Mont Bar bistro in Barcelona’s Eixample successfully combines superb, star-quality cooking with an informal, everyday atmosphere.
Restaurant review: Mont Bar, Eixample, Barcelona
Informal fine dining is hard to do well. Without the traffic signals of traditional formal service to guide them, restaurateurs often take a wrong turn. Diners are driven into a nightmarish no-man’s-land where tables are communal and intimate is conflated with intrusive. The sweet spot of refined food served in a relaxed environment is surprisingly hard to hit. In the UK, the best gastropubs do it. In France, it falls to bistros. In Barcelona, Mont Bar absolutely nails it.
Well-heeled couples and families with well-behaved children pack the small, single room and the handful of tables that spill onto the pavement. Mont Bar’s renown with foodies is much greater than its actual physical dimensions. It’s posh in an understated manner, with good cheese and shellfish chilling at the bar and wine bottles plugging every spare space.
Mont Bar looks, in other words, like a hundred other bars in the Eixample district. What sets it apart is the food, which is based on traditional dishes but improved by judicious use of contemporary technique. Launched by Manel Arjo and Iván Castro (who comes from the Vall d’Aran town of Mont – hence the name), the chef in charge is Javier Mendez who popped out from the bigger-than-you’d-think kitchen to say hello. Waiter Miguel, meanwhile, served us a greatest-hits parade of Mont Bar’s starred dishes, charming diners around the room in multiple languages with the ease of an accomplished pro.
A word about the wine list: wonderful. There’s something here for everyone, from budget-friendly bottles of local good stuff to impressive vintages for free-spending connoisseurs. Mont Bar’s quality comes at a price. Tapas average €7, larger portions €17. Running up a €50+ per person bill before wine would be effortless though you can eat well for less. Full disclosure: I was invited to try a selection of the dishes for review purposes so serving sizes may not be representative.
€2 gets you a humble croquette of acorn-fed jamón bellota in smooth béchamel. Delicate sheets of transparent coca topped with pine nuts sandwiching foie (€3.90) stick satisfyingly to the palate. Oysters (€4.80 each) are plucked from the ice at the bar, shucked and served with an apple and lime granita.
A surprising mochi, stuffed with Mallorcan sobrasada, walnuts and Mahón cheese is stunning. It’s sticky and chewy with a melting centre of savoury richness. Comfort eating for food snobs. Vieing with it for lip-licking satisfaction is the pig’s-trotter fried sandwich studded with baby shrimp (€3.20), a greaseball of goodness.
Eel and scallop ‘nigiri’ (€4.50) is grown-up and earthy, with deep umami undercurrents.
And a plankton meringue with sea anemone and mascarpone (€4.30) succeeds in spite of itself, leaving a mouthwatering, acidic note. But as good as it is, it’s overshadowed by the magnificence of a simple Palamos prawn (price according to maket but expect to pay about €7).
I have cooked for my wife for 20 years. She has accompanied me to some of the world’s finest restaurants. She doesn’t especially like tuna. And yet, she declares that Mont Bar’s tuna belly with pine-nut emulsion (€19.90), which arrives under a photo-unfriendly bowl of smoke, is perhaps the best thing she has ever put in her mouth. I will leave you to interpret that, and add only that the table of travelling gourmands next to us, visiting from Hong Kong, were similarly enraptured.
In a similar against-the-odds triumph, I love the ceviche despite being sick of the stuff. It’s on every menu in town right now, but Mont Bar’s scallop ceviche with leche de tigre and physalis fruit (€17) is a flavour maze of exotic surprises that never loses its way.
A happy plate of faux-ravioli made of daikon, with squash, black truffle and spherified payoyo goat’s cheese in a porcini broth with lime kefir is a complex delight. Sea cucumber carbonara draped with ibérico ham and islands of golden egg yolk (€26.90) oozes indulgence ans sensuality.
Then peas. PEAS! Spanking fresh from the nearby Maresme coast, with spheres of botifarra negra sausage and ham broth. Perhaps the dish of the night, even against the strong competition.
The suckling pig terrine with green curry and pak choi is, however, merely good. Dessert is better: a rock formation of different chocolate textures.
Mont Bar looks and feels like an everyday kind of place but the quality (and price) of the main menu cooking is close to Michelin one-star level. You can eat outside, should you wish, or you could sit at the bar with some superb wine and a few first-class snacks. A smaller meal here would be a perfect respite during a restaurant-heavy holiday. However you dine, you’re likely to like it. Modern techniques are used to improve dishes, not show off; where the simple way is better, the simple way is chosen. That good judgement runs through the whole establishment, from the style of the cooking to the tone of the service. Mont Bar sets the bar high.
Mont Bar: C/Diputació 220, 08011 (Eixample), Barcelona; Tel. 93 323 9590; www. montbar.com; Metro Universitat; Open noon-midnight