There is a 2 block x 3 block area in the southeast corner of Gràcia that hosts a large portion of my favorite Barcelona eat and drink joints, and I´ve been lucky enough to have lived just around the corner from most of them since April of last year. On Bonavista I love Bodega Bonavista for their carefully curated collection of stinky French cheeses and their impeccable wine and craft beers ready to taste on the spot. I like BarBut for midday sandwiches and coffee breaks, and Bar Mut for fancy seafood and foie grad dinners. I like El Toc de Gràcia for their classic Mediterranean dishes and elegant “special occasion” atmosphere. I like Las Empas for their late-night, Plan-B empanadas and beer. I like Old Fashioned bar for their bourbon selection and speakeasy vibe that make me homesick. I like Can Punyetes, serving country-style Catalan cuisine reminiscent of the food in Priorat, but only in theory as I´ve still never been there… And I like Thai Gràcia Restaurant for their excellent curries and extra spicy tom kha gai when I have a stuffy nose. On Carrer de Corsega I like the late-night churró con chocolate stand (how can you not?) I like La Pepita for their selection of awesome mounted toasts. And I like La Pepita´s sister-restaurant just two doors down, the pretty little pre-show vermutería named La Cava.
When you make a plan to visit La Pepita (because you heard it was awesome from a friend) and find a line 20 people long, La Cava offers a great alternative (or at least a place to wait). Unfortunately, the overflow is sometimes also quite overwhelming and the narrow space on the guests´ side of the bar fills up fast. But tables turn and the spectacle of the open kitchen makes the wait slightly less dull.
The menu is nothing mind-blowing, but it´s varied enough and there are sparks of innovation lighting up here and there. The vermut, beer and wine are matched nicely with good stuff to snack on: olives, fried almonds, gildas (skewers of pickled peppers, olives and anchovy), slices of jamón ibérico, triangles of sheep cheese, sausages. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Then the classic canned seafood favorites – mussels, cockles, razor clams, octopus. They offer classic tapas (both hot and cold) like ensaladilla rusa and patatas bravas, some international fusion type things like tuna tartar with ponzu and a nice selection of (when in season) tomato salads topped with a variety of stuff. Then a section called Freiduría (“Fried Stuff”), one with tortillas (Spanish omelets) and a neat little trio of ceviches.
Plates are pretty, though a tad small for the price, even for tapas. Ingredients are fresh and the classics respected. Service is moderately courteous, though the wait is sometimes frustrating as they do not take reservations and the process of getting guests seated is as inefficient as anywhere else in town.
Their pan con tomate is great, with the juice from the fruit soaking into the cracks of the crunchy bread and hydrating each bite with its fresh, naturally sweet flavor. Big globs of moist tomato flesh cling to the surface, causing the slices to glitter in the soft light of the restaurant. Crunchy bread rubbed with fresh tomato (and maybe sprinkled with just a few drops of good olive oil) is so simple, but when the ingredients are of good quality it can be one of the most satisfying pre-meal snacks. I´ve come to judge restaurants in Barcelona on the quality of their PcT and the version at La Cava set my expectations for the meal pretty high.
It´s tough to improve upon classic boquerones (fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and oil, flavored with garlic and parsley) but La Cava does just that by squirting on a delicate jam of green olives, which adds a wonderfully nutty, vegetal flavor to each filet. There´s just enough of the marmalade on there to make you wonder about that interesting flavor in the background and to add a level of intrigue to this dish.
Off the ceviche list we got the sea bass with sweet potato purée, baby corn and red onions, a delightfully colorful and overall gorgeous dish that was a pleasure to photograph. The delicate textures came together nicely, the firm fish flesh tenderized by its time spent in acid, the soft baby corn and kernels of adult corn with some subtle vegetal snap still left in them, the thin slices of crunchy onion, the small globs of silky smooth boniato cream here and there and the crunchy toasted kernels scattered throughout. I thought the very mild sweetness of the boniato got lost in the lemon juice and zing of onion, though the texture and color of the latter were a great addition to the overall profile of the dish. The bass “cooked” through perfectly, and was still a bit translucent in the end. A refreshing and dynamic ceviche and one with just the right amount of liquid to hold it together without it turning into leche de tigre soup.
Their bravas are awesome, probably one of the first and only versions of this otherwise greasy mess of a dish that I’ve ever enjoyed in Barcelona. The chunks of potato are cooked to a gorgeous, golden brown color with the caramelized and crunchy skin withering up around the edges. It’s the type of fried potato dish in which each piece looks different and you go on a hunt around the plate to seek out the ones that best fit your texture preference. The potatoes are sprinkled with coarse salt and topped off with a jiggly glob of salsa “picante” (tomato-based, but not so spicy) and another garlicky glob of aioli (a garlicky, creamy mayo-type thing) on top of that. It’s as sinful as any other bravas I´ve come across, but the flavors are way more exciting and the textures less lazy.
On other occasions where I wasn´t in a reviewing mood and just felt like snapping a few photos with my phone for Instagram I´ve had dishes like the salmon tartar with pumpkin cream and miso and ponzu sauce, a red beetroot salad with avocado mousse, and some fried anchovies with grated lime rind. My favorite perhaps was the beautiful end-of-summer salad with heritage tomatoes, slices of chewy mojama, toasted almonds and daikon. This last dish presented the delicious Mediterranean classic of salt-cured tuna and toasted almonds on a bed of fresh tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil. Another traditional vermutería snack classed up a bit for the Gràcia foodie crowd.