La Barceloneta is a slice of Barcelona in the heart of Reykjavík
If there has been one destination sought after by Icelanders for decades now and sees no sign of that popularity abating, it is Spain. The desire for sun and sand is such that, in the summer of 2022, Icelanders broke their own travel records by flying to Alicante and Tenerife in whopping numbers.
Despite the popularity of Spain as a holiday destination, representation of Spanish food here has often been attempted in misguided ways. Tapas has become synonymous with small plates rather than being small bites to go with your pre-supper victuals — a misnomer that works very well to Iceland’s advantage given its steep pricing. Tapas Barinn continues to serve Icelandified “tapas” such as lamb in liquorice sauce. There was Tapashúsið for a brief moment. Garður based El Faro is closing its doors after only just a few years. Lof, closer to the Grandi harbour, remained open for even fewer days and, more recently, Skreið is attempting Basque cuisine.
Curiously, restaurants attempting to remain closer to Spanish culinary traditions have come and gone in a blink of an eye compared to their heavily Icelandified counterparts. This isn’t entirely surprising as a bulk of the travels to Alicante and Tenerife are steeped in White Lotus like “adventuring” within the confines of the many water park resorts or hotels catering to older Icelanders seeking familiarity, but on a sandy beach.
Newest entrant La Barceloneta is all set to shake things up and offer us a true taste of Spain right here in Reykjavík. “We are very focused on having the classics done in the traditional way – we are just humbly presenting what we know best and miss the most, paellas y tapas.”
Paella at your doorstep
La Barceloneta has managed to remain one of those elusive successful concepts built around authentic Spanish traditions. Born just as the pandemic waned, La Barceloneta started as a paella delivery concept in 2020. Started by a team of Spanish-Icelanders, Spaniards and Icelanders, Elma Backman, Pedro López (chef), Albert Muñoz, Dagur Pétursson (chef) and Zoe Sarsanedas are the heart of La Barceloneta. A passionate bunch with a background in food and design, their idea to deliver piping hot paellas to people’s doorsteps proved so popular that they were recognised by the Grapevine’s Best of Dining panel on multiple occasions.
A brick and mortar restaurant now on Templarasund, the slightly sunken space is fitting for the Barcelona vibe the team was going for. Building on the strong connection shared by Iceland and Spain, they wanted to bring a true Spanish culinary experience they felt was lacking in Reykjavík. The business is named after an iconic neighbourhood in the Ciutat Vella district, with a history of being a working class district. “La Barceloneta is a sailor’s neighbourhood,” shares Dagur. “It was also a neighbourhood where all the immigrants from many Spanish regions converged, which made it a unique niche for different cultures throughout Spain to blend.”
Paella vs Arroz
While tapas fever may have gripped the global dining industry with its price sensitive appeal of “small plates” and “plates to share” communal dining vibe, Spanish cuisine remains largely misunderstood in Iceland. Boasting a rich variety of regional cuisines, the country’s varied landscape contributes to nuanced local flavours that, much like Italian food, can be hard to replicate once removed from their terroir.
“Technically, there is only one paella: the Valencian,” Dagur clarifies. “In Spain, we call the rest ‘Arroz con’ meaning ‘rice with X’ (arroz de marisco, arroz de pollo, arroz negro, etc.) but it has been miscalled paella through the years.” Sorry Jamie Oliver, that’s arroz con chorizo, not paella you’ve been peddling.
Paella is at the root of La Barceloneta — the paella counter and bar stand right in the heart of the space, further underlining their importance. You can even watch from the streetside windows that peek directly over the paella bar: gas burners with several paelleras the size of a large SUV wheel, different kinds of paellas at varying stages of cooking bubbling away.
Chef Pedro López has over 40 years of experience and has owned restaurants in Torrevieja, and was the chef at Lof, before joining the Barceloneta team. A lively personality, his passion for Spanish food is evident from the moment you meet him. Dressed in a matching set of leek print chef’s whites, he is a treat to watch as he expertly mans the station, cooking six paellas at once!
At 4000 ISK per person, and a minimum order of two, it is best to order a paella as a group, as “it is best when made for more.” The seemingly simple dish belies the intensely rich seafood stock the grains are plump with. Local nods like the use of salted cod is delicately done so as not to overpower the rice itself. Afterall, the sofrito-stock-cooked rice is the star of the dish. The vegetarian and chicken paella boast similar attention to detail. My one pet peeve is that the accompanying alioli has to be ordered as an extra add-on and isn’t served with the paella itself.
Reception since opening has been promising. “It has been a long journey. Trying to bring everything we could from Spain was really challenging,” smiles Dagur, “but it makes us really happy when we hear from both Spanish people and people who’ve been to Barcelona, that there is finally a place like this that feels like being there.”
Call a place La Barceloneta and offer no bombas? Surely not! The neighbourhood may be known for their long sandy beaches (incidentally imported from Egypt), but insiders know that bombas are the real legacy of the area. Dagur describes bomba as, “a spicy meatball wrapped with mashed potato, breaded and deep fried and served with alioli and our special “salsa Brava.”
Sorry Dagur, I beg to differ — he is criminally underselling their bomba. Having eaten my fair share of bombas whilst living in Barcelona, it was somewhat of a personal mission of mine to try and eat as many as possible wherever I found them. A mission I proudly carry on to this day. Based on my very scientific anecdotal experience, I have to say that Pedro’s bombas surpass even my most favourite ones at La Bombetta (an iconic Catalan restaurant in La Barceloneta, Barcelona).
The size of a tennis ball, somewhat larger than an average bomba, the bomba here is expertly fried, leaving barely a trace of oil on your fingers. It arrives singular, solemn, but once sliced, the guts reveal a fluffy mashed potato exterior that is light, with a crumbly core of sofrito and minced meat (I suspect pork given its delicate flavour). A good bomba rarely needs the salsa brava, here all the parts come together harmoniously. I have to admit being so overwhelmed with joy, I had to thank Pedro in person for such a superlative execution of what is so often a hardened puck of barely seasoned meat, stuffed inside gummy spuds. This is not a scotch egg, folks, nor is it a meat stuffed croqueta; this is a bomba, and it is a grand thing.
The croqueta here are wonderful, too, made the curiously Spanish way with bechamel roux as the binder that, once fried, turns to gloriously custardy insides of a crispy shell.
Vamos a tomar el vermut
Italians have aperitivo, the Spaniards have their “la hora del vermut.” Dagur and Zoe are very clear they wanted to share this quintessentially Spanish hour. Typically the hour before lunch, it is common to have a little tapa, a little canned seafood with a vermut. And unlike Italian vermouths, and bar staples like Martini, Spanish vermut are rarely seen on international menus, although brands like Yzaguirre and Espinaler are slowly being recognised. Vermuterias almost always only serve their own house brewed vermut, something I hope to see here one day.
At the restaurant, the menu boasts a small but selective choice of Barca favourites, a welcome relief from the natural wine sameness that has otherwise consumed the city.
“As everyone knows, wine and liquor are key components in Spanish gastronomy. We try to work only with Spanish brands, and we are working on importing what we think are key Spanish liqueurs, such as ratafia, orujo, anís, and the likes,” shares Dagur, when asked about the near future plans for La Barceloneta. “Our goal is to establish things that are not present in the city, not only in terms of product, but experience, such as ‘la hora del vermut’ (specially on weekends) and ‘la sobremesa’ (staying at the table after lunch/dinner and have some liqueur, carajillos, digestive),” he says enthusiastically.
Ongoing research at the University of Iceland once summarised the deep relationship between Spain and Iceland as “More than sea, sand and salted cod” – a poetic alliteration. Dagur sums it up best for the restaurant as he says, “we cannot bring you the sun, but we can bring you the food.”
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