Climate, art and architecture are physical attributes that help make Barcelona the spectacularly beautiful city that it is. A proud people, who are warm and friendly, also help to beautify this magnificent municipality. Those are certainly integral components and prime puzzle pieces that help put everything together, but if Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain have developed a world-leading reputation over the previous 20 years, it has been for its food (futból too). For me, the cuisine of Spain is second to none and many of the finest meals of my life have been enjoyed there. Many of those restaurants, like elBulli, Tickets, Etxebarri and Mugaritz amongst others, are very well known to the culinary cognoscenti, while others are less well known. One recent meal fits into the latter category, though it really belongs in the former. A leisurely lunch at ABaC, located in the hotel of the same name near the base of the tram that ascends up to Tibidabo amusement park, proved to be an experience of stunning beauty in all aspects of the meal.
Vanguardist cuisine, the style of cooking popularized by the Adriá brothers’ elBulli as well as other Spanish restaurants has lagged in attention in recent years in relation to the rise of the influence of the New Naturalism as defined by the cooking at Rene Redzepi’s noma amongst other places. That is due to a number of reasons including the sheer difficulty of maintaining creativity within a given style as well as the perpetual search for the new. Another reason, is that given the extremely technical nature of the Vanguardist movement, it is and has been easy for chefs to get carried away with that aspect of it, while losing site of the purpose of a great meal – the pursuit of delicious. As a result, Spain, the center of the Vanguardist universe, has seen a rebirth of traditional cooking, a result that given the extraordinary nature of Spanish product and Spanish traditional cuisine, is not entirely unwelcome, even by those who strongly support Vanguardism. What makes Spain particularly special as a culinary destination for those interested in all aspects of dining is that while there has been a resurgence of great traditional cooking, Vanguardism and creativity, at the upper echelons have remained quite alive and that both styles of cooking are able to co-exist, more so, perhaps, than anywhere else in the world. The budding feud between the traditionalism of Santi Santamaria and the Vanguardism of Ferran Adriá appears to have died along with the untimely passing of Santamaria. Vanguardist techniques continue to be used, often side by side with older, traditional techniques, reflecting the fact that many of those techniques have entered the mainstream, while others, still being invented, are being utilized to enhance the preparation, presentation and pleasure of food. The presence of Albert Adria’s growing restaurant empire along with the birth of Disfrutar, the restaurant owned and run by elBulli’s top lieutenants, as well as the ascendance of the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca, are testament to that. Another testament, somehow less well known internationally, is the continued culinary brilliance of 36 year old Jordi Cruz Mas, the chef behind the Michelin Two Star restaurant, ABaC, as well as the one star, L’Angle. Cruz continues to utilize Vanguardist techniques, but like the rest of the best chefs of that style, has not forsaken flavor, texture and gustatory pleasure for technical fireworks. Cruz’s food, based upon a recent meal at Abac, utilizes all that is best in Vanguardist cooking as well as what makes a luxury restaurant a special experience. Abac may, as of now, have only two Michelin stars, but it has all the trappings of a three star and in my opinion deserves its third star as much as any restaurant I have experienced not yet possessing the three. This was a meal of creativity, finesse, luxury, comfort, hospitality and above all, deliciousness.
While I typically prefer to dine with friends, old or new, and family, I am not averse to dining solo, especially at an expensive, fine dining restaurant, should the need arise. Sharing a great meal with others who feel the same way is exhilarating, but when it comes to contemporary fine dining that can be a hit or miss process, especially if one’s companions are not of the same mindset when it comes to food. I had returned to Barcelona at the end of my culinary journey across Spain as there were still a few restaurants, new to me, that I very much wanted to experience, ABaC foremost amongst them. It was to be the final major meal of my trip and given that my return was solo, I arranged to dine that way. This was an ideal meal to do just that, as I was able to fully concentrate on the experience before me. My focus was entirely on the food, wine, service and ambiance and that focus was extremely well rewarded in all counts.
The restaurant is situated in the center of the hotel of the same name, itself an oasis of tranquility within the bustling metropolis of Barcelona. The walls of the restaurant are largely glass with vistas looking out onto gardens and paths, the noises of urbanity unable to penetrate those walls. Further insulating the dining cocoon are light colored, plush drapes, tablecloths and carpeting. The lighting is warm and comforting and the seating enveloping and plush. From the moment I was led to my seat at my table I was made to feel comfortable and welcome by the multilingual staff.
The initial start of that wonderful hospitality came with a pour of cava – the 2012 L’Hereu from Raventós i Blanc. Made with 40% Macabeo, 35% Xarel-lo and 25% Parellada using Biodynamic principles, the wine was dry, complex, mineral rich and low in alcohol. It was also quite elegant and delicious, providing a very lovely start.
The comestibles also started with a bang. Chef Jordi Cruz served notice that Abac is not really a Catalan restaurant, nor truly a Spanish restaurant. His first dish proclaimed that he is a chef of the world. Lulo or naranjilla is a citrus-like, acidic fruit from South America (in this particular case – Colombia) that was used here as a base for a ceviche of oysters served along with a Pisco Sour sorbet, frozen at the table with liquid nitrogen. Ten years ago, the use of liquid nitrogen, especially table side, would have made this a very cutting edge dish and interesting from that perspective alone. At this point, however, using liquid nitrogen, whether in the kitchen, or table side can’t be considered cutting edge. Over the past ten years, the use of liquid nitrogen , because it WAS so cool, was way over-utilized, thereby minimizing its effect. The problem was that most of those uses had been uninspired by real culinary creativity and utilized just it for its technical Wow! factor. At its best, the technique is brilliant and extremely useful. This dish utilized it for the right reasons, creating a brilliant, cold and smooth counterpoint to the bright and wonderful ceviche. The chef was true to his Vanguardist roots, but utilizing what is now just another technique in the modern culinary arsenal in the way that it should be used in order to make the most the pleasures of a dish, while taking advantage of its potential for presentation theatrics. The flavors and textures in this dish just popped. It was fun and delicious, but it was much more than that. It was also exotic, elegant and an extraordinary embarcation to the rest of the fabulous meal that was to come.
Cruz’ culinary world tour continued north to Mexico, where inspiration led to a crisp corn tortilla surrounding an ethereally light foie gras snow abetted by citrus elements and a side of deeply flavored mole ice cream. The flavors were pure and wonderful, but the textural components were stunning in their harmony and their contrasts. It was a fun, imaginative and delightful way to showcase the flavor and textural delights of foie gras.
Three different kinds of bread were offered and though I am limiting my intake of breads and other carbs, especially in the context of a meal like this, I tasted each and each was extraordinary with crisp crusts, pillowy crumbs and outstanding flavors. In my younger, more care-free days, I would easily and happily returned for more.
The first specially paired wine was a Pinot Grigio from Livio Felluga in Italy’s Friuli Colli Orientali region. The wine is vinified in steel tanks without kissing any wood, but left on its lees. The result was a first blush of lovely fruit, followed by a glorious, mineral dense finish and a moderate alcohol level of 13%.
Cruz next ventured east to Asia, constructing an umami horde built around tiny shiitake mushrooms and delicate sea urchin tongues swimming in an understated Thai curry. The shiitakes provided the dominant flavor component with the remainder of the ingredients providing strong support. Once again, the textural aspect of the dish showed incredible finesse and elegance.
Foams are another Vanguardist technique that, while generally out of favor, when used wisely and well, like Cruz has here, provides a marvelous, light touch to a dish without losing flavor. Cruz’ hollandaise was siphoned at the table and matched with an ultra-crisp, grease-free, fried bandfish, supplemented by citrus and plankton. This was a delicious light snack that satisfied as much from recognizing its perfect execution as it did from its brilliant flavors and astounding textures. From a satiety point of view there wasn’t much to this dish, but given the continued progression of this meal, that was a blessing.
The crisp minerality of the pinot Grigio went nicely with the bites for which it had been paired. Next up was a Garnacha Blanca from southern Catalunya. A bit higher in alcohol at 13.5%, this white had plenty of white stone fruit up front with a green, herbal finish.
Cruz had proven that he could cook with an international flair and now he would prove that he also possessed a taste for the local cuisine. It was already the season for calçots in Catalunya, but I had no opportunity to experience a traditional calçotada. This was to be my one opportunity on this trip for this Catalan classic. Of course, Cruz made this hearty, rural dish into one that belonged on a fine dining table. The presentation within a smoke-filled cloche and the execution were simply brilliant. The herbal finish of the Garnacha worked superbly here.
Cruz’s voyage flitted back to Asia, where he fused Chinese and Japanese elements with his own Spanish background. The Spanish culinary tradition with its strong seafood and rice cookery has a lot in common with culinary traditions of east Asia, especially Japan. This dish highlighted the similar approaches of these cuisines, as each of the items meshed together well.
While the Garnacha made a fine pairing with the Asian inspired eel dish, I was slightly surprised when a sake was poured after the dish. Unfortunately, I missed the identification of this sake, but it’s fruity nature worked quite nicely with the next dish, the only one with which it was paired.
Cruz returned to southeast Asia for this next one, which featured one of my favorite ingredients – langoustines. These were exquisitely sweet specimens balanced by the lovely chilli and coconut notes from the Thai soup and the contrasting textural and savory elements of of the baby leeks. It was yet another just brilliantly executed dish.
Ripe and fruity up front, but with good acidity, steely dry minerality and the classic herbaceous finish of Sauvignon Blanc, this was a superb representation of its varietal and region with a palate friendly 12.5% alcohol.
Course after course, each dish left me closing my eyes to just savor the flavors and textures. That was no less the case for this remarkable course of pine nuts in a carbonara style with crisp bacon, quail egg and some julienned black truffle. I was being bombarded by one stunning dish after another with each one delicious, while the individual subtleties never got buried by the composite. The interplay of ingredients was stellar and by this point of the meal, I fully realized that I was indulging in one of the finest meals that I’ve had.
The wines of Germany don’t get enough credit. Riesling, especially, is a tremendous varietal that makes a great food wine in numerous styles. Tending to be lower in alcohol with a strong acid backbone, the flavors can pop and compliment a staggering array of food choices. While its versatility makes it a fine choice in many situations, it also happens to be quite delicious both on its own and with food. This dry Riesling was no exception.
Before my previous course, the table side preparations for a later course were started. Here, prawn shells and kombu were heated together. I was curious to learn how this would be used.
Before I would learn of the disposition of the broth, I received this course. Squid had been prepared to function like the rice of a sepia-tinted Valencian arroz with the squid ink providing the base of a delicious sauce. If the dish stopped there it would have been just fine, but somewhat two dimensional. What put it over the top to make it an astonishing dish was the addition of padrón pepper seeds. Reminding me of the electric metallic taste of Szechuan peppercorns, the seeds added those extra notes that truly made everything sing.
At this point, I will pause the blow-by-blow recitation of my meal to highlight the service that I encountered. This matched an ideal with the servers hospitable, friendly and warm, yet tactfully restrained, maintaining an efficiency and fluidity of movement. Everyone that I dealt with was knowledgable and able to express themselves in English and Spanish. The sommelier deserved particular mention for a job well done, but this was fine dining service as it should be.
It was with the next course that the role of the broth became clear. It was a multi-part presentation. The infusion was poured over the sectioned tail of a prawn from Palamós in northern Catalunya as well as bread cubes made from plankton. The dark red, deep water prawns from Palamós are amongst the finest and most flavorful that I have ever had, comparable to those from Denia off Alicante, the gamberi rossi from the Italian coast and the carabineros from the southwestern Iberian peninsula. These ruby colored shrimp define shrimp or prawn flavor for me and in this dish that flavor was accentuated and highlighted. One of the major reservoirs of that flavor is the head of the prawn and here it was provided, if you will, on a platter of hot, pink Himalayan salt. Sucking the briny juices from the head of a prawn is one of life’s great pleasures, well known to many from Iberia, but not so much to most people from North America, where shrimp are routinely sold devoid of their heads. This was one of the most elegant and delicious presentations of these fine creatures that I have ever encountered.
The next wine was a basic white Burgundy, a chardonnay with a little age on it. None of the wines were particularly fancy or lofty expressions of the grape, but they were superb in their supporting roles.
Cruz’ culinary journey had been of a decidedly international bent, but from the squid dish on we had emphatically arrived back in Spain. This dish put the exclamation point on that statement by incorporating a classic Basque technique, the pil-pil (a way of creating a collagen rich sauce from fish – classically bacala) with a classic Catalan ingredient, esperdenyas or sea cucumbers, and a beautifully local product, spring peas. The addition of some more truffle didn’t hurt matters either. The result was yet another spectacularly delicious dish with fabulous texture and flavor. I have had esperdenyas that I hadn’t liked and other preparations that I have loved, but none more than this one.
The Spanish theme continued with turbot perfectly grilled on the plancha coated with a sauce made from its own bones. It was accompanied by jerusalem artichokes in a variety of textures, salsify and Canary Island style potatoes. This was the most classically prepared dish of the meal and again very nicely accomplished.
With all the seafood courses white wines dominated the tasting, but now we were on to the last of my savory dishes and a red wine was in order. This wine had kissed oak, but the barrels were all old and so the oak did not overwhelm. The fruit from the 2002 vintage remained fresh for the final savory course.
Hare a la Royale is about as classic a French dish as there is, though it has also been popular in French neighbor Catalunya for some time and is a dish that I have experienced several times previously in Catalunya.Though it captured the spirit and the flavors of the classic dish (I first had it at Restaurant Paul Bocuse), the preparation was anything but classic. Of course it incorporated a bit of a curve ball in the guise of a “false potato” which in actuality was a dim sum dumpling. If there is a common complaint regarding the classic Hare a la Royale,, it is that it is a very heavy dish that settles in one’s stomach and lingers there. Not so for this one. The flavors and sensibility were there, but it also added cleverness and lightness.
The savory portion of the meal had ended, but the meal was far from over. It was time for the sweet part of the meal. The proceedings commenced with an Italian passito from Emiglia-Romagna. This was a tasty 13.5% alcohol wine made using certified organic methods with 15% botrytis effected grapes. The wine consisted of 75% Bonarda grapes, which were left to dry for four months prior to pressing. While certainly sweet, the wine had good acidity, the hallmark to a quality dessert wine.
One dessert wine was not going to be sufficient apparently, so a second one was poured alongside the first. This was a sweet Riesling, which once again had excellent acidity to go along with its honeyed characteristics.
The first dessert looked a lot simpler than it was. The paper was edible and the strawberries were hidden within the cupcake. The yuzu sorbet added a nice citric zing. Creative and delicious, it was sweet, but well balanced and worth dealing with the carb calories.
The next dessert tended more towards the bitter and savory spectrum of desserts, which is my preference. It was a fine combination of flavors and again, very well executed.
This was another dessert with great flavors and textures that tilted a bit back towards the savory.
This complex and spectacularly beautiful dessert has become a bit of a signature for Cruz and deservedly so. It is quite refreshing with plenty of tart citric notes and tangy yogurt to keep the super-sweet elements from wreaking havoc. Here’s a recipe that explains it in greater detail.
The formal part of my meal had come to an end, but still my Abac experience wasn’t over, starting with this fine coffee.
All I could do was taste these mignardises. Cruz’ raspberry lipstick is another signature and here, again, is the recipe. The funny thing is that I didn’t realize that it was a frozen treat – actually a popsicle. It truly looked like lipstick, but I assumed it was chocolate and took it with me, placing it in a pocket of my camera bag. Mistake! I was quite fortunate that it didn’t melt over my equipment and ruin everything.
Meanwhile, I embarked on a tour of the restaurant and hotel with a stop in the kitchen, where I met Chef de Cuisine David Andrés Morera, who had just returned from winning the Iberian Peninsula Competition for the San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 Competition, the International Finals of which are slated to be held in Milan at the end of this month.
The kitchen was as clean and sharp as I would have expected given the superlative quality of what had been produced there.
The wine cellar was extensive, well maintained and excellent.
I was not staying at this hotel, but I would love to in the future. It is simply beautiful. I was staying, however, at Abac’s sister hotel, the Hotel Cram, located close to the Plaza de Catalunya. That hotel, also extremely lovely, houses the more casual sibling restaurant, Angle, also run by Jordi Cruz and possessing one Michelin star.
My tour finished in the hotel lounge, a relaxing spot, quite conducive to a comfortable tipple.
This being Spain, I had to finish the meal with a great digestivo and none better than a Gin & Tonic, trying out a few different gins before making my selection.
ABaC is truly a restaurant that has and does it all.Every dish was exciting and delicious and over that many dishes, that is a truly unusual statement to be able to make. The luxury quotient is elevated, but not presented simply to impress on that element alone. At ABaC, luxury ingredients were used to their full gustatory effects to enhance dishes, not simply because they are rare. The true luxury of the place is the attention to detail displayed both on the plate and to the individual from both the front and the back of the house. It was a restaurant where I felt truly pampered and valued and one which I valued in return. For those seeking luxury, creativity and fabulous food and drink, ABaC fits the bill – even if you had not previously heard of it. It’s a beautiful thing!