Jordi Vilà’s Alkimia (C/ Industria, 79, +34 93 207 6115, closed weekends) is a lot of people’s favourite restaurant. Vilà himself is one of Barcelona’s gastronomic stars: a prodigy who worked under some of the city’s greatest chefs including the recently departed and much-missed Jean Luc Figueras. He opened Alkimia with his partner Sònia Profitós in 2002 and the accolades soon followed, including a Michelin star in 2005. Vilà is known as a ‘chef’s chef’ who prefers cooking to celebrity and avoids the media circus. Alkimia has quietly become a destination restaurant for visiting industry professionals, gastro-tourists and locals alike.
The bad news: it’s closing down soon. The good news: it’s re-opening across town in the Fàbrica Moritz (Moritz brewery). Vilà already oversees all things culinary in the Moritz-owned Velodromo bar and he has been offered the chance to work his magic on a bigger stage.
It’s especially bad news for me because I live near Alkimia’s current location but Fàbrica Moritz, which already boasts a bakery by the sublime Triticum, is shaping up to be something special.
But that is the future. The present is the ‘old’ Alkimia and it is still extraordinarily good.
My wife and I were fortunate to get a table at fairly short notice when the chance of a child-free evening out arose. The restaurant was packed with probably 80% locals (getting into a pre-Diada – National Day of Catalonia – celebratory spirit) plus a few international visitors. Alkimia isn’t a temple of interior design but the minimalist all-white interior and furniture does its best to detract from the fact that the restaurant is basically a narrow and windowless cave.
There are two tasting menus at Alkimis (in addition to a €39 lunchtime menú del día and the à la carte selection): Alkimia (€130) and Traditions (€68). The first was sadly beyond our budget so we chose Traditions and I asked sommelier Miguel Martínez if he would select a wine pairing.
The macademia nut crackers with a dusting of dried tomatoes were a very pleasant snack with which to start.
Next came an Alkimia classic: their deconstructed liquid version of Catalan tomato bread (pa amb tomàquet), served alongside a slice of cured llonganissa sausage. It’s clarified tomato juice with some oil and breadcrumbs, and it’s both clever and delicious… but I still prefer the real thing.
It’s worth noting that Alkimia’s own home-made bread is superb and I had to fight the temptation to gorge on it as the meal progressed.
Miguel offered a young, organic Penedés Xarel.lo (Aloers 2013 from Cellar Credo) which was suitably fresh and crisp. He described its merits comprehensively and clearly, something many sommeliers fail to do but which should be a prerequisite in restaurants at this level.
The next amuse bouche, ‘summer salad’, featured cucumber sorbet rolled in cauliflower c’ouscous’ and herbs with tomato. It was as seasonally evocative as its name suggested.
The first proper course was a pretty ‘ravioli’ of celeriac ribbons and a large prawn. The balance of acidity was just right and the dish tasted as good as it looked.
Green beans and a salt cod brandade with wasabi was an unusual combination, paired with a bold Dönnhoff 2012 Riesling which had just enough sweetness to balance the gentle wasabi heat but also tartness and light minerality. It was an inspired pairing for an excellent dish.
A glass of Abel Mendoza 2013 Rioja sat well with the outstanding sarsuela fish stew. Presented with some ceremony, with copper pots of extra broth and a spicy ‘picada‘ to stir in, , it was one of the best sarsuela‘s I’ve ever tasted.
Orange citrus notes complemented the complex richness of a broth obviously made with very fresh fish stock, poured over excellent fish and sea cucumber, with bread to soak up the goodness. I could have eaten a bucketful of this.
One of my favourite wines of the evening, a 2013 Burgundy from Fanny Sabre, was paired with a complimentary grilled cuttlefish with caramelized onions. Simple, perfect, tender cuttlefish and the smoothest, sweetest onion. Delicious. The light Pinot Noir wine was bursting with strawberry and I’ll definitely be picking up a bottle of this to enjoy while summer is still here.
So far everything had been excellent but it was the next dish that pushed me into the fully blissed-out state where I start making low groans of happiness: a leek tart.
I was born and raised in a coalmining town in the north-east of England, where growing leeks is part of the cultural heritage. Frankly, I’ve been pretty disappointed by the ones I’ve eaten since coming to Catalonia where the leek is a very, very distant rival to the local calçot. These ones were different. Fresh out of the ground, tender and buttery, in a crisp tart casing that made a satisfying crunch when cut in two, they were presented alongside some wild porcini mushrooms and Pyrennean cream. Real, 25-year old Balsamic vinegar was dripped on the leeks and an unusual 2011 Carles Andreu Trepat from Conca de Barbera poured into my wineglass.
It was magnificent. Proper cooking. Vila’s known for his skilful use of modern techniques but the reason that he can employ them is because, at heart, he’s a damn good traditional cook and pastry chef.
Miguel brought out a 2009 Château Haut-Beauséjour Saint Estèphe Bordeux which proved to be earthy and full of dark fruits. Equally dark was the ibérico suckling pork à la royale. The quenelle of rich meat lay beneath a lake of dense, blood-rich sauce beside a sculpted slice of stuffed and rolled aubergine. I loved it, but it was too rich for my wife who was starting to feel full and regret eating the bread at the start of the meal. Not a problem: more for me…
The first of two desserts was a red fruit gazpacho with a sorbet of galanga (a ginger-ish Thai herb). It was lovely: smooth sorbet, tart fruit, cucumber-and-mint freshness and a good balance of textures. The local Alta Atlella Dolç Mataró wine paired with it was a new and welcome discovery for me. It was very fruity and full of cherry goodness – another excellent choice.
The same could be said of the Pérez Barquero La Cañada Sierra de Montilla Pedro Ximénez, which was a PX but not as we usually know it. A little less raisin-y than its Jerez cousins, it had a big caramel hit which went well with the chocolate fondant with hazelnut flakes and mint ice-cream. I wasn’t keen on the unwieldy spoon they gave me to at it with but the dessert was great. The chocolate fondant wowed both of us and my wife, who usually describes all mint dishes as being ‘toothpaste’ happily ate hers.
Post-coffee treats came in the shape of crema de limón – which took me to a happy place with memories of my grandmother’s lemon curd – and some excellent petit fours.
The meal was flawless. No missteps, a couple of truly outstanding dishes, and a wine pairing that put some distinguished and well-stocked restaurant cellars to shame. The bill for two people, including one wine pairing, came to under €200 which is almost a bargain at this level of fine dining. Jordi Vilà is cooking at the top of his game and a bigger, more attractive place to serve his food could well see him earn a second Michelin star. His cooking is more grounded than might be expected and those looking for molecular gastronomy showpieces should probably look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you want modern cooking with deep roots, prepared by a hugely talented chef, Alkimia is one of the best options in Barcelona.