This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The restaurants, bars and chefs of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain have quite justifiably commanded so many column inches over the past decade that it is still possible to think of the whole phenomenon as some cleverly orchestrated PR campaign similar, for those with a very long memory, to that which once catapulted French chefs and 'nouvelle cuisine' (RIP, happily) on to the world stage.
A visit to the Museum of the History of Catalonia immediately dispels any notion that this complex region's good food is recent. Situated between a string of new cafés fronting the Old Port and the Born's maze of streets harbouring Cal Pep, whose small counter it is still an experience to eat at if you have the patience for the long queues its world fame now generates, the museum graphically displays how peasant communities first settled here and began to grow the produce still so proudly displayed in every food market and behind every bar.
This deep-rooted association with food can only be the explanation, albeit not perhaps the only explanation, of why eating out in Barcelona is still so ridiculously inexpensive, not just by London's standards but by those of any major European city today. This, I concluded, applies not just to the prices of drinks, tapas or even plates of the copious food in simple eating places but also to many of the main courses on offer at the string of fashionable restaurants in the modern development underneath the Arts Hotel down by the beach. At one of these I really thought the prices on the English menu had been mistakenly written in sterling rather than euros but the mistake was happily mine.
The other contributing factor is the sheer matter-of-factness of drinking and eating well, a point that was made all too clear to me when we dropped into the super-simple Casa Jacinta close to the Mercato Saint Antonin on Calle Tamarit for an aperitif one sunny Saturday lunchtime.
All I knew about this place was that it is run by Roberto from Rioja and it is famous for its house vermouth. It occupies a tiny space, just wide enough for a bar and a few stools and only a few metres deep, but Roberto is obviously and justifiably a popular host. Having ordered our drinks and some anchovies, I placed a 20 euro note on the table only to be eyeballed by Roberto who, rather like a barman in a Western, politely asked me to put my money away. "Don't be in a rush," he added, "we do things much more slowly over here." As he poured a generous amount of vermouth, for all of two euros, and rubbed the rim of the glass with orange peel, I did as I was told.
We had headed to this mainly residential and not particularly striking part of Barcelona to eat at Inopia, owned by Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran of El Bulli fame, a pastry chef and collaborator in the kitchen laboratory which creates the more famous restaurant's latest dishes.
Any comparison between Inopia and El Bulli is as chalk and cheese except for one vital fact: everyone working at Inopia seems to strive just as hard to achieve precisely what it sets out to be, which is a classic bar, as those at El Bulli seek to make it an unforgettable restaurant destination.
Inopia has few physical advantages. The room is almost a dog-leg shape inside with a counter at its entrance for those who just want to use it as a quick pit stop. The main body of the room is taken up with an open kitchen down one side, tables and chairs down the other and a morass of customers in the middle through which the waiters and chefs wade with the food and a smile on their faces. Then up a couple of steps on the right is one of Inopia's distinguishing features, a large table that is the only one that can be booked and can seat comfortably up to 14.
The other two, aside from the quality of its food, become obvious as soon as you sit down. For me, and I don't believe that this is only because I am fortunately exposed to so much good food, one factor that leaves an indelible impression is not just what is on the plate but how the restaurateur conveys the impression that even though, in this instance, there may be several thousand other tapas bars in Barcelona, for however long you may want to stay you can only be in this particular place.
Adrià and his partner, Joan Martinez, achieve this in two very simple but memorable ways. The first is via the placemat, a black and white photo of families lying on the beach, which exudes a sense of relaxation even before the food has arrived. The second is another black and white photo, this time of a matador with his arm on a shoulder of a man in a wheelchair with a small girl on his lap, which is the menu's front cover. The dishes inside may be no different from any other tapas bar but the vital presentation certainly is.
The first few dishes, their version of a Russian salad, tortilla, bread with tomatoes and the ham croquettes, were fine but were really a warm-up for four stunning dishes to follow. Pinchos, or skewers, a house speciality of extremely tender lamb in this case; deep-fried anchovies; prawns, quickly sautéed in lip smacking sea salt and two long white plates filled with squares of pink tuna, the quality of the fish accentuated by a sauce of tomato, spicy pepper and vinegar that gently warmed the top of the mouth. With more than enough food for the seven of us, dessert, coffee and two bottles of crisp Spanish white, the second wine of Belondrade y Lurton from Rueda and an Abadia de San Campo Albariño from Galicia (both 2006), the bill came to 200 euros without a tip.
Finally, to Agua, one of a string of restaurants in a modern, stylish row of restaurants and bars fronting the Barceloneta beach whose natural charms are compounded by the fact that it is part of the Tragaluz group (www.grupotragaluz.com) whose management seems to have their finger on the pulse of this city.
The highlights of this meal included two excellent rice dishes, one with squid and artichokes the other with langoustines in a seafood broth, both 19 euros, as well as watching the Catalans at play on and near the sea on a brilliantly sunny November day. I came away with the hope that perhaps with global warming the south coast of England may one day look as inviting even if restaurant prices in this small island could never, sadly, be as low.
Inopia, Tamarit 104, 08015 Barcelona, 93.424.52.31. Open Tuesday-Saturday night and Saturday lunch. www.barinopia.com
Agua, Pg Maritim de la Barceloneta, 30, 126.96.36.199. www.aguadeltragaluz.com