The setting is sensational, combining a number of seating locations, bars and kitchens , resulting in a collection of visual cues to keep the eyes occupied and entertained. The restaurant would have been just as much at home if located in the amusement park of nearby Tibidabo as it is on the Avinguda Paral-lel. Regardless of where it is located, it brings the sensibilities of fun, joy and playfulness that one hopes to find in an amusement park or at a carnival. Tickets is entered through a marquee entrance as through an old time movie or vaudeville theater. One is greeted by a man dressed in an old fashioned carnival outfit and admitted to see Albert Adria expediting at the main open kitchen or when he has a moment, giving his regards to patrons as they come in or as they are seated.
Given a seat at the bar just to the left of the entrance, I had a perfect vantage point to observe everything happening around me. With a short break at elBulli, Eduard Xatruch was in the kitchen with Albert, lending a hand and taking over the pass when Albert would need to step away.
The menu is formidable, especially when dining solo. There are so many choices, each as enticing as the next, that for a solo diner as I was that evening, it was next to impossible to choose. I need not have worried though, as Albert himself chose for me, leaving nary a stone unturned. It wasn’t long before the bites started coming. Had I closed my eyes and ears to all but what was put in front of me, it would have been as if I was back in Cala Montjoi enjoying the snacks of an elBulli meal. The tapas had the unmistakable playful look, textural feel and purity of flavor that marks the food of the Adria brothers. That the look and feel of Tickets was not identical to elBulli was not a detriment either, as the restaurant is not elBulli nor is it meant to be, even if it does share the same genetics and characteristics of playfulness and whimsey. While elBulli offers the luxurious charm of its secluded location in the cove of Montjoi, Tickets offers the excitement of being in the heart of a vibrant world class city. ElBulli is meant to be savored for hours, a long distance race where pacing, joy and comfort are key. Tickets is more of a sprint, not hurried, but meant to be enjoyed in bursts and paired with a cocktail next door at the wonderfully contemporary cocktail bar 41º.
It was recommended that I start with a pinot blanco. One from the Rioja, the 2009 Barrel Fermented Almaren was poured for me. Still crisp despite a little wood, this proved to be a good match for what was to come, neither overpowering nor overpowered by the food. It was a good complement to the food, which in my estimation is the best compliment a wine can pay to food.
The first bites offered to me were classic ones from elBulli, bites that I have had the good fortune to have had a number of times before and never tire of – the spherified olives. I enjoy many kinds of olives, but nowhere more so than in Spain, where I feel they achieve the greatest balance and depth of flavor. This truth is no more evident than with the Adria olives. My view on modernist techniques is that when the technique itself is displayed front and center, it must be at least as good as the best example of a conventional preparation or else what is really the point? The Adria olives are a classic example of this tenet. With three olives served to me at Tickets, each as good as the other and each as wonderful as the first time I ever had one at elBulli in 2005, and each the equivalent of the best olives I have ever eaten, this is what the inclusion of novel technique really should be all about. Besides the absolute purity of flavor, the sudden pop in one’s mouth and subsequent rush of cool, olive saturated liquid is a sensation of which I will never tire.
In the United States the closest that one can come to an Adria experience is in the restaurants of Jose Andres. Starting with his original Vanguardist restaurant minibar, a six seat restaurant within a restaurant in Washington DC and moving on to Bazaar by Jose Andres in Los Angeles and then his newest restaurants in Las Vegas, the influence of the Adrias on Andres is clear. In fact, they do remain close friends and collaborators. With Tickets it would appear that the Adrias have been influenced by Andres, who first utilized the bar stool theme and elBulli snack style meal at minibar and then expanded the concept at Bazaar to include both Vanguardist and more traditional Spanish preparations. It is Bazaar that Tickets seems to have drawn influence from, utilizing a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, designs and foods throughout the restaurant. The themes and the terroir of each restaurant is clearly distinct with Tickets clearly exuding its Catalunya location and spirit, while Bazaar, though very Spanish, remains very much a restaurant of Los Angeles. Both are wonderful in their own, unique ways, even as they share a distinct familial resemblance.
My next bites came as I was listening to strains from West Side Story and watching video of nature scenes from Asia on a flat screen monitor over the bar at which I was sitting. It was all a bit surreal (which I suppose is fitting for a restaurant that shares the same heritage as Salvador Dali) as I bit into the next morsels, sangria saturated watermelon. The watermelon cubes retained their crisp cellular structure even while releasing the marvelously mint-tinged sangria waiting within. It’s not the first time I had ever had watermelon shooters, but it might as well have been, as I had never had any as intensely satisfying as these.
There are fish and chips and then there are Tickets Fish and Chips. In the latter case the fish are the chips. Incorporating the flavor and visual identifiers of the fish as well as octopus, these chips integrated the two elements of a classic dish into one outstanding one. With light dustings of salt, seaweed powder and pimenton, these crisp morsels were flavorful, perfectly seasoned and perfectly fun. To show how important context can be when it comes to food, had these come in plastic packaging via a vending machine, I might have been appalled, however, served as they were here, they were nothing short of terrific.
The Adrias have always enjoyed using culinary puns and visual suggestion and do it as well as anyone I have ever experienced. The tomato tartare that came next was a prime example of this. The finely chopped tomato came with watermelon cubes, thyme, pistachios, olive oil and a quail egg yolk and was accompanied by a flat bread. I was instructed to mix everything together and smear some onto the flat bread. The flavors were exceptional – bright, bold and totally intoxicating and the combination of soft from the tartare and crisp from the flatbread made the dish fully satisfying texturally as well.
While quail egg played a supporting role with the tartare dish, they took on a leading role with the next dish. The cold onsen eggs had been coated with a Canary Islands style mojo and then rolled in migas or bread crumbs. Fleur de sel was served on the side. The flavors and textures were spot on. Of note, I had been served a very similar amuse earlier that day at Josean Martinez Alija’s Restaurant at The Guggenheim in Bilbao. The first time I had ever had a dish like this was several years ago at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, only that was with a hen’s egg and served hot. In each case, the restaurant had put its own signature on the dish and in each case it was wonderful.
When it comes to bitter ingredients, balance in a preparation is more important than ever. Mini-endives from Tudela with vinaigrette showed immaculate balance. Just a touch of mint was enough to achieve that balance making this a truly wonderful preparation. It is because of dishes like this that I enjoy tasting menus. This was a dish that I likely would never have ordered on my own, but I was quite glad that it had been chosen for me.
“Mini-airbags” filled with creamed manchego cheese were blanketed with fatty Iberico pancetta, thyme and pimenton. These little puffs packed the essence of terrestrial Spain in each little bite. Not as intensely flavored as some of the other bites, they were still quite rich.
Though I was dining solo, it was impossible to be bored. Between my own bites, I was perfectly situated for watching the cooks in front of me assemble a variety of dishes and for people watching throughout the restaurant.
Next up was an air baguette with a slice of Iberico – a perfect ham sandwich! As the name implies, the baguette is mostly air. It is basically a thin cylindrical crust, provided to give support, crunch and a background flavor for the wonderful Iberico.
It was time to try another wine, this time a Xarel.lo from Catalunya called L’Equilabrista. This proved to be another excellent match with its creamy, citrusy characteristics and a reasonable 13% alcohol.
It may be impossible to finde better anchovies than what are available in Spain Those from the Cantabrian Sea are considered by many to be the very best. The Cantabrian boquerones or vinegar marinated anchovies with tomato seed gelee and chive flowers highlighted the flavor of the anchovies with both the vinegar and tomato providing enough acid to break through the inherent oiliness while the tomato also supplied additional sweetness.
Everything I had eaten up to this point was just superb and without anything else would have justified a special trip to Tickets, however, if there is one class of dishes that one simply must not miss at Tickets, it is the oysters. While my waiter described these as the best oysters available in Barcelona, I would go further. These oysters from the southern Atlantic coast of France via a special supplier were without a doubt the finest specimens of oysters I have ever eaten. The beauty of the service is that the inherent quality of the product was treated with absolute respect. I was served two oysters, each a different preparation. The oyster shells were deep boats with the oyster bodies and liquor filling them fully. The liquor had been supplemented with slightly different toppings for each oyster. The first, served by Albert himself included a consomme of green “raf” tomato, a ripe tomato often used for salads in Catalunya. The tomato provided great acidity, but the big, meaty oyster and its brine shone through brilliantly. The second applied a similar approach, but with a different flavor profile. Using an escabeche, the acidity was still there though with more of a vinegar kick, but the underlying supporting flavor elements were sufficiently different to provide new interest, all the while allowing these brilliant oysters to shine through.
A savory Empanada Gallega filled with sardines and other delights followed. It had been sliced from a larger pie. Slightly sweet, it was a treat not from the elBulli larder, but from one decidedly more traditional.
Another xuxi or “bite to eat with the hand” was cod with tomato nectar and black olive powder was more of a bridge between the traditional and the new. The cod was cold, which somehow surprised me. The olive powder took center stage flavor wise, though it was complimented well by the tomato. Unfortunately, I did not get an acceptable photo of this dish.
Spain is known for their asparagus, especially the white asparagus of Tudela, a small town in Navarra particularly known for their prowess growing outstanding vegetables. The endives earlier in the meal were also noted to have come from there. Prior to this trip, I had always had white asparagus from a can, which in Spain is not a bad thing as Spanish canned foods are truly special and a delicacy in their own right. These fresh asparagus, however, like others I had tasted on this trip, were something else, providing nuances of texture that one just doesn’t get from a can no matter how good the product. Served with a black truffle juice vinaigrette and bits of chopped up Iberian ham, this was cause for a big smile as I ate it, knowing that it would be some time before I would eat anything quite like this again.
Liquid raviolo of Payoyo cheese, a mixed goat and sheep’s milk cheese from the mountains around Cadiz in Andalucia, was a clear return to the classic vanguard style of elBulli. It was served with a piece of toasted bread and a bit of lemon marmalade. This was an exceptional bite, salty, tangy and sweet. The irony of this vanguardist preparation is that it was made with one of the most natural and traditionally made cheeses in all of Spain. The cheese is made without any additives that don’t come directly from the animals involved. Even the rennet comes from the goats.
All good things must come to an end. I wasn’t quite finished here, but my last savory bite came in the form of a lightly grilled Mollete (bread almost like a Parker House roll) de Papada (dewlap) adobada El Mantecas con queso. The dewlap or papada is the jowly portion of the front of a neck, in this case a porcine neck. Somewhat fatty, it reminded me of pork belly with a comfort food flavor that would be equally at home in a ballpark as in a fine restaurant. Served with a little mustard and cheese, it was rich and tasty, a fine way to end the savory portion of a this great meal.
Did I mention that Albert Adria is the chef at Tickets? Did I mention that Albert Adria when he was at elBulli was (and still is) arguably the most amazing pastry chef in the world? As full as I had become, I could not eat at a restaurant run by Albert Adria and not have dessert. As such, I limited myself to just two.
The first were cold and hot chocolate fritters. The flavors were basic, but it was very well done with excellent quality ingredients. This was not a revolutionary dessert, certainly not in relation to Albert’s work at elBulli, but as he was quick to remind me, Tickets is not elBulli nor is it meant to be, even if there is still some of the spirit of elBulli in it. The main difference aside from its physical location and ambiance is that Tickets is much more straight forward when it comes to the food. There is whimsey and inventiveness, but they are not using rare and exotic ingredients from around the world. They are using the best of what Spain and Western Europe have to offer, combining a mix of vanguardist and traditional approaches to create a product all its own.
My last dessert and the last thing I would eat in Spain on this trip was a warm almond cake with apricot ice cream. This was just plain delicious even if at this point totally conventional, as if to underscore the differences between Tickets and its older sibling. It was actually a fitting end to the food portion of my experience.
Throughout my meal, I had received excellent serviced from Manel, my waiter. It didn’t stop once my meal had stopped. Though I had declined coffee or tea, he poured me a glass of house-made Patxaran. Normally made with sloe gin as a base, this Patxaran, according to Manel was made from hibiscus flowers, strawberries, vodka, orange juice, lemon juice “y mucho amor.” It tasted as if it had more of the last ingredient than anything else. It was an absolutely perfect ending to this extraordinary meal… or at least it would have been if it had ended there.
I couldn’t leave without stepping next door into 41º, the adjacent Albert Adria run cocktail bar. This had a totally different atmosphere and vibe than Tickets. Darker, utilizing mostly gray and black tones, and more sedate compared to the bustling Tickets, 41º exuded an aura of sophistication and relaxation. It was cool without really trying too hard. I was offered a seat at the bar and watched the bartender read my mind to make me exactly what I was hoping for without ever actually having to tell him what that was. All I asked for was something “not too sweet.” I received a free-mixed, gin-based, sour drink, redolent of lemon with a touch of Maraschino liquor. It hit what little spot I had left.
My trip started with a major disappointment. It was supposed to start with a Sunday lunch at the very same Tickets, but that was wiped out when my flight to Barcelona was cancelled. My wife, son and I would not arrive until a day later. Since they would be closed for Easter week, the time we would be in Barcelona, I thought I had lost my chance to visit and try Tickets and 41º. Unfortunately, my wife and my son did miss their chance. Luckily for me, though, I had one more shot. On the last night of my trip, I was returning to Barcelona from Bilbao. I was quite fortunate to get a spot for 10PM. I didn’t realize just how fortunate I really was until I had experienced it. Tickets and 41º proved to be a perfect ending to what had been a totally extraordinary trip. It is also a prefect way to come full circle to begin the detailed reports of the culinary highlights of this trip.