A Night at Bodega 1900
We weren’t expecting to get in to Bodega 1900. Albert Adriá is one of the most famous restaurateurs in the world along with his brother Ferran, and both made elBulli one of the most renowned restaurants in the world. We approached his small Vermutería, Bodega 1900, in Barcelona with a “what the hell, it can’t hurt to ask” attitude. I tentatively asked the host, if we could get a table. The obvious reply came quickly. “Do you have a reservation?” “No…” I began to explain that we were walking past and decided to try, but before I could get past my first word, he turned sharply and pointed to the long bar along the wall. “Sit at the bar.” We were in! Tim and I could hardly contain ourselves. Giggling with glee was the most appropriate behavior, so we pulled ourselves together and pretended to be sophisticated adults. Ok, maybe a few giggles slipped out. There is memorabilia on the walls at Bodega 1900, but not in any obvious way. Classic vermouth posters, old elBulli menus and best of all, a collection of jamón hanging on the wall. Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing more beautiful in a restaurant than a group of cured dark pink pig legs dangling from the ceiling waiting to be carefully and expertly cut by a master. First things first, vermouth. It is a vermutería after all. What better way to begin our experience with Mr. Adriá? Our perfectly attentive host turns and asks us if we would like a drink. We order our vermouths and just a quickly as he had pointed us to the bar he asks us. “Our house-made vermouth?” “Yes, of course.” The vermouth he brought us is as dark as coca cola. It is dowdy sitting there with its one cube of ice in a simple glass tumbler. It is a basic, slightly frumpy looking drink. Like an old man in a cardigan and house shoes. There is a slice of orange and a chunk of ice. It’s not much to look at. I kind of love that about this drink. It is old-fashioned, comfortable, simple. Well, not exactly simple.
On the first sip, it is sweet and reminds me of vanilla and chocolate. It is a love story of a drink, both bitter and sweet. While we are sipping our vermouths, we begin to make our food choices. We go with the Jamón de Bellota. Spain’s famous acorn-fed pigs produce the worlds best ham, and the one at Bodega 1900 is even more special because it was aged for five years! We get some tomato bread to go with it (pan con tomate), navajas (razor clams), and percebes (goose barnacles). I am wiggling with excitement as we order. Our host nods with approval at our order and seems to be charmed by our joy. His smiles and asks, would you like olives as well? “Why, yes, yes we would.”
Our olives come out first, and it dawned on me. These olives were THE OLIVES. The famous elBulli olives. These were the olives that began the wave of molecular gastronomy that transformed menus across the world. We, of course, need a little explanation on how to eat them because these are not olives at all. They are a magical suspension of liquid that is the essence of everything olive in a bubble of liquid on a wooden spoon. It looks just like a giant green olive. It is oval, and shiny and presented like it is the most precious food item you will ever eat. One olive on a spoon, ready for you to discover its mysteries.
We slide them onto our tongues and as instructed, press the olive onto the roof of our mouth with our tongues. The olive bursts in my mouth and olive flavor washes over my palette, and I close my eyes in pure joy. They are olives; they are playful they are lovely.
Next? The jamón and the pan con tomate. The jamón is a woven mat of perfectly thin slices. None are too thick, none have any stringy parts. They are paper-thin slices of the world’s most perfect food. When I slide one of these pink and white little morsels in my mouth the difference between this jamón and all others I’ve had is clear. It is salty and sweet, and the fat is so soft it melts and wraps around my tongue in the most decadent way possible. Is it the five years of aging? The perfection of the slicing technique? The fact that this jamón has probably never been refrigerated? Yes, it is all those things. Every step of the way from birth to slice of perfection on my table led to this moment of perfect flavor and texture. I am grateful.
Accompanying it is the pan con tomate. I wasn’t expecting much. This ubiquitous Spanish bread can be underwhelming sometimes. Often the bread is bland and flabby with no flavor or personality; the tomatoes watery and sad. This is not the case with Bodega 1900’s pan con tomate. The bread is a perfectly crisp crouton. The tomato on top is sweet and tart and as red as a strawberry. Each toast perfectly accented with flaky sea salt that melts slowly in our mouth along with the tomato and the jamón. It might be simple, but it is the most delectable version of itself I have ever had.
Next up, razor clams. I love these bivalves. I’ve only ever had them when I am in Spain because they aren’t available in the middle of Texas. These particular navajas are the most beautifully presented version I have ever seen. Each one topped with a white escabeche that is mildly vinegary and a great match to the briny razor clams. Then we waited. I have been waiting to eat precebes again for 6 years, and I needed to wait just a little bit longer. Apparently, percebes take a while to prepare. I was okay with the wait, I was, after all, sitting in one of Ferran Adriá’s restaurants in the middle of Barcelona. I was happy and content to sit there all night! Tim on the other hand, while glad to wait, was horrified by the plate of food in front of us.
Those teeny tiny dinosaur legs did not look appetizing to him AT ALL. Whoever ate percebes for the first time must have been blinded by hunger. Despite their disconcerting appearance I love the sweet almost lobster-like flavor. You have to pop the precebes meat out of a thick purple tube, which isn’t all that difficult and certainly easier than crab or lobster. It does, however, get you a bit messy. I was enthralled and thrilled and totally excited to eat them up. Poor Tim, on the other hand, watched on in horror. He is unconvinced that there is any reason ever to eat precebes. After I gobbled up all the shellfish, we were, of course, offered the dessert menu. The waiter provided dessert suggestions. A slice of cheesecake and melon infused with white vermouth. How could we resist? I learned two things. First, the Catalan people LOVE their cheesecake and second, melon infused with white vermouth is flipping amazing.
The cheesecake (like our humble vermouth) is the most basic of desserts. No garnish, no drizzle, no crumble, nothing. It was completely unadorned. Just a simple wedge on a plate. Now, that might lead you to believe this cheesecake is nothing special. This is not the case. The cheesecake is creamy and much less sweet than its American counterpart. The best part though? The toasty skin. It makes it. There is a hint of citrus in the cheesecake too, but for me that brown toasty skin on the cheesecake makes it.
The melon delivered to the table in all its lime-yellow glory was beautiful. It was sprinkled lightly with marigold petals that contrasted beautifully with the color of the melon. I took my first bite and somehow the vermouth had amped up the melon flavor, made it sweeter, and added a touch of complexity. If there had been a whole melon in front of me, I would have eaten the entire thing. We tried to savor every bite, slow down and enjoy every single morsel. I think we accomplished our mission! When the waiter came by to check on us and clear away our plates, of happiness must have been apparent. “Did you like the melon” he asked? “WE looooooved the melon!” we exclaimed. And in perhaps the highlight of my evening our waiter smiles a huge, authentic smile and tells us, “I’m so glad, it’s my favorite”