Tag Archives: Santa Maria

Barcelona: The Food


When I travel, I tend to be a low-effort locavore. That is, I eat at places that are directly in front of me. Because I try to avoid tourist districts as much as possible, this approach has generally worked out. It never lands me at McDonalds and rarely at overpriced tourist traps that serve watered down, poorly made versions of local specialities.

My selection process below the district level is random. Since I’m not especially into food as a hobby, I don’t go out of my way to eat at well-reviewed places. If I’m already in the neighborhood or someone else has sorted it out, great. Otherwise, I wing it: concierge recommendations are fine, maybe a quick audit in a guide book, but otherwise, c’est la vie. Traveling with me would drive a gourmet nuts, I’m sure.

It surprised me then, when I was thinking about the best part of our recent trip to Barcelona, that the food we had was at the top of the list. We had some really excellent meals, hit some superb, small restaurants, and brought back more food than anything else. Go figure.


It’s pronounced fee-day-WAH. As in, “WAH-hoo!”

The short description is “paella with capellini instead of rice.” (For a longer, more poetic description, check out Traveler’s Lunchbox.) I’ve been to Barcelona four times before and managed to miss this local fisherman’s dish. And Lord, what have I been missing! It’s richer in flavor than any paella I’ve ever had and the noodles make my day. It’s got all the excellent paella features – shellfish, finned fish, crusty bits on the top and bottom – but with pasta, which, to my mind, is always better than rice.

The first and best one we had was at La Fonda in Porto Olimpico. Don’t get all squeamish about heading to a brightly lit restaurant on a pier that’s also home to several bars and nightclubs. Yes, this place will look like your worst nightmare, but as long as you stick with the fideuà, you’re golden.

They’ll try and sell you on their grilled seafood plates by bringing your prospective dinner – live lobsters, crayfish, etc. – by the table to look you in the eye before their demise. This freaks me out – I’ve never been able to cook a lobster – and the resulting plate o’ ocean ordered by a companion just was not that tasty, so I felt justified in my resistance.

R and I got fideuà for two (they make you your own pan) and it was massive, so go hungry or order conservatively. Call ahead for reservations to get a table in a good spot if you’re going during prime dinner hours (around 9:30). Showing up also works, but you might end up on the edges of the outdoor room.


Of course, right? You can’t not have tapas in Spain and the restaurant options are endless, so where should you go?

Santa Maria, started and staffed by veterans of El Bulli, offers true small plates and all of them are either innovative or just plain better than what’s usually on offer. No patatas bravas or grilled chorizo for these guys, but what you get instead is super-flavored and interesting. I didn’t love everything we ordered – the Dracula dessert parfait with the equivalent of pop rocks crossed the line from “cool” into “unsuccessful” – but it doesn’t matter when they’re small plates. How bad can something that’s 3″x3″ be? We just ordered more of what we loved. The mussels and the fried tuna sushi roll were standouts. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The place is small, so going late, as we did, is a good bet, unless you have a party of six or more, in which case you can reserve. We only paid 70+ euros for five people at dinner, which seems extraordinarily inexpensive for a place like this.

More info in the Times Online’s review.

Incidentally, Santa Maria has a sister restaurant, Santa, around the corner where we saw Puyol, the Barcelona soccer star, having dinner with too many sexy ladies and too much gel in his curls to look classy and not trashy, but whatever. If you’ve just won the European Championships, I guess you can be forgiven some lapses in taste.

Taller Tapas on Calle de l’Argenteria in the Born district is the opposite end of the tapas spectrum: a small chain that serves conventional tapas in a high-traffic historic district. Good to know about if you’re visiting museums or churches in the area or shopping of an afternoon. Solid offerings, friendly service and recommended by locals. Make sure you try the ham croquettes.

Gràcia district

Be aware that the restaurants in Gràcia are tiny and gritty-hip. So don’t plan on breaking out your Jimmy Choo’s and a party of twelve. You’ll never get in and you’ll look idiotic while finding that out.

Bodega Manolo was the best and most interesting place we ate in Barcelona. Not because it was haute cuisine or super cool but because the food was innovative and unbelievably tasty without being remotely pretentious. Also, the place is ludicrously local, down to the highly restricted hours (9-11 Fri-Sun), the tiny size (seats maybe 30), and the waitress in jogging pants. The barrels of wine lining the side wall aren’t some version of country decor. They’re actually being stored there. As a city dweller in a too-small apartment, I can relate to that. I just wish this team worked in our kitchen.


Get everything on the appetizer menu to start. Seriously. Grilled asparagus, paper-thin ham with tomatoes, and, listen up, the potato chips in a pile of indeterminate gratin. I’m not kidding. It’s potato chips with peppers, onions, some kind of ungodly flavorful sauce and, of course, cheese. Don’t laugh. It’s my new favorite thing. I don’t care if you’re on a diet or leery of the chips thing. Order it. You’ll thank me.

Dinner itself was almost an afterthought. Their specialty is a bacalla (salted cod) dish which almost everyone ordered and liked. I got the lighter fish dish which was also wonderful and easier to eat after nine pounds of appetizers. R’s cousin (who weighs about as much as Keira Knightley) got foie gras and apples which was predictably hyper rich and necessarily shared around. I think that dish might be illegal in the States.

Dessert, for me, was the cheese plate, which, in a place like this, you get and you eat and you don’t ask questions. There’s no cheese card, no description of the origins and whether the little sheeps are grass-fed. This is not Whole Foods. This is Spain. It was excellent. I’ll leave it at that.

Bodega Manolo: no credit cards, dinner only, reservations a must
Torrent de les Flors, 101, Phone: 93-284 43 77
Thurs-Sat only, 9-11PM (you can stay later but the kitchen closes at 11)

I don’t know anyone who thinks of Spain and sushi in the same sentence, but if you’re in the mood, hit one of Kibuka‘s two locations, both in Gràcia. Relatives (local) and our bartender at the hotel both recommended it and weren’t wrong.

Living in San Francisco, where sushi is plentiful and high-quality, I didn’t need to go to Spain to get a raw fish fix, but after days of noodles, ham and croquettes, cold fresh fish with rice was a welcome break. We ordered the usual array of special rolls – shrimp, salmon, tuna – and everything was quite good. Don’t expect a lot of original combos, but, definitely, if you’re overstuffed with carbs and meat from other Spanish meals or if you live somewhere where it’s tough to get good sushi, Kibuka’s your place.

Fair warning: get there by 9PM to make sure you get a table. They don’t take reservations and if you miss their first seating, you’ll wait until 11.

Note: Fideuà does not photograph well. Hence, that pretty photo above is from Socarrat, the relatively new paella bar in New York that I’m dying to visit. I hear it’s great, so if you can’t get to Barcelona, perhaps your maiden fideuà could be in Manhattan.