2015 Note: There is now an updated review of Caldeni here.
2014 note: Caldeni now has an excellent ‘meat bar’ spin off next door. Check out my recent post on Bardeni.
In the company of Dan, a friend and fellow food enthusiast, I headed for lunch yesterday to Caldeni (C/ València, 452) near the Sagrada Familia. Owned by head chef Dani Lechuga, this restaurant has been attracting some attention recently, including a rating by Time Out magazine as the best place in Barcelona to eat meat. That’s high praise, though perhaps not as high as it might be in other parts of Spain where the art of roasting is given higher priority than in planxa-happy Catalonia. The Catalan preference for tenderness over flavour — and consequent fixation on prematurely slaughtered, under-hung meat — is a constant frustration for those of us who prefer aged beef to veal and like our legs of lamb to top the 2kg mark. Meat is the main speciality of Caldeni which comes as no surprise once you discover that Lechuga is also the author of La cocina de la carne:
This will be going on my Christmas wish-list and I look forward to comparing it with my own favourite meat bible, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s comprehensive and magnificent The River Cottage Meat Book. But enough about Lechuga’s book; let’s look at his restaurant.
You’d walk past Caldeni if you weren’t searching for it. Like many chef-owned restaurants in the Eixample its exterior is unpretentious to the point of being inconspicuous.
Inside it’s cleanly and attractively decorated. The small space is well arranged to create a twenty-four diner capacity while retaining a tolerable amount of personal space between tables.
We’d arrived as they opened, at 1.30pm, and just as well because we got the last free seating: lunch was fully-booked — a good sign, especially in the current financial climate.
First impressions were favourable, with quick and friendly service from front-of-house. Dan and I were both choosing from the €21 lunch menu and decided to order different things in order to try as much as possible. We were also presented with a well-arranged wine list that went beyond the usual red/white/rosé groupings and listed wines in subsections according to their character: elegant, smooth, robust and so forth. The prices weren’t the lowest I’ve seen but neither were the mark-ups too ferocious. We settled on a bottle of Terraprima ’07, a cabernet franc/shiraz/grenache from the nearby Penedes region.
First out were some snacks.
Some curried almonds, sesame bread sticks and some fine pastry triangles with what can only be described as essence of pizza: oregano, tomato and cheese notes. They were extremely moreish and we felt that we could easily devour a mountain of them while watching a game of football. The bread sticks were also well made, as was the hunk of warm bread that accompanied the main courses. I don’t know where Lechuga buys his bread, or whether he makes his own, but it was greatly superior to what is usually served in Barcelona.
To start we had some rice, flavoured with nyora peppers and seafood.
Of similar consistency to risotto but lacking the broken-grained stickiness, this looked like it was going to be a bomb of tomato flavour but the colour actually came from nyora peppers, beloved of the Catalans and the main flavour in their superb romesco sauce. These gave a warmth to the deep, almost bisque-like seafood flavour. It was, we agreed, extremely good.
Our other starter was white beans with squid ribbons.
These beans, the famous fesols de Santa Pau, are extremely highly-regarded in Catalonia and rightly so. They retain a firm texture while remaining tender, with none of the mushiness sometimes associated with beans. The squid was perfectly tender and, as a hidden bonus, there were some chunks of what we believed to be ox-tongue in the mix to add a meaty depth. It was garnished with (we think) baby chervil, adding a subtle and welcome note of aniseed.
So far, so fishy, so good. For a meat restaurant the menú del dia was low on carnivorous options, something we compounded by ordering corvina as one of the main courses. Not unlike a large sea bass in terms of taste and texture, corvina is always translated into British English as “meagre”; maybe I’ve been away from the UK too long or don’t get round enough but I’ve never seen a fish advertised as meagre in any fishmonger or restaurant. It’s not exactly catchy. Regardless, it’s not an uncommon fish in Spain where it’s most often found farmed though I very much suspect that what’s served in Caldeni is wild fish. The fillet here was immaculately cooked and served with delicate ravioli and cauliflower.
But enough of this piscine about. We’d come to the restaurant for meat, and meat we would have.
Steak. So simple. So easy to do right. So frequently done wrong. Unsurprisingly, Caldeni do it right. Meltingly tender, deeply flavoured and well-textured, it was everything you’d want apart from the small serving size. There was enough here for lunch but Dan and I could both have easily eaten some more. It’s served with a choice of smoked or ordinary sea-salt which is a nice touch.
Before I continue, a word about dessert. Caldeni is an ingredient-led restaurant. Its strength is its procurement of excellent raw materials and its presentation of them as the stars of the show. It serves simple food done to an extremely exacting standard and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, dessert is the chance for the chef to jazz things up a little bit. There’s no need to present architectural sugar constructions of showing off but some inventive twists on the ordinary, or thoughtful presentations, can keep the theme of simplicity while allowing the meal to finish on a high.
Caldeni didn’t manage this. First up we had mel i mato. This honey and curd cheese combination is one of my favourites and I was looking forward to seeing what they’d do with it.
The answer was: put it on a plate with some ice cream and a raspberry. Delicious, but a five-year old child could do this at home and on a €21 menu (not including drinks, tax or coffee) I expect more.
Likewise with the other dessert. The chocolate mousse was great: light, chocolately; but unfortunately just plopped over some chocolate sponge to create an unattractive dish that left one thinking more of diarrhoea than deliciousness.
It’s a great pity because it was delicious — it just needed better presentation and something to lift it from being predictable and ordinary.
With coffees, the bill for two came to about €70 which is not an insubstantial amount and puts Caldeni in direct competition with some extremely good lunchtime menus at the likes of Gelonch, Embat and Gresca. On the strength of this evidence, I think Caldeni is slightly off the pace of this leading pack but it wouldn’t require much work at all to catch up. Perhaps a dose of inspiration from Barcelona’s dessert masters at Espai Sucre or somewhere similar would fire Lechuga to where he should be, given the strength of the rest of his food.
Another minor point but one worth noting for English-speaking visitors: take a Spanish or Catalan-speaking dining companion. We asked to see the English translation of the menu and while it was great for giving us a good laugh, as a guide to the food it was atrocious. The menú del dia hadn’t been translated at all, perhaps mercifully. Speaking to Lechuga, he was refreshingly honest and said that, unlike many BCN restaurants of this calibre, his clientele is 99% Spanish so it hadn’t really been drawn to his attention. There’s perhaps an element of cause-and-effect because as Caldeni is right in the heart of a major tourist area with almost no quality competition, there must be a reason why gastro-tourists are avoiding the place.
I’d recommend it to them. Caldeni is a fine restaurant, its chef has a superb palate and it’s good value-for-money at this level of dining. Just get there early and take your Spanish-English dictionary with you.