The highs and lows of Barcelona

Thursday, April 24th , 2008

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It was very interesting to contrast an old and a relatively new 3 star restaurant in Spain. Both Sant Pau and Can Fabes are near Barcelona in small towns. In the case of Sant Pau the food was both technically proficient and had a sense of energy and drive; indeed in the case of a dish with tuna and strawberries, maybe too much modern drive. However I had an overwhelmingly positive sense: ingredients were top notch, in some cases dazzling so, such as some beautifully fresh and sweet peas in one dish that had such great flavour it left you wondering where they can find ingredients like this. This was an assured modern restaurant that still has a sense of moving forward, striving for the very best.
The following night I went to Can Fabes, a restaurant with fond memories for me as on my first visit there in the late 1990s I had a really beautiful meal, with simple but assured cooking and low prices (e.g. very kind wine mark-ups). I had one more very good meal there a couple of years later, and then a rather troubling one in 2006 that seemed a lot less good. Maybe it was just an off-night, or maybe the chef was spending too much time on “other projects”. I had hoped for the former. However this week the meal was a truly disheartening experience, with clumsy lapses in technique (sea bass raw in the middle) and dishes that simply had disappointing taste or so-so ingredients. A simple dish of vegetable casserole had peas that were a million miles away from the superb ones at Sant Pau the previous night, but also less good than those at the tapas bar we tried for lunch that day. This was a restaurant that was simply not trying any more. High quality desserts did their best to rescue the meal, but it was a downright poor experience, and £200 a head poor experience at that. Perhaps some restaurants just lose their sense of drive when they get their third star; I do not know how else to explain it when the very same kitchen produced such lovely meals on my visits here a few years ago.
By contrast Hofmann was a really nice surprise, a one star Michelin restaurant that seriously outperformed its expectations. The large number of young chefs meant there were plenty of hands on deck to carry out some elaborate work, but several dishes were really superb, easily two star level, while the relative duds were still capable and decent one star cooking. The bill was half that of Can Fabes but the experience better in every way. 
I also had a very impressive meal at Cal Pep, which is a tapas bar tucked away in a quite part of Barcelona with bar stools and not even a menu: dishes just appear. There was a fair sized queue when we arrived, and a much longer one when we left (they don’t take reservations). Ingredients were very good for such a simple place, and cooking technique was exemplified by a lovely piece of monkfish, cooked better than I have had in many grander places. If only every tapas bar was like this.
Back in the UK I had solid meals at the reliable Brackenbury and La Trompette. La Trompette’s Michelin star has not gone to its head, and the short, changing menu always has things that you actually want to eat. This week I had some excellent duck on a bed of green cabbage, for example. The Brackenbury is less ambitious but serves decent, honest food. This week a poulet noir was really nicely cooked with a medley of vegetables. Not a strawberry in sight.
One drawback of being in Barcelona was that I missed (again) the gala dinner for the St Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants.   This list originated as a clever piece of PR by Restaurant Magazine, and has now developed a life of its own complete with sponsor. I have found this list quite puzzling. In the first year the voting system was simply flawed, as noted by Terry Durack this week. It was wildly UK-centric and resulted in some truly insane choices. The system has definitely improved, and I talked at length this year with the organisers about the voting mechanism, which seems reasonably fair, with each panellist getting five votes for places they have eaten at in the last year or so. If you look at the panel for the UK you will see that this a pretty solid collection of foodie people, so it is hard for me to explain why there still seem some genuine anomalies.  
Gordon Ramsay must be surprised and pleased to see his name up there at #13, and yet the last two meals I have eaten there suggest a real decline recently. Joel Robuchon must be amused to see his worthy Atelier placed above top 3 star Louis XV, and how exactly does Nobu London end up on anyone’s list above Arpege or Tantris?  Hakkassan is a supremely successful restaurant, but can anyone seriously say that it is better than Dal Pescatore or Hotel de Ville?  Bukhara is not even the best Indian restaurant in India, let alone in Asia – if you doubt this then try Made in China in Beijing, for example, which does not make the list at all (though it is at least lurking in the regional list just below the top 50).
At least Vendome got some recognition (it got one of my five votes) at #34. All I can conclude is that a list that is made up of average of a few hundred voters, however knowledgeable each of them may be, is going to throw up some aberrations. After all someone voted for Nobu and must have really thought that it was one of the best five meals he or she had last year. I am going to give up trying to understand and analyse the list and just acknowledge that it is a fun talking point that publicises high end dining.