Catalunya’s Hits and Misses

I trust my own palate, but sometimes it’s good to consult someone who grew up with the regional cuisine – which is why I used my half-Spanish date as a barometer of whether or not Catalunya‘s food was as exquisite as everyone says.

Joaquim has deep emotional ties to Catalonia (his mother is from Barcelona), from his devotion to the football team to following the progress of the independence movement, down to the allegiance to legendarily curvy Latina backsides and, of course, the cooking.

So it was with great pleasure that he learned I’d booked us a table at the restaurant, brought to the adoring public by a former head chef of Chef Ferran Adria, who made the three-Michelin-starred El Bulli a paragon of molecular gastronomy. It was a long and suspenseful wait – precisely one month and 20 minutes.

Tortilla de Trampo,
aka the “Sin Tortilla”, one of the highlights of the evening – HK$85

A few minutes after we were seated in the bar area, striking for the casualness of the crowd and its slick furnishings, Joe started feeling very amorous (his Spanish side, he says) – more so when we were handed the cocktails and tapas menu.

This area seems designed for people who are waiting for a table in the similarly dim-lit inner sanctum and for walk-ins who just want to enjoy a cocktail and Spanish snacks. (Side note: There is a hilarious description in one Portlandia episode of tapas as “small plates but which cost as much as a normal plate” – which I found apt.)

Guardian House, 22 Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai
Catalunya’s tapas menu

The drinks were reasonably priced, with beers starting from HK$50, and the extensive wine list featuring reds, rosés and whites for around HK$75 a glass and HK$300 at their most affordable. The Sangria, quite sweet, lasted me the whole night, supplemented by Vichy Catalan sparkling water and a glass of El Mago 2011.

Catalunya Sangria – HK$70
(lemonade, brandy, sugar, martini rosso, Cointreau,  freshly squeezed orange juice and red wine)

By the time we were ushered by a friendly receptionist to the more intimate wing of the dining hall, accessible by two curved archways and leading into an impressive-looking wine cellar at the other end of the room, we were starving.

We looked at the menu and chose everything we’d been told by food reviews and friends would be excellent – and ironically this turned out to be a big mistake.

We ordered eight tapas dishes, excluding the paper-thin, crunchy bread basket, and about five of those were either deep-fried or very rich.

Joe was quite displeased by our unbalanced choices but, as the executive chef – whom we came across on our exit as he was smoking outside, clad in a hoodie, Converse sneakers, jeans, and who had a shock of black curls that framed an exhausted but alert face – later told us, “That’s what usually happens when people come here for the first time, they order too much and are like, ‘We want everything!'”

Cod Fish “Esqueixada” – HK$110
“Every Spanish grandma has this recipe that is named after breaking the cod into  smaller pieces.”
Pa Amb Tomaquet – HK$55
“Your first introduction to tapas. Have it with jamon, anchovies or simply on its own!”
Spanish cheese platter – HK$110
The one in the middle was delicious.

We started with a cheese platter which we saved for dessert, followed by the pan tomaquet, versions of which Joe has made us for various breakfasts. It is assembled by rubbing fresh garlic on a piece of toast, crushing a tomato on it as well, and drizzling it with olive oil. The beloved snack of Spaniards wiling away scorching afternoons.

The cod fish esqueixada was a revelation, tasting like ceviche without the pungency. The cream, roe and onions brought out the delicately sweet taste of the cod meat. It’s definitely a must-try.

(Points for the fun descriptions on the menu, like the chef is just chatting with you about his food.)

Then came the parade of deep-fried tapas, all delicious in their own way, but overwhelming when eaten together. All the food was served by a hopping-and-skipping young waitress who looked far too ecstatic compared to the rest of the reserved (but equally friendly!) staff.

The tortilla (still a virgin here) and sexily described on the menu as “the perfect example of lust in gastronomy”
Ham, Cheese and Truffle “Bikini” – HK$115
“You’re not getting a swimsuit! This sandwich will transport you right to Catalunya.”
Jamon Iberico Croquettes – HK$100
“How to put a Spaniard to the test! Ask for croquetas and decide whose are the best?”
Calamares “Anadalusian Style” With Lemon Mayonnaise – HK$110
“Only the best at Catalunya, Try our fresh Spanish squid fried up in Hong Kong.”

The sin tortilla was creamy, with a molten core of what tasted like onion and chorizo puree, and you must appreciate the dexterity required to make a perfectly round potato torte with filling inside – all at the right temperature.

The bikinis, which we speculated were named after the shape of a type of bikini wax, is fairly straightforward (how you imagine a truffle-infused ham and cheese sandwich would taste like), while the jamon Iberico croquettes, served in a tiny fry basket, were lovely.

The calamares, limp and uninspiring, was the worst of the set.

Tomato Salad with Confit Tuna Belly and Basil – HK$110
“Selection of the best tomatoes paired with a Spanish tuna belly confit.”
(fancy speak for something  preserved in oil or water; it’s a miracle canning companies don’t use the word as much)
Now sporting a quixotic beard, half-Spanish Joaquim regretted our deep-fried choices but nevertheless said he had a good time.

As a feeble attempt to correct this oversight, we ordered a salad which showcased the different tastes and textures of various tomatoes (cherry, green and purple) and came with violet orchid petals (unsure if I was supposed to eat this, I nevertheless did, and it didn’t particularly taste of anything) but sadly came with what tasted like tuna from a can. (Joe defends this, saying Spain is famous for its tinned seafood – which are frequently stacked on top of each other and lined on a wall at restaurants.)

I asked him to describe Spanish food, and he said: “Ingedients-based, simple, fresh, usually healthy and hard stones.”

He qualifies that all cuisine is ingredients-based, but “say, Italian and Spanish food – Mediterranean food in general – is like, ‘Here is your ingredient.’ Bam, you know? As in if the ingredients are good, then the dish will be good. Whilst there are certain cuisines, like certain variants of Chinese, where it’s not so much about the quality of the ingredient, it’s about how they combine.”

The more extensive tapas menu at Catalunya. (Balance is key, so order well!)

By the end of our roughly three-hour meal, as we were finishing off our cheese platter (a few heartbeats away from slipping into a glorious, carbohydrate-induced food coma), we had decided that the experience was, overall, a bit of letdown.

Partly because we didn’t pay attention to how our dishes would balance or complement each other – far from healthy, yet still “hard stones” – and partly because the expectation was far too high (we were hoping at the end of it to collapse on the floor in a paroxysm of pleasure).

“You come here expecting something overwhelming, out of the ordinary,” says Joe. “I’d say on certain dishes, it was out of the ordinary, on others not.” Our bill ran up to HK$1,309 – and for some items, there was definitely buyer’s remorse.

But, hey, there are more undiscovered gems on the menu, including the lobster paella (HK$480) and the Segovian-style suckling pig (for three to four people – HK$825).

The mains menu at Catalunya.

In the end, we were rooting for Catalunya and still want it to be the orgiastic, fireworks-in-your-mouth experience — which is why we want to come back, for me so that it can “redeem itself” and Joe so he can connect with a part of his culture that rarely makes it out to Asia so intact.

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