A spectacular modernista setting for simple but succulent roast lamb at this restaurant in Barcelona’s uptown Sant Gervasi district.
The road that slopes up from Barcelona to Tibidabo mountain is one of the most pleasant in the city. An old blue tram still clanks slowly along it, giving passengers time to reflect on the dubious value of the ticket price as they pass the former mansions that still serve well-heeled locals in various capacities: as schools, private clinics, and, of course, as restaurants.
At ABaC, celebrity chef Jordi Cruz presents two-Michelin-starred tasting menus of dazzling creativity. But, just a little further uphill at el Asador de Aranda (Avinguda de Tibidabo 31, 08022 Barcelona, +34 934170115) the fare is much simpler. El Asador Tibidabo is part of a group of restaurants, and one of three such Asadors in Barcelona, that specializes in roast meat and traditional Castillian cooking. It is located in the Casa Roviralta, a modernista gem by Joan Rubió i Bellver that looks like the winner of the world’s best Lego house competition.
The building is known locally as el Frare Blanc (the White Friar) as it was home to dominican monks before its 1913 facelift. To get here, by the way, forget the tramvia; the FGC station Avinguda Tibidabo is just a few hundred metres away at Plaça John F. Kennedy and you can take a bus from there to the restaurant’s door if you’re not up to the climb.
The interior of the building is even more dazzling, all ornate brickwork and soaring ceilings.
A warren of steps and corridors reveals hidden private dining rooms, banquet halls for groups, a sun-dappled courtyard where you can dine outside and a rooftop terrace with panoramic views over the city; the perfect spot for a post-prandial cocktail or coffee.
The star attraction, however (at least if you share my skewed priorities), is the massive clay oven in which lambs and suckling pigs are roasted over wood embers.
I was there to try a special selection of dishes for review purposes, so the smaller portion sizes in the photos aren’t respresentative of what would usually be offered. Ordering from the menu, expect to pay between €5 and €10 for soups, salads and other starters, including the excellent roast artichokes (which are, sensibly, Catalan and not Castillian).
The escalivada of roast onion, peppers and aubergine (eggplant) also benefits from the smoky kiss of the oven.
Various meaty starters, for those with particularly robust appetites and no fear of cardiovascular disease, include an outstanding morcilla de arroz (blood pudding with rice) (€5.30), good chorizo (€4.80) and the Spanish variety of picadillo (€5.50). The Aranda-speciality sheeps’ cheese is certainly worth ordering – though perhaps better after the main course than as a starter.
Just to show that there’s more to el Asador than roast meat, I was presented with an entrecote steak of aged beef (€20) that is sliced and served alongside a hot stone on which you can cook it to your liking.
It is excellent steak, and I enjoyed it, but I’m neither a fan of cooking things myself at the table nor of hot stones as a cooking method. I like my steak whole and cooked in a pan or on a griddle by a professional. Others may enjoy the gimmick but my advice would be to ask the tuxedo-wearing old-school staff for a no-nonsense steak, if your heart is set on having one.
Even better advice would be to skip the steak altogether and go straight for the house speciality: roast lamb (€22.10 per person). El Asador doesn’t mess about with this dish: the lamb is rare-breed, carefully selected, carefully seasoned and very skillfully cooked.
The result is magnificent. Simple and succulent, with a crisp, salty skin, it’s as good as I’ve ever had.
Equally as good is the suckling pig (€22.10). I have some ethical issues with the production methods of most of Spain’s suckling pigs so I can’t give the dish – here or anywhere – my wholehearted endorsement. That said, it’s utterly delicious. Perfect crackling, infused with woodsmoke, incredibly tender white meat beneath … a guilty pleasure, but definitely a pleasure.
There are various traditional sweet treats and desserts for those with the digestive capacity. I enjoyed them, as I enjoyed the whole meal.
Not everyone enjoys or can afford fine dining all the time. If you want something straightforward but of absolutely uncompromising quality, in a splendid location with polished service, El Asador fits the bill. It is perfect for groups, where tastes may differ – unless you suspect that there may be a vegetarian amongst you. There are no creative presentations to wow you, though you may be distracted by the decor, but the food will put a smile on your face. The Asador is part of a chain, albeit a family-owned one, but by keeping the emphasis on sourcing great produce that can be prepared simply, and keeping the menu short, it has avoided the usual pitfalls and delivers quality dining at a reasonable price. The next time I go to the nearby Cosmocaixa science museum, I will be very tempted to make a detaour and come to el Asador again. It is well worth a visit.