Great views, superb steak and slick service at this rooftop restaurant overlooking Barcelona’s Port Vell.
Restaurant locations in Barcelona don’t get much better than this. The Basque-Catalan 1881 Per SAGARDI (Plaça de Pau Vila 3, Barcelona; Tel. +34 932210050) perches atop the waterside Museu d’Història de Catalunya, at the crook of the old harbour where the former fishing district of Barceloneta juts away from the city centre.
The museum occupies the lower floors of a handsome brick building, reminiscent of Liverpool’s Albert Dock, that was also originally a general warehouse. Escalators and ramps in the vast, skylit atrium take you past exhibits of the region’s history and up to a bright, glass-walled rooftop restaurant.
A seat on the sunny terrace rewards you with a spectacular view. The city’s skyline looms from the crag of Montjuic across to Tibidabo while, on your left, huge yachts sailing under a kalaidoscope of colours move from their moorings in the harbour and out into the glittering Mediterranean.
The Bacardi-sponsored cocktail bar on the terrace makes this a great spot for pre- or post-meal relaxation. It’s worth visiting 1881 Per SAGARDI (henceforth referred to as 1881 to save my keyboard) just for drinks, even if you don’t plan on eating here, especially if you time your visit to watch the sunset. As the staff will tell you, however, the sofas and tables are a little too low for dining and the sea breeze can get uncomfortably stiff. After a glass of crisp verdejo and two hors d’œuvres (grilled squid; and a gilda – a Basque pinxo of olives, anchovies and green chillis) I moved inside to the dining area.
Enticing aromas were emerging from a wood-fired grill at the end of the room. There were a higher-than-usual number of business lunches going on when I visited, shortly after the GSMA Mobile World Congress, and deals were still being excitedly hammered out around me. You don’t have to be on an expense account to eat at 1881; mains range from €22-€30 and you can expect to pay about €40 or €50 in total. It isn’t a cheap lunch but, as you’ll see, it is good value.
A note on the photos: as my visit was for a guide book review, I ate a selection of small dishes to better represent the menu. 1881 will probably prepare this for you if you ask,but generally you should assume that the portions will be bigger than those shown.
First up was excellent coca de Folgueroles bread, rubbed with tomato and sprinkled with sea salt, plus quality bellota ham. If you are enraged by the slates-not-plates trend then you’ll have to grit your teeth here but that’s really the only possible complaint.
SAGARDI’s Argentinian links (the group has a restaurant in Buenos Aires) have resulted in the production of their own wine: a 2011 Uco Acero Malbec. It was good value at €18 per bottle. Wines by the glass will cost you €3-€4 while most of the bottles on the list range from €15-€45.
The tuna tartare was well seasoned, with capers delivering welcome punch, but the guindillas (chillis) were used too sparingly for my taste; I would have enjoyed more than a mild and halfhearted tingle on the tongue.
The salt cod croquette with aioli (garlic mayonnaise) was a little too gluey but the Iberian ham version was excellent.
Grilled artichokes benefitted from the magic kiss of woodsmoke, which compensated for the merely adequate romesco sauce and lifted the dish into deliciousness.
The arroz meloso de gambas (prawn rice) was well executed: the grains had bite while the dish was appropriately lava-like in consistency. Also lava-like was the scalding-hot serving temperature, which forced me to wait impatiently to get stuck in. My asbestos mouth prevailed and thoroughly I enjoyed the dish. Some lemon, however, would have provided a welcome note to cut through the richness.
It was then time for what is indisputably 1881’s star dish: the txuletón de vaca vieja (steak from mature cattle). I had eaten this on a previous visit to the restaurant and had high hopes, which fortunately weren’t dashed.
Cooked medium rare (you don’t get asked – this is how it’s served), this is a mighty steak that is made magnificent by the wood grill. Chewing it releases compounds that light up primitive parts of your brain, sinking you into carnivorous caveman bliss. It was served with roast piquillo peppers from Tolosa that were sweet and tender. The txuletón itself is not especially tender; that’s not the point of this cut – it’s all about the flavour. Be careful when ordering, however. This dish is priced by weight so make sure you clarify the portion size with the staff to avoid misunderstandings when the bill arrives.
Speaking of the staff, it’s worth highlighting the quality service at 1881. I watched the waitresses expertly handle difficult customers, explain dishes in clear English and generally go about their business with a high degree of professionalism that’s sadly often missing in Barcelona. Top marks.
By the time I’d reached this point in the meal I was groaning under the caloric load but, out of duty to you, my loyal readers, decided to tackle dessert.
Chocolate mouse on superb bread, sprinkled with sea-salt, hit the spot, accompanied by strawberry, grapes and a chocolate truffle. Raspberries might have been a better choice but I won’t quibble; it was very good.
1881 is much better than might reasonably be expected, given its location and the general race-to-the-bottom in quality that Barceloneta seafront restaurants have suffered in recent years; I wish all ‘tourist traps’ were like this. 1881 uses rather than abuses its advantages and adds quality cooking at non-exploitative prices to its stunning views. Full disclosure: I didn’t pay for this meal myself but I’ve been to 1881 before on my own budget and I’ll undoubtedly be there again. There’s a txuletón with my name on it…