Want to try calçots in Barcelona? This specialist wood-grill restaurant fits the bill … if you can stand the smoke.
Calçots are one of the defining dishes of Catalan cuisine. Every winter, vast numbers of the leek-sized spring onions are grilled black over open flames before being served to bib-wearing hordes who strip them of their outer leaves. The tender centres are dipped into a romesco-like sauce called salvitxada that also features nyora peppers and nuts, then lowered into gaping maws across the country. Calçotadas are communal celebrations of the glorious green onion, usually involving rivers of unpretentious wine, grilled lamb and botifarra sausages.
They’re fun, messy and harder to find in stylish central Barcelona than out of town. As a result, I realized with a shock that my own Catalan children had never eaten a calçot. This is tantamount to cultural deprivation and so, with the end of the season approaching, I resolved to put matters right.
My wife and son were away so my daughter and I crossed the city in the Metro and emerged in Sants. In the streets around the city’s train station, calçots were being cooked over flaming grills and sold wrapped in newspaper to lucky residents. We weren’t eating outside, though; we headed to Can Manel (C/Galileu 85, 08028 Barcelona, Tel. (+34) 93 4090059. Closed Mondays; Lunchtimes only on Sun., Tues., Weds.).
There’s nothing sophisticated about it, I was delighted to discover. It’s very much a rural restaurant dropped into the city centre; the sort of place that pays its bills by catering for wedding receptions and family get-togethers. The decor, friendly service and menu are all old-fashioned in the best-possible sense.
Can Manel offers a calçotada menu for groups, featuring lots of grilled meat, but it isn’t cheap at €33 per person. My six-year-old is a good eater but unlikely to demolish a massive mixed grill so we ordered à la carte instead.
The calçots (€13.50) were as smoky and delicious as they should be, served on a terra cotta tile alongside a quality salvitxada sauce. We put our bibs on and tucked in; it wasn’t the same as a real outdoor calçotada in terms of finger-licking fun but it was still pretty good.
Local artichokes (€7.25) offered similar delights. The grilled snails (€13.50) were excellent and came with a powerful allioli dipping sauce that went off like a garlic grenade in the mouth.
To finish things off we shared a meaty botifarra sausage (€9.75).
We were both enjoying the meal tremendously. The food was good and my urban urchin was having fun eating with her fingers in a free-range kind of atmosphere.
But … there was a problem.
The grill at the entrance to the restaurant does its job superbly. The extraction system? Not so much.
Over the course of our meal the restaurant filled with woodsmoke, which didn’t bother me personally but it could easily spoil the experience for more sensitive diners. The smoke wasn’t subtle, either; you could have cured kippers in it. My advice: don’t wear your favourite clothes. If you have plans to go out afterwards, consider eating elsewhere, or at least ask for a seat upstairs. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind smelling like a burnt log when you leave, you’re likely to enjoy a no-frills feast.
Can Manel, like most traditional restaurants in Barcelona, isn’t especially cheap. You can expect to pay €25-€45 per person, but you get what you pay for: quality ingredients, cooked well. The smoke extraction is an issue but the food and service are not. If you want to try calçots in Barcelona without taking a train ride, Can Manel is a good choice.