Cal Pep – Barcelona, Spain

Restaurant Barcelona

Pep Manubens turned Cal Pep into a dining destination in Barcelona's Born neighborhood. [Ferran Nadeu]

Walking into the back room of Cal Pep is like walking into a gastronomic time machine. The tavernous dining room provides enough area for just a few small square tables that play host to what you can assure yourself are regulars here and inhabitants of Barcelona’s Old Town, likely for generations, with enough knowledge of just where the tastiest treats in one of the world’s best food cities may be. At Cal Pep, you quickly learn that the restaurant’s primary dining room is a long bar at the front of the restaurant where Pep himself (a Jack Nicholson look-alike) may be preparing some of the world’s best counter food (known as “tapas” in Spain). Those that are in-the-know call in advance to reserve one of the back room tables, where the words “Carta, por favor” (A menu, please) are met with a look of bewilderment followed by a quick response, “No tenemos carta aqui” (We don’t work with menus here)! That’s perfectly okay, because you quickly realize that Pep is much better at choosing what you like than you will ever be, as his incredible tapas provides a range of impeccably prepared delights.

We started the meal with a plate of fried seafood – an assortment of the freshest bite-size morsels of sardines, squid and shrimp plucked out of Barcelona’s favorite neighbor, the Mediterranean Sea. The fish was lightly coated, salt-dusted and fried in deep green extra virgin Spanish olive oil, arriving at the table and spreading an unbelievable aroma comprised of a mixture of the Mediterranean Sea and a Spanish country olive grove. We quickly took the sweet lemons and dribbled their juices onto the fish before enjoying the seafood and asking Pep himself to bring another plate of the same – almost to prove to ourselves that such perfectly fried seafood wasn’t just a fluke. Pep agreed – although he warned that there were many other Chef’s selections to come. He was right – next came Cal Pep’s tortilla rellena de chorizo (Spanish tortilla filled with chorizo). This was the best version of a Spanish tortilla I’ve ever had – the soft texture of the egg, potato and onion combined perfectly with the chorizo inside, which came from one of Pep’s uncle’s who specializes in making sausage. Next came razor clams (“navajas” in Spanish) grilled to perfection with extra virgin, sea salt and lemon, followed by two different types of sweet shrimp, a small and larger version, also simply grilled. One of the beautiful things about Cal Pep is that he is humble enough to understand that the pure and excellent flavor of the freshest seafood will never be superseded by any form of human intervention (i.e., adding unnecessary spices or, in the more severe cases of human error, trying to alter the seafood’s flavor). This same understanding Pep demonstrates with his beef dishes where he serves the most delectable beef unaltered by anything more than olive oil, salt and heat from the grill. The beef comes from the Santander region of Spain, west of the País Vasco and where the cows must be feeding on some excellent grass!

As we made our way for Pep’s desserts, some of the locals that were enjoying themselves next to us began to give Pep a hard time for not introducing our table to some of his other delights, but at that point we were gorged and unable to make a strong case for more (the prospect that Pep has more delights up his sleeve…wow!). The desserts began with cups of crema Catalan, a lightest and airy sweet cream with unimaginable flavor and texture. The cream served as a blanket to fresas del bosque (strawberries from the forest). The strawberries are about one-fifth the size of a normal strawberry and are the naturally sweetest and juiciest berries I’ve ever had. Pep’s waiter also doubles as a pastry chef and it became evident that he was born with supernatural power as our second dessert course consisted of his layered Catalan cream pastry cake with caramelized and powdered sugar… divine food. Pep brought us some locally produced dessert wines – one made from Valencian oranges and the other from a combination of robust fruits from the region. While this ended the meal – we all looked at Pep and his staff silently, acknowledging that it also meant the beginning of our love affair with the restaurant and its exceptional food.

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