This is the second year that Estrella Damm (Barcelona’s inexplicably popular, over-gassy, favourite beer) have promoted a tapas competition together with the city’s association of bars and restaurants. The website can be found here.
The idea’s simple: each participating bar offers a small glass of Estrella beer alongside a tapa of their own creation, all for a set price of €2.40. This, in Barcelona, represents great value. Customers are also given a piece of paper that is stamped at each bar they visit. Once three stamps have been collected, customers then vote for their favourite. It’s slightly unfair in that the votes received are dependent upon the quality of neighbouring bars rather than the overall standard but I suppose it’s a more-or-less functioning system.
There are 49 bars in the promotion but, as is depressingly so often the case in BCN, they’re spread out all over the city. I don’t want to have to carry a compass and hiking pole when I go for tapas; I want to go from bar to bar in a timely manner. Looking at the map on the promotion’s website, we saw that the biggest cluster were around the Rambla de Raval, with others in nearby districts that wouldn’t entail needing to have our shoes resoled en-route.
Our first stop was at Sésamo on C/Sant Antoni Abat, 52. Which was closed. Come on, people, closed at lunchtime? A tapas bar? This is not a good start. The tapa they were offering sounded absolutely delicious but I guess I’ll never know; I actually think that bars that aren’t open for lunch should be excluded from the promotion.
And so, cold, annoyed and getting hungry, we headed to Barraval on C/Hospital 104 at the top of Rambla de Raval. This place used to be a sandwich shop, I think, but it’s now a smart lounge bar. We stood at the bar and were presented with their entry, “Fum Fum Fum”, a type of deconstructed escudella i carn d’olla It looked, frankly, pretty horrible; a few flaccid pasta shells, stuffed and floating in some cabbage-y liquid.
It tasted MUCH better than it looked. The meat stuffing was rich and complex and the buttery cabbage in the broth was perfect for a cold day. The melted cheese over the top was unnecessary and too gluey but didn’t spoil it. If they did something with the presentation this would be a great tapa.
We moved on a few yards to La Verònica at Rambla de Raval 2. Like Barraval, La Verònica is a product of the staggeringly quick gentrification of the area. Clean, stylish, wi-fied and bright-eyed; this sort of place wouldn’t have lasted a week ten years ago because the Apple-toting clientele would have been too afraid to come down here. Now it seems to be flourishing. The attentive staff gave us some complementary sticks of garlic bread then their creation for the contest: Tap-piz-bruni — a pizza base with red cabbage and a sundried tomato paste. This was the opposite of Barraval’s attempt: nice-looking but disappointing. Ultimately it was a disc of bread with some tomato and red cabbage on it. Meh.
Next up was Manga Rosa at Rambla de Raval, 6. This is a Brazilian bar whose entry was called “Coxinha”, a little fried ball of chicken, onion and garlic.
It was OK. Tasted OK. Presentation was OK. What can I say? It was OK.
Across the road we went to La Fragua at Rambla de Raval, 15. This is a big place which had more staff than customers when we went, all looking vaguely worried about something. Their description of “Tzatze” included guidillas – chili peppers – which sounded perfect on such a chilly day. Sadly, what arrived on the plate was decidedly non-spicy.
The chicken breast was nicely-cooked and we could taste the ginger but the peppers on top were entirely bereft of my beloved capsaicin. Perhaps they’d had complaints: the Spanish and Catalans have, generally, no great love for things picante and what they describe as such is usually enough to make spice enthusiasts laugh in their faces. Chili-deprivation aside, this tapa was pleasant enough without being in any way memorable.
Fuelled up on so-so tapas and bad lager we decided to change barrios. We walked across and down to Chardonnay at C/Ample, 5. Years ago, this place was one of Barcelona’s only Indian restaurants, where I’d come and ignore the fairly low standard of cooking just to get my curry fix. Now, mediocre-to-bad Indian and Pakistani food is widely available in Barcelona and the restaurant at this address is a modern-looking tapas bar.
They eschewed stupid names, encouragingly, and called their entry “patata enmascarada con foie” — Potato, apple, foie and a fried egg.
Now THIS was more like it. The richness of the egg yolk mixing into the delicious potato, foie and apple; the crispy potatoes on the side, the neat and effective presentation. Straight into the lead. Mission accomplished, Chardonnay; I’ll be back here to see what the non-promotion food is like.
By this stage, everywhere else we wanted to try was closed for the afternoon so, to fill our card we descended into the tourist-filled, Christmas hell of Avenida Catedral and went to Taverna del Bisbe. I’ve sat outside here for a drink, usually waiting to meet visitors who are sightseeing in the area, but I’d never been in. My expectations were met in full: rude, dismissive staff, washed-out food perishing under the lights of the chill cabinet, and the general impression that the biggest effort made by the place is to pay the exorbitant mortgage on their prime real estate. They had imaginatively presented, as their showpiece, “Bombeta picante de Barcelona”, a deep-fried, probably-defrosted, run-of-the mill potato bomba with some not-picante-at-all sauce.
This sorry sight was thrown at us by a waitress who gave off the general impression that every customer who entered had dome so deliberately to ruin her day. She’d certainly done her best to ruin ours by serving this atrocity.
We’d had enough by now but beside the bus stop we noticed the promotion poster on another bar, one we’d heard of but never tried. El Reloj on Via Laitena, 40 doesn’t look like much but we were delighted by the food. Simple and unimaginative their “Delicia Gallega” might be, but the empanada (meat pasty) and mini-bomba showed how these things should be done.
Home-made, perfectly cooked, job well done.
I’d like to get to some of the other restaurants in the promotion. Some of them, especially some of the more remote ones, have some delicious-sounding tapas listed in the promotion guide. No doubt some of them are as good or better than the ones we tried. However, of those we did visit, Chardonnay was the clear winner. It would be completely unnoteworthy in San Sebastian or Seville but by typical bar standards here in Barcelona it stood out. Honourable mentions must also go to Barraval and El Reloj, both with solid and enjoyable offerings.
It was a filling end enjoyable lunch tapeo. The value for money was extremely good (for Barcelona) and I certainly hope that the competition is a success and runs again next year. In a perfect world, Moritz would copy the idea so I could do it while drinking better beer! Until then, hats off to Damm breweries (makers of excellent beers like Voll Damm, Bock Damm and AK Damm as well as the Estrella fizzy piss…) for this interesting event.