Cal Pep

Restaurants worth building a trip around

Long before trend-conscious American restaurants installed open kitchens so that diners could feel they were in on the show, Barcelona had an open kitchen in every café. It would be easy to think, in fact, that Catalans invented the form of dinner theater in which cooks nimbly reach over and behind one another for ingredients and assemble dishes in a constant ballet. These are serious restaurants, laid out like luncheonettes. But the graceful acrobatics are far livelier, and in ambition and variety the dishes go well beyond hamburgers and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Real cooking takes place at these stoves.

Diners line up around the occupied stools, though they know that even the arrival of dessert does not necessarily signal an imminent vacancy: people linger. When places do come free, waiters somehow manage to move customers down the counter to make room for groups, everyone sliding plates and glasses in uncomplaining synchrony. By the time people get seats, they usually know what they want: a wait at close range may be frustrating, but newcomers will get a start-to-finish demonstration of practically the whole menu. And food comes fast.

Cal Pep, on the edge of the Barri Gòtic, the old town near the waterfront, is agreed by Barcelonans to be about the best show in town. It's a somewhat dressed-up version of the lunch counters at the Boqueria, the central food market a ten-minute walk away—a vibrant and picturesque concentration of food vendors and great casual restaurants. Foodies will tell you that some of the freshest and best meals to be had are there (Bar Pinotxo, for instance, is a favorite). Boqueria restaurants are open only for lunch, though, whereas Cal Pep is open for dinner as well, and has a few tables in a back room. (Reservations are limited to groups of six or more, and must usually be made weeks in advance.) The twenty stools at the counter fill as soon as the doors open.

It's hard to imagine a more entertaining spectacle than the carefully controlled chaos at Cal Pep. Newcomers simply tell a waiter (several speak English) how many plates to bring; the usual number is four. As at the Boqueria, the focus is on Mediterranean fish and seafood, which have pride of place at the market. Josep Manubens Figueres, the chef and owner ("Pep" is a common Catalan nickname for Josep), goes the Boqueria restaurants one better by employing scouts who visit the principal fish auctions along the nearby Costa Brava every morning and buy what they think looks best.

Much of the fish is seasonal, of course, but a few seafood dishes are fixtures at virtually any meal. Nearly every diner starts with deep-fried llengeta, inch-long fish with a fried egg on top. Like angulas, the similarly tiny baby eels that are the caviar of Catalonia, llengeta are prized more for their soft texture than for their flavor (unlike angulas, they are legal to catch all year and not startlingly expensive). Cal Pep is famous for its mastery of deep frying, and the activity near the fryer is constant—the light shaking of a swarm of tiny fish in a sieve with flour, the draining of the fry basket into a ridged blue-glass bowl, the sliding of a fried egg from a small cast-iron pan onto the fish, the breaking up of the egg with a fork just before the dish is served. Diners spread the still-soft yolk so that there's a bit of egg in every bite.

Manubens, a small, active man of fifty-two who supervises the action and is recognizable by his purple-rimmed reading glasses, told me when I visited him late one recent afternoon that he keeps ingredients to a minimum, to emphasize freshness. Shrimp are grilled over a sparse layer of coarse salt on the large griddle; chipirónes, small squid, and cuttlefish are grilled whole, with no salt or oil at all, and served with a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley. (No lemon, he said sternly—over grilled fish, perhaps, if customers want it, but never on other seafood.) The most elaborate seafood preparations are tellerines, tiny clams, sautéed in the shell with garlic, white wine, small red peppers, and little squares of ham; and langoustines (true scampi) sautéed whole with wine and strips of leek cooked until they are sweet and translucent.

Meat plays only a small role, with the exception of botifarra de porc amb foie d'ànec fresc, pork sausage with foie gras and port wine, served in inch-long slices over white beans. Another specialty is Manubens's version of tortillas, the potato-and-onion omelets that at every tapas bar are cooked in advance and served in wedges. His tortillas are cooked to order, with chunks of homemade chorizo, leek, and garlic in the batter, and an ample smearing of thick white aioli over the top. Vegetables are restricted to garbanzos sautéed with spinach and little cubes of blood sausage, and thin wedges of deep-fried artichoke in a transparent dusting of flour. These are both wonderful dishes.

Dessert is the chef's one concession to trends: Manubens learned from his friend Ferran Adria—a wildly original three-star Catalan chef who has made savory foams an alarming cliché among ambitious chefs—to put the makings of crema catalana in the kind of cartridge aerator used for seltzer. The foams at Cal Pep are sweet, and both the flan and a lemon mousse are sprayed into shot glasses, to be served side by side as dessert. Cal Pep also serves exceptionally good lemon and blackberry ice.

Meal-long friendships are integral to Barcelona dining, and chances are that you, too, will linger over dessert, chatting with those around you. You may not even feel guilty about the people waiting their turn.

Cal Pep, Plaça de les Olles, 8, Barcelona. 011-34-93-310-7961. Open 8:00 P.M. to 11:45 Monday, 1:30 to 4:00 and 8:00 to 11:45 Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sundays and all of August. Credit cards accepted.