The perfect blend of old-school service and first-class modern cooking; a great choice for romantic dinners and special occasions.
Review: Via Veneto restaurant, Barcelona
Is Via Veneto Barcelona’s most overlooked restaurant? In some ways, that’s an absurd question; after all, it has a Michelin star, and – after nearly 50 years as a fine dining landmark – it’s practically a household name here. And yet, it has an image problem that keeps it off the radar of many contemporary gourmets and restaurant-goers who simply assume that it is hopelessly old-fashioned … and not in a fashionably rustic or retro sense. When I recommend it to people, as I regularly do, I’m often met with a raised eyebrow and the words, “Via Veneto? Really?” in a disbelieving tone.
So, Via Veneto. Yes, really. First things first: the name. It’s not an Italian restaurant, but it’s too late for them to re-brand now. It’s a Catalan restaurant serving modern, refined variations of great European dishes. Choose either the seasonal tasting menu (€85) or the €125 “Great” menu (featuring more of the restaurant’s historical dishes) or ask for a mix of both, and you’ll be presented with dishes that respect traditional roots but are executed with contemporary technique and a light, skillful touch. A glance at the CV of the young chef here should be enough to banish any nonsensical notion of it being in any way outdated. Sergio Humeda is the son of famous Basque chef Juan Mari Humada. He was already running his own restaurant by the time he was 20, and has worked behind some of the most prestigious stoves in the world at places like El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz and Arzak.
What is undoubtedly old-fashioned – gloriously so – is the service. There’s a reason that many modern establishments eschew the formal table-waiting set-up of a classic French restaurant: getting – and keeping – staff skilled enough to do justice to a dicky-bow is difficult, bordering on the impossible. Having waiters in tuxedos, and door staff in caps and uniforms, creates expectations. When less than perfect, such service can feel stuffy and intrusive. Not here. The veteran staff have been part of the set-up for decades and radiate pride in their work. The team sets the standard for service in Barcelona, gliding around the dining room with consumate ease and confidence. They know what you want before you know you want it but wear their learning lightly, always happy to advise but also always to listen. This is waiting done as a profession, not as a job; a legacy of the owner, Josep Monje, who started in Via Veneto as a waiter himself in 1967, before working his way to the top.
The other wonderfully old-fashioned aspect of the restaurant is the decor. It’s all dark wood, leather and meticulously polished mirrors and glass, brightened by salmon tablecloths and gleaming silverware. The Belle Époque-style interior includes private dining rooms, intimate corners and an upstairs cigar club. Downstairs, deep underground, lies one of Spain’s best wine cellars.
After a negroni cocktail, we started with excellent hors-d’oeuvres of ‘fish and chips’, featuring squid from the local docks, plus a pork-cheek taco with great depth of flavour and satisfying bite.Then an aromatic carpaccio of ceps (porcini), simple but effective with pine nuts and parmesan, paired with a very enjoyable organic 2014 Xic Xarel.lo from Agustí Torelló Mata. Beautiful plate of Barcelona prawns (semi-cooked and tartar) with lime and carrot. Paired with a floral 2013 Pazo Señorans Albariño. Then dim-sum of of Palamos prawns in delicate parcels, served with a deep dashi and sea cucumber. I’m not a fan of round-the-world trips in European menus but when the detours are executed as well, and as seamlessly, as this I will gladly make an exception.
A 2013 Fransola Sauvignon Blanc (Penedes) by Torres was brought out with a gorgeous dish of baby cuttlefish and a quenelle of tomato-and-onion sofregit. This is basic fisherman’s flavours, deconstructed a bit, and it was wonderful. I’m not sure why it was plated in two parts, because apart from the sofregit there seemed to be no difference, but it was butter-soft, simple and impossible to find fault with.Then the theatre began. Dotted around the restaurant are various silver duck presses. These are deployed by the waiters – and on this occasion by Josep Monje himself who is still an active front-of-house presence in his 70s – who carve a duck at tableside before crushing the carcass in the press and reducing the resulting jus in a tiny copper pan.
The final dish is plated tableside and served with tacos containing some of the duck trimmings. It’s changed over the years – a coffee, cocoa and apple crunch now appears instead of simple vegetables (I prefered the veg, frankly, but it’s still wonderful) – but it remains largely as it was in 1967. Paired with a 2012 Negre dels Aspres (Emporda).
Then cheeses. All Catalan, which I approved of, although Via Veneto also has a selection of some of the best cheeses from around the world if there’s something you particularly want to try. What can I say? I adore great cheese. In the right meal, at the right time, such as here, it was a creamy catalyst for the grin that was already spreading across my face. The Ximénez Spinola Old Harvest medium dry did nothing to spoil my mood.Another tableside demonstration of skill resulted in the rapid and accurate peeling and plating of a refreshing orange, served with some raspberries.Before a silken cocoa veil covered chocolate and hazlenut fritters, with scented Thai ice cream. This had it all: fragramce, textures, temperatures and just the right amount of sweetness.
Coffee came with very good petit fours.Conclusion:
I’d describe Via Veneto as effortlessly classy but in truth a lot of work goes into creating an experience like this. Josep (and his son Pedro, who manages the restaurant) have wisely held onto the best aspects of the restaurant’s past while tastefully updating its cuisine. The result is a restaurant that is easy to love. For a romantic meal or a special occasion, when you want to have absolute confidence that everything will be as it should be, I can’t think of anywhere better. For visitors to Barcelona who want to experience a taste of old-fashioned European glamour and feel like they’re inside a movie, it’s a must. But it’s also worth visiting just for the food. The dishes here are well thought-out, balanced and satisfying; the chef is unafraid of robust flavours and handles them with ease. And if you love wine, a tour of the cellar here will make your knees weak. Via Veneto has changed a lot in the 17 years since I first visited, but it remains one of my favourites in Barcelona.