Travelers from the US tend to hit Spain’s great cities—Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Bilbao. But a recent trip to the Catalan countryside surrounding Barcelona made it clear to me once again that some of Spain’s greatest food destinations aren’t within city limits. Some places are famous—El Celler de Can Roca, in a suburb of Girona, is considered by some to be the best restaurant in the world. But others, less well known, are incredibly good as well. Here are five amazing dishes I had recently that prove that a trip beyond Barcelona’s boundaries is well worth the effort.
Restaurant Ibéric, a low-key, family-run place in the tiny, scenic town of Ullastret, northeast of Barcelona in Empordà, specializes in traditional dishes like suquet, a classic Catalan fish stew. But what blew me away was a simple plate of just-harvested wild mushrooms—black trumpets, cèpes, chanterelles and rovellons (a local species)—sautéed with olive oil, chorizo and onions. restaurantiberic.com
Restaurant Compartir, located in the seaside Costa Brava town of Cadaqués, was founded in 2012 by Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch—all formerly chefs at the now-shuttered, legendary El Bulli. Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, but with these incredibly delectable sardines, cured and served with hazelnuts and a cool lettuce broth, it was all I could do to resist devouring every last one myself. compartircadaques.com
The delta of the Ebro River is one of Spain’s main rice-producing areas. Classic paellas abound around here, but for me, arròs de polla d’aigua, which I had at Torreó de l’Indià in Xerta, was the highlight. The name more or less translates as “water-chicken rice.” That may not sound particularly compelling, but think of it as insanely good paella made with local mushrooms and wild moorhen from the river delta (the flavor is somewhere between quail and grouse), and you’ll get the idea. hotelvillaretiro.com
The Ebro delta is also an ideal environment for mollusks, thanks to the mingling of fresh water from the river with the salt water of the Mediterranean. I was particularly impressed by the gnarly shelled, vividly briny oysters I had at a blue–painted fisherman’s shack sitting a few hundred yards off the coast, owned by the longtime oysterman (and president of the Mollusk Producers’ Union) Agustí Bertomeu. We got there by boat, then sat eating oysters and drinking cava in the sun.
…And some avant-garde, tasting-menu, high-end, chef-driven cuisine
The vibe may be somewhat austere at the two-Michelin-starred Les Cols, in the foothills of the Pyrenees—it reminded me of a monastery designed by Karl Lagerfeld—but the food is fantastic. Chef Fina Puigdevall’s cooking is precise and adventurous, and focuses on traditional, local ingredients. A roasted black tomato from the restaurant’s garden, hollowed out and filled with savory, basil-inflected ice cream, was both surprising and delicious. lescols.com