Carrer Almirall Aixada
My first night in Barcelona, I was starving, having just spent the equivalent of two days (one of them being a turkey-less Thanksgiving) on a plane. When my friends Asha, Kai and Joel arrived from Paris and met me at my hotel, they were also hungry and excited to try Spanish food. We decided to walk from our hotel on La Rambla to Barceloneta, down by the beach, and find a good seafood restaurant. My uncle Regan, who lived in Barcelona for 7 years, had given me this advice: "Just walk around and find a place that has a lot of people inside."
We augmented this technique with advice from the Rough Guide to Barcelona, which recommended Can Ros as a great place to try paella. After a bit of aimless wandering through the extremely narrow and confusing streets of Barceloneta, we found Can Ros . It wasn't exactly packed with people but it seemed to be one of the few places in the neighborhood that was open at all. Inside, it was cozy and warm. I would have liked to sit in one of the small wooden booths along the wall, but instead we were seated in the hot spot, smack dab in the center of the room.
I think we got a little carried away with the ordering, since it was our first meal in Spain and we wanted to try everything. We started off with 2 ensaladas catalanas (Catalunyan style salads) and a selection of tapas - gambas (large prawns), aceitunas (olives) and what I believe were little round codfish croquettes. Kai also sneakily ordered peixets (tiny little crunchy whitebait fish in batter) while no one was looking. He was very upset when nobody else would eat them, but I, personally, have a problem consuming things that still have eyes - I feel as though they are looking at me.
We tried to order gazpacho, which also seemed essential for an "authentic" Spanish meal, but were very disappointed when told that they were out of it. Asha ordered giant white asparagus, which was wonderful - very tender and savory.
We also opened the meal with the traditional Catalunyan "pan con tomate". This consisted of several large slices of toasted bread, two warm, lightly roasted tomatoes, several whole, fresh cloves of garlic, and a little ramekin of aioli (actually, a little ramekin of aioli arrived with just about every dish we ordered, and we were encouraged by the friendly owner to try it with everything. However, in my opinion, it's a little too closely related to mayonnaise to be a good universal condiment). I recognized the "pan con tomate", having heard of it before, but was uncertain as to the correct way to eat it. Kai took the first brave step - he sliced one of the tomatoes in half and gamely started rubbing it on his bread. We soon discovered that rubbing the garlic first worked better. That left only the aioli. Shrugging, Kai took a great glob of it on his knife and began smearing it on top of the tomato and garlic. "NO NO NO NO!!" shouted the couple at the next table, making us all jump. I'd noticed that they'd been watching us closely ever since we sat down, but didn't expect them to be so violently offended by our table manners. "What's the matter?" I asked them in Spanish, "That's not how you eat it?". They explained that you were only supposed to use the aioli on the bread alone, not with the tomato and garlic. And, you were only supposed to use a tiny bit. Thoroughly mortified, we all tried again, painfully aware that now several other tables had turned their critical eyes upon us.
The friendly owner, an short man with white hair, returned to the table to bring our wine and wondered why we were all laughing. I explained to him that we didn't know how to eat the "pan con tomate". "The best way," he offered, "is with your hands and your mouth."
He watched us struggling to shell and behead our prawns for a little while, then suddenly grabbed them away from us and took them to another table. With a spoon and fork, he expertly shelled, cleaned and deveined all of the shrimp before returning them to us. "This is so embarrassing," I said to my friends, "he thinks we don't know how to feed ourselves."
The salads were a surprise - they were standard lettuce, tomato and olive mixtures, but came covered with paper-thin slices of an astonishing variety of ham and sausage - jamon serrano (cured ham, similar to proscuitto), jamon dulce ("sweet" ham, i.e. boiled ham), longanissa (a dark pork sausage, similar to Italian dry salame), and chorizo (which was about 3" in diameter and paper-thin as well. It more closely resembled mortadella than the spicy, greasy Mexican-style chorizo we Californians are more familiar with) were among them. They also had more giant white asparagus on top. Unfortunately, Joel and I were the only ones in the party who eat pork, so we were forced to consume the salads alone.
Next course to arrive was a aragosta (lobster), Joel's choice. It was a bit on the small side, but it also turned out to be the most delicious lobster I've ever had (including great whoppers that I've eaten by the seaside in Maine). It was fantastically flavorful, as though it had been stewed in a well-spiced broth, and very fresh and tender. Kai was not a big fan of the lobster, but the rest of us agreed that it was wonderful.
By the time the two big iron pans of paella arrived, we were all starting to regret having ordered so much food. Kai hadn't eaten much of the previous courses, claiming that he was "saving himself" for the paella. I think he may also have still been upset about the little crunchy fishes. While we took deep breaths and dug into the mountains of paella on our plates, he wondered aloud about the various ways he would like "little crunchy fishes" to be served, deciding at last that they would be delicious on top of a veggie burger. We pointed out to him that, for most vegetarians, that would render the sandwich inedible.
The traditional yellow "paella marinera" (seafood paella) that Asha and I shared was extremely salty, and the small, firm rice grains were a bit too hard and slippery. In fact, overall, both paellas lost many points in my opinion because they were too soupy. As I ate, I recalled a paella I had eaten at my Aunt Susana's house (she is from Spain) many years before. It had been full of seafood and fresh vegetables, as well as light and fluffy and perfectly seasoned. In contrast, the paella we were eating at Can Ros was just no good, although the seafood it contained (large shrimp and mussels and cubes of squid) was extremely fresh and tender. Asha noted that none of the seafood was the least bit "rubbery", a characteristic which often deterred her from eating things like squid. I agreed. I normally steer clear of shellfish like mussels, but the mussels buried deep within the mounds of slippery rice were really wonderful - practically melting in our mouths. The lack of any vegetables was also a minus.
The arroz negre (black rice) paella that Kai and Joel ate had a better flavor and was less salty, but also suffered from excessive soupiness. Unfortunately, by the time we had courageously eaten as much of the paella as we could, we were far too full for dessert. I'm sure it would have been wonderful, judging by the overall quality of the rest of the food and the looks of the tarts and custards in the glass case at the front of the restaurant.
The meal ended up costing around 5,000 pesetas each, including wine and tip. At the time we were in Spain, the excellent exchange rate meant that was about $25 each. Quite a deal considering how much food we had ordered, and that a large portion of it was seafood.
Recommended: giant white asparagus, pan con tomate, lobster
Avoid: paella, peixets