A softly lit, bamboo-lined jewellery box of a place on the corner of a peaceful street in Sant Gervasi/Gracia. That’s where we found it, the best Japanese food in Barcelona. It’s also where we found the best sashimi, the best quality fish prepared with the most careful attention to detail. Ikabana is but a joke, I’m sorry, a wannabe fusion-turned-fakeass disaster. Kibuka is fine, but for dinners limited to fish, rice, fish in rice, fish on rice.
For a full tasting of the wide spectrum of cooking styles so central to Japanese culture it has to be a kaiseki, a multi-course fixed menu dinner that shows off a chef’s range of skills and techniques. Each dish is small and artistically plated. The menu reveals only just enough to avoid what you don’t like so that the arrival of each new box, bowl or basket is a surprise for all senses.
We sat at the bar across from the Chef and watched as he meticulously assembled each dish, the same seven pieces of the same menu for guests that arrived at different times but would nevertheless be embarking on the same culinary journey through his creative mind. As he hovers over his counter, completely motionless but for his hands, he periodically looks up only enough to survey his immaculately arranged mise en place. His vision never, never crosses that bar, nor does he acknowledge his guests until they thank him and bid him adieu. The food is brought to the table by a tall, thin Catalan lady who seems to have completely adopted that exclusive brand of quiet, modest grace exhibited by Japanese women. Her wine service is exceptional. She sniffs the cork, breaks off her pour with a subtle and soundless twist of the wrist, stands statuesque and stoic as she presents the label while man tastes, and completes her elegant pour with a sly Mona Lisa smile across her face. It’s a level of humility, quality, attention and care that I have actually never experienced in the service at any other restaurant in Barcelona, and even just for that our night would be memorable.
A Zensai box came first, a trio of hors d’oeuvres. A small ramekin of sticky, perfectly tender sushi rice topped with large beads of salmon roe that popped like bubble wrap under the tongue, releasing splashes of marine brine to hydrate and flavor the modest rice. Next, a small heap of black trumpet mushrooms with a delicate tofu cream and bits of toasted walnut in the center. The yang to the rice’s yin, this dish was bold and earthy, packed with a deep and dark umami flavor. The steamed mushrooms were left a bit moist, in long, amorphous slivers that stuck together like fresh, dewy soil. The flavor echoed the smell of a forest floor, of the the nurturing mass of black earth covering it in autumn. The complex funk of the fungus was balanced by the very light and clean flavors of the tofu and a touch of comfort from the toasted nuts. Last in line was a cube of very rich sweet potato mousse that melted like silken butter on the tongue and coated the mouth in its thick, frothy consistency. As the cream disintegrated it left behind a natural, floral sweetness and crippling nostalgia for pumpkin pie within me.
OTSUKURI. In watching Chef arrange each plate, I most enjoyed seeing how he treated his raw fish. Small blocks of tuna were unwrapped and held in his palm to warm them through just enough, or maybe for him to say a silent goodbye to them and wish them a safe journey to the table. Uneven edges were shaved off, the blocks transformed into perfect slices and fanned out attractively on the plate. This fish was red, bright red, deep and dark, ruby red Blue Fin. Each piece was slippery smooth, gliding over the tongue and melting effortlessly against the steam wafting off it. A slight dab of soy and minimal wasabi for this one, a gorgeous and very clean feel all the way through. Then the oilier, more assertive mackerel whose tough skin was ripped deftly off by Chef, only leaving a thin layer of shimmering silver and blue. This fish smells and tastes like fish; it´s marine and savory, perfect with wasabi but very little soy, to allow its own unique flavors to shine. We left the scallops for last, which I regret doing as the strong flavors of the mackerel lingered, overpowering some of the delicate dulzor of the latter. (The right order should have been: scallop, tuna, mackerel.) The juicy lumps of marine muscle were absolutely ethereal, jiggly and still quite gelatinous from being cooked just enough, soft enough to melt into its tender fibers, with a delicate sweetness that left us craving more.
AGEMONO Next came a dish that went particularly well with our fantastic Chenin Blanc, a tripartite tempura to match the preceding tripartite seafood crudo. The presentation was wonderfully simple, in a woven basket on a white napkin with a little bowl of sweet and sour sauce. There was a wedge of kaki (persimmon) in a delicate batter fried to a golden brown. The fruit inside became very soft, almost too soft for me, like an overripe pear. The fresh flavor and natural sweetness was, however, a nice contrast to the crunchy coat and went well with the slightly acidic sauce on the side. There was also an agemochi, a puffed up and deep-fried snack of glutinous rice. This was the single element of the meal I did not enjoy. It was a chewy glob of rubbery, slimy stuff that I couldn’t seem to cut into pieces no matter how strongly I bit down. It was a struggle to eat and I was haunted by the unsavory thought of how long a complex starch like this would stay undigested in my gut… I think I’ll stick to the thinner frozen mochi desserts filled with ice cream instead. The highlight of the dish was the gorgeous deep-fried prawn, easy to twist into tail and torso. The meat was tender, juicy and very substantial. Its tight, firm texture went great with the crunch of the panko coat.
NIMONO (Possibly a Nizakana, a.k.a. Nitsuke) A heavenly filet of sea bass simmered skin-on in a shiru stock of dashi flavored with soy, sake and, I think, a bit of mirin or something else sweet. The fish completely absorbs the flavor-packed simmering liquid, becoming a moist, juicy cloud of delicate, soft flesh. It’s served with a gummy shiitake mushroom cap that also gets simmered and is topped with a light foam and tiny bits of toothsome lotus root running through it. The garnish is a sprinkling of some kind of toasted grain or lotus seed, as well as a pile of bright green snap pea and carrot both cooked to a perfect texture, where they are tender but still have a bite. A gorgeous composition, with many distinct flavors coming together in harmony. The main ingredient is treated beautifully and the filet is incredibly smooth and delicate, not overpowered by or soggy from the broth it rests in. Just remember to remove the chewy skin before digging into the creamy white marine flesh.
YAKIMONO. Wagyu, flame-grilled, rare. Perfect bite-sized cubes of beef with the skin browned on the grill just enough, but otherwise red and raw and relentlessly tender inside. The pieces were arranged in a pretty palm-shaped dome and served with a ramekin of soy-based sauce. I appreciated that each morsel, including the ones inside of the pile, was separately seasoned with good quality rock salt and pepper, instead of these just sprinkled over the external surface of the heap. A great dish, but one I expected would be good as soon as I saw it on the menu, and thus a course that lacked the surprise element that was otherwise such an integral part of this kaiseki experience.
SHINOGI (?) Then came a kind of Japanese ceviche of crabmeat mounted on a leafy pile of wilted mizuna and fried tofu, immersed in a refreshing citric jus. The crab was spongy and moist in texture, with the delicate sweetness of claw meat lingering on the palate even after a sip of the Japanese “leche de tigre.” The tofu turned out to be a bit chewy, but retained a crispiness around the edges, while the mizuna leaves offered a wonderfully smooth, glossy texture and a crunch when eaten in a single bite. This was a great palate cleanser after the beef and got us both excited for the final savory dish.
OSHOKUJI. I spotted what was to be my favorite course as soon as I walked through the door, before I even saw that the menu was a fixe. I witnessed a guy slurping enthusiastically from a bowl and immediately made a mental note to order whatever that was. Soba noodles are immersed in a flavor-packed, complex miso broth and topped with spring onions and a mix of local mushrooms (a great tribute to the season). The noodles are wonderfully nutty and toasted in flavor, made from buckwheat flour that gives them a wholesome, earthy, healthy feel. The broth is also tremendously comforting and delicious, salty and umami, hot. One truly tastes and appreciates the time it took to give the liquid such depth in flavor. I sipped up the noodles loudly and gulped the broth directly from the bowl, then lay back in my bar-chair, deeply satisfied with this most fantastic ending to a great meal.
But there was still dessert, a flan of toasted earl grey tea served in a porcelain bowl with a delicate wooden spoon; a cup of natural green tea on the side. The pudding was silky smooth, with a thin layer of tea syrup gliding across and flowing into the crevices formed in the smooth beige mousse. The flavor was nutty and toasted, modest and smart, only very mildly sweet. Combined with the grassy and aromatic green tea, this dessert left us feeling light and clean even after so many courses.
Neither we nor they spoke too much during this encounter, almost three hours long. There was a mutual and silent agreement between parties. It was good, they knew it was good, they knew we knew it was good. It was my beaux and my first kaiseki experience together but it won’t be the last and it will certainly not be our last visit to Wagokoro either.