Toasted sandwiches and the freshest seafood enjoyed in the Catalonian capital.
Family life appears to be alive and well in Barcelona and its surrounding region of Catalonia.
Both may be subject to the same twenty-first-century pressures as other cities and regions – and in fact divorce rates may be higher for Catalonia as a whole than for the rest of Spain – but Barcelona still resonates with the sound of children playing, their mothers’ voices and the sight in restaurants of families of several generations enjoying themselves.
Or it may be just my good fortune that in our first 24 hours in Barcelona, we enjoyed two fabulous meals in restaurants run by families. And one memorable breakfast the following morning.
Granja Elena in the Zona Franca area of the city was opened in 1974 as a dairy store, a granja. Since then, it, and the area, have changed considerably. Once home to a lot of heavy industry including a large SEAT factory, it suffered during the deindustrialisation of Barcelona during the 1980s when crime and drug use soared. Then, when investment increased, particularly the large exhibition halls that house the vast annual Alimentaria exhibition (the Gran Via exhibition hall has a net area of 17,000 sq metres) the area began to prosper again. Today, it is a €10–15 taxi ride from the centre.
The restaurant passed from Olga, the matriarch, to her three children, Borja, Guillermo and Patricia Serra, and its menu began to change. Borja, who is visited every morning and afternoon by his wife and young daughter, trained under Hilario Abelaitz, the renowned Basque chef at his restaurant Zuberoa, 20 kilometres outside San Sebastian.
His return must have been quite a shock. Granja Elena is not only small – it seats no more than 26 with a tiny kitchen behind – but it also keeps the most unusual hours.
Because of its original role as a dairy store, Granja Elena opens at 7 o’clock every morning to serve a most particular breakfast, then morphs into a classy restaurant at lunchtime and then at 4 pm it closes. It does not open for dinner, most restaurants’ most profitable service.
In fact, the breakfast menu is clearly visible to anyone having lunch. Blackboards hung above the kitchen promise a vast array of the toasted sandwiches that is one of the reasons so many locals flock here.
During our initial lunch I was intrigued and, as I have intimated, went back for an excellent breakfast. I ordered a sandwich of sobrasada, the spicy, gooey sausage made on the Balearic Islands, and cheese, a combination that the grill made into one. With a café con leche my bill came to a very reasonable €5.40.
Not included in this was, of course, the people-watching. When I walked in there was a mother with her two sons finishing their homework before school. This table was soon occupied by three elegantly dressed, middle-aged women, for whom this restaurant seems to be a regular rendezvous. And finally there was the table of two men who started drinking red wine with their breakfast at 9.15 am!
Borja and Patricia came in about 8.45 am with him taking over in the kitchen while a woman I had seen working the day before as a waitress was this morning obviously on breakfast duty. Borja set to.
Our lunch the previous day had been exemplary. Probably the acid test of any restaurant in Spain is the quality of its ham croquettes that here are excellent, warm and satisfying. We followed this with a dish of raw, cured thin slices of Galician beef covered with fat that was heart-stoppingly delicious. There followed a lobster salad that was definitely more lobster than salad.
The kitchen then kindly served us our next course individually, a succulent piece of seafood ravioli in a crayfish sauce, a dish that obviously had international overtones but was very well executed. This was followed by something distinctly Catalan. A dish of arroz seco de gambas y ortiguillas had caught my eye – particularly the final ingredient that translates into English as 'sea anemone'. It was explained to us that unless handled correctly these can cause stomach irritation, although in past times when the city was a lot poorer, they were cooked into a soup. Here they appeared on top of a wonderfully cooked rice dish, crisp around the outside, dotted with prawns with the green sea anemone across the top.
The four of us drank a delicious bottle of Improvisació 2017 based on Penedès Xarello, sipped some of a bottle of Trepat from Josep Foraster 2017, and finished lunch with one dessert that we all fought over, a creamy slice of the classic pastel cremosa de piñones, a tart topped with pine nuts.
The food, the restaurant’s relaxed nature, the friendliness of Patricia, as well as her obvious knowledge of what we were looking for, all contributed to making us feel like locals. We may have arrived in the city only at 11.30 that morning but already we felt very much at home.
This feeling continued that evening over dinner at Estimar, where a very fancy conversion of a former warehouse in the historic El Born quarter in the centre of the city is quite evidently tempered by the love and warmth that emanates from its owner and chef Rafa Zofra, who seemingly so effortlessly runs the restaurant with his wife and charming front of house, Anna Gotanegro.
Zofra comes from a strong culinary background that includes a long stint at elBulli while Anna is the daughter of a fisherman from Roses, the port closest to this, sadly now shuttered, great restaurant. His family provides all the connections to who has landed what that morning.
The fish display in front of where Zofra and his team stand, right by a Josper oven, of course, was impressively varied and abundant when we arrived at 9 pm. There were cigalas (langoustines) in abundance; bags of cockles; the famous red prawns of Roses; sea bass; and a couple of pargo or red snapper, which Zofra exhorted us to order. It would be difficult to say no to Zofra. Complete with beard, ponytail and slight paunch, he exudes the air of a slightly authoritarian but jocular uncle.
All of which makes him physically the opposite of his wife, Anna, who is blonde, petite and yet who commands the dining room, which, in two spaces, can accommodate about 30 diners. In this she is undoubtedly helped by a well-trained team who wear the most elegant white jackets complete with buttons and high collars, a look that definitely gives customers a feeling of being on a high-class ocean liner.
Zofra’s food is truly exciting, combining his talent and some very fresh fish and shellfish. We began with some marinated anchovies and a plate of quickly fried crystal prawns. We followed this with some fine slices of mackerel that was practically still swimming served on a board in between a faux mackerel head and tail, and followed it with an excellent rendition of an elBulli classic from 1995, a carpaccio of crayfish that was rich and sensuous.
There then ensued one mollusc dish and two shellfish courses before even our main fish dish. An extremely dainty rendition of squid, the first version sautéed and served on a board dotted with its black ink next to a plate containing some sautéed squid; then some cigalas, one each, spatchcocked before being grilled; and finally, one red prawn like the one top right each. We finally staggered on to our pargo, which was delicious, if slightly superfluous, and was served with some excellent aioli and a bowl of thick chips interlaced with fried, green padrón peppers.
Much as I enjoyed Rafa’s cooking and Anna’s warmth and hospitality, there was one other person here who caught my eye. Federico, the only member of the team to be wearing an apron, fulfils his roles while standing at 90 degrees to the fish counter and the kitchen and side by side with Rafa. His role is first of all to call all the orders, an indispensable role in any kitchen, but here he is also the recipient of the whole fish, after it has been cooked and presented to the table, when it comes back to him to be taken off the bone. He performs both these roles with great aplomb and grace.
Granja Elena Passeig de la Zona Franca 228, 08038 Barcelona; tel +34 93 332 02 41
Estimar Carrer de Sant Antoni dels Sombrerers 3, 08003 Barcelona; tel +34 93 268 91 97