Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Txikiteo, Barcelona

Events of August 29, 2009. 11 PM
After the all-too-brief stop in Paris, we were off to Barcelona. At the airport we met up with Dre, the lucky holder of the actual El Bulli reservation that spawned this whole trip, and Bee, and our foursome was set for the week. We arrived in Barcelona around 7:30, made it in one piece to our apartment in the historic Barri Gothic, passed out until 10, and wandered out into the street, Spanish-style, for some dinner. The streets around our apartment looked like this - dark, a bit gothic, a bit dirty (and a bit crooked, in photographic retrospect). As mentioned, I'll continue including gratuitous establishment shots in these reviews for touristic color. The green folded-paper bugs coming up in a second are another one...

Now, Barcelona is the nominal capital of the Catalan region. It's important to think of it as a separate region; the people certainly seem to. I saw a sign (in Girona, an hour north of Barcelona) that said "Welcome to Catalunya, a nation of Europe!" It didn't also say "Brought to you by separatist bombers ETA," but I couldn't help think of them. Similarly, every road sign and plenty of tourist attraction signs are written in both Castellano, the Spanish you know, and Catalan, the Spanish that looks like a cross between Castellano and French. (Using only two languages is actually very restrained in contrast to the menus at tourist restaurants, which are replicated in Castellano, Catalan, French, Italian, English and German. They're thick. Or wide.). It's clearly a big point of pride, because the languages are very similar-looking to the untrained eye, which feels like one would be enough.

The food may be a bit different from everywhere else though (future trips to Spain or more informed readers will be needed to verify this). There are a lot of places around the Barri Gothic that advertise themselves as Basque-style restaurants, often 'tabernas'. Those are either tapas places, which offer montaditos (stuff piled on toast), or Basque-style kitchens like Txikiteo, which we ended up in after a good 'ol walk around the southern extent of the Barri Gothic. At 10 PM the streets were fairly crowded with revelers presenting in distinctly scruffy t-shirt - board shorts - sandals ensembles, like they were working their way to or back from summer in Ibiza. But the restaurants were far from crowded; they filled up more as it got even later. Txikiteo looked promising, despite the name reminding me of Abba.
The waiter cleverly noticed that we were not locals (two or three Asians in the party depending on how you count) and explained things to us in detail. He strongly recommended that we have some Bravas first. I don't know how these show up in other parts of Spain, but I've developed a little line on how they're representative of the Basque region: obviously the waiter thought everyone should eat these daily, so they're some kind of national dish (I know this is a stretch, yes). But what are they? Fries with mayo. However, "We're Basque! That means we don't eat your stupid French frites, nor your Spanish potatoes! We cut the potatoes CUBIC before we fry them! And the mayonnaise is SPICY! So there!" It's the little differences that matter so much.
Roasted peppers are popular everywhere in Spain, I think. These were stuffed with canned tuna and smothered in sauce. Not bad.
Gulas, baby eels, were another special recommendation of the waiter, and he seemed pleased when we stepped up and ordered them. They look the business, don't they? After a quick look on The Googlez, I'm disappointed - I called these angulas, and the waiter responded by calling them gulas, as does Txikiteo's online menu. Things like the above article suggest that gulas are in fact Japanese pressed fish pepared to look a bit like baby eels, and the linked article on the shortage of real elvers was 15 years ago.  A nice dish, possibly preferrable to the translucent raw baby eels I ate in Japan several times earlier this year (but only because of the lower gross-out factor). If you want the real thing, you may have to hunt a bit. Make sure the menu says angulas, and look for the little eyes and mouths.
Baby squids. Cooked in ink. I can't get enough of this on a conceptual level. Every time I see 'squid cooked in ink' on a menu, I have to get it (outside Spain. Inside Spain, I rapidly got over this.). It's likely similar to my 'blue food' fascination - natural food is never blue, so when I see artificial blue food (blue raspberry water ice, blue margaritas...a sadly limited set) I usually order it. There are also few black foods, so I extend my contrary ordering to them. And I like squid.  These baby cuttlefish met but did not exceed expectations, with an additional objection being that, as befits whole animals, they still had their crunchy backbones inside. Like the other dishes at this restaurant though, they were a bit oily and heavy.
Bacalao is of course another famous Spanish item. In this case the dried, salted, smelly cod was rehydrated and cooked in tomato sauce. A strong taste, not in a bad way, but in a way that suggested there must be better versions of it in the world. Supply of potatoes and rice marked this as a main; I'm not sure if this type of stodge is really Spanish or if it's there in part to make this look more substantial to British tourists.
That was one day of vacation dining done - fantastic chocolates, a lovely palace lunch, and a typical if touristy Basque dinner. We passed out again and slept soundly for ages in our windowless apartment, not dreaming of baby eels even once.

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