Traditional Spanish/Catalan, home cooking-style restaurants always cause mixed feelings for me. The food can be very much my kind of thing: hearty and robust, cooking from the heart not the head. The flipside is that because it’s my kind of thing, I’m usually capable of making most of what’s on offer in my own kitchen and, without wanting to be too immodest, to a higher standard than in most restaurants. I’m also lucky enough to have a Spanish mother-in-law who’s spoiled me with her fantastic home cooking. It means that the pleasure of whatever I’m eating is inevitably slightly diminished by an “I could have done this” sensation that I simply don’t experience at creative or high-end restaurants.
I understand that its different for visitors. People who don’t live here, or people who don’t cook, rightly love quality family restaurants as much as they love any Michelin-chasing star of the dining scene. The bang-for-the-buck can be very high indeed with trencherman’s portions, great flavours and a lively atmosphere combining to provide a memorable experience at a modest price.
That’s why when my friend Dan’s parents were in town we all ended up having lunch at Restaurant Sant Joan (Passeig de Sant Joan, 65, +34 932 65 71 80).
Places like this should be commonplace but sadly they’re not. Get out of town and there are plenty of good, traditional restaurants but the standard of the typical menu del día place in Barcelona is lamentably mediocre.
Sant Joan does the simple stuff and does it well. There’s no set lunch; instead, a chalk board is scrawled with what’s on offer that day.
It all sounded pretty good and, as the Dan clan are the sort of right-thinking people who have no food foibles about shellfish or offal, we decided to just order a selection of what we fancied and pass them around.
Even with a range of temptations on offer we had to double up on the fresh, deep-fried anchovies to avoid fighting over them.
They were perfect and had even been gutted — something that’s regrettably often forgotten when ordering anchovies or sardines in Spain.
Less successful but still acceptable was the cannelloni.
A good, home-made sauce and decent pasta was slightly marred by the unwelcome presence of raisins in the filling. Not a cause for great complaint but a baffling addition to an otherwise straight-up classic dish.
The title ‘pigs trotter salad’ had us all curious so of course we ordered it. What arrived was an interesting dish I’d happily have again — pigs trotters cooked then de-boned, re-shaped and fried in breadcrumbs.
Novel and enjoyable. They’d make a great tapa.
And so, onto the main courses. We all wanted to have some sardines, so we did.
Good, but not perfect. They were slightly overcooked and while a bit of crispiness is a good thing with grilled sardines, these were on the edge of being too dry. I’m perhaps being over-picky; we still ate and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Also delicious but a touch overdone were the kidneys in sherry.
A classic dish, done as it ought to be and not mucked about with: there was a lot to praise here but a little less cooking time would have gone a long way.
There was no danger of the next dish being overcooked but would it be cooked enough? Tripe is one of those things that the Spanish do spectacularly well — I’ve converted many a sceptical offalphobe with plates of spicy, unctuous callos — but you can’t rush it.
Top marks to Sant Joan. It could perhaps have been spicier but it was rich and delicious, just as I’d hoped for.
The best, however, came last. I don’t usually eat salt cod — not because I don’t like it but because I try to stick to sustainable fish whenever I can and finding the provenance of bacalao in restaurants is nigh on impossible. Even asking about it will cause confusion at best and mark you out to the staff as a nutter at worst. I put my principles aside on this occasion with the hypocritical justification that as I’m good 99% of the time, a single bacalla amb samfaina (salt cod with stewed vegetables) wouldn’t do much harm to fish stocks.
That was before I saw the size of the portion: two huge slabs of delicious cod in an excellent samfaina. Samfaina is essentially ratatouille and the Catalans will argue with Provence until the end of time over which came first. It doesn’t matter. This was really good, in spite of my feelings of guilt, and terrific value.
We were all completely stuffed by the end of the meal. The above, with a bottle of wine, bread and water, came to under €20 each. It’s not dirt cheap compared with a lot of set lunches but I think the higher standard here is worth the extra.
Restaurant Sant Joan is somewhere I would highly recommend to visitors looking for good, local food at a sensible price. I’m not likely to become a regular there but I will certainly be back, even if it’s just for the fried anchovies. Even if you can cook this stuff at home, sometimes its nice to have someone else do the hard work.