Once in a while, we’re fortunate enough to dine at a truly wonderful establishment where the food is innovative and delicious, the service is attentive and friendly, and the ambiance is just the right blend of mood-setting and lively. All this we found when we visited La Pepita in Barcelona’s Gràcia neighborhood.
This little gem of a restaurant was recommended to me by a friend from home (one of the finest chefs I know – thank you, Josh!!) as a “little family restaurant – nothing fancy, just good food” – so naturally we were intrigued. In a city as packed with places to eat and drink as Barcelona, this spot seemed to have stand-out potential.
And it definitely did. We arrived at 7:52pm – Google warned us that it got pretty busy around 7:45 – and snagged the last two stools in the entire (albeit fairly small) place. It’s as if they were meant for us. As we settled in and began to take in our surroundings, we noticed that almost every single surface throughout the bar area and beyond was covered in writing: thousands of notes left by previous diners expressing their love for this narrow, crowded eatery. I took it as a great sign.
One of the hosts gave us a well-worn set of menus (in Spanish, Catalan and English) clipped to a small board and we began to browse. My eyes grew bigger as they skimmed dozens of particularly creative and somewhat unusual dishes: this was not your ordinary tapas restaurant. We selected six items (with great difficulty) – the pumpkin gazpacho with iberico ham, marinated sea bass with strawberry, basil and paquillo peppers, roasted octopus with citrus potato mash and slivered snap peas, patates bravas (their special take on the dish), steak tartare and a burrata salad with marinated pears, beets and arugula – and devoured every bite. Seemingly unusual flavor combinations blended and complemented each other zestily and seamlessly: the tangy acidity of the mustard-Worcestershire-cumin sauce drizzled around the tartare was cut softly by the silky fat of the steak, and the juicy, al dente, mild flesh of the sea bass allowed the bolder flavors of strawberry and basil to shine through. These dishes were works of art!
I could gush about the food for days. One more item deserves mention: our dessert. Upon our server’s recommendation (I haven’t even told you about Andrés yet!!) we ordered a traditional Catalonian treat: bread with chocolate and olive oil. Joe trusted me – I assured him that the “black olive jam” would not be disgusting but rather a salty and balancing accompaniment to the chocolate – and we were not disappointed. The fluffy mousse and smooth, elastic creme (like peanut butter but without the stickiness, Joe decided) – were both rich yet light, and paired perfectly with a touch of olive jam and a drizzle of oil. The bread was salty and crisp – and, according to Andrès, served a particular purpose confirmed by a German scientist: the bread acted as a palate cleanser between tastes of the different chocolates and, by chewing a bit of bread with each bite, it would help mix them in your mouth and create the intended flavors. We were delighted and completely sold on the theory.
Our experience would not have been the same, however, without our friendly, playful, knowledgeable and witty server, Andrés. He welcomed us happily, expressed his desire to make this a great evening for us, and asked how we’d heard of their “little place.” When I told him, he was surprised, incredulous, and very pleased that a chef from a small town in the States could give such a recommendation – and that we then followed it. When he brought our bottle of cava – after letting us taste the two options he had (a first here) – he slid the bottle gently into a soft wine cooler, calling it “pajamas” for the wine. He apologized profusely for the ordinary glasses he brought us – they were all out of flutes – and stated that, while he didn’t really know how much to pour in those glasses, it probably didn’t matter as the cava was about to be redistributed to our bellies soon anyway.
How could we not be completely charmed by this ebullient, kind man? Each dish was brought out with a smile and a few comments, advice was expertly given, and at the end of the meal he brought us two brown bottles adorned simply with one symbol each – an orange “X” and a yellow picture of fire. He asked us to choose which aperitif we would like – on the house, of course – and we selected the fire. Two shots were poured of a glowing, almost neon yellow liquid (“like grappa”…eek!) which we sipped – and actually enjoyed – while he prepared our check. He was also kind enough to take a photo with us and provide his personal email so we could send it to him. Lastly, he asked if we’d written on the wall – I almost jumped off my stool in my excitement – and said we had not because we had no markers. He laughed out loud and replied simply “all you had to do was ask!” He then fetched us two markers and we added our message right on the counter where we’d dined. We’ll never forget it! And I think (hope!) we made a friend.
All in all, it was one of the most enriching, delicious and fun evenings I’ve had since we’ve been here. I already can’t wait to go back (probably at least twice) and try everything else on the fairly extensive menu.