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20/09/2009

Sureny and Gresca, Barcelona [Restaurant Reviews]

Sureny - 0/5


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

See on the Map


Gresca, C/ Provença 100, Barcelona

Tel. +34 934 516 193

See on the Map


All photos mine except the first shot: Shawn Lipowski / Creative Commons


20 comments:

  1. I'm actually surprised that you made it through to dinner at Sureny. What a shocker!

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  2. I meant dessert, of course. Although giving dinner a miss probably wouldn't have been a bad idea.

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  3. I ate at Gresca a few months ago (in May) and loved it. Other than the pancetta film sardine, it seems we had completely different menus. It's a shame you didn't love all your courses, but I must admit that I'm glad the restaurant seems to be regularly changing their menu.

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  4. That scallop dish looks really horrid, especially those weird flabby buits on top. Poor you!

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  5. Oh dear. With great power comes great responsibility. Just goes to show that in the wrong hands - those of someone woefully unable - Adria flecked notions of gastronomy can be turned into something quite horrendous.

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  6. Wow. Spectacularly bad. Vanilla and scallops - eww. The colour of that stuff underneath! And to top it all they denied you of roe. The idea of foie gras and mango jam actually makes me feel slightly queasy. Actually the idea of just mango jam makes me feel a bit queasy.

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  7. I love the line:

    "They were like gnawing on sea lion testicles, spermily off-white, in a flecked puddle of lurid bile."

    I laughed out loud, and then cried when I saw the god-awful looking dish, complete with green radioactive pool, staring me in the face through my PC monitor. Egads!

    Very fun review, just sorry you had to eat some of the dishes at the first place - yuck.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the big Bulli.

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  8. Spectacular! Can't wait to read the El Bulli sequel. You write like an absolute dream Ollie, my personal favourite was " They were like gnawing on sea lion testicles, spermily off-white, in a flecked puddle of lurid bile.....the horror, the horror". Love it.

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  9. I'd like to see your comments if a restuarant ever served "a piece of Roquefort with a biscuit and an apple"!! Great posting. Keep 'em coming.

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  10. I am well overdue a trip back to Barcelona. When I was last there about 10 years ago, I don't think anyone was cooking like this.

    Interestingly, I have actually had what, in my opinion, were passable renditions of two of the peculiar flavour combinations you encountered, both in London. At Pascal Proyart's One-o-One, I really enjoyed a dish of rabbit saddle with scallops and vanilla essence. Less outstanding, but far from disgusting, was a dish of foie gras with mango chutney at Zaika, post Vineet Bhatia's days at the helm. Of course, I may just have odd tastes!

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  11. Very nice.Just returned from Barcelona wish I would have heard of these 2 spots. Had a nice meal at Tuset27 in Eixample that was better than average. Very nice looking jamon on the langoustine plate. Great laughs all around as always. cheers.

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  12. I wouldn't wish any more food-related misfortune on you, but you write so beautifully when faced with these culinary abominations!

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  13. Shame that you didn't enjoy Barcelona generally - personally I would love to live there if only my Catalan extended beyond two beers please. Perhaps the simple tapas bars are the best bet there.

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  14. This is Frankenstein food -a monstrous concoction that serves no useful purpose other than the vanity of its creator.
    As in Mary's novel,it will come to no good end.The locals ,or outraged foodies,will eventually assemble with their pitchforks and flaming torches and burn these places down.And that includes Blumenthal's chemical factory too ,by the way.It's not just in Spain that the lunatics are running the asylums.The chemicals,and chemical treatment of food by the Blumenthal's;El Bulli etc are awful and completely un-regulated.

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  15. That scallop dish looks seriously unattractive. Like some sort of leprosy/toothpaste accident.

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  16. Sureny sounds like a shocker... but their caramel fondant looks brilliant.

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  17. Tehbus - I know! What a car-crash it was. Pudding didn't really mitigate things, I'm afraid.

    An American - I agree, it's always good when restaurants do that. The amuse was first-class, wasn't it?

    Lizzie - God knows what 'jabugo essence' is supposed to be. Bleurgh.

    Just Cook It - Tell me about it. Vaunting ambition if ever there was.

    Helen - The scallop and vanilla thing is the worst dish I've been served all year, which is saying something. Manjo jam sounds slightly strange but I can imagine it working.

    Laissez Fare - Thanks a lot :)

    Gastrogeek - Appreciate you saying so.

    Snowoman - If they were all in tip-top condition, it would be superb, and I'd say so.

    Mr Teaspoon - Welcome back. It's interesting how quickly Barcelona, and Spain in general, have developed this gastronomic adventurousness. I've been meaning to go to One-O-One for ages.

    Old Chef Dude - Glad you had a good time, and thanks for your kind comment.

    Kate - Thanks! The one consolation of these experiences is that I can write them up for revolting posterity.

    Gourmet Chick - You're right. We were, of course, dying to go to Cal Pep, but it's shut practically the whole summer...

    Andrew F - I don't agree, I'm afraid. It's not all chemicals and fireworks in these places - at EB we had a beautifully steamed langoustine with sesame. Simple, but done with extraordinary skill and a long way from Frankenstein Food. Have you actually eaten at The Fat Duck or El Bulli?

    Andrzej - Toothpaste is an excellent description for it.

    Browners - 'Brilliant' would be excessive, I'm afraid. At best, it was slightly better than crap.

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  18. Re One-o-One: well worth a trip IMHO, especially if you can make it at lunchtime – 3 small plates, glass of wine and coffee for £19 is a pretty good deal (even if I did add an extra course and two more glasses of wine when I last did it!).

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  19. more to eating in barca than fancy restaurants. ye just gotta know where to go.

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  20. "...the horror. The horror" I can almost picture Colonel Kurtz spitting out that speech about the scallop dish.

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