RAÓ: A PROFOUND DINING EXPERIENCE
This is part of our 2019 on the wines, food, and sights of Catalunya, Spain. For more, click here.
WHAT IS IT AND WHERE IS IT?
Location: Central Barcelona, Catalunya (Spain); El Raval near La Rambla
Size: quaint (make a reservation using TheFork)
Cuisine: modern tapas based on local traditions
Target: foodies and wine lovers
We were somewhat nervous about eating on or close to La Rambla, the electric, bustling river of tourists in central Barcelona. We needn’t have worried.
HOW DID WE FIND IT AND WHY DID WE CHOOSE IT?
Our second night in Barcelona, we were determined to do better than the first night, after a long day of air travel, when we wandered around and stumbled at last into a café for a decent but uninspired seafood paella paired with a decent but somewhat uninspired white wine. Nevermind where that happened (it was near La Rambla).
I don’t automatically consider a highly-ranked restaurant on Trip Advisor to be a good restaurant, or at least not “good” in the foodie sense. We’re all different. Sometimes the place with the burger and fries is the crowd favorite, and we like those places too, but we didn’t travel to Spain to eat gyros, green curry, or fried chicken. We’re here to pair the local wine with the local cuisine; in this case, Catalan food and perhaps a spot of North African food, but especially seafood.
A table with a view? That’s splendid—if the food is good.
A posh designer restaurant that you simply must visit, darling, in order to be seen …nuh-uh.
Also, I do not filter search results on Trip Advisor so that only the most expensive restaurants show up, and good thing I didn’t in this case, because Raó is moderately priced, making it an even more profoundly satisfying experience.
An exotic vodka orange surprise, and an exotic margarita—both outstanding.
Raó, at the time of this writing, is ranked 35th on Trip Advisor out of some 9,200 restaurants in Barcelona. Co-owner-manager Jason told us about the time Raó landed #1, and for him and his staff this turned out to be the mark of the beast. Like locusts a mass of humanity descended on the restaurant, including the type of camera-laden non-foodies who might chase a celebrity or swarm an outlet mall 45 minutes outside of town. In short, #35 suits them just fine.
After a pair of magnificent designer cocktails, we set about navigating the wine and food menus. We generally choose wine first, then pair the food, but in this case that was not necessary; everything Catalan goes with everything Catalan, and it’s nice to see the Catalan wine featured almost exclusively on the vast majority of wine menus. So, you don’t have to turn through pages of California Chardonnays in order to find some Macabeu.
Even better: the wine is sooooooo inexpensive compared to what we’ve become accustomed to in the United States. In the USA, $40 is about the least amount needed for anything decent on most restaurant wine menus, but in Catalunya if you spend E40 on a bottle of wine, it’s likely to be quite a high-end bottle.
Now, there is the problem of the exchange rate, but lucky us: the exchange rate in the summer of 2019 was around 1:1.15. Ten years ago it was 1:2 and I gotta tell you, US$9 for a cup of coffee triggered ugly crying.
Note: in the gallery below, the photos should appear in the order they’re discussed.
Vegans, avert your eyes—we went full carne.
First came the “roastbeef” —cold slices of tender pink steak with fresh green fennel, horseradish, and mustard ice cream. YES, YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY. Mind-blowing. Patrick is going to have to get with the program when we get home! I want savory ice cream with every course.
Next, the pan cristal. You might think from looking at the photo that the toast topping was puréed tomato with olive oil and cream, but no, there was no cream, and yet it was creamy. And dreamy.
Next, the “salmonete y foie.” No, that’s not salmon—it’s red mullet, a beautiful hearty Mediterranean white fish topped with a flash-fried bit of foie gras and yes, more green freshness, garlic aioli, and hazelnut emulsion. For us, what really sets a fine restaurant apart from the others is the use of technique over loads of ingredients in order to “wow” the palate. Raó’s chef uses simple, fresh ingredients and extraordinary technique, along with beautiful plating, in order to delight.
We kept waiting for a course not quite as amazing as the last, but it didn’t happen. Next came the Kokotxa, or pork cheek, with celereiac puree and turnip confit. I didn’t know “celereiac” was a word until that night.
Next was the Galician-style grilled octopus: spicy paprika flash fried crispy on the outside, tender and soft on the inside, served with kalamata emulsion and potato. (We may try to recreate this Spanish delicacy with some fine Albariño in our little Barcelona kitchen, so stay tuned!)
I said five courses because bread doesn’t count. Does it? Anyway, the final savory course was the free-range duck breast, again prepared perfectly. I have never eaten meat (or anything else for that matter) nestled in green apple purée. Wow.
Dessert we tucked into before I had a chance to photograph it. This is because of Patrick’s sugar tusk, which is something fearsome to behold, but my memory is of a beautiful mousse, and a brioche dessert that was too gorgeous to be slandered with the label “bread pudding.”
All in all, Raó memorably served us one of the top ten meals of our lives. For constructive criticism, we can only think of one thing: the wine list could be expanded to include more selections, even if all are from Catalunya. We have no need for foreign wine with this cuisine. The wines we did choose were excellent.
THAT’S NOT ALL!
Raó was so good, we went back, and we asked the staff to choose food for us. First we began with two amazing, even better cocktails: the Motini, made with gin, cava, lime juice, and mint syrup; and the Barcelona Sunset, made with whiskey, Licor 43, Rioja red wine (!), lemon and orange juice, and egg white. Can you tell which is which?
More of the amazing food, including a Samsó (Carineña / Carignan) from Priorat’s neighbor, the D.O. (Denominación de Origen) Montsant. The roast beef and tomato bread are joyful repeats from the first visit. Check out those scallops! Also pictured is the ceviche.