Whenever we are in Barcelona we have to eat at least once at Escriba. In a town of packed tourist restaurants churning out warmed up frozen paella, and otherwise reconstituted seafood, this beach establishment (known as a Xiringuito in Catalan) serves only the freshest ingredients in bespoke paellas and other delicious preparations. It is one of MudGuide’s favorite restaurants not only in Barcelona but anywhere. Since Escriba is well-known and reviewed in the majority of guides and on-line venues, it is not a typical MudGuide restaurant. We review it because we like it so much. After we summarize the dishes we sampled at our most recent lunch, however, we’ll take on Escriba’s numerous critics with advice on how to make the most out of this excellent if admittedly expensive and temporally/seasonally uneven restaurant.
Address: Barcelona, Spain
Telephone: 934 54 75 35
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Rostra rating: 5
When a Sicilian is early to a meal, it is either a sign of the End Times or a great meal is in prospect. In retrospect our lunch got off to a very propitious start because our dining companion, the redoubtable but ever tardy Giovanni Matta, actually beat us to Escriba, arriving at least fifteen minutes early. He had snagged us a table right up front in the dappled shade of the awning with a spectacular view of the beach. The only drawback to our location was that we were seated close to the lectern from which the hostess greets patrons and allocates tables. Her cell phone, left at the lectern as she seated guests, rang incessantly for the next half hour until she shipped the evil chirping mechanical harpy off to someone else more distant to deal with slagging off people trying to make last-minute reservations.
An amuse bouche arrived with glasses of the very potable house cava. It consisted of four small whole raw prawns served with olive oil, salt, chives, and a little lime. They had clearly been swimming in the Med the night before, and eating them early in the lunch service in late April before the weather gets too hot insures that this type of dish is experienced at its peak in terms of texture and flavor. With the drinks and nibbles came three different bread rolls, two white flours with different shape and crust profiles and one whole grain with oats on top. Each roll was excellent, because the Escriba family is known primarily in Barcelona for its two bakeries and the restaurant’s bread and desserts originate in these establishments. I thought the “normal” bread far better than the pa ab tomaquet, which seemed pretty run-of-the-mill, but my spousal unit loved it, so it was probably just me.
We began our meal with Escriba’s house pica pica (Catalan for tapas, see our Tale of Two Tapas Bars). This assortment included chiparones al Andaluz, fried baby squid that were the apotheosis of perfect salty crunchitude with an under layer of rich squid flavor. Then came fried mature squid in a superb light batter that was just a bit heavier than the tempura-like treatment applied to the chiparones. The calamari was just hours out of the sea and only the small ends and rings cut from just above them on the body sack were served. I will indeed design a hunter-killer drone in exchange for fried squid tentacles, but I did not even miss them in this preparation.
The pica pica contained steamed baby clams that we supplemented off the list of daily specials with razor clams. The steamed baby clams were the size of large thumbnails with pronounced ridges running from the hinge of the shell to the lip. Giovanni told us that these bivalves were not really clams but a close relative known as caparossoli in the Venetian dialect. Whatever they were, they were utterly delicious, tasting like salty clam candy sporting exquisite juiciness. The razor calms made a perfect contrast to the subtly succulent bi-valves, exploding on the tongue with grilled, chewy, garlicky, in-your-face clamitude. In addition, these specimens were absolutely gritless, a feat that is rarely accomplished even in the best sea food restaurants.
The ubiquitous patatas bravas were also part of Escriba’s pica pica. These, unlike so many of their siblings produced throughout Barcelona, were fried to perfection and served with two types of sauce, a balanced spicy red and a rich garlicky aioli that was intense rather than dense.
Our main course was seafood paella. We received a large pan of perfectly cooked rice, the key to which is the incredible stock that they use at Escribà. I have spent many a happy interval watching the staff make paella in the back of the restaurant, but I always pay the most attention to how they prepare and handle the stock, because while they use stock made previously for paella at meal times, they are always working on the next vat that will be employed at dinner or the following day. They lavish as much care on this basic building block of their cuisine as they do on any of their high-end dishes and it shows in their paella and fiduella.
The seafood paella contained mussels, prawns (large langoustines with claws), very large shrimp, clams, small bits of cuttlefish, little fava beans, and artichoke wedges. All of the shell-fish was superb, except for a minority of the mussels which had a slightly metallic taste. Sucking the prawn and jumbo shrimp heads was a foodgasm in and of itself. The clams served were the third type of their kind during the meal. These had smoother shells than the caparossoli, known as vongole verace in Italy. They were clearly the correct choice for paella, delivering a more pronounced calm flavor than even the razors with more tooth than the caparossoli. The favas were spectacular, clearly added late in the cooking so that they retained their texture and slightly bitter taste that contrasted perfectly with the rich salty rice. The artichoke wedges also tasted great, but they had not been trimmed with enough care so that some were too tough to eat entirely. The paella came with an aioli that was even lighter than that served with the patatas bravas, more like a cloud of garlic than a mayonnaise. It is the these details at Escriba–such as the superb bread, different clams matched to their preparation, and different aioli for different dishes–that define an exceptional dining experience at this restaurant.
Dessert consisted of Tartaleta Gerds, a raspberry passion fruit custard tart baked earlier that morning at one of the family bakeries served with whipped cream and dabs of mango and mint sauces. Ethereal strata of passion fruit and whipped cream were layered on a sinfully rich custard supported by a decadent crust. In line with my remark above about details, the raspberries were like Japanese gift grapes in terms of shape, color and texture. MudGuide was instantly infatuated with this sweet little tart, voting her our highest award in that particular class: UFBD. The coffee that followed was nothing short of profound.
At Escriba it is always tempting just to drink the house cava throughout the meal, but Giovanni is not a fan of sparkling wine so we shifted to white midway through the pica pica. He selected a Verdeal 2012 made with 100% verdejo grapes from the Rueda region of Spain. This intriguing grape variety originated in North Africa and was spread to Rueda by Arab invaders in the 11th Century. Traditionally this varietal was vinified as a strongly oxidized Sherry-like wine, but in the 1970s Rueda wineries began to develop a fresher style of white wine achieving DO status in 1980. Our correctly (that is to say not overly) chilled bottle had a seductive vanilla nose, unctuous banana fruit, nice acidity, and a clean finish. When we ran out of wine before we ran out of paella we had several glasses of the house white Perro Verde, which was also 100% verdejo. It lacked the unctuous finesse of the Verdeal but was very crisp with more prominent minerals on the mid-palate–in short a nice quaffing wine.
Mago tip: Make reservations, go for lunch, go early, do not go in July or August, and be realistic about costs. Escriba’s on-line customer experiences tend to be either sublime or defamatory. There are a lot of complaints about price and service amongst the bad reviews as well as having to wait a long time for mediocre food. (the positive reviews rave about food, service and short waits, of course). Escriba is popular with locals and recommended to tourists in guidebooks, on-line, by hotel staff, etc. so they see a great deal of traffic. MudGuide does not doubt those whiner diners who had very bad experiences at this restaurant, but we do question their judgment on several accounts. First of all, the bad experiences are almost universally shared by tourists who don’t reserve, come at peak dining times, often in the evening, and are staying in Barcelona during the summer, especially July and August. Travelers do not make these mistakes. They employ the four rules for dining in Barcelona elucidated below.
Rule 1: NEVER GO TO BARCELONA AT THE HEIGHT OF THE SEASON
This is just plain stupid; prices are jacked up, the locals have fled (often renting their places to the hordes), and restaurant staff in particular are burned out and consumed with hatred for noisy, drunk, obnoxious foreigners (often dragging horribly behaved children in their wake) who want a great paella and Michelin three star service for 10 Euro a head. Even if you are nice and polite, you are often going to be victimized by this syndrome and be taken advantage of in terms of waiting for food, suffering mistakes on orders not brought to the table but on the tab, and exposure to the establishment’s need to turn tables in order to maximize their earnings in the high season when it is very unlikely that they will insult any regulars. It is unprofessional to be treated badly and overcharged at a restaurant, but you cannot change the basic reality that food venues in Barcelona make their numbers in the summer and they do it from the likes of people you would not hang out with if you were back in your home country with them. What you can do is avoid this time of year and these types of patrons. Barcelona is beautiful and much saner in April and May (even March) and quite pleasant in September and early October.
Corollary to Rule 1: DO NOT GO TO THE BEACH IN BARCELONA ON THE WEEKEND IF THE WEATHER IS NICE. Everybody goes to the beach on nice weekends. It is a mad house replicating the conditions listed above for every day in July and August. Go during the week, preferably on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
Rule 2: Reserve a table
Call the day before and call early starting around 11:30 AM. If it is not high season someone who speaks English will be located to take your booking. Or have someone at your hotel make the call, or wander by the day before at around the same time and make the reservation in person. Many complaints come from people who showed up at prime time and had to wait. This is self-inflicted misery. Get over the fact that you have to earn a good meal in Barcelona and plan accordingly.
Rule 3: Go for lunch and go early
The best time to eat at Escriba is during the afternoon on a nice day. At night half of the experience is absent because you cannot see the beach and the staff has already served hundreds of lunches, cleaned up, wolfed the staff meal, and staggered back to work until late. The Catalans do not get serious about lunch until 2:30 PM on weekdays and 3:30 PM at the weekend. If you go to Escriba between 1 and 1:30 PM you will have a choice of tables to match your proclivities in terms of the amount of sun, the view, or whether you (as we often do) prefer to sit near the open area where paella is made and other dishes cross the pass to the wait staff from the enclosed kitchen area. If you do not have reservations get there no later than 12:30, they may not be set up for lunch yet, but you can have glass of cava or a beer while you wait for a table. When we have used this approach in the past we always got wait staff with decent English and we received very good service.
Finally, if you do get stuck waiting, relax and act like the Catalans. There is a padded bench rocker that will easily hold two people set up right at the entrance, where the penultimate diners can wile away their time and there are benches just across the strip of asphalt that separates Escriba from the beginning of the beach proper for those further back in the queue. You can get drinks from the bar and enjoy the passing parade while you wait for a table. This is part of the whole experience and the locals have no problem waiting up to an hour for their table, since they intend to camp out at it for at least three (this is, to be repetitive, a ten months of the year phenomenon as all bets are off when locals vanish in July and August).
Rule 4: If you let sticker shock ruin your meal you have only yourself to blame.
If you are really on a budget, do not eat at places on or near the beach, the old city, or any other touristic areas of Barcelona. There are great bargain meals, for example, at the little restaurants in all of Barcelona’s thirty some odd traditional markets (except for the Boqueria, which has been ruined by the Food Network and mass tourism (see MudGuide’s Making the Most of the Markets due for publication this fall). In general, however, understand the following about food prices in Barcelona in particular and Europe in general: 1) you cannot blame restaurants for the exchange rate, this is function of interest rates set by central banks and global macro-economic factors, if you are nailed by a weak dollar you should blame Ben Bernanke rather than a restaurant in another country, but you will find that a) influencing central banks is difficult for most individuals and b) a weak dollar just might be the correct monetary policy these days regardless of its impact on your wallet; 2) understand that food costs more in Europe, as a percentage of household consumption as well as in absolute terms both in restaurants and at home because much of it is still locally sourced and big food conglomerates do not rule the markets as they do in the U.S.; 3) cost structures are different in European restaurants.
This final point requires a bit of expansion. One of the common complaints about Escriba from U.S. and U.K. tourists is that they were charged for bread. I looked at my bill and sure enough those incredible rolls cost 1.20 Euro each. OK, first of all the bread described above was certainly worth more money than the crap you get handed “for free” in many expensive American restaurants. Secondly, I really can’t think of a better use of 1.20 Euro than to take a superbly crafted piece of artisan bread, slather it with one of two amazing aioli and then dunk it in the clam broth left from those killer bi-valves before devouring it amidst numerous swallows of verdejo nectar. Ya’ know, I could (and did) pay that fee several times during the meal described above.
For those who felt that the overall bill at Escriba was outrageous, the only dispassionate response is an apples-to-apples comparison with an American restaurant tab. Service at Escriba and most restaurants in Barcelona is usually built into the bill to the tune of 20%. The locals never leave more than a Euro per person when they leave a tip at all. In the U.S. by comparison, wait staff are so underpaid and generally abused by restaurant owners that you are exploiting them by leaving anything short of a 20% tip, and taxes are not included in the menu prices as they are in Europe.
Here are some photos from our 2011 visit to Escribà.