Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo - Barcelona

Paco Meralgo had a few things going for it before we'd even stepped through the door: (1) it was close to our hotel in the Eixample neighborhood; (2) it was open on Monday, when many restaurants in Spain are closed; and (3) its name appealed to my fondness for wordplay ("comer algo," hidden within "Paco Meralgo", means "to eat something").

The restaurant has a clever layout, basically mirror-imaged food bars on either side of a workspace for the staff, with one side being a smoking section and the other non-smoking. Each side has additional counter seating around the edges of the walls, with several small tables scattered throughout. The decor is simple and minimalist, with painted brick walls and blocky blond wood tables and stools. Indeed, the primary "decoration" is at the food bar itself, which houses a magnificent selection of seafood, including fantastically colorful bright red gambas on ice in a big bowl and lots of other little delicacies under a sushi-bar style glass countertop fridge, including beautiful scallops with their roe still attached, and some of the biggest oysters I've ever seen.

The menu (available in several languages) had a long list of mostly tapas-style options, with a strong focus on the seafood items decorating the bar. We started off with what was the best pan con tomate I've ever had. I know it seems almost silly to get excited over something so simple and ubiquitous - but this was great. The bread was crisp and toasty but still permeated with the juice of sweet ripe tomatoes, enhanced with an assertive but not overwhelming whiff of garlic, and generously drizzled with some really good olive oil. We accompanied that with a plate of some very nice jamon iberico.

Zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella were nicely fried; though I enjoyed the gooey, stringy mozzarella, I usually prefer a lighter cheese with these so as not to overhwelm the delicate blossoms. The croquetas filled with fish and seafood also showed a deft hand at the fryer. The best thing we had, though, came from that ostentatious display of seafood at the bar. "Berberechos" translates as cockles, a small, round-shelled clam. Simply heated on the plancha and sprinkled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, these were absolutely delicious. They were fresh, briny, plump, and more tender than any other clam I've had.

We had a couple misses as well. The Catalan-style beans brought young favas, still in their fuzzy outer shell, cooked with bits of pork and a big slice of black sausage; I didn't love the texture of the beans, and an herbal presence (mint?) seemed out of place. A tortilla with artichoke, instead of being the thick frittata-like slab we'd anticipated, instead was a skinny, almost crepe-like omelette. We would have done better ordering the artichoke on its own, as we saw several people happily chomping on the fried artichokes.

We closed out with a classic, a crema catalana. Their version was happily creamy, dense and eggy, my only gripe being that the brûléed topping was perhaps taken just a bit too far and had a slightly charred taste to it.

This was a nice casual place that still obviously takes its food plenty seriously, which is a nice combination. I'd happily go back, especially to try more of those beautiful seafood options.

[I know, I know - there sure is a lot of talk about Spain here for a "Miami food blog." Only one more dispatch from Spain before we return to regularly scheduled programming.]

Paco Meralgo
Calle Muntaner 171
Barcelona 08036
94 430 90 27

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