Culinary Jewelry Box, A Neighborhood Tapas Bar: Quimet & Quimet

Passing through the ruby red doors of Quimet & Quimet in Poblesec means entering a culinary wonderland, a food nerd’s Eden cleverly disguised as a no-frills neighborhood tapas joint. Nobody’s ordering bravas or croquetas here. There’s no chorizo or day-old tortilla stabbed through with a toothpick, no questionable crab spread with a salty anchovy lain across, no fried stuff whatsoever. There’s not even a stretched leg of cured Spanish jamón on display. There are, however, preserved things: canned cockles, mussels, razor clams, white clams, baby squids, anchovies, sardines and tuna belly; there’s partridge and quail confit, asparagus, roasted peppers, green beans and olives straight from the jar. There are smoked things too: sturgeon, tuna, salmon, swordfish. There are pickled things, like white anchovies (boquerones), artichokes and hot peppers. There are magnificent Spanish cheeses that reach far beyond manchego and sweet things like chestnuts and quince to accompany them. There are cool-as-hell classics like toasted almonds with mojama, thin slices of salt-cured, air-dried tuna shaved carefully off a brick of the stuff. There are unexpected delicacies like cod liver and sea urchin. You’ll even find the highly sought-after Galician baby scallops, zamburiñas.

These wonderful ingredients lie in wait for the practiced and patient hands of the maestro, a 4th generation Quim(et) and current owner, a man who singlehandedly runs the crazy joint and assembles plate after plate of show-stopping tapas. Maestro mounts his star ingredients onto a base of crunchy, round bread to construct elegant montaditos. (These are 2-bite, open-faced snack sandwiches, three or four of which make a meal.) Proteins get paired with spreads, chutneys, relishes and tapenades of onion, pickle, wild mushroom and tomato, all created from scratch in house. Each montadito gets a drizzle of some magical little condiment, most often honey, truffle oil or cream of balsamic.

1413Each of maestro’s mounted mini-sandwiches highlights a gourmet ingredient scooped from can, jar or vacuum bag; many of these are displayed in packaged form and available for purchase, to-go. That’s because Quimet & Quimet is really a double-duty restaurant and colmado; it functions both as an eatery and a corner-store that offers gourmet products. When it first opened in 1914 the place was actually a wine shop. To help move the wine little snacks were served alongside each glass. Eventually the wine collection was expanded to include labels other than that of the owner, along with vermouth, sherry and a range of classic spirits. The snack offering was broadened even more and eventually became the focus of the place. Prices are kept absurdly low considering the quality, €2.50 for almost all of the montadito sandies and only a bit more for the bread-less plates of tapas. 

000Wine, nevertheless, has remained a big part of the experience at Quimet & Quimet. A very tall shelf lined with bottles wraps around all four walls of the place. They have a nice selection from Priorat, a sign of proper curating in any Barcelona wine store. A crisp white or bubbly rosé pairs best to lunchtime montaditos in my opinion, but there’s also a nice variety of vermuths if you’re into that, and the restaurant’s very own artisanal beer on tap, which I’ve been told was also quite good.

Drink is the first thing one orders here and sometimes that drink ends up your soul companion out on the sidewalk as you wait for the place to clear out a tad. Quimet & Quimet is matchbox-sized, standing room only and constantly packed with more locals than foreigners. As a couple or two exits I squeeze in, politely but assertively pushing my way to the front of the counter until I’m face to face with maestro. I order and watch him. I ask questions and he answers but without looking up at me. I don’t think he likes me very much but I don’t really care. I get elbowed in the gut from folks on the side and dishes are passed out above me but I don’t mind. I like the place, I like the wine and I more than just like the dishes flying towards me. 

qq21Their most popular, must-order montadito is one of crunchy bread topped with a dollop of tangy Greek yoghurt, a few slick slices of smoked salmon and a gently truffled honey drizzled over the top. The sweet, floral délicatesse of the honey harmonizes correctly with the smoke and brine of the fish; the honey also coats the oily surfaces of the fish with a thick and sticky glaze. The yoghurt comes in at the end, squirting playfully out from beneath the honeyed fish and cooling down the intense flavors, while also adding an airy lightness to the texture of each mouthful. My eyes focused on maestro’s mise en place, I absentmindedly dab at the thick pool of honey remaining on the plate with my fingers. Definitely a good dish to start with, as it sets the pace for the subsequent flow of thoughtfully composed and imaginative creations.

1 4Canned delicacies razzle-dazzle when mounted on toast at Quimet & Quimet. The briny, stinky, oil-packed mussels behind the counter remind me so much of my father’s collection of canned fish and shellfish in tomato or mustard sauce from the Russian store. Hoisted atop a juicy bed of sweet tomato marmalade and topped with a heaping espresso spoon full of dark black caviar, these modest canned critters become something truly majestic. They’re plump with a mushy smooth interior and a very sophisticated sweetness lingers behind marine funk. The combination of ingredients is great here too: the pungent saltiness of the beads of roe, the earthy and delicate sweetness of the tomato, and the mussels caught somewhere in between.

34Another canned thang served with tomato and fish eggs is the smoked cod liver, which happens to be my favorite ingredient behind maestro’s counter. It’s smoked very lightly with wood and there’s a mild marine brine to match that subtle smoke. As with the mussels, the tomatoes pull the liver toward the vegetable garden, while the caviar pulls it toward a low tide seashore. What I really love here is the texture of the liver, which is voluptuous and packed with loose, jiggly fat similar to calf brain or veal sweetbreads. The silken, moist lumps of it melt sensuously against the humid heat of the mouth, caressing the tongue softly a bit before disappearing into a distant memory of flavor. Higado de bacalao. On its own it’s great but the contrasting crunch of the bread helps balance out the intensity of its smoothness.

5A more perky piece is the one with roasted red pepper, slices of cured swordfish, olive tapenade, pickled Guindilla pepper and a thick, black syrup made with balsamic vinegar that is applied last from a squeeze bottle safely tucked away in maestro’s nook of condiments, in the company of the honey pot and truffle oil. While some of the other montaditos play with a balance between murky marine and sweet, this one packs the powerful punch of the “pickled stuff tapas.” The pepper is bright, sour and spicy while the balsamic offers an aged, creamy acid. The tapenade has a beautiful consistency. It’s mushy and moist without being too smooth or watery and it brings plenty of olive brine to the dish. Luckily the swordfish, backed up by the single filet of slippery smooth roasted pepper underneath, is meaty enough to stand up to all the craziness unfolding atop it. Its clean, slightly smoky flavor does not become overwhelmed by the “pickleage” but rather offers a nice backbone for it.

810The same combination is also available with smoked sardine in place of swordfish. This fish adds a more pungent touch to the dish but the sweetness of the roasted pepper balances out the extra salt and smoke. A bit too busy for me, but it was my mom’s favorite, so that’s kind of a big deal…

12

11Quimet & Quimet is a place with plenty of tricks up its sleeve, savory gourmet gems that strike when least expected. One of these is the juicy cecina, strips of salted, cured and air-dried beef leg, super concentrated in flavor for lack of moisture, a type of beef jamón but a bit more tender and juicy. The jerky is sprinkled with dry herbs, lain atop the same sweet marmalade of tomato and topped with a tart green pickle relish, whose much needed acidity rounds out the earthen funk of the dried beef. The mounted creation is finished with truffle oil, which adds a hint of umami to the combination of sweet, salty and tart flavors.

qq1Another gourmet gem is the tender, juicy tuna belly whose fatty flakes are mounted on the sweet tomato marmalade and topped with a sprinkle of herbs, along with a fat quenelle of sea urchin roe. The same concept is at play here: sweetness on the bottom, marine brine on top, neutrally flavored but texturally exciting star ingredient in the center of the bite. It’s good, this one. Really good. The stinky, low tide, slightly rotten sweetness of the urchin gives quite the strong first impression, waking up the palate for the humbler tuna that follows. The roe is saturated with the sweet stank of the sea just like the caviar in the tomato-mussel-caviar montadito. Both balance out beautifully with the fruity, sweet tomato underneath.

67It was only on account of the fact that my mom does not like uni (for some odd reason that falls beyond the limits of my comprehension) that I ordered the same tuna belly with the alternative toppings, pickle relish and olives and roasted red pepper on the bottom. It’s a fine dish but a bit flat in flavor compared to the others. The texture of the tuna is the highlight here; the flakes are fatty, smooth and very light on the tongue.

109Maestro stands on the right side of the counter and I generally elbow my way through the crowd to get a space in front of him. As it turns out, there’s a whole other half on the left hand side, more traditional tapas ingredients like olives and white anchovies and other pickled things. I’m usually too preoccupied by what’s directly in front of me to peek at the other side but one time I did. I ended up with a plate of white asparagus drizzled with balsamic. The two spears are thick, smooth and impossibly soft. My knife glided through them as through a mound of melted butter. There’s a firmness to the form of the outer layers, while the interior of the veggies is mushy and loose. A delicate texture and very light, subtle flavors. A great interlude between the more elaborate combinations.

72One of the heartier options at Quimet & Quimet is a montadito with a pâté de campagne, caramelized onions and cream of balsamic. The irregular lumps of frothy, cool pâté melt on the tongue, leaving behind the taste of ground up pork innards, onion, herbs. The slightly sweet porcine flavor is accented by the dulzor of the onions and balanced by the tart sting of the aged balsamic. I very much enjoy the viscous, glossy cream of balsamic that maestro uses to finish his mounted tapas. It provides decadence and holds up quite nicely to the other ingredients in texture.

2 81112For dessert I order a montadito of chestnuts preserved in sweet syrup set atop two big spoonfuls of Torta del Casar, a creamy, ripened sheep’s milk cheese from the Extremadura region of western Spain. It’s an elegant, intelligent combination. The cheese has a very complex flavor, aged and funky and slightly bitter. Pairing it with something excessively perky, like raspberry preserves, would create too great a contrast in flavor and the subtle notes of the cheese would be lost completely. The candied chestnuts bring a smart sweetness, an earthy and wholesome dulzor that allows the crazy cheese to shine, while also curbing some of its aggressive funk. Other desserts include an array of wonderful cheeses, dried fruit pastes, peaches soaked in liquor, a glass of sweet sherry…

I’m awkward at Quimet & Quimet. I’m usually not awkward at restaurants. I stumble clumsily for my camera in my purse on the floor. I thrust myself forward to the counter and engage in the subtlest physical combat to maintain my space there. But I do so while smiling helplessly and apologetically because I care too much. I can’t help it. I need this. Maestro doesn’t look too pleased. It’s a busy day and I’m being an awkward guiri and I’m taking the place of his decade-long regulars. He assumes I found out about his place from my hotel’s concierge. He assumes I don’t appreciate what he does. He corrects my pronunciation. He laments what Barcelona has become. So I try my hardest to act cool, like this is no big deal and to not show my complete satisfaction with every dish he slings at me from behind the counter. But I fail. Every once in a while a little whimper of pleasure escapes me. I scrunch my eyebrows with intensity and smile at him pathetically like a lover scorned. “But this one, this one’s so perfect!” He glances at me blankly, then looks away. It’s fine though. I don’t need him to like me. A kind of proud affection and love for his ingredients beams off him as he tenderly assembles sandwich after sandwich. Basking in the glow of that leaves me feeling joyful and satisfied each time.

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