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A cuisine of the sea and soul

October 13, 2002|Helene Siegel

Barcelona, Spain — Some people refer to Barcelona, the stylish city on Spain's northeastern Mediterranean coast, as the poor man's Paris. Two people can share an elegant dinner with wine for $60, and you can still find a good hotel room for $100 a night.

Best of all, they say, Barcelona has sophistication without attitude.

I had the perfect excuse to find out for myself last spring. My son Joe, 21, was finishing his junior semester at the University of Barcelona. I was hoping he had been gone long enough to miss me and to develop an appetite for sharing a few good meals with his mom.

A modernist city, Barcelona has been reinventing itself since Roman times. It is the capital of Catalonia, a fiercely independent region of Spain with its own language, flag and history of political upheaval. (It was the center of the left-wing opposition during the Spanish Civil War.) Barcelona's popularity as a tourist destination has grown since the 1992 Olympics. This year, many architecture buffs arrived for the 150th anniversary of the birth of visionary architect Antonio Gaudi, whose distinctive, free-form works are known worldwide.

Barcelona is filled with world-class architecture and, some would say, world-class cuisine. The region's cooking uses many of the same ingredients as that of other Mediterranean countries -- fresh seafood; salt cod and anchovies; olive oil; garlic; eggplant, spinach, tomatoes and peppers; olives; wild game and duck -- and turns them into dishes of great variety, refinement and soul-satisfying flavor.

In Spanish style, the two big meals of the day are lunch, eaten between 2 and 4 p.m., and dinner, which rarely starts before 9 p.m. and which lasts a minimum of three hours. As an American worker bee who has been gulping down 20-minute lunches at her desk for the last few years, I have great respect for the Spanish, who refuse to rush the really important things in life, like meals. Shops still close, people drink wine with lunch, and friends linger over coffee and cigarettes until the last piece of gossip has been shared and savored.

It felt wonderful never to rush a meal, and reassuring to know that there was always a tapas bar open for savory snacks and prime people-watching along the lovely Passeig de Gracia, a short walk from my hotel, the Inglaterra.

Restaurants are buzzing and reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. Service at all the restaurants I visited was warm and gracious, despite my nonexistent Spanish.

The proud Catalan character does not encourage big tipping. One taxi driver actually returned a tip he felt was too extravagant. A 5% tip is considered sufficient in this socialist stronghold.

The restaurants below, listed in no particular order, were the top picks of an acquaintance who lives in Barcelona and who gives food tours of the city.

Cal Pep: Worth a long wait

If you're in Barcelona for only a few days, this is a place you don't want to miss. Cal Pep is the prototypical, unpretentious seafood joint. It's close to the Picasso museum and the port in the hip section of town called the Born and is basically a long, narrow sliver of a room where guests dine at a marble bar without the intrusion of menus, reservations or waiters.

We arrived about 8:30 on a weeknight and encountered a 30-minute wait. It was worth it. We started with a pile of the tiniest sardines, lightly battered and crisply fried, which we tossed into our mouths like shoestring fries. We shared quartered baby artichokes, also battered and fried, and a delicious bowl of warm garbanzo beans seasoned with succulent bits of salt pork and wilted spinach.

In no particular order, we also ate small clams steamed in a white wine, garlic and parsley broth, fresh sole grilled on the bone and served simply with lemon, and the first of many steaks that Joe was to order in the two weeks we ate together. (You can take the college boy out of America, but you can't take America out of the college boy.) We drank a white Penedes and pointed to the dessert that other diners were delicately licking off their espresso spoons: three shot glasses filled with light, foamy custards of coffee, lemon and cinnamon.

Pep Manubens Figueres, the chef and owner, is obviously a local celebrity -- I noticed his cookbook in Barcelona bookstores -- and he deserves it.

Chicoa: Off the tourist route

Everything about this place was warm, welcoming and about as far as you can get from the tourist part of town, where those less fortunate than us were dining on cheap paella. With its white stucco walls, wood beams and antique cookware, Chicoa offered Joe and me our most traditional meal.

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