WhatsApp chat groups, I’m on a few. My favourite by far is a behemoth one made up of Food Women of Barcelona (we all work with food – photograph, eat, tour, cook / bake). One of us asked the group what was their favourite restaurant. A flurry of replies by the time I checked the feed, there were 129 messages. One clear preference – Santa Gula.
Santa Gula is a Catalan Bistro. Which means what? It means artichokes, rabbit, botifarra, croquetas, cod (obviously) and canelones. Being in Barcelona it also means a strange kind of fusion that seems random to a tourist but is familiar to a local – cue tempura tuna tataki with mango and avocado.
After so many frozen croquetas and bland canelones steeped in béchamel – being won over by these two is a hard sell. Which is why we order one of each.
The croquetas (2 for 3.8) are black, studded with calamari and crispy on the outside. I have the feeling that were I to fling it up into the air, it might not descend. The canelones (12.5) come in a pair, nestled up to each other in a small pot. I detest cutsey or awkward serving receptacles of any kind but in this case, the canelones have been heated up in the pot and the crispy sticky skin that has formed and adhered to the bottom is delicious and worth the awkward scraping as I try to prise it off. There is also Morcilla (6.8), 4 of them, like thick corks topped with a dollop of caramelised apple sauce and some crispy onion. Yes. We like those too. The confit artichokes, in season now, are tender and splayed out like the flower that they are. They cost 12 Euros which means 3 Euros each. 3 Euros being what you can get a tallat & croissant around these parts (neither would be any good but it’s worth noting).
Lets stop here for a bit and discuss something.
My favourite restaurants in London are those that could easily be serving their dishes with more waiters, a reservations number and tablecloths in a high-end big deal restaurant but instead serve it at a bar, wrapped around a kitchen where the guy dressing your salad is the same one putting it in front of you (Barrafina, The Barbary, Bao, Kiln). The ingredients they are using are superior, the people making the food have a vocation, the food is creative, delicious, original, well executed.
This category is basically non-existent in Barcelona. You either have tourist traps clogging every obvious thoroughfare with brown food and laminated menus. Or tedious high-end places where eating is no fun (for me – see The Eater episode where Frank Bruni discusses the de – France – ification of restaurants in New York and how that was a good thing). Bistro like places are restricted by the marketplace (especially for daytime eating) to have cheap prices, or even better a menu de dia no more than 15 euro for 3 courses with coffee and a drink. A newer trend is for foreign nationals to open up restaurants that eschew these categories but they don’t do local food – instead it’s Asian or Mexican. Couple all that with a tax / bureaucratic system that is set up to suffocate small businesses at their inception, well you aren’t going to see too much change any time soon unless big business like En Compañía de Lobos decides this is a formula they want to copy.
When I find (am pointed in the direction of) a place like Santa Gula, I take heart. They don’t have a menu del dia. Their menu runs from one end of the spectrum to the other – cod croquettes 3.8€ to the afore-mentioned artichokes for 12€. The prices probably accurately reflect the ingredients they are using and the time / or sophistication they take.
They are not trying to be all things to all people or run like all the restaurants of similar stature, instead they are doing their own thing and happily, are finding an audience of eager patrons.
If you can’t get a table here, then try Gula Bar, even less formal and just down the street.