The Best Restaurant in Barcelona
|Though it’s oft been referred to as Paris with a
Latin beat, Barcelona can stand on its own as one of the great romantic
cities of the Continent. In the same way, Barcelona’s sole two-star
Michelin-rated restaurant is owned and operated by a famous French chef.
Yet it maintains a distinctive Catalan identity.
||When the Alsatian-born John Louis Neichel and his
wife Evelyn, who comes from Segovia, decided to open a restaurant in
Barcelona over twenty years ago, they found space in a hotel in Pedralbes,
the city’s newest residential district at the time.
Rising north from the Avinguda Diagonal which cuts a slanted swath across Barcelona, it stops at
the base of the Tibidabo Hills that overlook the ordered regularity of the
Eixample – the region built in the 1850s when the old city’s wall were
demolished, the gothic quarter below the Eixample with its closed-in,
warren-like streets, all the way down to the glittering harbor-front
facing the Mediterranean.
At that time, Pedralbes was known chiefly for its
still-functioning 14th century gothic monastery, which now houses
masterpieces from the Thyssen collection, and the royal palace and gardens
built in 1924. Since then, it has become the city’s most expensive and
desirable neighborhood, home to football stars, CEOs of major companies,
government leaders, even the son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia –
who, along with his Madrid-based parents, frequently dines at Neichel.
||Small wonder. Neichel enchants from the moment one
walks through a little garden at the base of a many-storied
hotel/apartment building into an inviting space that accommodates
about 50 diners. We were welcomed by Evelyn, a neat and smart-looking
woman who keeps a careful eye on an operation that, we would soon see,
does not miss a beat.
She escorted us to a table beside one of the large windows that
line a wall of the dining room -- there is also a smaller lounge-like area
-- and looked out onto the garden where, this wintry evening, trees were
festooned with garlands of light, and pots of poinsettias stood in a row.
A single gourd lay on our table beside a candle in a silver candlestick
and a slim green vase with two perfect roses that seemed to have opened
but a moment ago.
The mood was cool serenity. Walls were covered in a
smooth gray fabric, floors with rich carpeting in a deeper charcoal gray.
Mahogany chairs upholstered in grooved burgundy velvet stood around
tables set with crisp white linens while mellow lighting from
strategically placed standing lamps and small table lamps added a kind of
1940s supper club chic to the almost minimalist décor.
This weekday night nearly every table was taken, some
with casually dressed diners which led us to assume Neichel is a
neighborhood as well as a destination restaurant, an impression that was
confirmed when we noticed how many of the patrons seemed known to the
We looked over the extensive and beautifully designed
menu – decorated with a watercolor of a lemon blossom – while nibbling on
addictive seaweed chips, delectable little toast squares topped with
eggplant and dried tomatoes, and a tray of miniature vegetables. There was
a wealth of choices, from seafood to game. Unable, unwilling to decide, we
opted for the tasting menu which the chef prepares according to the
diner’s preferences – in our case, we quickly told the waiter, yes to
seafood, no to game.
||Although Jean Louis Neichel infuses touches of his
native French cuisine, the style is primarily Spanish/Mediterranean and
highly dependent on virgin olive oil. A pure white plate on our table held
a sprig from an olive tree, a miniature covered clay bowl holding very
coarse sea salt (from Scotland), and a cruet of the award-winning,
cold-pressed oil from the Arbequina olive grown in the Tarragona region of
southern Catalonia. To taste a piece of homemade crusty bread that has
been dipped into the olive oil and sprinkled with a dash of coarse salt is
to implicitly understand the universal appeal of Mediterranean cuisine.
||Olive oil enlivened tasting-sized salads: succulent
lobster meat out of the shell topped with shavings of black truffles
rested on a mound of delicate greens; a blue and white bowl held
radicchio, slivers of potatoes, white truffles, smoked salmon and
crayfish; hearts of palm were blended with slithers of celery, and
There was also “black rice,” dyed by squid ink, with
scallops and the tiniest, most delicious clams we’d ever seen or tasted;
the incomparable Spanish ham from Salamanca that for some reason never is
as tasty outside of Spain; and a wonderful duck pate.
From a wine list that is largely Spanish but also
includes a nice selection of French, the youthful and engaging sommelier
Jose Antonio guided us to a 2001 full-bodied and very satisfying merlot –
an atypical grape for Catalonia -- from the Augustus Vineyard in Penedes,
a region south of Barcelona that produces some of Spain’s best wines.
Jean Louis Neichel is an artist as well as a chef --
his still-life watercolors adorn the restaurant walls – and his visual
gifts extend to the presentation of dishes. Lamb roasted with herbs and
served with pea pods, a small potato nick and tomato puree; and a flaky,
moist turbot with onion marmalade in an anise-flavored wine sauce
delighted the eye as much as the palate.
||The cheese tray held a ring of French and Spanish
selections accompanied by quince jelly, walnuts, and little breads. Loyal
to our Spanish environs, we focused on a Catalan goat cheese in (what
else?) olive oil, a Catalan sheep cheese called Bal de Nes, and our old
||Miniature scoops of sorbet preceded dessert: mandarin
orange with raspberry sauce, mango with fennel, and (would you believe?)
black olive with yogurt sauce – a tart and slightly salty, novel taste
sensation. After this cooling interlude, the dessert cart arrived with an
array of gorgeous temptations: crčme Catalan, apple tarts, chocolate cake
with luscious icing woven around strawberries and apricots, a creamy
cheesecake, fresh raspberries.
||The pleasures of dining at Neichel were accentuated
by the many attentions to small details: a sugar stand with separate
compartments for brown and white sugar, both mini-cubes and
granulated; mignardises that included olives (again) coated with powdered
sugar and rosemary in a crystal dish, and finally a grappa-like liquer
called pacharan banero served in a glass with a pointed bottom that sits
in a little holder. Jose Antonio, who attended to us with enormous
graciousness, told us he gathered the herbs for this seemingly innocuous
but wallop-packing drink himself.
When we met Jean Louis Neichel after dinner, we could
see how his effervescent personality stamps the entire Neichel experience.
The chef has a Michelin star-studded resume that includes stints at such
stellar French institutions of haute cuisine as Alain Chapel in Mionnay
and Georges Blanc in Vonnas. Building on that level of experience, he has
succeeded in making his Barcelona dining room the very best in the city.
But it is his engaging warmth that colors the attitude of servers,
sommeliers, even bus-boys who attentively refill the water glasses.
Extraordinary cuisine, aesthetic environs where the
smallest detail is noticed, an atmosphere marked by care and courtesy –
taken together, these make dining at Neichel an event not easily
Carrer Beltrán i Rózpide 1-5 (before Avinguda Pedralbes)
Phone: (93) 203 8408
Fax: (93) 205 6369.
Photos by Harvey Frommer
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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