Bold flavours, good taste, inventive cooking, and a profound love for food: one of the best restaurants in Barcelona.
Review: Manairó restaurant
The last time I went to Manairó (in 2014) I was hugely impressed. It stood out even among Barcelona’s other one-Michelin-starred restaurants, delivering daring big flavours under tight control. There are many restuarants that I admire and like, but I loved Manairó. Taste is personal and subjective; Chef Jordi Herrera’s creations immediately appealed to me in a way that few other restaurants have matched.
I have subsequently recommended Manairó to many friends and acquaintances, and have heard nothing but fulsome praise from them afterwards. I have been close to revisiting myself on many occasions but something always came up. When Jordi emailed me, however, asking if I’d like to have lunch with him to try his latest creations, I cleared a space in my diary.
Plans changed when Juli Soler, the great restaurauteur behind El Bulli and a massive figure in the Catalan culinary scene, passed away. Jordi went to the funeral service to pay his respects and would be late for lunch as a result, but he insisted that I start without him. In the capable hands of Manairó’s longstanding team – Xavi in front of house and Roger Viñas in the kitchen – I sat down to see if it could live up to the standard of my previous visit.
The restaurant is small (20 people max.), dark and intimately lit by individual birdcage lamps that are hung above the tables. Organic metalwork sculptures, statues and Jordi’s own Heath Robinson-looking ‘meat centrifuge’ give it a distinctive character.
It may be the metal and mad-professor inventions creating interference, or perhaps just the architecture, but there’s no mobile phone coverage inside the restaurant. It doesn’t matter; forget Instagram and enjoy the food.
There are two tasting menus, at €70 and €90 respectively.
Perfectly light and crispy capipota (young beef head and trotter) skin, mussels and a herby salsa verde comes out swinging with a confident mar-i-muntanya combo.
Gazpacho with dehydrated fish skin flakes sounded awful but the little curly flakes proved to be impeccably crunchy and very un-fishy, providing textural contrast to the cold, smooth soup.
Sticky pork jowl, over a fluffy bean purée, and a salty note from the herring “pearls”. It’s gone in a single mouthful, but what a mouthful.
I had the fried ‘pizza’ ball of gorgonzola, tomato and truffle last time. It’s still eyewateringly good. The blue cheese has a massive whallop, given context by the tomato and crisp shell. Big flavour, big fun.
Manairó has some wines that are exclusive to the restaurant. One of them, Desordre, was a minerally and well balanced Terra Alta Garnache/Samsó (Carignan), and proved to be an excellent choice.
Next was fresh anchovy a la meunière – or at least a la Mainairó. At least, I was told it was fresh anchovy. I suspect it might have been slivers of mackerel; the waitress was new and seemed to be confused about a few dishes. It didn’t matter. The fresh fish was topped with skin, cooked until crunchy like upmarket fish & chip shop scramptions (and I mean that as a good thing), while nitrogen-frozen buttery lemon crumbs melted in the mouth. Mischevious and, again, fun.
Cocotxes (cheeks) but of squid, not the usual hake or cod. The smell gets you first, an enticing noseful that pulls your face towards the plate. Served with a smooth, emuslified pil-pil, the squid keeps its texture and is bolstered by the ink and spring onion.
Trinxat, as I am always keen to point out, is one of my favourite dishes. The greens-and-spuds combo is a cuisine-crossing classic combination in many European countries (think bubble-and-squeak, colcannon…) but I’ve never had it like this.
Four bolts are placed on the linen tablecloth. Why? Because the glass plate is engraved with a Japanese poem (in Spanish) that projects its shadow onto the table. There’s no pork belly here; instead, smoked, raw prawns and a deep fried prawn provide the protein. It looks amazing. It tastes sensational.
Caramelized squid in a deep, deep squid stock. My god, the smell. I could have just sat and inhaled. But I ate it, stirring the squid in and spooning it up. And it was good.
Melt-in-the-mouth conger eel skin and beans, with a background of bay in a sticky, rich stock.
Another Manairó classic, repeated from my last visit, was a pasta parcel of foie, truffle-infused foamed potatoes and coffee oil. And here, dear reader, my notebook reaches the inevtitable descent into profanity and repeated adjectives that always marks the tipping point of my failure to describe great meals. The bitter note of the coffee cutting through the richness of the foie (enough to make me recant my foie aversion), the ethereal lightness of the potato was unimprovable. Excessively rich dishes can sometimes be, well, excessive and obvious, but this works. It’s a powerful dish.
After this dip into indulgence we were back to some more humble delicacies and some fun. False “Squid” rings with oily potatoes broke open to reveal egg yolk. This would make the best hangover breakfast in the world.
Then the king of dishes, the juicy Angus beef filet, cooked on Jordi’s patented fakir system to retain moisture, kissed with woodsmoke and drizzled with jus. This is desert island, death row, last-meal-fantasy stuff for meat eaters. Simplicity, meticulous care and attention to detail, superb ingredients and an off-the-wall preparation method that results from deep thought and experimentation. It is outrageously good.
Desserts were accompanied, as Jordi prefers, with a Jura malt whiskey. And who am I to argue? Vinegar-marinated strawberries with textured cream and peppery ice cream was a grown-up twist on classic summer flavours.
Chocolate cake “rocks” with caramel, goat’s cheese and a unifying note of lemon. The cake was fine, if disappointingly straightforward, and the ice cream excellent, but I was surprised that neither of the desserts pushed for a little more creativity.
Jordi had joined me at some point mid-meal and, as the last lunchtime customers left, Roger also sat down with us for a drink and a long chat about food. I’ll say the same to you as I said to them; they’re at the top of their game. Was it perfect? No. The bread was overcooked and the desserts were delicious but unadventurous. But the high points were stratospheric. Strong flavours are hard to handle; skill and good taste are required to keep them in balance and retain subtlety. Manairó succeeds. This is move-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee cooking that zaps you in the pleasure centres. It looks great, yes, but the real pleasure is in the eating. Manairó is probably not going to be everyone’s favourite restaurant, but my second visit has confirmed it as one of mine. If it’s within your budget, you should book a table immediately. I will be going back there myself, and soon.