Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cal Pep

When we were planning this trip, Katie’s dad, Papa S., said that he wanted to take us to “some great tapas bars in Barcelona.” Well, we only ended up going to one, but we went there twice, and we were perfectly happy not going to any others. According to Papa S., Cal Pep is Thomas Keller’s favorite restaurant (aside from his own), so you can be pretty sure it’s quite good.

We first went on Saturday evening, the night before our big lunch at El Bulli. Papa S. wasn’t yet in Barcelona, so our party consisted of Mama S., Katie, Sister S., and me. The restaurant opened at 8, and we were instructed by Papa S. to be there by 7:30 to wait in line (they don’t take reservations). We took a cab from the hotel and after a good 10-15 minutes of wandering semi-aimlessly around pedestrian-only streets and squares, and Katie’s patient efforts at getting directions from shopkeepers (which was brave of her, given that pretty much everyone spoke Catalan rather than Spanish), we found it.

It was easy to miss. The sign was small and half obscured, and to be honest, it really didn’t look like a restaurant. Other than the tiny sign, there was no indication that the small space behind the rolling metal door was anything more than a storage space for the adjacent business. But as we walked up, we saw that written on the door were their hours, and in front of the door were a few people already waiting. We joined them in line and got to talking, as they were from Boston. As the time neared 8pm we saw the line grow until it must have had at least 35 people. We were glad we got there early, especially once the door opened and we walked in.

There are not many seats to be had in Cal Pep. There are a few in a back room, and about 20 at the bar in the front. The latter are the desirable ones, as behind the bar is where all the action takes place. All of the food is made directly in front of you. It’s loud, it’s fast-paced, it’s somewhat chaotic, and it’s immensely enjoyable. And those 35+ people? Well, not all of them got the first seating, so they—and all of the other people who arrived to wait while we ate—lined up directly behind us.

That’s right, there are people standing right behind you while you eat, waiting for you to finish. But there’s so much going on right in front of you, both behind the bar and on your plate, that you completely forget they’re there.

The consensus after our hour-long meal (which felt like about 15-20 minutes) was that “it was like doing drugs.” They didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Catalan (and only Katie spoke some Spanish), but we got along just fine. People threw plates of food at you and half of the time you didn’t quite know what you were eating, but they said “it’s very good! Try it, you’ll like it!” (Or at least that’s what they seemed to be saying.) Eventually, with or without prompting from your dining companions, you just put it in your mouth and discovered that yes, you really did like it. Even if you weren’t sure what it was. Things were very hot, sometimes greasy, deliciously salty, and very fresh.

Everyone starts with a plate of olive oil and tomato-smeared toasted bread (yum) and then moves on from there. We didn’t know what to order, so there was lots of pointing and requesting what other people had, and they did a fair amount of just putting stuff in front of us. The food was nicely complemented by the two or three cervezas we each had.

The first thing we ate, other than the olive-oil-tomato-bread, was small roasted peppers. They were roasted whole, dumped on a plate, and salted before being placed in front of us. They were amazing. Each one was lightly charred in a few places, and they were best before they cooled and went limp (but even then, they were wonderfully tasty).

There was also fried calamari, which was delicious. I’d never been brave enough to try it before, but I figured if I didn’t like it here, I wouldn’t like it anywhere. The breading was a very light (finely ground cornmeal, I believe) and we saw the whole process from beginning to end. The squid were sliced at a prep table, dredged in the cornmeal, and tossed in the fryer, all right in front of us. They came out of the fryer and went right onto the plate, got a generous few pinches of salt, and were passed right over to where we were sitting. There were also small shrimp, also dredged in cornmeal and fried whole—and you were meant to eat them whole, head included. I ate a few and they were a little fishy for my taste, but Katie and Mama S. really enjoyed them (Sister S. is vegetarian). We also got a spinach and chickpea sauté for Sister S—we had asked for something vegetarian, but amusingly enough (at least to everyone except Sister S.), they put bits of bacon in it.

There were fried artichoke hearts, which were awesome, especially because they were fresh artichoke hearts, not the canned kind. They gave us some sort of potato, egg, and cheese galette that was smeared on top with a garlic aioli. And one of the best dishes of the evening was pork sausage with white beans, cooked in and drizzled with a port reduction. We also got to try the tuna tartare that the Boston folks (seated next to us) ordered. It was excellent. Finally, dessert: fresh woodland strawberries (the little ones) in a liqueur and topped with fresh whipped cream. Yummm. All in all, an exhilarating experience in sight, sound, and taste.

Three nights later, our last night in Barcelona, we went back—this time “we” being Katie, Papa S., and I. We arrived somewhat later (10pm), and stood around behind the diners drinking a great wine (another Vega Sicilia Unico, a nonvintage one that—if I understand correctly—is only available in Spain), and eventually were seated at the counter. This time we had a better idea what to order, and we also had Papa S. with us, so the meal was somewhat less chaotic in terms of what we were eating. We had the peppers, of course, as well as the potato galette, the calamari, and the sausage with beans. But we also had some awesome potato croquettes and some enormous prawns that were grilled whole, with the head and shell and everything, and then served for us to disassemble ourselves.

We also ended up with some tiny little smelt that had been breaded and fried, and were surprisingly fun (and tasty) to eat. They were like little French fries, except that they were fish. We shared the prawns and smelt with the women seated next to us, who in turn shared their dish of baby octopus with chickpeas (not my thing—too fishy—but I can understand how it would have tasted good to folks who didn’t mind the fishiness). Once again we got the strawberries with cream for dessert, but this time they gave us a little something extra: three espresso cups filled with different kinds of whipped cream. One was lemon, one coffee, and one seemed more like a custard that had been whipped. All were delicious.

If you are ever in Barcelona, I highly, highly recommend that you stop by Cal Pep for an evening. It’s not a fancy dining experience (the placemats are paper, and the service is very rushed—but in a fun way), but you’ll have a great time and eat some fantastic food.


Brave Sir Robin said...

Again - WOW.

So the smelts weren't fishy? Sounds like a couple of heavenly meals. mmmmm

Was the wine the same both times?

Anne said...

Amazingly enough, they really weren't fishy. I was very surprised. Katie had to goad me into trying them, though. At that point my willingness to try new, strange, and/or potentially fishy things had been very nearly exhausted.

I don't think the wine was the exact same, as the one at Cal Pep was a nonvintage and the one at El Bulli was an '87. But both were Vega Sicilia Unico, and both were great.