Top Notch Tapas at Restaurante Santagustina

Deep in the heart of el Born is a quiet plaza named Sant Agustí Vell where the bae and I found ourselves one day as we wandered the streets looking for a place to sit and have a beer. It´s one of those countless hidden places – side streets and alleyways, courtyards and plazas – that you can spend a lifetime in Barcelona and still never discover unless happening upon it by chance. (So it was for me with Plaça de Sant Pere, Carrer dels Flassaders and the incredible Casa Gispert.) It´s still slightly off the tourist trail and it´s small enough to never really become an important stop on it. It´s basically a bar with an outdoor terrace and a restaurant called Santa Agustina and not much else. We sat at a table outside, just a few meters from the emblematic street lamp that gives the plaza so much character, and ordered a beer.

Santa Agustina is a gourmet tapas joint, with a menu divided into sections with different personalities. Cold and hot small plates to share and some desserts too. A good diversity of ingredients and cooking methods showcased. Many of the classics are reinvented with a twist, other recipes left alone but prepared perfectly. It´s a pleasant selection, tough to choose from but short enough not to have to spend hours flipping through.

43To start we shared a bowl of four Buñuelos de Chistorra, which were a nice alternative to the croquetas de jamón available at every other tapas joint in Barcelona. The delicate crunch of the thin, golden brown coat gave way to a smooth and creamy sausage filling, flavored with plenty of paprika that provided a mild heat. While deep-fried, the little balls were fantastically light and fluffy in texture. Gobbling them down in one bite each left me with no remorse whatsoever.

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Then a napoleon of eggplant, tomato and goat cheese roasted up all together in an earthenware ramekin that came piping hot to the table. This is a gorgeous starter with simple, beautiful flavors that harmonize, warming and comforting the eater. The goat cheese maintained its dry and fuzzy skin, but the delicate flesh of the cheese within brûlée-ed  from the direct heat of the broiler and melted slightly over the vegetables. The eggplant became perfectly tender and provided a nutty taste, while the tomato added sweetness, freshness and a moisture that bubbled dramatically up from the stinging heat of the bowl. I appreciated that the dish was so minimally seasoned, allowing the roasted veggies to shine. It was not overloaded with basil or oregano as this combination of ingredients sometimes can be.

56Then a tapas with perfectly cooked octopus on a bed of a vibrant orange purée made of sweet potato, some parsnip (I think) and paprika. The tentacles were grilled to a great fork-tender, far from rubbery despite being relatively thick and meaty in form. Each piece melted after a few chews, as the flesh was only slightly firmer than that of a scallop, with a gorgeous charred flavor complementing the natural sweetness of the purple and white octopus. The texture of the purée was tantalizing, velvety smooth and luscious, a bit glossy and gelatinous like processed chocolate pudding, but with that consistency coaxed out of natural ingredients instead. Some paprika was sprinkled across the surface, no doubt to echo the traditional pulpo a la gallega (octopus on a bed of sliced potatoes) of which this dish is a very creative spinoff. The powder also added a beautiful bright red color to an already very pretty plate.

98And then something I´ve never had before, called a trinxat of butifarra negra with papada de cerdo. A trinxat is a traditional Catalan comfort food dish associated with Cerdanya, a mountainous county near Andorra in the Pyrenees. It’s a creamy mash made with potatoes, winter cabbage, garlic and oil, and traditionally served with some cut of pork lain across. In this case I think the mash was a bit wetter than in the traditional version, becoming a sticky, smooth thing with the addition of cream and reminding me strongly of a Hungarian vegetable főzelék. Another wondeful purée. And mixed in were small bits of buti negre (blood sausage), which gave the naturally sweet, delicate purée a slightly briny, seasoned meat taste. Then two beautifully fatty, crunchy, delicious slices of pork jowl; a.k.a. chin, cheek, neck-fat. Yum. After devouring the slices of pork with most of the mash, we sat back in our chairs chatting and periodically taking small forksful of the remaining trinxat, licking the stuff off slowly like peanut butter and enjoying its creamy, glazed consistency.

It was a meal made memorable by a series of comforting textures and flavors: the crunch of a fried bunyol, oozing and pungent goat cheese, fatty and salty pork cheek, silky smooth, rich purées of this and that. Each dish was a special treat, exciting when brought out, the kind of thing you one can’t eat every day, though. But at a dainty, wrought iron table in this beautiful, cobblestoned plaza, surrounded by quiet tranquility and warmed by the soft Sunday afternoon sunshine… A truly wonderful and very different el Born experience.

NOTE:

Since writing this article I have returned several times to Santagustina. Here is what I´ve had:

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