Barcelona is crowded out with exciting new restaurants serving variants on new Catalan cuisine, but a softly spoken Canadian has come from nowhere to create one of the best places to eat, not just in the city itself, but throughout the whole of Spain. Andy Lynes reports
The foie gras “coca” at Cinc Sentits restaurant in Barcelona is a rectangle of brûléed mi-cuit foie gras on a bed of leeks confited in olive oil and Chardonnay vinegar and a thin, compressed slice of puff pastry. On top, finely chopped chives and a few grains of rock salt provide savoury tastes to balance out the sweet. A green stripe of chive and Pedro Ximénez grape syrup decorates.
It’s a masterful piece of cooking. Oh, and it’s delicious, too – the sort of dish that chefs can spend a career working towards. That’s why I’m dumbfounded to discover that until four years ago its creator, chef Jordi Artal, had never worked in a professional kitchen, let alone run a critically acclaimed restaurant in one of the world’s culinary hot spots.
“My sister Amèlia and I started throwing dinner parties when we were working in hi-tech in San Francisco in the late 1990s,” explains Artal, who surprises me again with his fast-talking north American accent – he was born in Toronto 41 years ago to a Canadian father and Catalan mother. “We would do six-course tasting menus and find these crazy wines you’d never heard of and would pair them with the food. People would rave and say, ‘You should open a restaurant.’ We’d laugh, because we had our careers and the last thing we could imagine was being attached like a slave to a stove.”
Things changed, however, when the millennium turned and the dotcom bubble burst. Artal and Amèlia decided to move back to Barcelona, where they had been raised and where their mother still lived. After a year’s sabbatical spent travelling and eating, Artal decided against going back to Silicone Valley and began to think seriously about opening his own restaurant in partnership with his sister.
“I wrote a business plan, and then things began to snowball out of control. We had some test dinners at my house, and my friends and family said, ‘You’re going to be rich. We want to invest.’ So we began hunting out locations.”
Artal decided that a long, narrow furniture shop in Barcelona’s upmarket Eixample district was the right place to open his first restaurant. He did it by plotting the location of all the top-rated restaurants on a street map. “I found there were clumps of restaurants, and I wanted to be near one of those clumps,” says Artal. “A customer going out to eat might pass by my door, look at the menu and decide to come back to eat the next week.”
After a six-month refurbishment that included removing a mezzanine floor and installing a kitchen, Cinc Sentits (Spanish for “five senses”) opened its doors in May 2004 with Artal manning the stoves, Amèlia working as both restaurant manager and sommelier and their mother Roser as part of the front-of-house team. Although Artal admits that the difference between cooking a dinner party for five and restaurant food for 40 is “like night and day”, he says the only problem he encountered in the early days was getting the food out as quickly as he would have liked.
Any minor glitches were overlooked by the press: within five months of opening Cinc Sentits was named one of the six best restaurants in Spain by influential critic José Carlos Capel in the national El País newspaper. The following May, Condé Nast Traveller magazine included it in its list of the 80 best new restaurants in the world. “We were just hoping to stay in business, keep the door open and feed people. Things really went much further than we’d dreamed or hoped. We felt very lucky,” says Artal.
Artal describes his food as “contemporary Catalan”, putting the restaurant in the same category as cutting-edge Barcelona restaurants such as El Bulli-trained chef Carles Abellan’s stylish Commerç 24, Xavier Pellicer’s experimental Abac and avant-garde second-generation chef Ramón Freixa’s El Racó d’en Freixa.
“I enjoy that type of cooking immensely when done at that level,” he says. “In the hands of a competent chef such as Ferran Adrià or Andoni at Mugaritz, I think it can be whimsical, fun and quite enjoyable. If really done well, it can be delicious, too.”
|Pork belly with chestnut, apple and black truffle|
But while Artal’s food is unmistakably clean and modern, it’s more rooted in traditional Catalan cooking and less influenced by the Adrià school of gastronomy than many of his peers. “I’m kind of obsessed about the quality of the ingredients and where they came from,” admits Artal. “We’re very focused on staying local wherever possible – meaning, for me, within the district of Barcelona, failing that Catalonia, failing that Spain, and then, if required, outside of Spain.”
Fruit and vegetables sourced from organic farms just north of the city are delivered within hours of being picked, while fish from the Mediterranean couldn’t be fresher. “Incredible product,” says Artal. “Sometimes the fish is so fresh it hasn’t even gone into rigor mortis. He calls me at noon from the boat for my order, and at 6.30pm it arrives at my door. It makes working with the fish a complete joy.”
Whether customers order from the à la carte (available only at lunchtime), six-course “essensia” (€45/£35) or eight-course tasting menu (€65/£51), every meal begins with the Cinc Sentits shot, made from rock salt, maple syrup, cream and cava sabayon layered in a shot glass.
“It’s my ode to Canada,” laughs Artal. “I’ve been making it since dinner-party days. I read about the famous L’Arpège egg dish of yolk, whipping cream, sherry vinegar, maple syrup and rock salt that sounds like French toast but served in a different way,” says Artal. “So the idea of playing around came up.”
The inspiration for many of Artal’s dishes comes from much closer to home, however. Sea bream is served with the classic Catalunyan accompaniment of fideuà. The process is similar to making paella, using the same broth and shellfish. However, instead of rice, they put in small noodles called fideu. Artal first toasts them in the oven, and then adds a “sofregit”, which is a Catalan starting base of onions and tomatoes cooked for a long time. To that he adds a pepper called Nora, also used for making romesco sauce. This is spicy, astringent and tannic. “Plus heaps of roasted garlic,” says Artal.
He then makes an intense reduction from the heads of a type of soft-fleshed white shrimp called galera. These are simmered until the noodles are soft, then put in the oven to crisp the tops. The fish is pan-fried, and the dish is finished with aïoli foam. It’s typical of Artal’s style: a simple, almost spare dish that betrays the complexity of its preparation only in the depth and strength of its flavours.
“I’m focused on the primary ingredient on the plate. There are just a few garnishes, to support, not to conflict or compete. Sometimes you go to a restaurant and you have a course which is beautiful but there are 18 things on the plate, and the next thing, you’ve forgotten what you’ve eaten,” insists Artal.
One of Artal’s “greatest hits” has been on the menu for two years. It’s suckling pig, apple in two textures, and ratafía – a traditional Catalan liquor made with herbs and unripe walnuts – honey and red-wine glaze. And it’s a great example of his stripped-back approach.
“Once a week I get an Iberian pig from south-west Spain. It’s the kind they usually make ham from,” says Artal. He breaks it down and brines the cuts for 24 hours in a solution of sugar salt, peppercorns, bay leaves cloves and cinnamon. The next day he vacuum-seals the meat with olive oil and bay and cooks it sous-vide in a convection oven for 20 hours. Then the following day Artal debones the meat and layers it into a terrine with the belly on the bottom, skin side down, and the de-skinned shoulders and legs on top. The terrine is pressed, then it’s cut into serving portions, fried skin-side-down and served.
“Each customer gets some crisp skin, belly, shoulder and leg in the same piece of meat, so they’re getting the best of all worlds,” says Artal. To finish, slices of apple are flambéd with ratafía, which also appears in an apple purée. The sauce is made with a demi-glace made from the bones of the pig, red wine and orange blossom honey for a bit of sweetness.
If Artal has strong ideas about the food he cooks, he’s equally opinionated about how the restaurant’s contemporary-looking 30-seat dining room is run. “Each table is a stage in itself, and the people at each table have different requirements,” explains Artal. “As a foodie, you might want to know that the pig takes us four days to make. However, a table of businessmen may not care. So we need to figure out each table – if it’s a special occasion, a first-timer or a tourist from out of town. They’re all different.”
Amèlia takes care of the 130-bin wine list, too. Predominantly Spanish, it is spiked with “hidden gems” from smaller bodegas as well as star bottles, such as a 1996 Vega Sicilia Unicos (€269/£212) and a 2005 Benjamin Romeo Contador (€250/£197). Pairings are offered with both the tasting menus, and have included a cult Viña Nora Albariño from Rías Baixas served with Galician diver scallop, Jerusalem artichoke purée and onion glaze, or a powerful Astrales from the Ribera del Duero region to accompany the suckling pig.
Serving 200 customers spread over 11 services during a six-day week with only two other chefs in the kitchen means that Artal’s love of eating out has to be squeezed in on his rare days off. His last trip to London, in 2005, included “a rather enjoyable, albeit extremely expensive, lunch at Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road” and a meal at St John. Artal hopes to hit the Fat Duck and possibly Hibiscus and Bacchus on a forthcoming return visit. “I don’t really follow the scene much,” says Artal. “When I travel I depend on my contacts to tell me where to eat.”
He’s been keenly following the controversy that followed three-Michelin-starred chef Santi Santamaría’s accusation that Ferran Adrià has been poisoning his customers by feeding them gelling agents such as methylcellulose.
“Santamaría has a book out, so people are saying he’s doing it just to raise his profile. But he shouldn’t have opened his mouth,” says Artal. “Santamaría has a long-standing difference of opinion regarding cooking style with Adrià, we know that, but it’s kind of tacky to criticise in that way.”
Artal has considered the idea of a second, less formal, less expensive restaurant, but there are no firm plans. Instead, there’ll be incremental changes to improve Cinc Sentits.
“I’ll probably hire another cook in the fall. The more staff you have, the more elaborate the courses can be and the more courses you can provide,” he says. But Artal insists he’s not chasing stars. “Accolades are nice to receive, but we haven’t pursued Michelin or tweaked the menu in any way to do it. We have our own view and our own goals.”
Cinc Sentits, Carrer d’Aribau, 58, Barcelona 08011. Tel: 00 34 93 323 9490. Website: www.cincsentits.com
Making an example of it
Barcelona’s Eixample district, where Artal has plonked himself because of the large concentration of restaurants, is effectively what most people know of the city.
In Catalan, eixample means extension, and as the tentacles of the old city stretched out via wide avenues, Antoni Gaudí filled in the gaps, with his Sagrada Familia church and Casa Milà built between the tree-lined routes.
Neichel, the Michelin-starred restaurant, is located towards the north-west part, serving shrimps with orange vinaigrette, scallops and lobster tartare, a well as wild turbot with roasted onion shoots and veal juice with aniseed, amid large windows and plain decor, all under Jean-Louis Neichel’s guidance.
Then there’s the one-Michelin-starred Vía Veneto in the north, open since 1967, serving traditional Catalan cooking given a lighter touch by chef Carles Tejedor. Father and son Josep and Pere Monje run front of house.
Ferran Adrià’s influence is felt throughout the city, and particularly with Jordi Vilà at his Alkimia restaurant, close to the Sagrada Familia. He serves up fried egg, sausage and preserved quinces, and eucalyptus ice-cream with glacé celery among many bizarre mixes.
● Note: The “coca” that Artal appends to his foie gras dish is not wholly accurate, as this Spanish word usually indicates anything served on bread. In this case, the food sits atop puff pastry, but semantics don’t seem to affect how good this particular combination tastes.
In the old part of the city, this modern, stylish restaurant serves the unusual mixtures one would expect of a head chef, Carles Abellan, who had served his apprenticeship with Ferran Adrià. There’s sea bass and peach ice-cream – small pieces of flesh with the frozen scoops – or octopus with potato gelatine, followed by tuna sashimi pizza with wasabi and radish, or duck and foie gras risotto.
Carrer Commerç, 24, Barcelona 08003. Tel: 00 34 93 319 2102
Xavier Pellicer’s Abac dining room sits inside the 1948-built Park hotel and, perhaps because he mixes luxury ingredients with the experimental, it won a second Michelin star this year. Steamed foie gras, fennel ravioli and seafood, and egg and potato omelette with truffles are served. Hence locals, rather than international eGullet types looking for a twist on the Catalan, tend to eat here.
Carrer Rec, 79, Barcelona 08003. Tel: 00 34 93 319 6600
El Raco d’en Freixa
Ramón Freixa’s shiny, minimalist dining room gives no clue to the wacky play on junk food waiting in the wings. There are chicken nuggets served with creamy rice and prawns, a duck hamburger fitted between bread filled with cereal pieces, candied red onion, mustard ice-cream and Idiazábal cheese – and Freixa has a Michelin star for it all.
Carrer Sant Elise, 22, Barcelona 08006. Tel: 00 34 93 209 7559