Every once in a while, we’re fortunate enough to dine at a truly fine restaurant – one that transcends the ordinary – and even the great – to become really exceptional. Joe and I discovered such a spot, recommended to us by the owner of a small-batch, high-end tequila company called Ocho Tequila (the restaurant uses Ocho as their house tequila!), and enjoyed an experience we’ll remember and treasure for many years to come.
The restaurant is Michelin-starred Hoja Santa, tucked under luxury apartments off a tree-lined pedestrian street just blocks from the bustling Plaça España in Barcelona. A rather unassuming exterior and narrow, casual entrance leads to the minimalist, almost rustic and subtly nautical dining room. Patrons have an unobstructed view into the large, buzzing, open kitchen and numerous black-clad servers (and a sommelier) weave smoothly around the mosaic-topped tables. A small bank of flickering candles lights up a narrow wall holding an elaborate cross, and roughly-woven nets stretch across parts of the high, industrial ceiling.
Our server, a smiling young woman from Mexico with an easy laugh, proved to be the perfect guide through our surprising, delightful and educational meal. Maria-Cristina’s enthusiasm was contagious, she was genuinely interested in our story, our tastes, and what we liked, and she was determined to make our dinner a true Mexican experience. When we mentioned Tomas Estes, the owner of Ocho, her eyes lit up and she broke into a huge smile while ebulliently praising him (“Such a sweet man! We all love him!”) and his product. In fact, he had just visited them the week before! She immediately suggested we replace the usual wine pairings with cocktails featuring Ocho – which we were more than happy to do. House margaritas topped with salt air, a passion fruit and chocolate cocktail before desert, and the smooth, silky reposado served neat in a flute with a side of tomato juice, salt and pepper left me wanting more of the bright, flavorful tequila.
But let’s not neglect the food! I’ll do my best to describe it – a bit like the magnificent Sagrada Familia (which I’ll address in another post), it almost defies description…so my relatively basic photos will have to supplement my words.
The 19 courses (regularly 18, but Maria-Cristina was kind enough to include a half-order of pork ribs from the à la carte menu for Joe) appeared and disappeared gracefully and in perfect harmony with the rhythm of our meal. Each dish had been given a name evoking various locales in Mexico: some of our appetizers were “Sangrita sanguina sorbet ‘Jalisco,'” “Stone chía ceviche ‘Pacifico (see photo – you drank what was in the rock!),'” and “Plantain dough empanada with black beans and hoja santa ‘Veracruz.'” The main dishes showcased “Smoked ceviche of white asparagus ‘Pacifico,'” “Green mole with peas and tasajo ‘Oaxaca,'” “Black garlic mole and avocado ‘Oaxaca'” (this mole contained 17 ingredients and took a week to make, going through three iterations before becoming the thick, rich, creamy black sauce we enjoyed), and “Encacahuatado mole with matured squab (pigeon!) ‘Chiapas'” among many others. I know, these quoted dish names mean little to those who haven’t eaten them, but just let the words roll off your tongue, through your consciousness and into your imagination…let me tell you – it was all mouth-wateringly, palate-stunningly delicious.
So why spend several times as much as you usually would on a regular “nice” dinner to consume small dishes of artfully arranged food and colorful, whimsical cocktails for a couple hours?
For the experience, for the pleasure, for the simple novelty and constant surprises ushered onto your many plates. For me, a few aspects elevated this meal above the rest: Maria-Cristina was a delight, as I mentioned above. Her care, appropriately dispensed information, attention to detail, and genuine interest in us made all the difference between a simply lovely experience and an exceptional one. A few gems: when I told her I wanted to drink from the bowl of my asparagus ceviche because it was so delicious, but I refrained because it might be impolite, her immediate response was “Go ahead! It’s Mexican food – you’re supposed to get involved.” I love it! And when explaining the specially-stamped tortillas for our suckling pig tacos: “In Mexico, for a special occasion, you don’t want the same tortillas, you want special ones. So today we’ve made these tortillas, stamped with a pig, for a very special person in Mexico – his name is Donald Trump.” How could you not love her charm (and the creator of the tortillas)?
Additionally, and just as importantly, the quality of the food was almost unlike anything I’ve tasted or seen, as was the innovative presentation and manipulation of each composed element of every dish. You just can’t beat flavorful, balanced, clean cuisine. The delicious drinks featuring our new favorite tequila proved to be the icing on the cake, and we had so much fun bonding with Maria-Cristina over our shared knowledge of Ocho and its owner.
What I’m trying to say is this: if you have the opportunity to save and splurge at such a restaurant, especially if it’s been recommended by a chef/tequila maker/friend/food critic/blog you like and trust, DO IT. Not only will your tastebuds thank you, but you’ll have the chance to grow and experience things you never have before. And that’s always worth it.