Speaking Easy, Eating Clandestinely In Barcelona
Monday, June 27, 2011
Clandestine dining finds its roots in the United States back in the Jazz days of the ’30s. During prohibition, illegal bars in the country flourished and became known as speakeasies, a term coined from bar owners having to admonish loud, drunken customers when they became too rowdy by asking them to “speak easy, boys.”
In Europe, the trend is on the rise. The fact that restaurants in Barcelona are relatively inexpensive and provide excellent cuisine means that supper clubs are still few and far between. However, clandestine dining is on the rise as discerning gastronomes are increasingly looking for new dining experiences.
The concept of the supper club is simple: You are “invited” by the chef to a pre-arranged location (usually organized via the internet) where you dine according to a preset menu. The whole arrangement has an intimate feel; more like a dinner party than restaurant dining. In some parts of Europe, supper club competition is fierce, with many chefs having been trained professionally and boasting resumes including Michelin-starred restaurants.
In Barcelona, there are several well-established supper clubs geared towards giving the diner an experience that can’t be replicated in a restaurant.
1) Jezebel’s Clandestine Dining
Jezebel’s regularly organizes events, frequently changing location and menus. It describes its dining experience as “Hidden adventures for intrepid gastronomes and hungry rogues,” with a style mixing New American, Cajun and Creole. The chef and creator Kathleen Engelhardt characterizes Jezebel’s as a prelude to bigger things to come. “[Jezebel’s is a warm-up to] an actual wine bar I plan to open later this year. I will experiment with different plates and wine combinations to find the perfect matches. Obviously, the best will make it to the actual wine bar, and hopefully, along the way, I will meet really interesting people. I like the concept of an intimate evening with strangers, but I do think I will have it more focused on one item of food or wine.”
The general themes of Jezebel’s changes frequently. “I do have a clear vision of my style and what I want to bring to Barcelona,” says Engelhardt. “I see this city changing before my eyes, and I am really excited about the possibilities.” This month will include Caribbean night featuring such dishes as crab mousse, sweet potato linguine and coca mustard with summer vegetables. Dinners are regularly organized every month.
2) Kokun Gastronomic Social Club
Kokun is located in the trendy district of Gracia and follows the school of “bio-cooking.” Its daring slogan, “Life is too short to waste it eating and drinking badly,” shows how dedicated chef Xavi Moreno is to using the most natural ingredients possible in his creations, making his own homemade bread and cooking local seasonal Catalan and Basque dishes.
Kokun offers a miniature tasting menu with a multitude of small dishes including gratinated oysters, tuna tartare and Basque-style cod in an alioli sauce. The strawberry and violet tarts are legendary and have been gaining popularity within the supper club community.
3) Mount Lavinia
Mount Lavinia is located in the heart of Barcelona’s Modernist district and specializes in gourmet Sri Lankan food. Its creator, Faraaj Hashim, became disillusioned with Asian food in the city and decided to open up his own supper club dedicated to authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. “The culture of Asian food in Barcelona tends to be modified or diluted to the Spanish palette. I really wanted to give the city real Asian food as you would eat in anyone’s house in Sri Lanka without holding back on taste or on spice.”
“This is something I could never do in a restaurant,” explains Hashim. “Not only do I bring people together at my dinner table, I educate them. I open their eyes and taste buds to a whole new experience.” Diners can expect to indulge in beef or chicken cooked on a slow fire with a mix of ginger and coconut milk with a base of curry and toasted coriander seeds, or tuna cooked in a mix of tamarind ginger vinegar, sugar and black pepper mildly baked in a banana leaf. Its signature dish is a Sri Lankan delicacy: Chili crab cooked in an onion sauce with Pol Sambol — a grated coconut mixture with onions, chopped green chillies and lime.
Mount Lavinia regulary holds “curry corner” dinners and can be contacted via their Facebook page.
There are many Clandestine restaurants dotted around the city, most of which are completely legal. Their secret locations serves to give an air of exclusivity to their clientele. In some cases it may be no more than a gimmick, but clandestine dining has still become very much the fashion in Barcelona.
4) La Tintorería Dontell
Its name (Don’t Tell) is a hint as to what’s inside. Located within what appears to be a dry cleaners, to gain access to La Tintorería Dontell, a scanner first reads diners’ index finger which then opens a door to the avant-garde restaurant behind. They serve such delights as avocado and shrimp in martini with a herb salad and turbot taco with asparagus.
To get in you need to be a registered member or be accompanied by someone who is. The restaurant is part of an association called Urban Secrets, a secret dining community that regularly organizes gastronomic nights, wine tastings and secret concerts. The customary way to become a new member is by invitation. However, you can contact the organization via their website for information or to request an invite.
5) The Dry Martini
The Dry Martini is a monument dedicated to the bygone days of prohibition in the United States. A password that changes monthly will get you into the clandestine restaurant Speakeasy del Dry Martini — described as a “discreet eatery” — that is connected to the bar. The restaurant is the brain child of famous cocktail entrepreneur Javier de las Muelas, the so-called Ferran Adria of cocktails.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the era of prohibition in the United States by creating a speakeasy here in Barcelona,” explains de las Muelas when asked about his inspiration. The menu is extravagant and hosts wines from all over the world. Dishes include tuna in tempura with wasabi mayonnaise, and scallop curry and squid in chocolate sauce. Expect a high-end clientele when dining there, as the restaurant is popular with politicians and businessmen eager to impress and conduct business in a private setting.
6) Dopo Restaurant
Dopo has no telephone for reservations, therefore, to get in, you need to be invited by a member. Conveniently, when you finally do go, you are given the chef’s personal telephone number for future access — like Fight Club but with Italian food. Located behind the not-so-secret and renowned eatery Saltimbocca, the two restaurants share the same chef, Jordi Vila, who’s well known for his Italian creations.
El Dopo caters to the fearless diner wishing to experience something more. Notable dishes include sea urchin pasta, but what really puts this restaurant on the culinary map are its pizzas, a combination of new and old world Italian cooking. Ingredients include tomato, spicy sausage, figs, goat cheese, orange and mint. If you don’t have an “in,” try obtaining reservations through Saltimbocca — it’s worth a shot.
7) Dans le Noir?
Dans le Noir? is less of a clandestine restaurant and more of a social experiment. If there ever was something new to offer the intrepid diner this is it. French for “In the dark?”, the waiters at Dans le Noir? are legally blind and act as a guide to the diners who eat in complete darkness. You most likely will not even be sure what you’re eating, but as far as unique experiences go, you’re in for a real treat. The purpose of the admittedly gimmicky idea is that when eating in the dark, your sense of taste and smell will be heightened, allowing for enjoyment of food in a new environment and more fluid social interactivity. They regularly organize blind wine and cheese tastings.
The granddaddy of them all in the world of clandestine dining, Mutis is considered the holy grail of clandestine eating in Barcelona. Known as “The restaurant that does not exist,” it is a creation by Michelin-starred chefs the Torres twins (Sergio and Javier Torres), and here they feature decadent offerings including half-kilo-sized steaks, lobster salads with green apple vinaigrette, and fried egg carpaccio.
Inside, the restaurant’s design is based on a British gentlemen’s club of the Victorian era, complete with velvet chairs and candle lighting. Access is invitation-only by current members, but given the prices, don’t expect to have much money left over for frequent repeat visits. The exact location is a well-kept secret, but it is rumored to be close to Bar Mut on Avenida Diagonal.
By Anthony Bain
Jezebels Clandestine Dining
Kokun Gastronomic Social Club
Fraternitat 23, 2º Piso (Gràcia)
La Tintorería Dontell
Carrer d’Aribau, 55
The Dry Martini
Calle, Aribau, 162
Calle, Loreto, 26
Dans le Noir?
Paseo Picasso, 10
Avda. Diagonal 438
About the Author
Anthony’s intrepid writings and accidental ramblings from deepest darkest Barcelona can be found at his blog The Barcelona Review.