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El Born Again

Barcelona's old market district gets a new life as a happening food destination.

For years people have gone to Barcelona expressly for the food, a seemingly effortless mix of tradition and innovation. But now it's gotten to the point where Barcelona is imploding with creativity: More restaurants are opening, more chefs are experimenting, and even parts of the city that hadn't shown signs of culinary life are becoming dining destinations. That's why so many restaurant goers are walking the winding streets of a small, formerly run-down neighborhood called El Born--site of a micro-boom in a boomtown.

The rebirth of El Born started with contemporary-art galleries. But as gallery owners and restaurateurs vie for the few remaining storefronts, you could make the case that the real avant-garde is the chefs. The gentrifying streets of El Born just might contain more inventiveness per square foot than any other neighborhood in Spain, and dining there has become an adventure. People love dessert--why not make dessert the main course? Want to see a tapas menu? It's hanging from the ceiling.

Most people pass through the narrow medieval streets of Barcelona's Ribera section to get to El Born. In the main square, the Mercat del Born was, until almost 30 years ago, Barcelona's primary wholesale food market. The huge building that housed the market today sits empty, a symbol of municipal inertia and a neighborhood in transition. (The latest plan is to turn it into a library.) But on every other block, there's a renovation going on, making way for more art galleries, maybe, but not for starving artists.

ABAC
One of the most dazzling restaurants in town, Abac serves sophisticated yet simply presented food that's well suited to the spare white dining room. The chef and owner is Javier Pellicer, who once worked at the three-Michelin-star Racó de Can Fabes, about 30 minutes outside of town, and the precision of flavor that he learned there is evident in every dish. Foie gras wrapped in cabbage is steamed on bamboo and served on soft pears in a clear, fragrant bouillon. In season, tender espardenyes, or sea cucumbers, are placed on delicate fennel ravioli and come with spinach and crustacean butter. (79-89 Carrer del Rec; 011-34-93-319-6600)

SANTA MARIA
For drinks and outrageous tapas, there's Santa Maria, an airy, industrial-looking space filled with whimsical touches of wrought iron and a crowd that gets younger as the night gets older. At the bar, chefs Paco Guzman and David Raates's handwritten menus are attached to hanging light fixtures and double as lampshades. There's ingenuity on the plates, too. A thin slice of cod is smothered in tomato puree and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts. A tender piece of raw salmon comes garnished with avocado, cucumber, strawberries and seaweed. Dry white sherry is served ice-cold; fine Rioja is available by the glass. (17 Carrer Commercial; 011-34-93-315-1227)

SANDWICH & FRIENDS
With so much culinary adventurism, visitors might long for a sandwich. At Sandwich & Friends, they can have one, alongside a mural of groovy people in evening wear who clearly know the definitive place to have a sandwich. Named for the owners' friends, the selections have names like Javier (foie gras, Emmental, mayonnaise and hazelnuts) and Rafa (Edam, York ham and asparagus, served hot). (27 Passeig del Born; 011-34-93-310-0786)

ESPAI SUCRE
The logo for Espai Sucre ("Sugar Space")--home of the five-course dessert--is a sugar-seeking ant, and the restaurant features a three-course dessert-for-dinner tasting menu. There are also some à la carte entrées and a full complement of wines. On each of the handful of tables (draped with white linen and set with Bernardaud china and Riedel crystal), a lone flower stands in a test tube that's buried in a beaker of colored sugar. Jordi Butrón, the chef and co-owner, teaches pastry classes in the kitchen during the day and works the line at night. Among his most innovative creations are eucalyptus ice cream with pear-and-port soup, and chocolate pudding with orange custard and sweet red vermouth gelée. Butrón doesn't want to hear that he should stay open later so that people can drop by for dessert after dinner. "I want them to come for dessert for dinner," he says. (53 Carrer Princesa; 011-34-93-268-1630)

Published September 2000
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