Adrift in a sea of Barceloneta tourist trap restaurants that serve reheated rice and iffy fish, La Mar Salada is a welcome island of quality.
Review: La Mar Salada restaurant, Barcelona
It’s hard to believe now, as you run the gauntlet of touts coercing you in the direction of kizzened paellas and defrosted prawns, but Passeig de Joan de Borbó was once a good street to go and eat. These days, it’s best avoided at mealtimes; Barceloneta’s remaining good restaurants are to be found elsewhere.
With one outstanding exception.
La Mar Salada (‘The Salty Sea’) doesn’t need touts outside because its sunny terrace is usually full. Unlike most other restaurants nearby, you’ll find locals – including off-duty chefs and food journalists – sitting down for lunch, and the tourists who randomly land here are the luckiest on the port-facing strip.
The secret of La Mar Salada’s success is the team behind it: working the stoves is Ferran Adrià disciple Marc Singla, once part of the dream team of top Catalan chefs such as Sergi Arola, Oriol Castro and Carles Abellan who formed the brigade at Talaia Mar, elBulli’s ‘winter workshop’ and spin-off restaurant. Alongside him is husband-and-wife team Albert Enrich, who cooks the desserts, and Marta Cid, who handles front of house with the kind of easy aplomb that results from being part of a five-generational family of restaurateurs (her grandparents own the nearby Can Ros restaurant).
In 2013, Albert took me with him when he went shopping, just a few yards from the restaurant, at the closed-to-the-publuc fish auction on the Moll dels Pescadors (‘Fishermen’s Dock’). Here, as he does every day, Albert picked up prime seafood, straight from the small commercial fleet that still fishes from Barcelona’s old port. You can’t doubt the provenance of what a restaurant serves when you’ve seen the live and flapping ingredients being unloaded from the boat.
Because it’s Barceloneta, Marc and Albert have to cook some classic dishes, and they do so very well. Paella and other rice dishes are excellent, but the real treats are often to be found on the €17.50 set lunch menu, which features the pick of the day’s catch – and of Marc’s latest ideas. It is one of the best bargains in Barcelona, even with the €4.95 rice supplement. The á la carte menu is divided into tapas, dishes to share, and larger starters and mains; expect to pay around €40-50 per person in total.
The restaurant was being redecorated during my recent revisit so there are no photos of the bright and vaguely nautical interior. Instead, we’ll get straight to the good stuff: near-transparent Iberian pancetta over crispy coca pa amb tomàquet hit similar high notes to the more common jamón.
A meaty Delta del Ebro oyster with a mild, vinegar-and-spice escabetx, redolent of the kind of superior tinned/canned shellfish that draws crowds to Quimet i Quimet – but better.
Smoked local sardines with lime-licked parsley pesto was light and beautiful but also packed real depth of flavour.
Octopus with confit potatoes and pungent, smoky pimentón de la Vera (paprika) was all about textures: meaty, dense but tender flesh over waxy smoothness. No unnecessary twists on the classic flavour combos, just great execution.
A dish from the daily set menu I had to try: cream of roasted pumpkin soup, wild porcini mushroom mousse, duck jus and ‘airbags’ of idiazábal cheese. I could have eaten a vat of this: it was wonderful.
Alas, I only had a single bowl but the next dish was every bit as good. Red mullet from the aforementioned llotja fish auction, with grapefruit, orange and other citric treats, tangy tomato seeds, courgette ‘spaghetti’ and some of the early autumn’s first wild mushrooms. Fresh, healthful, bursting with flavour and featuring one of my favourite fish.
The arròs melós, a creamy, wet rice that’s more typical of Barcelona than Valencian paella, with langoustines and more seasonal mushrooms was also from the daily menu. It was a bit of a heavy departure from the other dishes but I wanted to try it as most customers come here for the rice. They won’t be disappointed; this was rich, with impeccably fresh fish stock as a base and plenty of small rock mussels.
‘Cheesecake’ wasn’t cake-y at all, but I didn’t care. A swoosh of soft cheese topped with red fruits, a cherry sorbet and a few buttery crumbs was a deconstructed delight.
I was full but Albert insisted that I try a mini-portion of another dessert, and I’m glad he did. A silky-smooth ingot of white chocolate with lemon cream and pistachio is one of the menu’s most popular dishes and with good reason.
Put your head down and your fingers in your ears; say ‘la-la-la-I’m-not-listening’ and march past the lesser distractions on Passeig de Joan de Borbó, straight to La Mar Salada. You’ll find a pretty dining room, bright terrace, amiable service, attention to detail and two talented chefs turning out some of the best value dishes in town. All the boxes are ticked. If you want traditional rice dishes you’ll find excellent examples here but it’s worth being bold and trying some of the more modern options. It can get a bit too busy at times due to its location but book ahead or wait and come back later. La Mar Salada is a safe haven of quality in the area’s swelling sea of mediocrity.
La Mar Salada: Pg. Joan de Borbó, 58-59, 08003, Barcelona; Tel. (+34) 93 221 21 27 / +34 93 221 10 15; Metro Barceloneta; Closed Tuesdays.