Local, lyrical, ingredient-led modern cooking of the highest calibre; a sensational city-centre showcase for the best the Catalan countryside can produce.
Review: Cinc Sentits restaurant, Barcelona
I was there, sort-of, when Cinc Sentits was born. It’s easy to forget these days, when every chef has a Twitter account and every customer an Instagram page, the relatively puny presence that restaurants had on the Internet before the age of social media. Back in the early 2000s, the online community gathered on message boards like eGullet, where roaming gastronomes shared reviews and chefs logged in to comment on or correct them.
It was on such a message board in 2003 that I first learned about what was to become Cinc Sentits. A Catalan-Canadian IT guy named Jordi Artal, who’d done well for himself in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, had decided to pack it all in and become a chef. He was posting updates on his blog, one of the first I can remember, documenting his attempt to open a restaurant in Barcelona. There were insights into everything from locating a premises to choosing chairs, and it was fascinating to follow the process from his perspective.
When the restaurant opened in 2004, I obviously had to visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a self-taught cook whose sister, Amelia, was the sommelier and maitre and whose mother, Roser, helped out with the front of house, but it wasn’t what I got. I walked out of Cinc Sentits stunned. Jordi Artal’s food was way, way better than any untrained chef’s had any right to be. It was the kind of cooking that usually results from long stages in starred restaurants, not dinner parties in California. Cinc Sentits immediately became one of my favourite restaurants and that opinion was reinforced during multiple visits over the years. When it was awarded a Michelin star, I wasn’t surprised, and nor was anyone else who’d ever eaten there.
So when Jordi asked me in September if I’d be willing to come for lunch and give him some feedback on his latest Autumn menu, I didn’t hesitate. A revisit was long-overdue; it had been a couple of years since I’d last eaten there. But I was also apprehensive. I’ve eaten in a lot of great restaurants recently. Would Cinc Sentits still be worthy of the high opinion I first held it in?
Cinc Sentits (‘Five Senses’) occupies a small space in the Eixample; its subdued and elegant interior creating an intimate feel. A grey wood mosaic on the walls represents the field system of his home region, the Priorat, and pieces of its licorella (slate) adorn the tables. A beautiful copper curtain – the metal of cooking – snakes sinuously across the ceiling. The attention to detail is impressive: menus magically light up when unhooked from their street lamp-like supports and the wood-backed wine list is a textural treat. It’s also extremely helpful, with maps and clear explanations of the rare and often exclusive Catalan and Spanish wines it contains. Amelia has returned to the USA and Roser was having a day off; the restaurant has lost some of its family feel as a result but it is still welcoming and the newer staff are relaxed and professional.
There are no à la carte options, just tasting menus: a four-course (€100, plus optional €55 wine pairing), a six-course (€120 plus optional €65 pairing) and a €55 lunch menu.
The shot of maple syrup, cream, cava sabayon and sea salt that started the meal is the menu element that Jordi dare not meddle with. An instant classic dating back to the early days of the restaurant (or perhaps before) it is a nod to his Canadian heritage and, more importantly, utterly delicious.
Then a pica pica / vermut, a take on the great Barcelona pre-lunch tradition of red vermouth and snacks. These were all fun and not too filling: a fine start to the meal that added a welcome local context.
A fat, marinated gordal olive topped with olive brine gel and lemon peel.
Crisp coca bread, dusted with with intense dehydrated tomato, delivered a sensual sliver of acorn-fed bellota ham and olive oil pearls.
Patates braves was transformed into delicate potato crisps (or rather, chips, for North American readers) with brava and allioli dipping sauces. The brava sauce was perhaps underspiced but still robustly falvoured.
Fresh, juicy clams, served to reflect the origins of the original vermut classic of tinned clams in escabetx. In this case, a ‘secret sauce #3’ of smoked paprika and vinegar comes complete with a pipette to add the requisite magic touch.
Rosemary-smoked anchovy with roasted red pepper was as intense, and as good, as you’d imagine it to be.
A marcona ‘almond’, soft and marzipan-like inside with a crisp outer shell.
Three tapas took us on a short trip through classic flavours of Catalonia and Spain via mar, muntaña y huerto – surf, turf and, er, earth? Fish, meat and veg, anyway.
Chicken with samfaina (a classic Catalan sauce that’s related to ratatoille) and roast chicken sauce, was full of seasonal warmth atop an air-light cracker.
Marinated mackerel with an unusual smoked mackerel mayonnaise was a delight, given an acidic flavour kick by the addition of pickled mustard seeds.
Then an ajoblanco soup with tomato ice, crisp bread, melon and almonds. Nothing autumnal about this, just a cool and delicious reminder of the fast-fading summer.
The next dish, unpretentiously called ‘vegetables’ comprised raw, pickled and grilled micro-greens, served with a fresh and well-chosen Vinyes Doménech 2014 Rita D.O. Montsant. I wasn’t crazy about the ashtray-like serving dish but the food it contained blew my mind. Every component was perfect, a miniature marvel of texture; it delivered flavours like a chain of exploding firecrackers as I ate through it, going from sweet caramelization to sharp crunch in a happy blaze of freshness. A 10/10.
I expected ‘foie gras’ (gotta love these titles) to be the polar opposite – a deep dive into richness – but it was admirably restrained. A caramelized shell and braised leek base plus chives on top added balancing layers. The wine was noteworthy and exclusive to the restaurant, a Nou ‘vi de boira’ Garraf white made with noble rot-infected grapes that delivered just the right amount of sweetness.
Palamos prawns al ajillo needed, and got, an excellent (numbered) Bodegas Tradición fino to make the most of the classic prawn/parsley/garlic combo. To mop it up, the lid was finally lifted on a hunk of bread that had been steaming in a le Creuset dish on the table for the last three courses. And mop it all up I did. Every drop.
A line-caught dentón (aka dentex, a Mediterranean fish) with a many-layered smoked broth, sweet red pickled onions, atsina cress and potato revealed itself slowly. The fish itself was sublime, but the unsmoked fish in an smoked fumet reversed my expectations and initially threw me off my stride. By the time I’d finished it, however, I loved it. Served with a 2014 Algueira Cortezada D.O. Ribeira Sacra.
Squab came served two ways, with two wines to try as a little demonstration of the power of pairing. Both wines came from Tebaia (D.O. Bierzo) but one from east-facing vines and the other from west-facing and, yes, one went much better with what followed despite their similarities. It was a nice touch. As for the squab, the first serving was a pan-seared breast with a red-wine-poached pear and forest fruits. No photo though, sorry. The second dish (served on a plate underneath the first to catch the run-off juices) was a rich squab liver croquette, roasted thighs, and a wholesome spelt risotto with bite and crunch.
Iced watermelon textures cleared the path for dessert.
A dry white 2011 Solergibert Pd’a (Picapoll d’Acácia) Pla de Bages was a well-paired contrast with the smooth sweetness of ‘milk’. Ice-cream made with unpasteurized milk, infused with smoke from the grill, had caramelized milk poured over it from a copper spoon, beside flakes of yoghurt ‘paper’ and atop a salty, crunchy base. It was a lactose-intolerant’s nightmare but heaven for anyone else.
Finished? No chance. The petits fours, or ‘final temptations’ as Jordi calls them, were a hazelnut ‘Jaumet de Sant Hilari’ (a Catalan biscuit); a creamy-crunchy chocolate with walnuts, and a version of the classic galleta maria biscuit that you squeeze from a tube. All wonderful.
Is Cinc Sentits still the same restaurant I fell in love with all those years ago? No. It’s even better. The philosophy remains the same but the execution has been upgraded and the judgement of ideas – the taste – has been refined. Cinc Sentits is a peerless showcase for local ingredients. There are few fine dining restaurants that champion local, artisanal producers to the same extent; there is even a complimentary gift booklet that features the farmers, fishermen and winemakers behind what you’ve just enjoyed. It offers food that puts pleasure ahead of performance but it is by no means rustic or unrefined. This appeal to the senses – instead of just the cerebral cortex – makes it a restaurant where anyone can sit down and simply enjoy eating, but the attention to detail also gives food bores like me something to write about. It is a joy, a restaurant that has grown up and become sophisticated without losing its character. I’ve recommended it to hundreds of people over the years; I stand by every word.