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*|