I love surprises. I love meeting people that exceed my expectations with their loyalty and friendship, an article that dissolves my preconceived notions or ideas, a wine that leaves me stunned with its complexity, or god willing, a restaurant that makes me wish that each and every bite would linger in my mouth for an eternity. These experiences are far and few between, but when they do come, we have to share them with you!
On Saturday evening, having enjoyed a lovely afternoon tasting various Cavas along the port in Barcelona in celebration of the Festival of Merce (read more about our experiences at Merce), our group of friends decided that we needed more than just some local tapas and table wine. We needed sustenance, something that tantalizes the senses, sticks to the ribs and makes you groan in delight. When the suggestion of Jambalayai with a side of Spring Rolls surfaced, we looked at each other with a quizzical look as if to say, “Didn’t you mean Paella?” Alas, our new friend did not mean Paella. No, he had a secret ace up his sleeve, which turned out to be one of our top restaurant experiences in Barcelona, since moving here 6 years ago.
Restaurante Me is the dream child of Javier Navarro Alemany and Thang Pham. Javier was a professor of architecture in New Orleans when he originally met his Vietnamese pupil, Thang, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter in Barcelona that their relationship fused into something more than teacher student relationship. Restaurante Me was opened in 2007 in an effort to bridge the 3 cities that united their culinary history: New Orleans (the location where Javier and Thang met), Saigon (the birthplace of Thang) and Barcelona (where the restaurant is located). And as if this merging of both cuisine and culture wasn’t strange enough, the restaurant was designed with a penchant for the surrealism, Magritte and Dali, as evidenced by neckties developed into wall sconces, impressionistic paintings of monkeys and a simple and crude painting of a man’s body in white on the glass entrance door.
Few can pull off such an eccentric style, but here it works in an odd sort of way, as it reflects the merging of the various mismatched cuisines. This is further exemplified in its form of service. When we were approached by the owner, Javier, we were prompted asked which language we would prefer that he spoke in, rattling off a half dozen I could only dream of uttering a few phrases in one day. His style was casual, yet professional, pulling up a chair when we described the specials of the day, followed by a military-esque brisk and orderly acknowledgment of what we wanted and of any delays that might be incurred by certain dishes. His presence was felt, but rarely seen, throughout the restaurant, popping into the kitchen occasionally to chat with the Executive Chef, Thang, as tables filled with eager patrons.
Having sat down near the kitchen, we were handed a well used menu on simple white paper that looked very loved. With a long and appetizing list in front of us, we chose 3 appetizers to share among the group: a soft shell crap hand roll, a fresh Vietnamese spring roll and an octopus salad.
Having worked in high-end sushi restaurants for close to a decade, I’m rather sensitive to any hand roll that doesn’t retain its crisp exterior, as nori has a tendency to get soggy in a matter of seconds. And although some at the table attested to the nori being a bit chewy, the softshell crab did fine with a crunchy tempura exterior and chipotle sauce to pair.
Drizzled in a traditional fish sauce, our next dish – an escarole and octopus salad with cucumber and chorizo crisps – was so bright and flavorful that it literally danced on my tongue. The vinaigrette in combination with the smokey chorizo and tender octopus was absolutely incredible! As to the octopus, it appears as though it was cooked twice, once after removing the gelatinous first layer and then again to tenderize the glowing white interior. In short, it was sweet, simple and delectable.
Moving on, we all chose a second plate for ourselves, and the highlights included my vegetable strudel with a sage lemon cream sauce that was by far one of the best vegetarian concoctions I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. As seen in the photo, the crispy filo dough was bulging with, what I believed to be, sauteed mushrooms, squash, spinach, red pepper and rosemary. The aroma of the rosemary alone was so intense that I needed for it to cool before the aroma of the lemon/sage sauce took center stage. The vegetables were al dente, the filo was crispy and the interlacing of flavors and aromas was stunning.
Equally amazing was the grilled ‘presa de iberico’ that Ryan ordered with a 5 spice sauce, pickled plums and daikon, and topped with little slivers of smoked mushroom. Evidently, they were so tiny that he almost overlooked them. Imbued with enough smoke to sound an alarm, the mushrooms in contrast with the plums, individually layered between the pork slices, was a dish of innovation.
To my left, our friend enjoyed a grilled Iceland ‘bacalao’ with a citrus black bean sauce and an aromatic green sprouts salad. Interestingly, I tend not to choose bacalao as it can be overly salty and sometimes a bit too “stiff” if done wrong. This, on the other hand, was soft, yet firm, with just enough flavor in the black bean sauce to add a much needed flair. On this particular day, I was happily converted bacalao lover.
For dessert, we returned to our sharing ways and chose 3 dishes that did more than convert us to dessert lovers, something we often skip. The first was a wild herb-crusted goat cheese cake that could have been sold by the gram on the black market. It’s texture was soft, but firm and slightly crumbly, with a fine powered herbal dusting of rosemary, thyme and cracked pepper that married with the pungent goat cheese so seamlessly that our eyes were literally falling backwards in our heads. Add that magical sweet sauce on the side, and we were sold – though come to think of it, we all left a tiny piece on the plate because we didn’t want to be the selfish one to savor that very last bite. This dessert is on Ryan’s list of greatest things he has ever tasted, and who am I to disagree?!
The banana bread pudding was also a marvel with its soft and tender cake topped with a crisp cross work of plantain and snuggled under a dollop of coconut ice cream so silky and delicious, Ryan quickly added, “If I could bathe in this, I would.” Coconut so often is either overly artificial in flavor or an afterthought, this however, brought Ryan back the beaches where he cracked fresh coconuts from the trees, and nibbled on them in the shade.
To make it even better, the wine list, which I now wish I had to share with you, was a wonderful look at the quirky and unexpected. We chose a Dominio do Bebei Lapola Godello from Ribera de Sacra, whose acidity practically lit up our surroundings. It was a truly exceptional wine to find on a menu for 23€. Our second wine was good, though not entirely what we were hoping for at that given moment: Penedès Pardas Aspiru. Interestingly, the menu claimed this wine to be 100% Cab Franc, while the winery website claims otherwise. Maybe this added to our off experience. Overall, Restaurante ME showed that they were willing to look beyond Rioja, and clearly not afraid to hand sell a large percentage of their wines. Prices were also quite fair, selling at approximately twice the retail price. The only major complaint here is the temperature at which the white wines were served – slightly frigid, while the reds were surprisingly served at the perfect temperature.
In short, this was one of the best finds we’ve stumbled upon in Barcelona for quite some time. And though we try to offer constructive criticism whenever possible in our reviews, we seriously don’t have much to say. Fresh ingredients from Barcelona, with names and spices that show the Vietnamese influence, and a bit of Cajun spice and style thrown in for good measure. This is a place to explore! We’ll be back.
To more gastronomic discoveries!
Gabriella and Ryan Opaz