Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cal Pep Restaurant - Barcelona, Spain

Dubious is an understatement when it comes to how I feel about going to a restaurant that is “outed” - Michelin stars, guidebooks and New York Times write-ups - since the quality decreases, prices increase and it is overrun with tourists. That was my thought bubble exactly the night three crew members (Diane, Debbie and Dee) and I went to Cal Pep for dinner in Barcelona.

The week prior, Debbie had gone to Cal Pep, and loved it so much, she insisted we go this trip. I was going to hold her feet to the fire over this one, especially since we had to queue up at least one hour ahead of the restaurant opening to be sure we were in on the first round of seating at the tiny counter where all the major action happens. Those in first were able to sit at the bar and be entertained by the perpetual motion and activity of Mr. Pep himself. The best way to describe chef Pep is to see his caricature on the restaurant’s website in the likeness of the Greek god Poseidon, chef Pep wearing his trademark eye glasses and a crown, wildly riding crustaceans for his chariot through the waves, a trident speared with an olive, of course.  Even the restaurant’s business card is Cal Pep in his trademark eye glasses and chef’s jacket hoisting platters of fish above a scene of The Last Supper with Jesus and his twelve faithful disciples. The caricature drawings line the wall where patrons wait for open seats at the counter, the glass door on the side of the tiny restaurant, and even the brown paper bags that rest over the top of the wine bottles seated at the tables in the back room.

We were too far back in the line to get a table at the counter and were offered seating in the back room. This room was the intimate and romantic dining room with walls of wine racks up to the ceiling stuffed full of red wines, exposed brick walls, and a ship’s galley door separating the rooms. We were all alone, eating too early for the Spaniards who avoid the counter.

We were told by our waiter who spoke minimal English we would each pay 25.  Then came the tapas: a total of eight in all. Certain choices on the menu change daily depending on the daily catch. First up for us though was a round of cold, locally brewed Estrella Damm beers.  Our waiter started us with some of the restaurant standards: pa de coca (the equivalent of Italian bruschetta) and truita trempera (Spanish omelette), which was so fresh the eggs didn’t dominate the taste the way it is often is the case in sub-par tapas restaurants. The xpirons amb cigrons (baby squids with chickpeas) came in a black cast iron pan that enhanced the smoky, deep flavor (just like the regional foods of my hometown in south Louisiana such as gumbo and cornbread).  

Photo courtesy of Diane Levinson @www.merci-paris.com
Next came calamar fregit (fried calamari), which were fried with a very light touch, and cloises amb perni (clams with ham). The carxofes (artichokes) were simply delectable, not the least bit salty or mushy. With this amount of seafood there is always the danger being over salted to a point of ruination which is quite the contrary at Cal Pep. The one food that we fought over the most for the last bite was the pebrots del padró (Padron peppers), lightly sautéed in olive oil with a smidgeon of salt. Retaining their bright green color, these small, green peppers burst with flavor, not heat, and are worth returning for!   

I am going back to Cal Pep, and I plan to be out there waiting with the tourists to get a seat at the counter to watch Cal Pep himself in action. And this time, I want to order dessert with a cup of café con leche, as surely the desserts are as savory as the tapas. A perfect ending to dishes that surprisingly stand up to the glowing write-ups.

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