Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: ABaC Restaurant

Upgrading to Two Stars

The ABaC terrace

It seems my trips to fancy restaurants are destined to be opportunistic rather than pre-planned. One of my best friends, who is normally in Boston for law school, happens to be spending the summer in the Hague. We see each other about once a year, in various countries as our circumstances dictate. Last year we met up in London, so this year it made sense to meet elsewhere in Europe. We settled on Barcelona but booking affordable flights meant me flying into the city half a day earlier than her. This is what paved the way for a very interesting and enjoyable lunch at ABaC, a two Michelin starred restaurant serving experimental Spanish, Catalan and European cuisine with international influences. 

You have to be pretty determined to get in

The restaurant itself is located inside the walled-off ABaC boutique hotel. Visitors have to ring to get in - this is definitely not a venue one wanders into accidentally for a quick lunch. Beyond the gate lush greenery surrounds a set of modern buildings, and a quick walk down the path in the photograph below is the entrance to the restaurant itself. I was greeted by a waitress (?) who informed me my table would be ready in a few minutes, and offered to take me through to the terrace for a drink while I waited. 

The grounds

I suspect something was lost in translation because I actually ended up in the corridor leading to the terrace - in fact I could see the terrace through the bay windows in a comic "light at the end of the tunnel" type of situation. The corridor was used for storage, as well as being a conduit between the dining area and the kitchen. I don't see how it is an appropriate place to seat a guest, but as a food blogger it was interesting to me. The slight mishaps continued as I was taken to a table on the terrace and seated facing away from everyone else into a corner of the garden. Thankfully, my seating was re-positioned upon request by the next waiter who came to my table with menus. He also offered me a table inside, but I opted to stay outside as I so rarely get to do this in London.

The entire experience picked up from there. He quickly went through the menus, and at no point did he attempt to push me towards the more expensive one. He also informed me they would happily accommodate my dietary requirements - no pork or alcohol. ABaC offers two tasting menus as well as an a la carte menu. I opted for the shorter 13 course ABaC menu, and I honestly cannot anyone would opt for the longer one unless they're blessed with a very high capacity stomach. In fact, 13 courses still implies a very long meal, and if you're pressed for time you may want to go a la carte.

Mint pineapple mojito mocktail

Surprisingly, the first waiter didn't take my order for drinks. This was done by another waiter who dropped by a couple of minutes later to ask what I'd like given that I'm avoiding alcohol. I quickly mentioned pineapple (a personal favourite), and he whisked away to whip something up. I loved the personalised attention, but had to bear in mind Catalonian waiting times as my final drink, a mint pineapple mojito sans alcohol, arrived at my table around the same time as my first course. 

Frozen bloody Mary sans alcohol with beetroot and grape.
Ice was a great way to start the meal on this hot day.

And so it began. First up was a frozen bloody Mary sans alcohol with beetroot and grape. The saltiness of the frozen tomato juice worked well with the sweet beetroot and grape, and the refreshingly cold dish was very a good way to start a meal on a hot day. 

Foie gras with crumbled sweetcorn and savoury molé ice cream

This was followed by two courses of foie gras. The first came embedded within a stone plate, with crumbled sweetcorn and molé ice cream on the side. The presentation was entertaining and the dish was good, but again not particularly memorable for its taste. 

Foie gras focaccia with cheese shavings, served with a salty shot.
To be eaten together.

I preferred the second serving of foie gras and cheese shavings served on a thin base of focaccia, accompanied by a salty shot. Perhaps there was a bit too much of the liquid, but in general the balance of ingredients here felt nicer in my mouth. 

Frozen bloody Mary sans alcohol with razor clams and salted fish

After a slight wait I was brought a frozen non-alcoholic bloody Mary with razor clams and salted fish. This is where the meal really started picking up for me. Again, the ice was much appreciated on a hot day, and the salty-tanginess of the tomato worked very well with the razor clams and fish. 

On the left, wheat bread. On the right, bread with nuts and apricot.

In between courses another waiter dropped by offering me bread. I opted for a piece of the loaf with nuts and apricot, and just in case I didn't like it, I also asked for a piece of the more mundane wheat bread. The former was actually quite nice, but neither were particularly special and certainly no match for the bread served at the Simon Radley in Chester. 

Small leeks glazed with iced Romesco sauce and smoked coal.
The Romesco sauce was described to me as a vegetable ice cream.

The bloody Mary was followed by a vegetarian course of leeks with frozen Romesco sauce, although at the table it was described to me as vegetable ice cream. The smoked coal on top was an interesting highlight for me as I'm still not jaded by molecular gastronomy. However, flashiness aside this was actually a good dish. I thought of asparagus as I ate the leeks, and the combination worked well with the iced Romesco sauce.

Razor clam and shiitake mushroom tsudanaki. A tangy broth
that also had radish.

The next course was a marked change in direction in terms of regional inspiration - razor clams and shiitake mushroom tsudanaki. The tangy broth, which added great flavour to the seafood, was reminiscent of soy or oyster sauce. Unfortunately I still haven't reached the point where I'm able to identify ingredients or cooking methods by taste alone. I enjoyed this dish immensely, but it really revealed to me the positive bias I hold towards east Asian flavours. 

Smoked Scamorza cheese globes with tomato, arugula, basil and olive oil
Unfortunately I forget what the translucent jelly globe was

What followed was probably the kookiest course on the menu - a salad of smoked mozzarella, tomato, arugula, basil and olive oil. The description may sound innocently simple, but as you can see from the photo the dish was anything but. The tomato was partly present as ice cream and the mozzarella and jelly as strange globules that popped when you poked them with a fork. This was probably not what the chef intended for guests to do, but I had fun with them regardless. The overall result of this dish for me was classic tomato and mozzarella but in an unusually creamy package - one that I have to highly recommended. 

Smoked steak tartar, ‘Café de Paris’ beef, cooked egg yolk, veil of mustard and crispy beef

Nothing was described to me as a main course on the menu, but I suspect this steak tartare and it's following courses fit that bill. The steak was served on a layer of Café de Paris with mustard and cooked egg yolk on top. The flavours worked very well together, and while tartare is not my favourite iteration of steak, I quite liked this. My only criticism would be that there wasn't enough Café de Paris for the amount of meat on the plate.

Cereal bread

Following the steak I was offered more bread, and although the courses were tiny I was starting to feel my stomach fill up due to their sheer number. However, I did still help myself to a small piece of the cereal bread, the third and final variety offered at ABaC. As with the previous loaves, nothing special to report except that I can now proudly say I have tried all of their breads.

Pine nut carbonara, risotto style with egg yolk and truffles

What followed on from the bread was probably the lowest point of the meal food-wise. The risotto style pine nut carbonara with egg yolk and truffles was delivered by the waitress just as the bread waiter was leaving. He informed me it was his favourite course, but sadly I couldn't find myself agreeing. The dish was served in a hot egg-shaped stone pot, and one has to whisk the egg yolk, pine nut and other ingredients themselves to produce something vaguely resembling a risotto. The flavours were fine, but I personally did not enjoy the pine nuts that were intended to replace the risotto rice. The hot liquids meant the nuts went spongy on the outside but remained hard on the inside. This just wasn't a texture that sat well with me, and formed a poor substitute to risotto rice cooked al dente. 

Red mullet with foamed seaweed aliole

Thankfully the next course - red mullet with foamed seaweed aliole - turned out to be another one of my favourites. I first discovered I liked mullet eating at Rustico in Aberdeen. The fish here was cooked to be soft and flaky, but not too dry. The seaweed aliole complimented it well, although I forget what the fantastic sauce pooled at the bottom was. 

Wagyu beef, savoury ice cream and Chinese bread in a soy or oyster based sauce

Next came red meat in a form I could approve of - grilled Wagyu beef with savoury ice cream (yuzu I believe) and Chinese bread in a soy or oyster based sauce, with edible charcoal on the side. I think this was a special substitute for the pork based course in the original ABaC menu. I loved this as well, given my bias towards this type of cuisine, and I wished that there had been more of it. Slight criticism on proportions - I felt that the portion of bread was too big and the dish could have used a little bit more sauce. 

Yuzu sorbet, coconut yoghurt and white chocolate

After ending on a high note with the Wagyu beef, I was really hoping dessert would live up to the same standard and thankfully, it did! This first dessert course of yuzu sorbet, coconut yoghurt and white chocolate was my favourite of the day - the sweet and sour combination worked very well. Coconut in moderation has always been one of my favourite flavours, and the yuzu and chocolate toned it down just right. The crumbly texture to the yoghurt was quite novel to me, reminiscent of actual coconut flesh but still creamy. 

Sweet milk ice cream with truffle, white chocolate nests, butter and yoghurt

The sweet milk ice cream with truffle, white chocolate nests, (I think) butter and yoghurt that followed was a very close second. Classic flavours here, with the sweetness and richness of the ice cream, chocolate and butter cut through slightly by the yoghurt. Just one point to note: the chocolate nests had a slightly odd flavour. I don't know if this was intentional, but I would have preferred it without this addition. 

Yuzu sorbet and a completely edible meringue cupcake

My final course was an edible cupcake: nicely theatrical way to end the meal. I don't understand the chef's obsession with yuzu, but its tangy taste balanced out the other components of the cupcake quite well - namely sweet meringue, custard and strawberry.    

End of meal goodies. The macaroon was actually good. And I promise
I didn't smear the lipstick sorbet on my lips!

A satisfying almost end to the meal, as the waitress still brought me the above to keep me amused while waiting for the bill. Service throughout, bar the minor clunkiness at the beginning, was excellent. It was interesting to see how the wait staff changed their mannerisms for me (in a good way), a foreigner, compared to how they spoke to local guests. 13 courses do take their toll on you though in terms of time - I was at this meal for a whopping 3 hours! Friends and family kept me company virtually as the staff gave me access to WiFi, but do bear this in mind before booking a meal here. Ideally bring actual (i.e. non-virtual) company. 

As I've written already, there were a few courses that didn't impress me too much, especially at the beginning. And I really do feel that yuzu was overused as an ingredient. Conversely, nowhere was it used badly and the courses really did pick up from the leeks onwards. Which is just as well since my total bill came to €175 for the 13 course ABaC menu, 2 mocktails, a bottle of water and strangely, tableware. This isn't something I can label value for money, although the meal was excellent. I'm still trying to reconcile the price of these establishments with the fact that good food need not cost the Earth. I'm also comparing my experience to the other similar restaurants I've been to, Nobu and Simon Radley so for now, good scores below. 

Food: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Atmosphere: 8/10
Value: 6/10

Final Score: 8/10 

Contact Information
A: Av. Tibidabo 1, Barcelona 08022, Spain
T: +34 93 3196600

NB. The final score, while influenced by the sub-scores, is a qualitative reflection of my overall impression of the establishment.

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