Lifestyle & Culture

Lindsey McClave in Barcelona: Cava, paella and a lesson in alchemy

KAIKU IN BARCELONA

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Foodie-Girl, the website of food and travel writer Lindsey McClave. It’s reposted here with the permission of the author.)

The events marking the beginning and end of our time in Barcelona seemed all too appropriate bookends for what would prove to be three days full of flavor, both old and new. This is a journey that has been long in the works and is in keeping with a promise Zach and I made to one another once we were married.

Until the stork comes calling, we will travel as much as possible and, more specifically, take a trip once a year. This commitment has become my favorite thing about our friendship and has strengthened us in more ways than I can count. Months of planning did not disappoint, and as the cab whisked us from the airport to our hotel in the Born district, that familiar sense of anticipation laced with calm wrapped itself around me.

The adventure had begun. A new and welcome twist was coming in the form of our friends Benton and Maggie.

From left, Benton, Maggie, Lindsey and Zach in Barcelona.

From left, Benton, Maggie, Lindsey and Zach in Barcelona.

As fate would have it, they were in Barcelona too and are as in love with food and wine as Z and I. Our schedule was relatively clear, save two reservations:

  • One for a lunch to celebrate a timeless Spanish culinary tradition and embrace the history surrounding us.
  • The other to look ahead at how far food has come and to appreciate where culinary masterminds, such as Jordi Vila of Alkimia, are taking our foodie-world.
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Cava

And, as Alkimia’s name would suggest, the theme of alchemy was ever present during our time in Barcelona. Whether it was at the corner tapas bar or in the Michelin-starred anchors, simple, humble ingredients were transformed into something beautiful and beyond delicious. Making the most of what you have and using the resources that surround you is practical. Barcelona takes it to the next level by making it shine. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to embrace the people, food and wine of Barcelona. Let the adventures begin!

After unloading our bags, refreshing and grabbing a quick cafe con leche, we found our friends walking up the cobblestones, through the pedestrian streets of El Born. I felt my excitement set into full motion – it was time for some cava – Spain’s answer to champagne! We set out toward the water, the scent of the ocean growing stronger by the block. I love metropolitan cities that sit on the ocean.

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Paella with rice in squid ink

The juxtaposition of the fast-paced energy of a city countered with the laid-back vibe from the beach is so refreshing. We were headed to a specific spot in Barcelona, a restaurant called Kaiku. The tradition of Sunday lunch with family grazing over a large pan of paella is an old and respected one. We had every intention of participating! I had made the reservation after much research and was hoping the promises of local customers and paella at its best and most traditional forms would prove to be real. As we waited for our table, we observed the guests seated next to us, a feasting table set with 12 people of all ages, children running about while the adults bantered in loud, expressive Spanish. Bingo. I did well!

We sampled two paellas. The first was the house special served with prawns, mussels and earthy rice, cooked until crisp at the edges. The second was my favorite, trading the earthiness of the traditional spices and instead bathing the rice in squid ink. If you haven’t tried squid ink PLEASE promise me you will at your very next opportunity. It is not something you will find readily available, but it is very popular in Italy and Spain and deservedly so. There is something so rich, so deep in umami flavor about squid ink. Paired with the squid, naturally sweet shrimp and our crisp, cool cava and my first meal in Spain was complete. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the journey.

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Pan de tomat

After a day of strolling the beaches and getting our bearings, we settled on a low-key tapas bar, and I had my first encounter with pan de tomate – simple, rustic bread rubbed with tomato and then given a quick shower with salt and olive oil. Comfort fills you as soon as it hits your lips. There is a natural sense of home in this dish. You know that everyone surrounding you grew up eating this for breakfast, as a snack, when they were sad or celebrating. I can’t wait to make this at home.

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Monday brought us to one of my most anticipated activities – a place that anyone who gave me advice insisted we visit. La Boqueria, Barcelona’s world-renowned marketplace.

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Talk about a trip for the senses. You are hit immediately with a wall of varying colors, shapes and textures. At every corner a new smell hits your nose, putting your mind into a tug-a-war with itself. As soon as I see the fish counter I am craving fresh, white fish. I turn around and there sit cases upon cases of salty, flavorful cured meats. It is quite overwhelming and in the best possible way.
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And there isn’t anything you can’t find. Every part of every animal is up for sale. The vegetables and fruit are at the peak of ripeness just waiting to be eaten. Stomachs growling, we bellied up to one of the food counters and ordered breakfast. Two freshly prepared ‘tortillas’ (omelets) gave us exactly what we were looking for. Breakfast at La Boqueria is a must if you visit Barcelona. IMG_1358

Once we left the market we walked. And walked. And walked. We traversed as much of the city on foot as possible, taking in every corridor, every plaza, the locals as they strolled by. We wandered the walls of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the monumental church that encompassed the greatest dreams of this world-famous Catalan Architect. It took my breath away.

Following in Gaudi’s footsteps we made a path to three more of his creations. His over-the-top style is unmistakable and like nothing I had ever experienced. Incredible. IMG_1416 It was time for tapas again. Well, and cava. We had yet to toast our day! Tapas 24 was on our list, and I had been dreaming of their ‘bikini’ sandwich for months. Ham, mozzarella cheese and black truffles are sandwiched between the thinnest, most perfectly griddled bread I have ever tasted. I had high expectations for this sandwich and they were most certainly exceeded. Comfort food turned gourmet, without losing any of its most important and endearing qualities. There is nothing like a grilled cheese – or a Tapas 24 bikini sandwich.

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Tapas 24 bikini sandwich.

Now, I could spend the remainder of this post flooding you with photos of every tapa we shared, each slice of iberico ham we sampled, the countless stunning views we experienced. But the one thing I was looking forward to more than anything else on our trip to Spain, what I fell asleep dreaming of night after night leading up to our journey, was our dinner at Alkimia. And what an ethereal experience it proved to be.

Toward the end of our once-in-a-lifetime dinner I couldn’t help but exclaim ‘I am so happy right now!’ And I really, really was.

So the next photos walk through our meal, course-by-course, each one unbelievably better than the previous. Thank you for humoring me. I still smile remembering. First and foremost, our service was as enjoyable as the culinary creations. After a round of cocktails to kick off the night, our waiter guided me through the wine book. I was grateful as this book was overwhelming in its depth and exploration of the wines of the world.

IMG_1575Per his recommendation, we selected a RAR Garnatxa Blanca. It was clean and refreshing but yet deep and solid enough to stand up to the courses as they built, letting the ingredients shine through. And it was a wonderful value. You don’t need a $100-plus bottle of wine to enjoy a special meal. The elegant character of this wine was the perfect fit to begin our dinner.

IMG_1531Remember the pan de tomate? Old meets new with Alkimia’s interpretation. A base of tomato water is topped with a float of rich olive oil. Resting precariously between to two are perfectly crunchy bread crumbs. Atop the glass sits an incredibly tender and rich slice of Spanish salami. After a bite of the meat, I tipped the glass back, the essence of bread rubbed with tomato and sprinkled with olive oil and salt enveloping me. The crunch of the breadcrumb offered a magic touch.

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Anchovy tapas

Our next appetizer brought along a familiar friend of Spain – the anchovy. You can’t walk into a tapas bar without seeing these delicious filets laid atop bread, peppers, olives… you name it and the anchovy adds that quintessential element of the sea that makes Barcelona so special. And forget all thoughts of salty, overpowering fishiness. These are not your ordinary anchovies.

They are more delicate, their flavors soft and gentle. Not something to be scared of but rather to embrace. Especially when you are in Spain.

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Spaghettini with sea assortment

On to the next – spaghettini with sea assortment. A nest of zucchini ‘spaghetti’ is layered with small bits of squid and roe. This dish was unbelievably light and soft in both texture and flavor. A silky cream sauce was nestled on the bottom of the plate, a little bit making its way into every bite. I found this one almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

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Pickled oyster with glazed pork cheek

Pickled oyster with glazed pork cheek and spinach saute. An interesting departure from our first three experiences, offering a bit of salt and brine to an otherwise delicate meal. The spinach made sure to keep the undercurrent of freshness flowing leading us right into our next plate.

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Cuttlefish with ink sauce and ginger

Cuttlefish with ink sauce and ginger. This brought out a collective ‘ah!’ from Benton, Maggie, Z and me. We were warned not to spill any ink on our clothes. It would most certainly stain. Now, I know earlier that I was imploring you to run out and find something made with squid ink to try immediately. But I do have to admit that this dish was a bit overwhelming for my taste. The few bites I had that incorporated the cuttlefish, the ink and the snap of the white ginger made complete sense though. I just needed that bite of freshness to bring the moving parts back into rhythm.

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Prawns with coco beans.

Prawns with coco beans. I wish I could somehow translate the gentle, tender texture of the dish onto the page so you could somehow share in the experience. These tiny prawns were brought to us raw, artfully placed at the bottom of a bowl with beans and bits of chive. Our waiter poured a steaming stream of broth (the kind that makes you feel better when you are sick… the kind that warms you from the inside out) into the bowl, warming the crustacean without changing the texture or flavor.

It was hard to resist grabbing the bowl with my hands and tipping to into my mouth. I managed to let my spoon do the work! And then we came to this – the Prawn. It laid upon a bed of smoked salt and was brought to us with the aromas of burnt bay leaf and cloves smoldering on the bottom of the plate.

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A great show of removing all silverware from the table was made. We were to eat this with our hands. It was a quintessential part of the experience. One bite and I was transported to Maine, sitting on a dock savoring freshly steamed lobster. The sweetness of the prawn was so natural, so real and unmasked. Simplicity at its finest. By this time our courses were growing, both in number and in depth and intensity of flavor.

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Mackerel with vermouth and green pepper.

IMG_1570It was time for red wine! Our waiter had the perfect bottle in mind. For a young wine this Marsannay Clos du Roy was bold and vibrant. It is one I can’t wait to taste again. Mackerel with vermouth and green pepper. The salty, crispy skin was the perfect bite to lead into this soft and tender fish. The pepper was a lovely counterpart, and the vermouth offered a refreshing broth, enhancing the complexity of the dish.

And now we’ve reached my favorite plate of the night. Fish of the day with black olive and onion. I am still kicking myself because I can’t remember what type of fish this was. But does it really matter? It was just plain AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS!

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And the beauty of this dish, the artful way each component was arranged, made me so happy, so delighted to put it all together. The olive puree was smooth and silky, exuding flavor. The red onion was lightly pickled, cold and crisp, cutting through the richness of the fish and the brininess of the olive. Perfection in food form.

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Wild mushrooms and rabbit.

Wild mushrooms and rabbit. Thinly sliced mushrooms and lightly crisped bits of rabbit were enveloped by a cloud of foam. There was a gentle richness to these flavors, a nice balance that made you want to go back for more. And it also made me realize how much I was craving meat.

Clearly they were preparing us for the final portion of the dinner. And here we are – beef and gizzard with vegetables. Isn’t it funny how you don’t realize how much you miss something until it is in front of you? Well, I suppose I must take steak for granted because this was exactly what I never realized I wanted but, once I had it, I couldn’t dare to leave a bite behind.

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Beef and gizzard with vegetables

And, as with the courses that preceded it, every aspect of the dish came together to be a congruous and complimentary experience. The crispy gizzard, the rich beef and the earthy, charred vegetables. It was something I knew but I had never encountered it in this way. Harmony is beautiful.

After 11-plus courses, it was hard to imagine dessert. But they knew we would be full and happy. We needed something refreshing. Something to bring us back from the ledge of a food-coma pit we were all peering into. Tomatoes with cucumber gazpacho and sheep milk ice cream proved to be our saving grace.

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Refreshing and delicious. I felt revived – impossibly so! The red wine run dry, we moved onto a white dessert wine followed by a rich port. The white dessert wine was the ideal partner for our gazpacho and ice cream and the port brought out the best in this decadent fondant of chocolate with burned rum ice cream. Happy with food and drink, we laughed and shared stories. And the desserts kept coming in the form of small frozen bites of ice cream on sticks, strawberries with bits of freeze-dried raspberries on top of cream, tiny chocolate tarts. Just when you thought the evening was winding down they lifted you with gazpacho and kept the night going, making this idyllic experience last – none of us wanted it to end!

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I am oh-so grateful we were able to share this experience with Benton and Maggie. They understand my obsession with food, wine and all things culinary. They are supportive, encouraging, and just some of the best people I know. Benton was insistent upon sharing my foodie-girl card with the restaurant and, who knows, maybe they will check back to see this write up. I hope they do – it was one of the best experiences, and I am so thankful for it.

As the cab flew through the streets of Barcelona to return us to our home-away-from-home, we rolled the windows down and took in the night – the beauty of the old mixing with the new. The amazing way every day simplicities are elevated, highlighted and celebrated. But that is alchemy, after all – the everyday made to be spectacular.

We would be leaving the next morning for the Rioja wine country. The adventure would continue!

IMG_1621About the author: In 2011, Lindsey McClave created a blog called foodie-girl. Foodie-girl was designed to be a creative outlet, a place for her to chronicle her adventures in the kitchen, log her favorite wine and cocktail experiences, record tales of travel throughout the world and to hone her writing skills. This outlet and these obsessions – food, wine, travel and writing – have happily led her to a career as a freelance writer and recipe developer.

 

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