Fine food and a fantastic terrace? A winning combination and, you’d think, a concept restaurateurs in Barcelona would regularly seize upon. There are, however, relatively few places where you can eat outstandingly well while enjoying the warm weather; lots of good places, certainly, but not many you’d describe as excellent. A notable entrant in this slim category is Arola (Hotel Arts, Marina 19-21, 08005, +34 93 483 80 90).
Overshadowed by the (superb) two-Michelin-star Enoteca in the same five-star hotel, Arola is still something of a hidden gem on the fine dining scene despite recently celebrating its 10th anniversary. It is overseen by celebrity chef (and taxman’s friend) Sergi Arola, owner of the two-star Sergi Arola Gastro in Madrid, who sets the menu and visits once a week to ensure his very demanding standards are being met.
The exclusive elevator to the restaurant is almost hidden amongst the throngs of chauffeurs and valet-parked Mercedes limos and Ferraris in the Hotel’s entrance tunnel. Once you’ve found it, it deposits you on one of the nicest covered terraces in the city. Sofas and tables surround an outdoor bar, with views of the sea framed by the towering hotel, palm trees and Frank Gehry’s huge Fish sculpture. Water tinkles on potted plants on the adjoining casino roof while olive trees and an extensive herb garden perfume the air, engaging the senses before you enter the restaurant.
Inside is almost as light and airy as the terrace, with glass walls, wispy curtains and a nautical palette of white, blue and weathered wood.
Arola eschews extravagant gastronomy in favour of a casual, tapas-based menu of rejuvenated classics. Picking and choosing can be pricey, with individual dishes costing between €12 and €45, but a €79 pica-pica menu and ‘surprise’ menu of six dishes selected by the chef puts the restaurant within the reach of those with slimmer wallets.
Young, smiling, highly competent staff showed us to our seats. I was smiling back at them, partly out of politeness and partly because the poor souls are obliged to wear the most absurd uniforms: clown pants with waists up to the ribcage, and braces (suspenders, for American readers). It may be the most unintentionally comic restaurant staff outfit I’ve ever seen outside of establishments that host birthday parties for infants. Please, señor Arola, show mercy on your excellent waiters and change the dress code…
We started with an amuse-bouche of salmon with a citrus sauce and guacamole. Very good it was, too, but the guacamole was heavy on the avocado and light on everything else, perhaps as a result of the Spanish aversion to spicy food.
Things moved up a gear from good to great with the arrival of very thinly cut presa pork from, of course, Ibérico pigs, with Idiazábal cheese, apple, pistachio nuts and some (again) un-spicy pickled ‘hot’ peppers. A very balanced dish, with taste and texture combinations that worked well.
The Arola-signature patatas bravas came next. They were extremely similar to the signature bravas at Taverna Del Clinic. I’m don’t know, or care, which came first and I wouldn’t like to say which I like best. Both are very enjoyable twists on the standard spuds.
Steak Tartar, with local beef and a very non-local marinade of soy sauce, wasabi and ginger, topped with an egg yolk, looked great both when it was presented and when it was plated and served with some thin toasts. Tartar is one of my favourite dishes and this was an excellent execution but I would have perhaps liked a bit more boldness with the wasabi, as it wasn’t warm enough to reach through the umami and the richness of the meat. That’s a minor quibble though: I’d happily order this dish again.
“Las bombas del Port” were just as good bombas should be, with a truly outstanding aioli (garlic mayonnaise) below and rich tomato bravas sauce on top of a deep-fried, breaded meatball. There’s a limit to how sophisticated you can (or should) make a bomba and this stayed on the right side of the line. My theme of ‘could have been spicier’ continued but my wife disagreed and thought the bravas sauce had just the right amount of kick.
Another Arola signature dish, scallops with asparagus and salmon eggs, served with squid ink spheres and cherry tomatoes, was simple and sensational.
Keeping the maritime theme for a fishy finish, the final savoury dish was hake served in foam, with local peas and clams. Beautifully presented, it had the hallmarks of a great chef, combining lightness and freshness to great effect. Perfect, too, with the glass of albariño I was drinking.
A surprisingly hefty portion of frozen yoghurt, mango and passion fruit was served for dessert. The mint foam was ok but a little toothpaste-y for my taste. The light and mouth-watering vanilla cream, on the other hand, stole the show. Not a delicate dish but, like the restaurant, fun and summery.
Arola is well worth seeking out. It isn’t the cheapest place in town but the location is priceless. Full disclosure: I didn’t pay for the meal I had but the set menu format was good value given the standard of cooking. Smokers can enjoy a meal outdoors without bothering anyone and everyone else can just enjoy the food. Sunday brunch is unsurprisingly popular here and in the evenings the terrace diners can enjoy live music (on Thursdays) and DJ sets under the starlight as they relax with a postprandial cocktail. Arola restaurant isn’t the hottest new place on the Barcelona scene but, because of this, everyone here knows what they are doing and that’s obvious in the end results.