Gresca - 3/5
Battlo House, Barcelona
I was in Gaudy Barcelona not long ago, that jerry-built sprawl hemming a grey Gothic slice: heat, dirt and fumes tapering to polluted sea. What a mishmash it is: whispering Romanesque alleys; sternly patrician nineteenth century civics; Gaudí's globular fish-eye windows, shooting spikes and hyperboloids; and the hot red dust of the suburbs.
Would you live there? I wouldn't - it's as expensive as Paris, and swollen with fat British kids creeping like snails round the museums, by Yank Eurorailers looking for McDonald's, by daytripping Marseillais snubbing choc 'n' churros. But it's too easy, as Orwell knew, to be wooed by the visible decency of the Catalan, their straightforwardness, their generosity, and by the strange and alluring madness that's gripped their chefs.
We stepped off the plane and went straight to La Boquería, the big foodie bazaar. I wanted to compare the mercat, so we ate fruit, ham and fish, all prime, the pig plumped on rooted acorns. We wolfed fat sardines, slivers of red pepper dribbling olive oil, and heavy hunks of crusty bread. But we had to wait for it. They never serve you till they feel like it, which is always the forgotten first shock of Spain: the minutes of the mañana men.
Two restaurants, then, that illustrate the weird overturning of Catalan cooking, the seismic shift from pork, peppers, sardines and toms, remença fodder, to the mad, bad and dangerous. Along with a clutch of places in the Basque country, El Bulli - the legendary temple nearby - takes the credit for electrifying cooking in northern Spain. But there are dozens of apparatchiks and imitators, men who would be king, frothing their foams and savouring their ices: some twee, some triumphant. Here's two.
I've racked my brains to try and explain Sureny, and I've come up with just one reason for its existence. Someone evidently conceived its dishes in a vision in a dream, fragmented, or on some horrifying acid trip. It's a neighbourhood tapas joint schizo with ragbag delusion. It dumps decent local produce in a petri dish of festering misery - the food is a vanity trick, a pointless folly, for the chef's fancy. We were served things like this:
'Scallop, jabugo ham essence, artichoke cream and vanilla oil'. Two roeless scallops and a puckering morsel of pig, swimming in radioactive pond. Easily the most revolting thing I've not eaten all year. What lunatic frenzy, what gibbering insanity overcomes a man that he should pair scallops with vanilla? They were like gnawing on sea lion testicles, spermily off-white, in a flecked puddle of lurid bile. I have simply nothing positive to say about this; I lack the words to bring home to you the horror, the horror.
Then 'cod with a courgette cream, sweet and sour tomato and lime'. Tepid baccalà, the historic salt cod of the Basques, collapsing like a starved slave, penitently crossed by cold and flabby courgette strips, with some flesh-hued sorbet. Miserable, and the rest of it just as bad: foie gras with mango jam (God, man, why?); black pork with tamarind and freezer-cold shiitakes. Unapologetically, imperturbably disgusting. Pudding was the only edible dish: a salted caramel fondant, bursting salt-sweet goo like a lanced boil.
Gresca, though, is better, with a chef - Rafael Peña - who can cook. Peña, an Adriàn disciple, is as prone to bonkers invention and unusual pairings as the madman at Sureny, but he does so far more encouragingly. The restaurant is in the Eixample, a chichi part of town; one of Gaudi’s wobbliest-looking designs is next door. It's a refrigerated corridor: stiff, sturdy tables lining two sides of a halogen-bleached room.
We started with a mackerel fillet with crystallised ham: fantastic: the fish dense and salty, the brittle ham crackling over it like a splintered sky. Then plump dumplings of chicken in a healing broth, and a raw langoustine - inexplicably popular these days - shrouded with superb jamón. But the star was some pigeon, electrocuted when slaughtered so it held all its blood, cooked sous-vide and finally seared. Its breast held a livery richness, it was like juiced iron, an elixir of gore.
Pudding was a let-down. A ghastly deconstruction of Roquefort, apple and biscuit: blue cheese paste that smelled like a 15 year-old's rugby sock, a heifer's skid-mark of sorbet, and a biscuit that crumbled, perhaps because it realised it had no defence.
The food in these places is mad, then: mad and adventurous, and thrillingly globalised, with the enthusiasm of a puppy and the inventiveness of Dr Frink. The pudding at Gresca would have been far better as a piece of Roquefort with a biscuit and an apple: all that fiddling afforded it nothing. But the raw energy of Catalan cooking, its lawlessness, are undeniably exhilirating. It's the Wild West of the food world, presided over - can I get away with this? - by Chief Sitting Bulli, of whom more shortly.
Sureny, Plaça Revolució De Setembre De 1868 17, Barcelona
Tel. +34 932 137 556
Gresca, C/ Provença 100, Barcelona
Tel. +34 934 516 193
All photos mine except the first shot: Shawn Lipowski / Creative Commons