This was not my first time at Cinc Sentits, a small fine dining restaurant in the Eixample District of Barcelona, but it might as well have been. That first time was in September of 2004, but it followed a lunch, a sensational lunch, at Carme Ruscalleda’s three Michelin starred Sant Pau. While that was a hard act to follow, it was not in itself insurmountable. What made the situation impossible was the extensive chocolate tasting at Cacao Sampaka that followed that lunch. By rights, I really should have cancelled my dinner reservation. My wife begged out, but I really wanted to try it, so I went. It was a mistake. I was so full, I couldn’t really enjoy anything and had an abbreviated meal. I felt bad, because I could discern that there was some very good cooking going on in Chef Jordi Artal’s kitchen and the front of the house, led by Chef Artal’s sister, Amelia, was warm and inviting. This time, when I was in Barcelona, I would try Cinc Sentits again and to give it a fair chance, I would go for lunch with only a very light breakfast beforehand – and no chocolate!
My wife and I brought our youngest son with us for lunch. Andrew, who was studying in Barcelona at the time, was unfortunately unable to join us due to a conflict with school. After a morning spent exploring Gaudi’s Parc Guell, we walked from our apartment on Passeig de Gracia to the restaurant. On the way, we passed some inviting shops and a nice residential area. We finally arrived at Cinc Sentits and were seated at a table at the end of a long wall of the dining room. The room itself was elegant, warmed with walls of an off-white color hung with attractive red panels. Each table had focused lighting allowing for satisfactory illumination of the food while also maintaining a relaxed, even romantic, ambiance.
Upon being seated we were welcomed with a lovely glass of Manzanilla from Jose Tiernes called Essencia de la Andana. The sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameda was described as Manzanilla “en Rama” and was made using the solera method with the origins of the wine dating back to 1930. It had a nose laden with the smell of fresh apples. Upon drinking it was fresh and clean – a perfect aperitif. I try to have sherries as much as I can when I am in Spain. They are so good and so underutilized in the US. Part of the problem may be that they are rarely as fresh as they are in Spain and it is often difficult to impossible to find some of the more interesting, smaller producers such as this one. In any case, I was quite pleased sipping this.
Our first hors d’ouvres came to the table in the form of a small bowl of house marinated Gordal olives from Andalucia. I love Spanish olives and these, marinated in citrus and Valencian herbs and stuffed with garlic, were just outstanding. My son thought that it was perhaps “the best green olive that he had ever had.” Outside of the spherical olives of elBulli and minibar, I’m not sure that I would disagree. I could have eaten a bunch, but then maybe, it was just as well that we were only teased here. To our surprise, the waiter lifted up the small bowl to reveal a hidden plate of Marcona almonds that had been dusted with pimentón. Now olives and almonds in a high end Spanish restaurant doesn’t really sound all that special, but these were particularly fine examples of an already outstanding product. They most definitely deserved their place here and were worthy starters, especially when served so cleverly. A spoon with liquid “recuit” cheese layered on precisely cut pieces of lettuce with Espinaler sauce, anchovies, diced apple and vinegar “caviar.” Though not quite as eye-opening as the olives, this was still tasty.
The next taste was one of Artal’s signature dishes and one that I simply could not enjoy upon my last visit. This was a shot of warm Canadian maple syrup, covered by chilled cream and topped with a cava saboyon and sea salt. The instruction was to drink it in one tilt. This time, unencumbered by satiety, I was able to appreciate the wonderful balance and pleasure of this taste. Even though maple syrup is not a novelty for me or my family as it is for many in Catalunya, this was still a totally delightful and delicious amuse. It also is a personal representation of who Chef Artal is as he comes from a Canadian parent with the other Catalan.
We were treated to a Catalan classic, but with a distinct re-interpretation. Pa amb tomaquet, or bread rubbed with olive oil, salt and tomato (sometimes garlic) has become a household favorite of ours. This one came with crumbled toasted peasant bread, two textures of tomato – sorbet and raw, garlic air and longaniza from Vic layered underneath. With a variety of interesting textures and temperature variation, this had all the flavor components of the classic and presented it quite nicely. This was another dish that I could have eaten quite a bit of in other circumstances.
We moved onto Champagne, a lovely pinot noir/chardonnay/pinot meunier combination from Billecart Salmon that displayed significant finesse and elegance, especially for a non-vintage Champagne.The next dish brought to mind The Arpege Egg as well as Japanese Chawan Mushi. It was served in a beautiful pottery “egg” shell and consisted of Spanish sturgeon caviarfrom the Vall d’Aran, potato and sturgeon foam and poached quail egg. Served warm, this was as luxuriously decadent as it sounds. The execution was spot on, though the “foam” was thicker than I would expect from a foam. That didn’t bother me, though, as I felt that it added to the dish’s texture better than an airier foam would have done. The appearance of the dish was clever as well. It was constructed in such a way that the caviar appeared to be sitting directly on top of a baked egg. While it was ultimately sitting on top of an egg, that egg, the quail egg, was underneath, in the bottom of the cup.
Bread with two different olive oils was served. Both were from Catalunya, but showcasing different olives. It’s amazing how much really good bread can add to a meal and this was really good bread with great flavor, crusty exterior and nice, soft crumb. Both olive oils were delicious. One was grassier than the other, but both were superb.How does one make a meatball look beautiful? One way is to serve it in a beautiful bowl. Artal did just that, however, he went beyond the bowl and into the substance to make this look almost as wonderful as it tasted. It was a cuttlefish and Pyrenees beef meatball with a romesco suquet and hazelnut picada, an interesting take on the classic Catalan concept of mar y montaña or surf and turf. While today it is generally the mar that is considered to be the real prize of a mar y montañadish, originally it was the abundant, inexpensive seafood of the region that was used to extend the terrestrial components of a dish. The dish showed delicious squid flavor and the nuts provided a welcome crunch.
Aspriu, a delicious, mineral-rich white wine from the Penedes made with the Xarel-lo grape was served for the next course. This 2009 vintage wine was giving off distinct notes of fennel and tarragon, which would serve it well with its intended pairing.The wine paved the way for Vegetables From the Garden with Five Herb Ice Cream (fennel, tarragon, parsley, thyme and mint), a gorgeous presentation of what was another delicious dish. The dish was plated on the bottom of an overturned crystal bowl. Fresh, perfect hyper-seasonal peas, pea shoots and asparagus were cooked to a perfect, vibrant green, while the ice cream was a marvelous ode to the vitality of fresh herbs and seasonal bounty. The wine pairing worked brilliantly, with the herbal nature of the wine working in tandem with the flavors from the ice cream.
The next wine was a curve into the sweet, the Caligo “Vi de Boira” from Massis del Garraf, however, it possessed the cardinal virtue of the best sweet wines, a bracing acidity. This wine, from an area of frequent, intense fog, was a joy on its own or paired with the next dish.Foie gras, a dish often well prepared and tasty, generally has difficulty standing out. Not so, Chef Artal’s. His was served with glazed leeks, microgreens and a bottom crust of thin pastry or cocca, which added a delicate textural contrast to the meltingly sublime foie and the bouncing gelee made from the same wine that we were drinking. Foie gras really doesn’t get better than this perfectly balanced rendition.
I love the white wines of Galicia. The tend to be very crisp and superb food wines, especially with seafood. The 2010 Pazo de Señorans from the Rias Baixas region was delicious and did nothing to embarrass its home turf, maintaining a fine varietal footprint of albariño.If there was any doubt that we were in a Catalan-Spanish fine dining restaurant (there wasn’t on our part), it would have been obliterated by the “Arros Sec” with Palamos prawns cooked two ways and a saffron ailioli that was served next. The rice was considered “dry” only because it wasn’t soupy. It did, however, have a great bite and flavor from a shellfish stock. The prawns of Palamos are equalled only by those from Denia. They have an incomparable sweetness, especially when placed under the salamander as this tail had been, barely cooking them, that was balanced by the dryness of the wine. The inclusion of the saffron ailioli and lightly fried shrimp legs somehow managed to take this wonderful dish up yet another notch. The presence of the head, which had also been lightly fried, so common in the Mediterranean and so uncommon in the United States, was an opportunity to suck every last bit of flavor from this divine dish.
This was a red wine made from a grape varietal that I had never knowingly tried before – Trepat. From the region known as Conca de Barberá in Central Catalunya about a half hour from Barcelona, this indigenous grape has usually been used to make rosé wines or cavas, but has more recently seen its role change to the central star of red wines from that region. The wine itself, from the 2009 vintage of Carles Andreu, was aromatic, herbaceous and smoky, but still subtle and not terribly tannic. With a nose similar to a California pinot noir like Kistler, it was delicious, both on its own and paired with the next dish.Sole is a delicate fish and can be easily overpowered so treating it with smoke was a bold move. Served with a calçot cream, sweet potato puree and salsify, Artal’s boldness paid off with a dish that was really very well balanced. The oak smoke was gently and judiciously applied. The fish was cooked to a perfect texture. Everything about this dish showed a deft hand and a nuanced palate.
The next wine, Carod, from the 2002 vintage in Ribera del Duero, consisting of a blend of the grapes Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot produced by Bodegas Hermanos Sastre, was totally different than the previous red wine. This one, aged 22 months in French oak was a bruiser, deeply colored and big at 14.5% alcohol. Crafted in the Parker style, it was intense and complex. This is a unique wine, bottled only in the 2002 vintage, an unusually cold one in the Ribera del Duero. The wine was made with highly selected grapes usually destined for the Bodegas Hermanos Sastre’s flagship wine, Pesus, but with a completely different character from that wine, it was given a different name. It was a treat.Suckling pig is one of the lynchpins of Spanish cuisine and a dish I rarely find tiresome. Served simply with sauteed apple, a smooth apple sauce and a red wine sauce atop that and a ratafia glaze, this was typically delicious. The pork had been cooked sous vide for twelve hours then grilled on the plancha. The apple itself contained a strong flavoring of the essence of pork. While it did not re-set the standard of suckling pig for me, it was right there, providing a lovely and faultless Spanish pleasure. I was happy.
Our wine veered back to white with a blend of four grapes, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Moscatel de Alexandria. This rare, dry white, called Kyrie from the 2006 vintage is produced by a winery called Costers del Siurana in the Priorat, a winery most well known for their red wine, Clos de l’Obac. At 14% alcohol and five months aged in oak, it wasn’t a light wine, but bone dry with good acid and a strong floral character, it was ideal for pairing with the cheeses that were served next.We received three different cheeses to taste, each paired with a contrasting bite. The first, Altejo, a raw cow’s milk cheese was served with a soft almond cube, the second, Casa Mateu, made with pasteurized sheep’s milk was paired with a crisp honey jelly and the third, Vila Vella, a pasteurized goat’s milk cheese, with a blood orange compote. These were well thought out and executed combinations. The crunchy honey really stood out, both on its own and with the San Mateu cheese. The wine pairing pleased more with the first cheese than with the second, though it was still good with the 2nd pairing and very good with the touch of bitterness from the blood orange marmalade in the third pairing. With a cleverly delivered, aromatic hand cloth, we segued into dessert. Textures of Tangerine with sorbet, caramel, jelly, frozen shavings and chilled soup, was refreshing pre-dessert that reinvigorated my palate. Arnau Bofi, Cinc Sentit’s pastry chef, created a dessert that was just perfect for the moment, sweet, but with good acid and a touch of bitterness.
The wine program, presented by Eric Vicente, impressed throughout. A combination of white and red garnacha that spent ten years in oak from the Empordá region of Catalunya was amongst the best vinous tastes of the day. It was a sweet wine, but unlike most sweet wines, it had not just a good acid balance, but a bitter balance as well that made this particularly alluring. With orange peel and chocolate notes, it also was a brilliant match for the main dessert.Chocolate with bread, olive oil and sea salt is a classic Spanish dessert. The version at Cinc Sentits was simple, elegant and profoundly delicious. Arbequina olive oil ice cream, shattered crisp coca bread, sea salt and chocolate foam would have been wonderful by itself, but toasted crumbled macadamia nuts were a feature that helped set this interpretation apart. With great flavor, contrasting textures and a range of temperatures, this was totally satisfying. Our meal finished with a final dessert of strawberries from the Maresme with an orange blossom meringue and a liquid filled bon bon of chocolate and mint, an exquisite end to an exquisite meal. This was simply an outstanding meal. Chef Jordi Artal’s food is true to the traditions of Catalunya and Spain, all while keeping the dishes fresh, beautiful and personal. It is a restaurant in which to get a legitimate taste of contemporary Catalunya in an atmosphere of comfortable elegance. My first visit to Cinc Sentits was, through no fault of the restaurant, problematic. I simply was not in a position to enjoy it the way it deserved. This time, I made sure we had no such issue and that preparation was handsomely rewarded with a cuisine of tradition, imagination, beauty, finesse and flavor. Clearly contemporary, Cinc Sentits is not a restaurant breaking acres of new ground creating a totally unique and unfamiliar dining experience. It is not elBulli or Mugaritz, but it is not trying to be. It is a restaurant that is exploring and re-interpreting familiar Catalan traditions and ingredients and presenting them beautifully, creatively and most of all deliciously. It is focused on doing this very, very well and it succeeds. The wine pairings were spot on and the service warm and professional. The only disappointment was that Chef Artal’s sister, Amelia, who runs the front of the house and the wine program was unable to be there that day. This was a brilliant meal. I can unreservedly recommend Cinc Sentits as an outstanding dining destination for anyone spending any time in Barcelona.. Go hungry!