Please note that there is now a more recent post about Etapes from 2015.
When I was recently preparing a magazine article on the best ‘bistronomic’ restaurants in Barcelona — very broadly defined as those offering high-quality. modern, innovative cooking for no more than €25 at lunchtime — a new name was suggested to me by friends.
Restaurant Etapes (www.restaurantetapes.com, (+34) 933 236 914) is situated on my favourite Eixample street, the tree-lined and semi-pedestrianised C/ Enric Granados. Outside are a couple of tables which in summer would be a pleasant place to eat but the day I visited was far too cold for that; they were there purely to accommodate those suffering under the new anti-smoking legislation.
First impressions were good. Etapes makes effective use of its narrow space; it’s well-lit and attractively decorated. The staff were attentive and service was efficient. Overhearing us talking in English, the waiter offered to speak it too, which is good to know for those non-hispanoparlante tourists concerned by the lack of translated menus.
The lunchtime set menu looked to be terrific value for €15. I could have happily chosen any of the dishes on offer. In the end, my friend Dan and I had to leave the starters of both tempura prawns and the mozzarella tagliatelle for another day and settle for winter vegetables with romesco (a Catalan pepper sauce) mousse and the fried eggs with ham and potato. We then were forced to abandon the slow-cooked corbina with calçots (the local speciality: a leek-like spring onion) and romesco and the squid with black sauce and vegetables, instead choosing oxtail with beans and slow-cooked pork tenderloin.
Good quality bread was served; it’s included in the price but drinks aren’t, although there’s a decent list of wines by the glass for a not-unreasonable €2.50-€4.50 each. Us being us, however, we chose a bottle instead: a robust Terra Alta Almodi Petit 2009 to warm us on a chilly afternoon.
My winter vegetables were attractively prepared and perfectly cooked. Shelled peas, baby broad beans, artichoke, spring onion, cauliflower and the aforementioned calçot went well with the romesco, which was decidedly un-mousselike, regardless of its description on the menu.
My friend’s eggs and potatoes were also excellent; a simple dish transformed into something more special by thoughtful presentation, some inventiveness and attention to detail.
So far, so good. I was at this stage really looking forward to my oxtail. I have a great love for braised and other slow-cooked meats with oxtail being a particular favourite. When it arrived, it certainly looked appetising though I wasn’t sure about the olives.
Sadly, this was to be the dish that spoiled an otherwise very good meal. There is no excuse for getting oxtail wrong as a professional chef; it was probably the most technically simple dish on the menu here. It tasted fine but it had either been cooked too quickly or not for long enough and as a result was incredibly tough. What should have been unctuous, melting, tender and falling away from the bone instead needed to be hacked at and sawed, chased around the plate and fought with. I should really have sent it back.
Dan’s pork, however, was as good as expected.
The slow cooking had left it with a rather dry appearance but this was deceptive. It was moist, tender and well-textured and the accompanying capers complemented it perfectly.
Dessert was supposed to be arròs amb llet, the local take on rice pudding, but we were told that this was not available. That was fine by me. I’ve always found the Spanish version of this dish to be a watery and insipid disappointment and I’ve yet to meet a Catalan or Spaniard who hasn’t agreed with me after trying the creamy majesty of the English belt-bursting classic.
Instead we were offered the dessert from the evening tasting menu, a white chocolate flan.
As you can see, it looked so good that a spoon went in before I could take my lens cap off. Light, well-executed with the sweetness balanced by the real vanilla and berries; it was superb.
Which leads me to the question: what on earth went wrong with that oxtail? And why was it sent out? A kitchen good enough to get everything else right is surely good enough to know when something basic is so wrong.
I’ll certainly go back to Etapes. For a total cost of €22 per person, including the wine, it was good value. There was enough evidence here to suggest an above-average chef and a potentially bright future. Those who have dined here in the evenings assure me that their €25 and €39 menus are fantastic, and that one simply must try the truffle cannelloni. I believe them. But Etapes dropped the ball on this particular lunch which suggests that there’s still some work to be done here before they can start measuring up to the likes of Gresca and Embat.
So do go to Etapes. Do try it. But of you get tough oxtail, send it back…