of vermouth with canned things, and thus very lucky to have stumbled upon one of the best representations of this Catalan dining tradition at Bodega 1900. It’s where I first learned an important lesson: that it’s okay to eat things other than caviar from a can; that it’s cool, even, to do so. Growing up, my father would often bring home tins of mussels, clams and smoked sardines preserved in a smoky tomato or mustard sauce from the Russian store in Brighton, Mass. Back then I though these were just a cheap snack to binge on when my gourmand mother wasn’t around, in the spirit of domestic rebellion. Sometimes I thought these foods were a way to indulge in nostalgia for his time spent in Russia. In the vermuterías of Barcelona I discovered the rich culinary tradition founded on preserved foods. I learned that these products have their own unique range from cheap and accessible to premium quality. Since then I’ve had my fare share of tinned things, cockles and clams, mussels and sardines. Olives and pickled anchovies have become the norm, snacks I’ve come to expect (and occasionally even demand) with my booze. I’ve learned to order my vermouth dry – never sweet – with a slice of orange and three green olives. I’ve learned that more than three sweet vermouths lead to the deadliest of hangovers the next day.
When my mother came to visit a while back I took her to Bodega 1900, the first vermutería I ever visited, in hopes of showing her this tradition. The atmosphere reminded her of a time during her own youth when vermouth was all the rage in Budapest, when (now vintage) Martini and Cinzano posters draped the walls of every alternative chic bar in town. We had some wonderful bites to eat, some repeats from my last time there, along with some new finds from a menu that never ceases to excite me.
One of those new finds was “La Cala” brand tuna belly in a slightly spicy oil, a great example of a premium canned product. The fibers of fish were smooth, slippery and tender. They were the perfectly fatty and decadent topping for the fresh slices of bread served on the side. My mom ended up buying several cans of the stuff on the way out to take home as gifts for friends and family. You should do the same.
Another dish that was new to me was the baked eggplant served whole and doused in a glossy mix of soy, mirin and miso. The marinade made the exterior slippery and smooth to contrast the firmer texture found within. Slicing into the tender vegetable was a sensation quite similar to that of cutting into a juicy steak cooked rare. Each forkful was meaty and rich, melting in the mouth like veal or pork belly. We both enjoyed this dish immensely, though the eggplant was surprisingly large in comparison to the other dishes and thus, really, too large to be a tapa. A disclaimer ought to be added to the menu, warning guests that this dish is designed for at least two people to share.
Besides the must order-order crispy seaweed and Adrià’s famous board of gordal & pipara olives I also re-ordered the house-cured moixama tuna. Each slippery slice was served with a plump Marcona almond, toasted, crunchy and comforting against the coolness of the fish. Just as last time, the presentation hinted subtly, ‘Roll me up…Do it,’ and that’s just what I did.
But there was no dish that shocked and pleased me more that first time at Bodega 1900 than the squid mollete, a sandwich that looks like nothing more than a boring old hotdog bun filled with greasy calamari, mayo and hot sauce. Here’s what I had to say last time: “But as I grip the sandwich the surface of the bread stays firm and there are none of the fingertip-shaped imprints I had expected. It’s a doughy and dense mollete roll, the same stuff those wonderful €1.4 bocadillos de jamón that I have had virtually every morning for breakfast are made with. The original mollete of Andalusia is round, usually toasted with oil and rubbed with garlic. This one was toasted very lightly or maybe even just warmed up a tad. It was slightly crunchy but maintained a moist and chewy, bagel-type consistency on the interior. Assembled carefully in the slit of the roll were small rings of squid coated with the crispiest of breadcrumb coats fried to a light shade of brown. A fluffy and light home-whipped aioli was squeezed over the top, interwoven with a spicy red sauce made with kimchi, soy sauce and chipotle chile. Each bite was a pure joy. The tight toasted skin of the bread, the chewy and cooked interior, the sandy breadcrumb crust and delicate squid flesh inside. Then the creamy aioli, mixing with the hot oil from the calamari, flooded my mouth with its garlic comfort, all the while the piquant red sauce stung my tongue slightly. A brilliant composition of flavors and textures that leave me staring at my dining companion in disbelief. He appears to share the sentiment. A powerful surprise.”
This original description of the squid mollete held true the second time around. My old favorites were just as special months after, and the new discoveries did not disappoint either.