Spaniards are fiercely proud of and loyal to the culinary traditions of their native country, and for good reason: I think it's some of the greatest food on earth too. Yet with that loyalty comes a certain - parochialism may be too strong a word, so let's just say that Spain doesn't often seem to take much interest in other countries' cuisines. You won't find many notable Italian restaurants in Spain, for instance.[*]
But lately, Spain does seem to be paying some attention to the Far East. The celebrated DiverXo in Madrid leans heavily on Asian flavors and stylings (the resumé of its chef, David Muñoz, includes a stint at Hakkasan). Kabuki (also in Madrid) applies a distinctly Japanese sensibility to Iberian ingredients. Alberto Raurich, formerly elBulli's chef de cuisine, now runs Dos Palillos in Barcelona, whose very name (meaning both toothpicks and chopsticks) is a play on the connection its food seeks to draw between Asia and Spain.
Perhaps because the Spanish curiosity about foreign cuisines is a relatively new thing, the restaurants that explore those cuisines seem to be perceived as somewhat revolutionary in their native country. Whereas, as I noted after our visit to Dos Palillos last year, much of this stuff just may not seem particularly remarkable to a reasonably well-rounded American eater. For us, Asian food is so ubiquitous that even mediocre shopping center chains carry pre-made sushi.
All of which is primarily to explain why I was a bit skeptical when I heard about "the best Japanese restaurant in Barcelona." But I had indeed heard many good things about Koy Shunka, including that it is a favorite of Ferran Adrià's. And after several days of the indigenous foods, and with a big meal at elBulli on the horizon, we were looking both for something different and something a bit lighter. So we gave Koy Shunka a chance. I'm glad we did.
The restaurant is hidden away on a short street in a quiet dark corner of the Gothic Quarter behind a black door that you could easily walk by several times without noticing. You enter upon a dark hallway lined in shale and wood, which ultimately opens up onto a sizable open kitchen positioned in the center of the dining room. There are several seats at a counter that wraps around one side of the open kitchen, as well as tables arranged mostly along the back wall of the dining room.
I believe the counter seats are reserved for diners going with the omakase tasting menu, which was our desired format regardless. (You can click on any picture to see it larger, or view the entire flickr set: Koy Shunka)
The meal started with a cool dish composed of cherry tomatoes, a dashi gelée, shaved bonito, and local Galician seaweeds, presented in a free-form glazed earthenware bowl. It offered pure, simple, clean flavors, and was, interestingly, more than a bit reminiscent of one of the dishes Katsuya Fukushima had served at our Cobaya dinner only a week earlier.
Rounds of Japanese eggplant were grilled with an intensely salty-sweet miso glaze, with the skins removed and crisped up a bit, then wrapped back around the eggplant. A guindilla pepper provided a hit of spice to contrast with the richness of the miso and the smoky, sweet eggplant flesh. I've had a number of different iterations of grilled Japanese eggplants, and this was certainly among my favorites.
Our first fish course was a sashimi of super-fresh sea scallop, sliced crosswise into coins, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and chive, and plated with little rounds of baby corn. The star here, rightfully so, was the scallop itself, with the other components providing a bit of variety and interest without overwhelming or interfering.
That was followed by a toro tartare, using the belly of Mediterranean tuna, served in a small puddle of ponzu, along with crisp nori crackers for scooping. There were no surprises here, just another simple combination of great ingredients.
The first nigiri of the evening was this anago (sea eel), not drenched in "barbecue" sauce as is too often the custom, but grilled and just barely touched with a brushing of sweetened soy, along with a generous sprinkle of pepper. A crispy eel-bone cracker provided a nice contrast to the luscious, meaty anago.
The next dish was probably the least "Japanese" of any on the menu - cigalas, or langoustines, paired with espardenyes (sea cucumbers), served in a sauce of Kalix caviar - an unusual ingredient that, interestingly, also made an appearance on the elBulli menu when we were there. The briny roe may have actually obscured rather than enhanced some of the sweetness of the langoustine flesh, though it worked well with the sea cucumber.
The tasting menu then turned back to sashimi, this time primarily a meditation on tuna in various forms. On the far left, some slices of tuna from near the skin; next to them, thicker, meatier cuts from the loin; above them, a couple slices of fatty tuna belly; a coil of ika (squid), scored dozens of times with a knife to effectively "tenderize" it; a sliver of buttery smooth hamachi; and finally, slices of bonito, a tuna relative with pale flesh but a pleasingly meaty texture - all excellent quality.
The magnificent, bright red Gambas de Palamós were a recurring theme of our Spain trip. I did not complain about any of their many appearances in our meals, including this one. Perfectly unadorned, these were plated simply over a bed of rock salt, and conveniently their fleshy tails had already been separated from their oh so delicious heads. I swapped at least one head for one of Mrs. F's tails and think I got the better of the deal.
The beef course was one of the few misses of the evening for me. Spanish-sourced Kobe-style beef was grilled quite rare, and served with mushrooms and bean sprouts, a tempura squash blossom, and dabs of miso and plum dipping sauces. Perhaps I'd been spoiled by the ridiculously good steak at Etxebarri, and comparisons are unfair; but it certainly paled in comparison. The sauces likewise were cloying and one-dimensional.
The savory portion of the menu concluded with a sampling of nigiri: toro, aji (horse mackerel) and salmon, each offering its own particular form of richness. Very nice fish and properly prepared rice: a nice conclusion.
Finally, for dessert, a melon soup, with cubes of melon crowned by a coconut sorbet and a crispy tuile: delightfully cold and refreshing, and not too sweet.
My skepticism about Koy Shunka turned out to be unfounded. The restaurant does a very successful job incorporating local ingredients into a cooking style that remains distinctly Japanese. Koy Shunka should not be praised as "the best Japanese restaurant in Barcelona," which runs the risk of crowning it the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. It is, very simply, an excellent Japanese restaurant.
Carrer de Copons 7
934 127 939
[*]Though they're not averse to co-opting particular dishes that strike their fancy. Although canneloni are originally an Italian dish, you see so many canelóns in Barcelona that Anya von Bremzen says in "The New Spanish Table" that they are "something of a Catalan national dish."