– Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.
Great cuisine can be easy, intellectually stimulating, fun and not elitist or whatsoever at all… In Barcelona a new species of restaurants has evolved in recent years, the so called Bistronomias – a mixture of bistro (reflecting both the atmosphere and setting as well as the traditional dishes which serves as an inspiration for the chefs) and gastronomia (reflecting the haute cuisine touch to improve the dishes).
Recently Rafael Peña of Gresca (who worked for some years in IT and then changed careers) received some attention after his appearance at the Madrid Fusion where he demonstrated his young, intelligent and relaxed approach to cooking. At Gresca, he serves a two courses lunch for €18 by abiding with one the traditional hallmarks of haute cuisine, the usual suspects of turbot, lobster from Brittany and the like. Instead he uses best quality local products from the markets of Barcelona. Well, he is an advantageous position there…
Interesting enough for me to ensure a reservation. And, as Gresca is opened on Mondays it fit very nicely in my overall eating schedule. For lunch it was – they told us to call in advance when we wanted the big degustation menu. Sure we did call…
Gresca is located in the Eixample the part of Barcelona where the best shopping places around Passeig de Gracia and beautiful Modernisme (the Barcelona version of Jugendstil) buildings meet. Casa Mila is just around the corner so we could use Gresca as a target and later as restarting point for straying around in this beautiful area.
I expected a small restaurant but it was merely a short hallway with about 6 or 7 tables. Relaxed, modern, reduced but with an old stone wall integrated…
Well, we didn’t expect a bit parade of amuse and were not disappointed: we got a warm welcome by Rafael’s pastry chef and business partner, Mireia Navarro, got some nice crackers and ordered a decent bottle of Garnatxa from Priorat – Odysseus is not programmatic of the meal to follow by the way. It was a very nice companion to the majority of dishes…
First course. A perfect sardine with chantarelles served with some sesame and a jus flavoured by a touch of aceto. Chantarelles were al dente, thinly sliced with a strong but not strong taste. The wooden rustic favour worked surprisingly well with the salty, incredibly fresh sardine. Very good!
The next dish was playing with all senses. Rafael marinated slightly cooked gambas with dill and parsley and wrapped it in delicious and not too strong jamon. A visually appealing, simple and stunning dish. Fresh with the surprising flavour of dill. Excellent!
Then, the best and most memorable dish of this lunch… A carpaccio of pulpo and blood sausage accompanied by lemon, cucumber and a very good potato puree underneath. Smooth, earthy, fresh and strong flavours were competing and created a perfect harmony. Excellent to outstanding!
Next dish was a step-up in intensity. Rafael served us an onion soup with ceps covered by a thin Parmesan/(summer) truffles layer. The soup itself was really tasty and had intense but not too intense onion flavour whereas the diced vegetables brought some freshness and texture to the dish. Ceps were good but not at the forefront and formed a nice harmony with onion, Parmesan and truffles. An interesting idea and very good!
The journey continued: to relax a bit we had well-made chantarelle ravioli with a fennel consomé – not spectacular, but well-executed and a very nice balance of flavors between the fennel and the chantarelles. I personally would have served that before the onion soup as it was a step back in intensity but maybe it was made for our relaxation;-)
Monkfish at its best: we rarely encounter that quality – it was firm, juicy and subtle, crispy on the outside. Maybe the second best monkfish after the benchmark at Arzak the year before. The pairing with eggplant and oranges was quite sophisticated and shows Rafael’s intelligent way of cooking. As this dish might appear simple at first glance it was a very nice variation in textures and interesting aroma play around the excellent fish (sweat, sour, smoky). Very good to excellent!
Sweatbread was served rather traditionally with carrots. Good, but not remarkable.
Pigeon with chantarelles – very simple but impeccably prepared. I guess the pigeon was cooked sous-vide due to the quite harmonious red colour. Very good.
The first dessert was surprising and again representative of the clever way of Rafael’s cooking. Roquefort cheese combined with litchi jelly and green apple sorbet. We agreed that this was excellent to outstanding (see also Rafael performance at Madrid Fusion here).
The degustation menu concluded with a pina colada interpretation which was chocolate on the outside and coconut espuma on the inside filled with pineapple. Very good, but maybe a bit too light to close a fantastic meal!
Well, this meal exceeded our expectations by far. Overall, it would be one star+ but Michelin honours do not seem to be aimed for as the whole concept is very much to create a relaxed and fun atmosphere and serve intelligent and surprising food (whereas the inspiration by local bistro dishes was not that obvious and it was less modern as expected). Given the size and possibilities of the kitchen (almost too small for two people) this cries for a big CHAPEAU! Price level (the whole menu was €45!!) and service (only Rafael’s wife was acting in a very humble and charming manner) is one of a kind.
The question for me is whether a restaurant like this is viable in the long run when a chef seems so talented as Rafael obviously is. Graham Elliot Bowles, the former chef de cuisine of Avenues at the Peninsula in Chicago, opened his very own version of bistronomia and now decided to relaunch it into a more up-market fine dining venture (yet not as formal as Avenues). Basically he states that 80% of guest said “I know you can be more creative. Why aren’t you?” Maybe he undersold his talent – Rafael does not (yet) because there is no reference point (yet).
On the other hand, Pip and Nuño Mendes have relaunched the wonderful Bacchus in London into Bacchus Pub & Kitchen as obviously the very good and innovative cooking of Nuño was wearing wrong clothes in terms of ambiance. Now they are looking for a different setting where Nuño can fully develop his potential and reach for some laurels. I don’t see this for Gresca as atmosphere, cooking and interior is very harmonious and just feels right.
Looking ahead I think that Rafael could be even better in the right place with the right kitchen staff but this would mean to move the restaurant up-market and compete with the Michelin-starred incumbents (and maybe end-up like Comerç24). In a sense he is currently better off serving his niche market. So good luck for keeping this level!
Gresca is a must-eat in Barcelona! Thanks to Mireia and Rafael for this wonderful lunch!