The distinctive, saffron-rich fish stew called zarzuela is a riot of warm color, as red pepper curls among the gently poached pink and white seafood
The cuisine of Barcelona can be as phantasmagorical as its architecture by Gaudí and his fellow Modernistas. Just as La Sagrada Familia makes the viewer wonder how the architect could possibly pile on so many ornamental encrustations, Barcelona’s signature fish stew, zarzuela, makes the diner wonder if there is no end to the seafood delicacies hidden in a single bowl.
It seems perfectly natural that Barcelona, a city graced with free-flowing, fanciful architecture and a lively street life, would have developed a fish stew as studded with textures, shapes, colors, and flavors as the zarzuela de mariscos a la catalana. How this Catalonian cousin of Marseille’s bouillabaisse (see pp128–9) and Provençal soupe aux poissons got its name is something of a mystery, but “zarzuela” is also a form of Spanish light opera that includes rustic dances, spoken dialogue, and songs. It is perhaps the similarly surprising and delightful mixture that has earned this fish stew – a veritable seafood operetta – the same name.
The Plaça Reial, a large square in the Barri Gòtic, provides an atmospheric setting for its many renowned restaurants, cafés, and bars
Spruced up for the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona nonetheless retains its character as a colorful beachfront town first settled by fishermen in 1754.
The formerly disreputable shoreline district of working wharves and sailors’ enticements is now an area of flourishing seafood restaurants, where Barcelonans and visitors alike go to promenade alongside a sandy beach that flows from the Olympic sports harbor to the Old Port. Here, the statue of the explorer Columbus marks the foot of the city’s most famous pedestrian boulevard, La Rambla.
Barcelona springs to life along the broad, car-free expanse of La Rambla, with flower vendors, living statues, bird-sellers, newspaper kiosks, and cafés as still points in the flowing human river. Side streets branch off into the Barri Gòtic (Gothic quarter), where folk-dancers step through the sardana every Sunday in front of the cathedral. At the head of La Rambla, the 19th-century district of L’Eixample contains much of the city’s famous Modernista architecture, including two buildings by Gaudí that are now World Heritage sites: the undulating, organic Casa Mila (“La Pedrera”) and his most famous building, the uncompleted cathedral of the Holy Family – La Sagrada Familia.
No place looks like Barcelona, and likewise Barcelona’s zarzuela stands apart from other fish stews. The easy-going Catalans improvise endlessly, and cooks can add any firm fish to the garlicky broth tinged sunset-golden with saffron, as long as they also include bright shrimp, earthy small clams, pink mussels in their blue shells, a king prawn, and half a lobster. This rich dish is served in wide, shallow bowls so diners can admire the jumble of colors, inhale the rising aromas, and sop up the ocean-salty broth with garlic-rubbed toast. Like Barcelona itself, zarzuela is a feast for all the senses.
Best Places to Eat Zarzuela
Restaurante Set Portes expensive
Everyone from Che Guevara to Errol Flynn, and from the King of Spain to Yoko Ono, has dined at Set Portes, and commemorative plaques even mark their favored seats. Founded in 1836, the restaurant famously has seven entrances, and shares the building where Picasso and his parents first lived when they came to Barcelona in 1895. After the Spanish Civil War, Set Portes emerged as the most elegant restaurant in Barcelona, and it has tenaciously clung to its crown by serving only brilliant preparations of the best ingredients. The restaurant’s version of zarzuela always features a generous half (the one with the large claw) of an Atlantic lobster, as well as cuts of fish that other restaurants would reserve for grilling. The wine list is optimally paired with the menu and is particularly robust, with Priorat reds and Penedés whites from Catalonia.
Passeig Isabel II 14, Barcelona; open 1 PM–1 AM daily; www.7portes.com
Also in Barcelona
As the son of a fisherman, the proprietor of the Barcelona tavern Can Majó (www.canmajo.es; moderate) knows how to make a brilliant zarzuela. Book ahead for an outdoor table overlooking the harbor. Can Culleretes (www. culleretes.com; inexpensive) is a marvelously old-fashioned restaurant (founded in 1786) that often caters to large groups, and serves a good zarzuela among its many Catalan specialties.
Also in Catalonia
Few zarzuelas are so loaded with amazing crustaceans as the version served at Restaurant Sa Gambina (www.restaurantsagambina.com; moderate) in Cadaqués. Their “Gala-Dalí zarzuela” was named for painter Salvador Dalí and his wife Gaia, who ordered it frequently when living in Cadaqués. Considered by many to be perhaps Spain’s greatest seafood restaurant, Joan Gatell Restaurant (www.joangatell.com; expensive) in Cambrils makes a transporting zarzuela as well as suquet, a humbler but similar soup without the crustaceans.
Around the World
Any seafood stew with crustaceans, clams, and mussels could technically be called a zarzuela, but in the resorts of coastal Colombia and Venezuela, cooks prepare a mariscada that traces its roots to the Spanish zarzuela.
An excellent version is available daily at Restaurante de Albahaca (+58 295 263 7552; inexpensive) on Venezuela’s Isla de Margarita. A mariscada made with dark beer and seasoned with cilantro is the house special of Juan del Mar Restaurante (+57 5 664 5862; moderate) in Cartagena, Colombia.
A Day in Barcelona
As the capital of Catalan culture – neither precisely Spanish nor French – Barcelona is a city of rich artistic ferment. Joan Miró was born here, Pablo Picasso spent his formative years here, and Antoní Gaudí became the city’s most famous architect, bequeathing it the iconic Sagrada Familia and a range of other Modernista masterpieces.
See a masterpiece nearing completion as the morning light strikes the spires of La Sagrada Familia. Then visit Casa Mila, Gaudí’s finished crowning glory.
Stroll through the circus-like scene of La Rambla, veering into the quieter Barri Gòtic to visit the Museu Picasso, repository of the artist’s earliest works. Take the cable car up to Montjuïc, where the organic building designed by architect Josep Lluís Sert showcases the surrealism of Miró’s paintings and sculptures.
As evening falls, stroll the waterfront promenade and enjoy tapas, then dinner, at the bars and restaurants of Barceloneta, the 18th-century waterfront district.
Getting to Barcelona
Barcelona’s international airport, El Prat de Llobregat, lies 8 miles (13 km) from the downtown, and has connecting trains and buses.
Where to stay in BarcelonaEl Jardí Hotel (inexpensive) has bright rooms in the old town. www.hoteljardi-barcelona.com
Hotel Casa Fuster (moderate) is a historic Modernista building. www.hotelcasafuster.com
Hotel Arts Barcelona (expensive) provides luxurious comfort on Barcelona’s revitalized waterfront. www.ritzcarlton.com
Plaza de Catalunya; www.barcelonaturisme.com
La Boqueria Food Market
There has been a fresh food market on La Rambla since 1701, although the current incarnation of the Mercat de la Boqueria – which resembles a Modernista train shed with its soaring steel roof – dates from 1914. If La Sagrada Familia expresses Barcelona’s faith, La Boqueria expresses the city’s obsession with good food.
More than 300 stalls and dozens of minirestaurants, cafés, and bars make up the market, which is among the largest in Europe. The fishmongers, their catch heaped on ice, fill the center, and butchers, fruit and vegetable sellers, and preserved-food dealers radiate outward.
From wild mushrooms to baby squid, if Catalans eat it, someone in La Boqueria sells it.