Modern market cooking in Barcelona’s recently renovated Mercat del Ninot
Review: El Ninot Cuina restaurant, l’esquerra de l’Eixample, Barcelona
Take a walk around the newly renovated Mercat del Ninot, near Hospital Clinic, and you can get a literal taste of the future of Barcelona’s markets. The old atmosphere of haphazard hustle and bustle has been replaced by a gleaming new vision of food commerce and culture. Younger customers of Barcelona’s markets have in recent years been driven away (and to hypertension) by having to wait in neverending queues of unhurried senior citizens, then captured by the convenience of supermarkets. To lure them back, markets are increasingly seeking to add value by selling cooked food as well as ingredients. This isn’t new, of course – the likes of El Quim and Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria have been doing this for decades – but the balance is definitely shifting as shopping and eating habits change. In Ninot, many of the meat, fish and produce stalls now sell ready-to-eat, take-away meals and snacks for grazing shoppers. The sit-down food offered by the bars is lighter and more refined than the tapas and trencherman’s tucker that used to typify market eating.
Case in point: El Ninot Cuina, the market’s newest and biggest eating space. This light and lovely division of the main hall has knowing design nods towards its origins, in the form of a rectangular, market-stand-like central service bar where dishes are prepared, but it is in every other way thoroughly contemporary.
There’s no sign, and it’s not all that easy to see from outside on the Carrer Casanova face of the market, but once past the airlock-like, double-doored bicycle-park-cum-lobby you’re met with a busy eating area under the steel arches of the building’s high ceiling, capped by an open kitchen that declares ‘welcome to the market’.
When I visited in early December, the restaurant had only been open a month. It’s owned by Tomás Tarruella, co-founder of the Tragaluz group and founder of En Compañia de Lobos, which runs El Ninot Cuina as well as Gallito and Palmito in Barcelona, but there had as yet been no publicity, advertising or press visits. Nevertheless, it was completely full on a midweek lunchtime. The big draw is a €14 three-course menú del día that offers up the best of whatever the market stalls next door are selling. À la carte, there is a selection of tapas plus starters, egg dishes, rice dishes, fish and meat. Expect to pay €8-12 for starters and €10-€18 for main courses. There’s a strong emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients and the dishes are mainly Catalan, with a sprinkling of more international influences.
I started with a simple and well-prepared empedrat – a salt cod and Santa Pau haricot bean salad (€9).
Then tender oxtail in a rich reduction, with creamy mashed potatoes (€16).
A generous wedge of carrot cake was very slightly spoiled by an (out of shot) wayward sprinkling of woody and inedible cinnamon-stick crumblings. But the cake itself was moist and delicious.
The restaurant, and the Mercat del Ninot itself, may lack some of the authentic, rough-and-ready charm of some of Barcelona’s unreconstructed neighbourhood markets but it makes up for it in quality and professionalism. Every table was packed, which in such a new restaurant is often a recipe for disaster; here, however, the service and kitchen were more than up to the task. The lunch menu is obviously a big draw and its is also a pleasant spot for a hearty mid-morning breakfast or even a relaxed evening meal. You can’t book but there’s plenty of life going on around you to keep you entertained while you wait. I’d be quite happy to include regular visits to El Ninot Cuina into my shopping schedule or lunch breaks if I lived or worked in the neighbourhood.
El Ninot Cuina: Carrer Casanova 133, Mercat Ninot parada 1, Eixample, 08038, Barcelona; Tel. (+34) 93 277 68 84; Metro Hospital Clinic; Open 8am-midnight, closed Sunday evenings and Monday evenings.