Appearances can be deceptive.
At first glance it would be easy to write off Llamber (Carrer de la Fusina 5, +34 933 196 250) as just another example of the many stylish-but-bland tapas sheds which have sprung up across the city in recent years. It sits directly opposite the Mercat del Born cultural centre, perfectly placed to snare tired tourists who have had their fill of archaeology and want something to fill their bellies instead.
It shares many of the traits that serve as warning signs for food snobs like me: it’s open 365 days-a-year, almost around the clock and its carefully styled interior of exposed brick and recycled wood lacks the grease stains of authenticity. Not only that, but Llamber’s smiling, professional staff are a spit in the eye of the tradition of congenial surliness that often defines Catalan restaurant hospitality.
Fortunately, all is not what it seems. Llamber has a culinary heritage that adds credibility and guaranteed competence to the slick front-of-house operation, lifting the restaurant well above its tourist trap peers.
Chef Francisco Heras earned his reputation in a string of top restaurants around the country before opening his own highly rated Llamber venture in Asturias. While he probably won’t be found rubbing tomato onto your bread in Llamber, he clearly knows how to hire people who can execute his ideas. They seem happy about it too; the view through the serving hatch when I was there was of a high-energy crew full of smiles and enthusiasm.
The sommelier, Donald, is equally passionate and has picked out a wine list of pocket-friendly choices which surprise with their quality, such as the full-bodied Losada Bierzo at about €15.00 a bottle. Most are available by the glass for a very reasonable €2.20 – €3.00 and some interesting cocktails are tempting at €8.00 – €11.00 if you don’t need to work afterwards.
The food is a fusion of Asturian and Catalan classics, tapa-fied to fit the grazing tastes of today’s customers. The main menu changes every couple of months and the bargain menú del día is adapted every week to what’s in season. This set menu has been slimmed from a gut-busting endurance event to a well-judged lighter affair which leaves you capable of standing up afterwards, with a reduction in price to match.
Everything about Llamber smacks of attention to detail, from the use of space (acoustic ceiling tiles to keep conversations audible during busy periods, a more intimate wine cellar/dining room at the back for those who don’t want to dine in view of passers-by) to the choice of additive-free biscuits to serve with the coffee. The premesis was originally a fruit warehouse and traces of the industrial heritage can be seen across the three zoned areas of wine bar, main dining area and back room. The design was apparently overseen by Eva Arbonés, the other partner in the restaurant, who has combined a range of unusual recycled materials with designer lighting.
The lunch menu I had in late October started with a perfectly acceptable salmon carpaccio.
The crème parmentier which followed was superb; velvety and smooth with a welcome salty crunch of bacon.
Meat and vegetable lasagne came next and was excellent, apart from a sharp chicken bone lurking within the mince. Nevertheless, the layers of aubergine and rich tomato sauce were very good and the lack of floury béchamel kept it on the right side of heaviness. It was fresh, and the flavours retained their separation without melting into the gloop typical of cheap lasagne.
A perfectly cooked hake with tomato brunoise hit the spot next, accompanied by sautéed snap peas.
It was followed by the stand-out dish of the day, a veal cheek stew with potatoes and mushrooms. The smell hit me before anything else; deep and rich and complex, it had me locked onto the bowl like a starving dog as the waiter carried it to the table. It was a small portion, just right for lunchtime but I could have eaten a tureen of this.
The arroz con leche was, as arroz con leche always is, something of a letdown compared to the rice puddings that fuelled my childhood Sunday afternoons with endless carbohydrates and cream. As arrozes con leche go, however, it was very good.
For €15.50 including wine, water and bread, the Llamber lunch menu is a real Born bargain. Prices in the evenings are higher but still moderate, and you don’t need to eat in fear of melting your credit card. Full disclaimer: I didn’t pay for my own lunch but I’d be perfectly happy to shell out here. It isn’t a full-bore foodie destination restaurant but it’s on my personal mental map of excellent places to get a bite to eat in the area. It’s child-friendly, snack friendly, good to get a drink or sit down and stuff yourself. I’ll definitely be back.