A quick flight from Madrid to Barcelona put us in this idyllic city on the northeast coast of Spain in time for me and the crew to check in to our hotel and grab some dinner in the lobby restaurant. Barcelona is the cultural capital of Catalonia, the most forward-thinking architectural town in Europe (Gaudi has more buildings and sculptures here in Barcelona than anywhere else in the world), the home of the 2006 Premier League soccer champs, and the stomping grounds of dozens the most innovative chefs in the west, most of whom have worshiped at the culinary teat of high-powered gastro-preneurs like Juan Maria Arzak and Ferran Adria.
I instantly fell in love with the Catalan spirit and hospitality, all of which was a welcome reprieve from the more politically scolding and slightly snooty Madrillenos, and let's face it, a seaside city always seems more romantic to me than a landlocked one. I'm a sucker for the ocean. Catalonia borders the Mediterranean, and cruising the city of Barcelona, driving up the Costa Brava, strolling the Rambla with its famous flower marts and street peddlers, the historic gothic city center, the stunning shops and modern high rises of the business district, the Guell Parc, the funiculars on the hills to the east of the town (Barcelona is really a grouping of small cities, in a way) . . .I could have stayed for weeks. The best shopping areas in the city are on the Passeig de Gracia and the streets to its south and west, including the Bulevard Rosa arcade, Barri Gotic, and streets such as Carrer de la Portaferrissa, Carrer de la Boqueria, Carrer del Call, Carrer de la Llibreteria, and Carrer de Ferran. I spent a half hour looking for purses for my wife at Loewe, a store that is what you would get if you mated Gucci with Cartier. I couldn't even afford to use their bathroom, but it was a fun way to spend a lunch break.
But I digress.
Exhausted from our trip to the city, we went downstairs to dinner and encountered an indecipherable menu, with dishes named for emotions, like Bliss . . .which turned out to be a plate of fruit foams and jellies infused with herbs like verbena that have holistic healing powers. Dinner consisted of lots of foam, dusts, and savory gelatos—you could feel Ferran Adria's presence in restaurants all over Catalonia, much like Luke and Obi-Wan could always feel Darth Vader's vibe in the Star Wars series. Every chef in Europe is trying to incorporate Adria's iconography of techniques (dusts, gels, foams, essences, infusions) and philosophies into their work. Many have been very successful, but most merely imitate the appearances of Adria's style with none of the reality. The food still has to taste good and the flavors still need to work together. Just because you can make a smoked salmon ice cream doesn't mean it's a good idea.
The next morning we shot for hours in the Bouqeria, the oldest and best market in the city and one of the great food halls in all of Europe. We ate at La Gardunya, the famous restaurant located in the hall itself, renowned for its fresh horchata (an almond and betel nut milk concoction) that was as disgusting to drink as it sounds, but they had some delicious pan-fried calves' brains with olive oil and lemon. These huge food markets in Europe should be replicated all over our country. Essentially, they are composed of hundreds of stalls selling every food product imaginable, but every few yards there is a stall selling foods made from the goodies being sold all around them. So in the fruit area of the market there are a dozen little stands selling fresh fruit cups and juices; in the seafood hall there are several small raw bars and seafood grill stands . . .you get the idea. The product quality is second to none and the foods are simple and devoid of the sort of artifice that many restaurants utilize to unknowingly ruin great food ingredients. Sometimes, it's okay if being a chef means being a great shopper, and there should be no shame in that. The market was bustling and we got some killer footage, but nothing beat the small plate of razor clams a la plancha that I ate before we scooted up the hill to shoot at Antonio Ramon's La Venta restaurant.
On the way we bumped into Tyra Banks, who was shooting her Top Model show on the streets of the city. This girl has more handlers than I could count and as everyone in our van got their cameras ready, and I had a handle on the door, ready to jump out and offer up a ride and good meal, the traffic surged, our driver slipped into a distant lane, and I missed my chance. Our screams out the door, "Whats up, girl!!" fell on deaf ears and we headed on up to the east side of town. Crushing.
But we licked our wounds at La Venta, one of the best places to view the city, with terraces that are tranquil and serene, but a night spent on the rooftop café is as rocking a place as you can find in Barcelona. What's more, the food is great. Ramon whipped up some fresh sea urchins in a classic gratinee, and a wedge of bacalao (salt cod) that had been poached in lemon and herbs sous vide, perched on a purée of caramelized onions and potatoes, with roasted tomatoes and crushed olive paste dancing around the plate. Sensational—all the flavors of the sun-drenched Costa Brava brought together on a plate. We trucked back to our hotel and shot some promos on the docks of the city. I have gotten really good at saying, "I'm Andrew Zimmern and you're watching the Travel Channel," all while I'm negotiating with a sidewalk vendor over the price of a grilled frog . . .and saying "Bizarre Foods" in any language we can accurately translate. Tomorrow we drive up to Les Cols and El Bulli, a day that I have been looking forward to my whole professional life.