Carpe mensam – seize the table. I’m sure my Latin’s all wrong but hopefully you can understand the hurry I was in to book a restaurant when an unexpectedly child-free evening arose in May as the result of an impromptu babysitting offer. It was short notice but I decided to try my luck at Hisop, (Passatge Marimon 9, +34 932413233 a Michelin 1-star restaurant I’d heard a lot about from friends and about which I’d been recently minded by a review in Tara Stevens’s excellent column in Barcelona Metropolitan magazine.
My luck was in, and within a couple of hours my wife and I were getting off the bus (no limos for this food writer…) on the busy Diagonal boulevard, just a few metres from the unprepossessing restaurant. I’d been warned that Hisop scored much higher for cooking than for style (“Imagine if IKEA designed a shed,” was how one friend put it) but it wasn’t too bad: minimalist, yes, with no decoration, which focuses the eye onto the small window into the kitchen where Oriol Ivern-Bondia and his team work their magic.
We took a seat among the early, post-work diners, dotted with a few Japanese and American tourists, and immediately ordered the €59 ‘Spring’ tasting menu. There’s no point messing about in this sort of restaurant: it’s all about the chef’s ideas and a tasting menu is the best way to discover them. I also selected the wine pairing for an extra €31.
Some delicious bread was presented (which I was unsurprised to learn came from the outstanding Forn La Trinitat in Sant Andreu) plus two contrasting local olive oils for dipping. We then had an appetiser of grilled octopus. As I tasted the incredible ‘sea flavour’ of the sauce, a smile crept across my face. It was superb, and just the right note on which to start.
The cuttlefish ribbons which followed were almost as good, and looked even better.
Hisop was started around the same time as restaurants like Gelonch and Gresca, and it shows: all three have outgrown the early-noughties ‘bistronomic’ tag but they still love presenting humble ingredients prepared with techniques from the vanguard of fine dining.
As if to prove a point, the next dish was a variation on Gresca’s signature sardine-and-ibérico-pork- fat combo. In Hisop, basic and tomato are added and the fish used is mackerel, but the idea is similar… and the result is equally good. That’s high praise, because Gresca’s is one of my favourite dishes.
The meal had started superbly and (spoiler alert) never really flagged in quality of idea or execution. Everything that followed has us umm-ing and rolling our eyes in appreciation, although the white asparagus, done two ways, with tuna belly and ham and a slightly bitter kick from some green tea dust didn’t knock our socks off.
The restaurant was almost packed by this point, on a mid-May Tuesday night. Admittedly, it’s not a big place but it was gratifying to see so many people forsaking flashy venues for the flavour on offer here.
I stopped paying attention to the rest of the world when the next dish arrived: cod, with fresh asparagus was sat atop some new morels and a silky mushroom sauce that brought tears of joy to my eyes.
Mushrooms meandered onto the next dish too, where chanterelles and pine nuts charmed a sticky sauce surrounding some delicate and delicious shoulder of lamb. It was served with lavender ice cream, which out of context would have been awful but here provided an unusual and effective contrast.
Next up: cheese. Lots of cheese. I’m a sucker for a good cheese board, and this selection of ripe beauties, served with quince jelly, was the perfect way to end the savoury section of the meal.
A note at this point about the wine pairings. As wine pairings in Michelin-starred restaurants go, €31 is a bargain. It was, however, the weakest link. There was nothing wrong or badly mismatched about the wines included, but none of the combinations really thrilled me and I wasn’t especially impressed with any of the wines judged on their own merits. Hisop should (may my wallet forgive me for saying this) consider raising the price and expanding the wine budget to bring the drinks on the tasting menu up to the standard of the food.
Speaking of which, the desserts (strawberry something then an orange something: sorry to be unspecific but my notes from this point onwards were destroyed by an overenthusiastic child with a felt pen…) were triumphs too. They were light, like the rest of the menu, and spring-like, and left us nicely satisfied rather than groaning in overindulgence-induced indigestion.
The petit-fours were great, Oriol was charming when he came out to introduce himself, and by the time we left both my wife and I were converts. Hisop is stupendous value; a bargain for its class This is top quality cooking with a light touch; the chef has developed his tastes as well as his talents over the years and the menu now reflects the work of someone at the peak of their powers. Hisop is straight into my (unspecified and ever-changing) top ten list of Barcelona restaurants and I can’t wait to go back to see what delights it offers in other seasons of the year.