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Dining Out: Modern Catalan Fare at Hisop

Living in Barcelona is a real privilege for people like me, fanatics of Catalan cuisine both traditional and modern, and because of this privilege I have a seemingly endless list of restaurants to try. The worst part is that finding one you really love means you feel compelled to go back again and again, ignoring the others on your list. This had been happening to me with Hisop, a small restaurant on the “restaurant alley” that is Passatge Marimón in the upper Diagonal area (this street is also home to the also popular Coure). But due to the excuse of having a hungry visitor in town, I was able to finally try Hisop, and I’m here to tell you about it. This won’t be a review (you can get those on other types of websites and besides, I’m no restaurant critic — I just know what I like) but instead a rough rundown of my experience and a solid endorsement of Hisop.

I have to say that my expectations were pretty high. Hisop has been around since 2001 and, while not incredibly popular among visiting American foodies (it seems most use their limited time in Barcelona to hit up the more popular Cinc Sentits, Comerc 24 and other usual — yet delicious — suspects), it’s become a classic for locals, and apparently for vacationing Europeans, as the night that I dined there I was the only “local” in the place.

That Saturday I arrived at Hisop promptly at 9 pm with a reservation and only one table was occupied, and by a curious group at that: a tribe of German teenagers, all dressed up for the occasion. As I waited for my dining companion (the wait would be over an hour long due to a lack of taxis that night) I sipped a glass of cava and peered about the room. The surroundings were as clean and modern as could be: simple white tablecloths and white chairs contrasted by restaurant’s red and black motif. The two female servers in charge of the whole place that night were extremely accommodating and nice about the fact that my 9 pm dinner was being postponed until well after 10. In addition to being extremely attentive to my refreshment needs, they were empathetic with my situation, which is always appreciated when one is alone and waiting awkwardly for one’s dining companion.

By the time my friend finally made it, the place had filled up only a little, with 2 more tables of visiting Americans and some Italians. I mention this not as a critique, mind you (I do not want you to get the idea that this is some kind of a tourist trap) but more as a curiosity. But then again, the restaurant was written up in the New York Times not that long ago, and that article got U.S. foodies buzzing about the Barcelona bistro scene. That must be it. Still, the fact that the place was half empty on Saturday night surprised me.

After perusing a menu of which 100% of its offerings sounded delicious, we opted for the tasting menu which would give us half an order of one item in each course (I believe in the end it was 5 courses plus an optional cheese course) for 55 euros, plus wine. The menu is seasonal and constantly changing, so stars of the show that night included fava beans and peas,  and (though not on the night I was there) calçots, which are ending their season.

The meal started out with some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted (choice of black olive, onion or plain) accompanied by two types of olive oil for dipping; one was a Siurana from Catalunya and the other an Andalusian variety whose name escapes me. They were both excellent.

Then came an amuse bouche of cockles (escopinyes) with (if I recall correctly) fresh peas in a mint broth with a touch of lime zest. I am a huge fan of cockles, and was pleased with this tiny taste of them.

I could keep talking about what I ate, but it’s better to show you a few of the highlights. We like visuals here at EatCatalunya.

One of the first courses: baby octopus on “pa amb tomàquet:

This was a starter but definitely one of the highlights of the the meal. Basically it was a very fresh, perfectly seasoned, grilled baby octopus served on a crispy piece of flatbread which had been slathered in some sort of a tomato mayonnaise sauce (not your typical pa amb tomàquet!). This was so good I’m still thinking about it…I could have eaten 4 of these…

At this point I started to forget about my camera, caught up in the deliciousness. When overtaken by the elation of having a really  good dinner, I often — unfortunately for readers — forget important details about the meal, too. I believe that when I was confronted with the next dish — some sublime rendering of monkfish and asparagus — all thoughts of photography and documentation went out the window. All I can tell you is that however it was cooked, it was the freshest, most perfectly prepared monkfish I have ever tasted.

After regaining consciousness, I was apparently lucid enough to take a picture of this dish (but have only a rough recollection of what it was):

If memory serves me correctly, it consisted of a mound of fava beans in a shrimpy broth and topped with raw cuttlefish…but I could be wrong. This was the only dish that wasn’t a hit with me and my dining companion. It was fine, but there was something about it that neither of us was crazy about.

Next up, just when you think the monkfish can’t be equaled — it can be. It can be because we are talking about suckling pig:

Does that look like a dessert to you? It may as well have been, as it was rich, decadent and heavy…and heavenly. The caramelized sides resembling the top of a crema catalana are the fat and it was crispy, creamy and delightful. Not sure what the sauce was made of but the morel mushroom you see in the picture probably had something to do with it. In the foreground was some delicious dry ice cream-like substance what matched perfectly with the sauce. I’m thinking that the common thread in both was coffee, but can’t be sure.

Pre-dessert we were served a tiny frozen mojito…very tasty. The dessert itself was also tasty though, as a non-sweets person, I can’t recall what it was, only that it was served with a side of butter ice cream. Yes, butter. When presented with this, my dining partner and I looked at each other with skepticism, but were consoled by the servers reassuring comment: “It tastes better than it sounds.” And indeed it did. Barely sweet, really buttery and delicious. After that I was ready to cut to the real dessert: the cheese course. The cheese plate was a delicious mix of Catalan, Spanish and European varieties. I was very grateful for the inclusion of one of my favorites, Torta del Casar from Spain’s Extremadura region.

Like I mentioned before, this isn’t a review, but a description and an endorsement. I highly recommend Hisop if you love modern Catalan fare in a relaxed, welcoming setting. After years on my list, it didn’t disappoint, and I will definitely be back.

After such a great experience, I did some digging around about Hisop’s chefs, Oriol Ivern and Guillem Pla and I found this video (in Catalan, but you don’t really need the audio) of Chef Oriol cooking up a very delicious octopus dish which incorporated both calçots and yucca. It was interesting to see how the guy who cooked my dinner actually works in a kitchen — with extreme smoothness and skill, and a ton of creativity.

You can see other bloggers’ opinions of Hisop here:

New Catalunyan I: Hisop
Food Glorious Food: Part II, Hisop
Eating Out in Barcelona: Contemporary Catalan Cuisine

Bon profit!

Hisop

Passatge Marimon, 9, 08021 Barcelona, Spain‎
Phone: +34 932 413 233‎

www.hisop.com
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Title image of Hisop entrance by loremipsum on Flickr via Creative Commons.

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