Last evening we went to the Restaurant Set Portes for Mom’s birthday dinner. Set Portes – “7 Doors” – is a classic Catalan restaurant in the old port area of Barcelona, and also one of the oldest continuously existing dining establishments in the city, having been founded in 1836 and celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. It has always been popular with politicians and the Catalan bourgeoisie thanks to its solid cooking and good service, as well as its classic interior of black-and-white marble floors, lofty beamed and vaulted ceilings, and dark woods.
Set out on our table when we arrived, among the usual dining implements and chargers, were two silvered “galets”. Galets are a type of large, earlike pasta that are typically served in a soup eaten in Catalonia on Christmas Day; I’ll definitely be having sopa de galets amb pilotas (pasta soup with tiny veal meatballs) for my first course on Christmas Day. Because of the fact that several parts of present-day Italy was ruled by the Catalans for several centuries, it is the only area of Spain where there are several pasta dishes that have been integrated into the local cuisine. So it was nice to see this very simple, yet elegant reminder of a great Catalan culinary tradition for Christmas:
After we had ordered, we were presented with copious amounts of home-baked breads, and some trays of arbequinas, a very small Catalan olive that has more pit than meat, but which is very sweet and savory. If you are only familiar with the manzanilla olive, commonly used in martinis, or the black olive used in Greek salads, you are missing out on a world of different tastes that come from the different varieties of olive tree. Needless to say we devoured these tasty little fruits with gusto:
For my part, as well as that of several others at the table, the first course was the “Sopa de Rap Set Portes” which, as the menu told us, was first introduced at the restaurant in 1931. The soup, a puree of shredded monkfish, olive oil, and herbs in saffron-infused fish stock, had a large hunk of monkfish floating in it, and was smooth and delicious. Unfortunately, I started eating it before I remembered to take a picture, so this shot of a semi-dirty soup plate only reflects how quickly I was eating it:
For my main course I had “Pollastre de Pages amb Moixernons i Moscatell”, which can be translated more or less as “Country-Style Chicken with Wild Mushrooms and Muscat Wine”. The chicken was braised in a mixture of said wine, chicken stock, and a particular kind of Catalan mushrooms known as “moixernons”. Catalans are VERY particular about their mushrooms, and there are hundreds of different kinds that they eat, given how heavily wooded much of the Catalan hinterlands and mountainous areas around the Pyrenees are. The chicken itself was fall-apart-tender from the bone, and the sauce itself was not wine-y, but a bit sweet and brackish at the same time. I love the Catalan combination of sweet things and unusual spices with their meats, which often brings to mind the area’s medieval roots:
Dessert was a birthday cake brought out by the staff and decorated especially for Mom, in the form of a chocolate and raspberry mousse layer cake that was incredibly rich, but not too sugary, as such cakes tend to be in the United States. The Catalans appreciate the bitter or smoky flavors that chocolate can have just as much as they can its sweeter aspects when it is mixed with sugar. The top was silvered with a semi-hard icing that was flavored with vanilla, and a little bit sweeter than the cake, to balance it out:
And of course this was followed by a “Tallat” – or “Cortado” in Spanish – which is espresso “cut” with a bit of hot milk. Sadly, these days Barcelona has joined the uncivilized world in banning indoor smoking, so I could not enjoy my coffee with a cigarette, which is the proper way to do so. However, this did not detract at all from the fact that, as is often the case, the coffee in Spain is infinitely better than anything you think is espresso in the United States. Everyone at Starbucks should be ashamed to serve the swill they call “espresso” after having tasted this:
In short, gentle reader, it was a glorious meal, and one where all of the diners walked away very satisfied and happy. It was just the right combination of traditional foods prepared in simple but tasty ways, and exactly the sort of dining I like. I can definitely recommend a visit to Set Portes if you happen to find yourself in Barcelona in the near future.