The Past is the Future for Catalan Cuisine

A chef puts the finishing touches on a dish at Bodega 1900 restaurant in Barcelona on April 13. Recently opened by Albert Adrià, Bodega 1900 is a vermuteria, or vermouth bar, apart from Adria's other, more internationally-influenced restaurants in the city. Though a few staples nod toward the technique-heavy Adrià style, Bodega 1900's menu is heavier on well-prepared classics. Michael Ip for Newsweek

For about 20 years, Catalan cuisine was defined by the surreal genius of the cooks at elBulli, a seaside restaurant near the moderately charming town of Roses on Catalonia's Costa Brava.

With elBulli as their base, brothers Ferran and Albert Adri à became two of the most famous chefs in the world. The closure of elBulli in 2011 was international news. During his years at the restaurant, Ferran Adri à had become a master at using foams and culinary deconstruction to enhance flavor. The best way of describing an elBulli meal is that everything was turned on its head, resulting in dishes that both excited and puzzled. My last meal at elBulli consisted of 49 plates, including his signature dish of small spheres that appear to be olives but in fact are olive oil encased in edible gum. And there were even more bizarre dishes, such as blackberry risotto with hare sauce, as well as raw and cooked shrimp served with a paste made from its brains.

In the five years since elBulli's closure, Ferran Adri à appears to have slightly lost his way. Two years ago, the opening of an elBulli Foundation on the original site of the restaurant was talked about, but protesters objected to its location in the middle of a national park. A food lab in Barcelona—in association with Dom Pérignon—is dedicated to "deconstructing the entire process of creativity" or asking philosophical riddles, such as, "What is wine?" And Ferran has a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil in Ibiza, where he is "helping create a restaurant that is not a restaurant."

Albert Adrià is now the family's more active restaurateur. Based in Barcelona, 100 miles southwest of Roses, he has kept alive the elBulli philosophy at his restaurant Tickets—or "elBulli Lite," as some critics describe it—where he serves small, surprising plates, including grilled watermelon, and squid in its ink with almond paste.

Also in Barcelona is Disfrutar, headed by three former elBulli chefs, which has an equally molecular take on Catalan cuisine. Here, one will find dishes such as crispy egg yolk with mushroom gelatin or a mango sorbet sandwich with cardamom. The elBulli influence is clear.

The kind of culinary innovation practiced by the Adri à brothers and perpetuated by their former colleagues will always have a place, but Barcelona seems to be slowly defining itself by reinterpretations of its Mediterranean heritage rather than purely celebrating the avant-garde. This revisiting of classic Catalan cuisine is championed by Tribu Woki, a fast-growing group of organic markets and restaurants. It was founded in 2008 by Guido Weinberg, 44, a former banker from Argentina, who arrived in Barcelona in 2001 to work for a large restaurant group before branching out. Tribu Woki (which in English means "tribe of woks"—its first restaurant cooked takeaway food in woks) now has nine restaurants and six markets in Barcelona. "The Adri à brothers are great," he says, "but you need a lot of technique and machinery, and we are not looking to do that. For me, if you have really good produce and it is simple, it can't be beaten."

A plate of paella cooks on a stove at Barraca restaurant in Barcelona, Spain on April 14. Catalan culinary culture for years had been defined by the existence of ElBulli, one of the world's leading restaurants and a veritable culinary institution pioneered by Ferran Adrià. But the triple Michelin-starred gourmet's paradise closed in 2011. Now several Barcelona chefs—from Adrià's brother Albert, to newcomers seeking a return to the basics after the heyday of Ferran's complex cooking—aim to celebrate Catalan cuisine, in new, and internationally cosmopolitan, ways. Michael Ip for Newsweek

Barraca, Weinberg's casual seaside eatery in Barcelona, epitomizes that philosophy. The Andalusian calamari with tartar sauce features meltingly tender squid, with a slight crunch from tiny cubes of cornichons. The dark-hued seafood paella initially looks overcooked, but once you taste it, you realize its density comes from being saturated with umami and fresh seafood. "We just thought, Let's do a simple good restaurant on the beach without thinking about it too much. I just wanted good calamari, fish and paella," says Weinberg. "This should be the norm everywhere, but it isn't."

This apparent simplicity is not effortless; the supervising chef at Barraca is Xavier Pellicer, the most famous Catalan chef you have (probably) never heard of. Pellicer, formerly head chef at AbaC, one of the leading restaurants in Barcelona, also spent long stints at Can Fabes, just north of Barcelona, which in 1994 became the first Catalan restaurant to win three Michelin stars. Pellicer is now chief consultant for Tribu Woki and recently opened a vegetable-centric restaurant for the group called C é leri. Just along the same street, on the opposite side, is Coure, one of the city's first new wave bistros, opened in 2005 by chef Albert Ventura. There's nothing tricky about its food, which is moderately priced, and there's an even cheaper bar on the ground floor. The veal sweetbreads with gnocchi and black truffles, as well as the shoulder of lamb with a slice of perfectly seasoned aubergine, are wonderful largely because of the quality of Spanish produce used to make them.

One of the best things about the contemporary Barcelona food scene is its embrace of international culinary influences. Since the closure of elBulli, Albert Adri à has also opened successful restaurants serving Japanese-, Peruvian- and Mexican-influenced cuisine. Along with this celebration of international cuisine, he has opened a small vermuteria, or vermouth bar, called Bodega 1900, directly opposite Tickets.

Inside Bodega 1900, which I visited recently, are simple marble-topped tables, a tiled floor, old-fashioned postcards tacked to the rafters and Adri à family memorabilia. The only gesture toward elBulli—either in the décor or on the menu—is an appetizer of, yes, olives that aren't olives, and the dish now feels like a culinary cliché. Fortunately, the other dishes were exquisitely rendered classics such as razor clams in white escabeche sauce, green peas in a mushroom broth or fatty El Romero de Salamanca Iberian ham. Equally memorable was rubia gallega—thin slices of cured beef from Galician cattle. Bodega 1900 doesn't offer only Spanish produce—one of the most intriguing yet fulfilling combinations I ate on my recent visit was a plate of exquisite French oysters from Marennes-Oléron juxtaposed with simply grilled foie gras from Chalandray in western France.

The appetite for classical Catalan cuisine is obviously growing. Tribu Woki is opening three more organic markets and another restaurant in the coming year, and the focus will remain on high-quality, simple produce and dishes. Weinberg thinks food fashions go in cycles: "It swung too far toward technique and science and now is swinging back toward simplicity and product. This is also my philosophy—I like the idea of bringing things back to basics."

Chef Xavier Pellicer looks toward Barcelona's beachfront out a window at Barraca restaurant on April 14. Pellicer is the supervising chef at Barraca, a newer Barcelona restaurant that seeks to move away from the Adrià-style meals built on complicated technique and esoteric ingredients; they cook traditional dishes like paella with an eye towards quality produce and fresh seafood. “We just thought, let’s do a simple good restaurant on the beach without thinking about it too much," says Guido Weinberg, its owner. "This should be the norm everywhere, but it isn’t." Michael Ip for Newsweek
A kitchen staffer carves Jamón Ibérico at Bodega 1900. A staple of Spanish cuisine, the superlative-quality Ibérico ham is emblematic of a return to simplicity in Catalan cuisine, married with a focus on ingredient quality. Michael Ip for Newsweek
A member of the wait staff carries a finished dish out of the kitchen at Bodega 1900. Michael Ip for Newsweek
Patrons chat over drinks at vermouth bar Bodega 1900 on April 13. Michael Ip for Newsweek
A finished plate of traditional paella sits on a table at Barraca on April 14. Weinberg, its owner, sees dishes like these as emblematic of changing food tastes: "It swung too far toward technique and science and now is swinging back toward simplicity and product," Weinberg says. "This is also my philosophy—I like the idea of bringing things back to basics." Michael Ip for Newsweek