Caelis restaurant’s relocation to the Hotel Ohla Barcelona sees chef Romain Forell stretching his creative wings to fill the new space.
Review: Caelis restaurant, Hotel Ohla Barcelona, Gothic Quarter, Barcelona
Caelis restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2005. For most of that time, French chef Romain Forell tempered his contemporary instincts to match Caelis’s sumptuous surroundings in El Palace hotel. The result was comfortingly familiar fine-dining with enough flair to remain interesting. But Caelis has moved to replace Saüc restaurant at the more modern Ohla Barcelona hotel, and Forell wants to move the menu forward too.
The new Caelis features a gleaming, stainless-steel open kitchen full of enviable copper pans, with a ‘chef’s table’ that’s actually a long marble bar. From here, 24 diners can observe a brigade of self-conscious young cooks who clearly aren’t yet used to working in public. I’m sure they aren’t all biting their lips to restrain their inner Gordon Ramsays but it still looks miserably subdued back there. This, I’m sure, will fix itself in time.
The dining rooms achieves quiet coolness a little more joyfully. It gets a mid-century-modern-inspired refit complete with groovy chairs in Kill Bill yellow with black piping, the colours reversed for the high bar chairs. There are also some quite lovely copper-coloured Christofle cutlery pod eggs laid on the tabletops.
Caelis offers à la carte options (€32 starters, €42 mains) but specialises in tasting menus. At lunchtimes there’s a €39 special menu, which changes weekly. In the evenings, the choice is between a seasonal ‘Earth and Sea’ menu (€87, with optional €40 wine pairing), which I had, or a €132 ‘Celebration’ menu with optional €55 wine pairing. Both start with amuse-bouches including a delicate, elBulli-esque faux olive, a tartlet of orange trout roe, and a waffle crowned with Balfegó tuna belly and gold leaf.
The miniature sardine sandwich with aged mustard promises much but delivers less, especially in terms of texture. A cold fennel foam is much more successful, its rich flavour delivered to the mouth via a dinky but dense copper spoon. The high technical standard on display is given solid French support in the form of croissant bread and moreish Échiré butter.
Oyster salad with samphire stems emerges dramatically from dry-ice mists with fresh, clean flavours.
Cardo (French horn) mushrooms, marinated in escabeche, dotted with roe and served in a dark and silky mushroom-and-duck jus is a lip-smacking winner.
Bright green spring peas, looked fresh and alluring but inexplicably lacked sweetness. My disappointment was almost, but not quite, assuaged by their king crab and coconut context.
Mar i muntanya (surf and turf) macaroni (which looks more like Catalan canelons to me) is perhaps Forell’s star dish. It’s also one he’s probably thinking about dropping as he pushes his creative boundaries. He should resist the temptation: it’s wonderful. The pasta is slightly on the thick side and might raise eyebrows in some Italian (or Catalan) kitchens but all is forgiven as the lobster and foie combine with the crunch of fried artichokes, and – oh! – a smooth bisque trickles down through colander holes in the plate into a velvety pool of Parmigiano-Reggiano soup beneath.
A rock-fish bouillabaisse brings an almost dashi-like savouriness to its excellent broth but the fish chunks are simply too small and delicate to retain their texture and moistness. It’s not a disaster but it’s not a triumph either. Fortunately, a slab of rare Girona beef stampedes to the rescue, encrusted in blackened Priorat vine shoots. It’s supported by blackened calçots (Catalan green onions), a rich reduction and a log of crispy potato that brings it all together in satisfying fashion.
A French chef must, of course, offer a cheese selection, which is fine by me. It’s followed by a simple celery sorbet then an anodyne ‘banana split’ that goes down easily but is instantly forgotten apart from the wonderful cream, which lingers until a crystal tatin arrives. This sugar apple is a very pretty thing but the shell sticks stubbornly to the inside of one’s mouth. Perhaps Christofle could introduce a silver-handled toothbrush for such occasions.
I hope Caelis’s relocation doesn’t lead to too much change. I like the classical touches to Forell’s cooking and the strongest dishes here are the ones with deep roots. There’s admirable restraint on display throughout the menu as well as evident good judgement in terms of quantity and sequencing: you’ll leave comfortably full, not painfully stuffed. I like the stylish new space too. The trend toward bars in restaurants is not one I’m a fan of, but railing against it in a blog post is, I know, futile. Bar stools are popping up everywhere like their etymological cousins on a damp autumn morning and all we can do is wait for winter. If you enjoy perching on a pedestal while you eat and/or don’t want to make eye contact with your dining companion for whatever reason, then this is as good a place to come as any. There are, anyway, tables available should you want to sit down in comfort and have a conversation. You will miss out on the goings-on in the kitchen but you’ll be able to focus more fully on the food, which is quite capable of holding your attention.
Caelis restaurant: Hotel Ohla Barcelona, Via Laietana 29, 08003 (Barri Gòtic), Barcelona; (+34) 93 510 1205; www.caelis.com; Metro Urquinaona; Closed Sun & Mon
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