Ask me about Bar Cañete and I’ll give you two thumbs up. Yes. Go there. Why? Because the food is local and traditional, yet playful and fun. The ingredients are fresh and proudly representative of the region, with a notable prominence of sardines, anchovies and acorn-fed Iberian piggy parts splattered all over the menu. There’s classic laid-back pica-pica favorites like croquetas (croquettes) and buñuelos (fritters), two-bite fried squid sandies, fried eggs loaded with sausage and a locally foraged wild mushroom tortilla, all popular stuff to run across while tapas-ing in Barcelona. There’s more serious non-tapa items like a trinxat and cap i pota, Catalan grandma style. But there’s also reverent references made to other regions of Spain, especially Andalucía, with things like salmorejo (but theirs is with beetroot), shrimp from Cádiz, aubergines a la Córdoba, Malaga style fried fish. The menu is a joyride through cool ingredients and even cooler ingredient combinations, classic preparations, dynamic dishes.
I was sold even before touching the menu, however, after only a few seconds of taking in the rhythm of the massive open kitchen in front of which we were seated. The bar gives guests a great little peep-show, a direct view of ink-sleeved chefs glazing and deglazing this and that, scooping mousses, drizzling juices, searing meats to the sizzle just to give them that ooh-ahh char. It’s loud and busy but not frenzied to the least. They’re busy, sure, but look very well choreographed and happy overall.
For wine I got a red Priorat because when in doubt I always get a red Priorat. I got a good one, the young red Crianza from Ritme Cellar, made with Carignan, Grenache and “Garnacha Pulida”. I ended up regretting my choice since most of the dishes were delicate and fatty in a way that called out for a round, buxom blonde more than an ultra-tannic red. But as far as ultra-tannic reds go, this one’s not too shabby.
When at Can Cañete it´s recommendable to order a fried thing. While waiting for our table we kept an eye on what the group of ladies next to us were ordering and saw a plate of fried boquerones (anchovies) that immediately caught our attention. The coat looked sandy, coarse and golden brown and the small fish were butterflied before being battered in order to increase the surface area of crispy friend exterior. Even across the noisy Friday crowd we could hear the crunch the fish made when bitten into. So when we got our menus we were poised to order them….until we saw Frituras Cañete (Cañete´s Fried Stuff).
I find it´s usually a good sign when a dish title includes the name of the restaurant, especially when it´s a simple, no-fuss dish like fried seafood. This plate had chunks of Moray eel, anchovies, rings of calamari and beach prawns. There was even a pretty fried basil leaf that got very crispy in the oil. The rings of squid were incredibly tender, no trace of rubbery frozen calamari here. The fish were great too, though quite full of sharp little bones. The chunks of eel were the most satisfying, a thick and meaty fish whose fantastic flavors came through perfectly over the very thin, light fried crust. And then the prawns with their juicy abdomens easily twisted off the thorax. To the disgust of the bae I ate these whole in order not to miss out on the rich and ruddy innards, that greenish head juice spurting through the carapace.
Something told me that their ensaladilla rusa would not be bad. Perhaps it was the fact that the title of this dish also included the name of the restaurant. This very popular Spanish tapas was inspired by the Russian Olivier salad (hence the name), but is different from the original mostly in texture. Here it´s made with potato, carrot, peas, (maybe) roasted red pepper and (maybe) some olives, along with boiled eggs, tuna and mayonnaise. In this version the mayonnaise is clearly homemade and the ingredients blended to a consistency of a delightfully fluffy and light fish mousse to be scooped up with bread sticks, spread onto some remaining pan con tomate or just spooned on its own like some sort of glorious pudding. The flavors are simple and clean, and this wonderfully gourmet version doesn´t have that “guilty” and “sinful” feeling as many cheap tapas-dive versions tend to.
Another dish that I spotted while we waited in line was their sandwich stuffed with what I immediately identified as stewed oxtail. I added it to my list of must-orders right away. And it´s good that I did because it turned out to be phenomenal. Some Andalusian mollete (a slightly chewy and very airy white bread) was slightly toasted and stuffed with an incredibly rich, moist stew of oxtail that practically screamed out red wine, garlic, marjoram, bay leaf. It was like a hearty bowl of civet patiently slow-cooked by your grandmother, the most comforting dish of the night by far. The meat fell into bundles of fiber, loosely held together by quickly melting fat, breathing out hot steam. Some creamy aioli was added to the top of the bundle, running seductively down the uneven lumps of beef, and a pickled piparra pepper was stuck on as well, no doubt to add an acidic contrast and make this look more like a regular tapa. The pungent wine-scented juices of the stew mixed with the additional garlic twang from the aioli, both sauces soaking up beautifully in the bread, which thus became moist on the interior but retained its chewy crust on the surface. This mollete de rabo de toro was close to becoming that best bite of the night…until the mains came.
One of two larger main dishes we ordered was the Costillitas de conejo al Pedro Ximenez, a heap of rabbit ribs cooked up in a sweet and spicy Pedro Ximenez sauce and served with a luscious potato purée. Despite rabbit ribs not being a particularly common item to see on a menu, this was perhaps one of the simplest dishes of the night, a kind of “meat and potatoes” made gourmet by the choice of ingredients. The ribs were cooked perfectly, the tender little lumps of bunny flesh ripping easily off the bone. The meat had a fantastic crust (probably achieved by dipping them lightly in flour and then sautéeing them) to which the slightly sweet PX sherry sauce clung beautifully. The potato purée was fine, though a bit boring. I mostly used it to mix up with the residual sauce dripping off the meat.
By far the highlight of the night was the Bombón ibérico con calçot confitado y sardina ahumada, which I almost passed up for the veal sweetbreads. Boy am I glad I didn´t… The mysteriously named “Iberian delight” turned out the be the juiciest, fattiest, most velvety smooth piece of Iberian pork cheek I´ve probably ever had. It came brushed with a sweet glaze and was lain over a bed of caramelized green onions with a few delicate filets of smoked sardine added to the side. This is an unapologetically, in-your-face, sinful sinful dish made even dirtier by the piece of fried chicharrón (pork crackling) proudly perched atop the jiggly mess of pork jowl. The scallions are beautifully caramelized but retain a firm bite to them. The sardines add a pungent salty, smoky flavor that balances out the sweeter, more delicate flavors of the pork cheek and sauce. A beautiful mar y muntanya dish, a fantastic representative of Catalan ingredients, and an absolute joy to both photograph and eat.