Where to Eat in Barcelona When You Can’t Get into elBulli

Where to Eat in Barcelona When You Can't Get into elBulliThe restaurant elBulli has been getting a lot of attention lately. As it rightfully should. The avant-garde eatery, located about 100 miles north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava, is helmed by culinary madman/wizard/god Ferran Adria. The restaurant has been lauded the universe over for its menu of edible lunacy, its physics-defying dishes that include once-solid ingredients turned to foams and jellies and flavored oxygen. The place is so woww-ing, there’s even been a backlash to the hagiographical-like reports filed by food journalists who can’t seem to contain their post-elBulli enthusiasm. The restaurant gets a reported million reservations requests every year. It fills only 8,000 of those. But all this doesn’t matter anymore because, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, elBulli is closing for good (the space will re-open in 2014 as some kind of culinary think tank).

And so, let’s say you’re in Barcelona (as I was last week) and let’s say you love to eat (as I do) and you’re not cool enough to know the right kind of people who can pull strings and get you into elBulli (as I’m not), and certainly not cool enough to get invited there and arrive by helicopter (as my friend Adam Sachs recently did). What’s a food-loving traveler in Barcelona to do? You could go to one of the two new restaurants that Ferran and his brother Albert have recently opened in Barcelona, Tickets and 41 Degrees? But even those are a hot—pardon the pun—ticket these days.

Many chefs who have logged time in the elBulli kitchen have eventually struck out on their own, some of whom have opened up their own places in Barcelona (you can read about the future great chefs of the world who have logged time in elBulli’s kitchen in Lisa Abend’s great new book, by the way). And so here’s an idea: if you can’t get Ferran Adria to cook for you, do the next best thing. Have the chefs he trained cook for you. You’ll spend a lot less money too. Here is my subjective list of where to eat in Barcelona when you can’t get into elBulli.

Pronounced Tapas24, this restaurant in stately, bourgeois Eixample is the manned by chef Carlos Abellon who logged time in elBulli’s kitchen. The service is, well, to be generous, lacking. But after the food has arrived, you won’t be sorry. Abellon’s menu is long, some of the dishes are whimsical takes on classics: the truffle-sprinkled bikini (a pressed ham and cheese sandwich) with bread that has the texture of an overcooked pancake (that’s a good thing) is certainly an improvement on the sandwich. The McFoie Burger really tastes like a McDonald’s hamburger—albeit a really good one—plus it comes with a foie gras cream that you can spread on the burger. Also try Abellon’s other restaurant, Commerç24.
Located also in Eixample, not far from Gaudi’s masterpiece-in-piece-in-progress, Sagrada Familia, the eponymous Gelonch is named for former elBulli chef Robert Gelonch. Given the quality this kitchen churns out and the odd pairings that somehow work well together, Gelonch is a steal. A 19€ “menu del dia” for lunch or a much more extensive 53€ dinner nabs the lucky diner dishes like pigs trotters paired with prawns or succulent sweetbreads and/or ultra-tender suckling pig. The Adria influence is apparent in the Dali-esque presentations.
Need a break from Spanish or Catalan cuisine? Enter Dos Palillos. Located in the Casa Camper, the hotel owned by the Spanish shoe company, this popular El Raval restaurant is a hypothetical culinary result of what food would taste like if Spain and Asia somehow magically collided. Hence the name, which means two sticks, a reference to chopsticks and to the tooth picks used in Spanish pintxos. elBulli-trained Albert Raurich churns out tapas-sized dishes such as unctuous pork belly and squid dumplings, ponzu-marinated monkfish liver, and Iberian short ribs marinated in ginger, honey, and hoisin sauce.
Chef Fermi Puig, the chef at this minimalist-designed restaurant just off the wide Passeig de Gracia in Eixample, is actually not an elBulli alum. He’s often referred to as Ferran Adria’s mentor. The two were cooks in the military and it was Puig, as the story goes, who convinced young Ferran to take a job at this obscure restaurant up the Costa Brava called elBulli. The rest, of course, is culinary history. But don’t overlook talented Puig. The dishes at Petit Comité are more straight forward than at other elBulli-related restaurants but it is just as satisfying. A rich monkfish soup is soul-fortifying. Ultra-juicy, fork-tender pork cheek, still on the bone, is a showstopper. For a great deal, go at lunch and order the three-course Menu Barra Express for 18€. Also try Puig’s other restaurants Fonda Gaig and Drolma.

Do you have any elBulli-related recommendations for Barcelona? If so, leave a comment.