An Intimate Gastronomic Journey Across Spain
The evening started playfully: a handful of people gathered around an open kitchen top staring at rocks of different shapes and sizes, deciding which were edible. As per the chef’s instructions we were all to choose one, close our eyes and let the rocks melt in our mouth. Thus began our Friday evening and 10 sensational courses which took us from the beaches of Catalonia to the mountains of Navarre, ending at grandma’s kitchen table - lentils and all - in the Basque Country.
Those rocks - or at least the edible ones - were idiazábal, a delicious, gooey, highly textured cheese native to the Basque Country, coated with slowly melted pure cacao, giving its marbled exterior. The non-edible rocks were gathered from various coves and beaches along the Costa Brava, a stretch of wild coast between Barcelona and the French border. Before my relief of not having broken a tooth set in, a second, equally curious morsel was placed in front of us: an olive, anchovy and wild seaweed tapenade spread over
quinoa and topped with trout roe, all resting on a paper thin crispy wanton.
At this point we were given an option: to go sit down at our respective tables, or stay - and watch, interact and even joke - alongside the chef. The concept is simple and ingenious: a truly open kitchen. No barriers, no backstage (even the silent dishwasher is in the front of house), no bar. Everyone, from the chef and server to the patrons, are in the kitchen, the room’s decor striking a beautiful mix of world-class stainless steel and cozy, worn wooden benches and chairs. The floor to ceiling glass windows seemed to invite people in right off the street (as if an open seat were available).
And so the evening flowed, from slow-cooked artichokes stuffed with quail eggs served over an avocado emulsion and tender teardrop peas from the nearby Maresme region north of Barcelona and available for only a few weeks per year; to faux-ravioli, which instead of pasta was made with a painstakingly thin outer layer of potato stuffed with mushrooms alongside truffle mayonnaise; to the chef’s take on surf 'n turf:
exquisitely pan-seared scallops atop a circular slice of butifarra, a typical Catalan sausage, served with orzo and plankton, set in the oven for a few minutes to allow the various flavors to merge. The braised ox tail, served with a conversation-halting black molé made with more than 15 ingredients ranging from clove and anise seed to cinnamon, chocolate and three types of chili, created a beautifully complex flavor profile, at once earthy, creamy and spicy.
All ingredients are meticulously sourced by Michelin star chef and owner Xabi Bonilla, who, plate after plate, took us on the most sensorial of culinary adventures as places, textures - even childhood nostalgia - seemed to come alive. From his birthplace in San Sebastián and childhood in Navarre, to his decade of living in Barcelona, Mr. Bonilla has seamlessly woven together personal anecdotes and gorgeous gastronomy to create one of Barcelona’s most brutally creative and freshest supper club concepts today, his current
concept opening less than 2 months ago.
At a time when so many restaurants in Barcelona seem to have found a winning, if not stagnant, formula: dim filament light bulbs, shiny metro-tiled walls, varying takes on tapas classics - Mr. Bonilla’s brainchild seems to reinvent it all, from food to design. "If it were up to me, I'd have everything hanging from the ceiling - the light bulbs, the plants, even the speakers", says Bonilla, "but city hall wouldn't let me."
Like Barcelona itself, a city steeped in avant-garde history from art and architecture to design and gastronomy, Bonilla's one man show offers a whimsical, supremely professional and endearingly personal take on each dish he prepares. Presenting his faux ravioli, he asserted, "this is the only dish that has been with me since the beginning", said with a mixture of pride and sentimentality. When asked why, he simply relied, "because I love it."
Even the wine, Azul y Garanza, a wonderfully drinkable organic wine made by friends of Bonilla back in Navarre and translated as “Blue and Madder” - the latter a low-growing plant native to southwest Europe and used to create red pigment since ancient times - brought images of wind-swept fields to mind. As for the restaurant name, Santa Rita, when I asked Mr. Bonilla why he chose it he answered non-nonchalantly: “oh, it’s just a joke from my childhood,” which I accepted without thinking any more of it. It was only after our second dessert, a homemade chocolate bar filled with lentils topped with luscious hazelnut whipped cream, that a friend from Cádiz leaned over and asked me “you know the old Spanish expression about Santa Rita? De lo que se da no se quita” translating to “what is given can never be taken away.” I chuckled and continued eating my chocolate bar with lentils, at once in Barcelona and at the same time back in Bonilla’s grandmother’s house in the Basque Country, grateful that this experience will never be taken away.
Carrer de Venezuela, 16
Jonathan Lerner is the Founder of Tailored Tours, a creative travel studio based in Barcelona, Spain, specialized in curating unique cultural & gastronomic experiences.
Photos by José Varela.