Cigar Aficionado

Botafumeiro, Barcelona

King Juan Carlos I is a regular patron, but informality reigns at Botafumeiro. Not even Spain's suave monarch could manage to look elegant while dining on the always succulent, often unwieldy shellfish for which this seafood mecca is known.

When José Ramón "Moncho" Neira opened Botafumeiro on a narrow street north of Barcelona's grand Avinguida Diagonal in 1964, the restaurant had 60 seats. Now it has 350, a Michelin star and a reputation as the best marisquería (shellfish bar) in the city.

Botafumeiro's tongue-in-cheek nautical decor begins just inside the entryway, where you're eyeballed by a tank of doomed lobsters. The long bar, inhabited by more diners than drinkers, runs the length of one wall before giving way to a gleaming, ultramodern kitchen, then to the spacious, split-level dining area. Here, paintings of ominous seascapes share wall space with portraits of salty old men. White-jacketed waiters scurry to the kitchen and back, dodging immense mobile carts of shellfish and each other. Large groups carry on at long banquet tables, and strolling flamenco guitarists labor to be heard above the din.

There's plenty of fish on the menu and even a few lonely meat dishes, but just about everyone orders shellfish, which is flown in daily from the owner's native Galicia on Spain's North Atlantic coast. Neira, who is also the chef, uses few spices, preferring to let the fish's natural flavor dominate. (A warning to fat-conscious Americans seeking a light fish dinner: Neira, like most Spanish chefs, believes there's no such thing as too much olive oil.)

We start with a glass of cava, Catalonia's answer to the famous Champagnes produced by its northern neighbor. The best cavas are rich and crisp; this one brims with delicious apple flavor. The mostly Spanish wine list offers more than 20 cavas, plus a reasonably priced array of red and white varietals from Galicia, Rioja and Penedés.

The steamed octopus appetizer, served over potatoes in olive oil, has perfect texture without being too chewy. Lobster salad with avocado, tomato and thin-sliced scallions is tossed in a lighter-than-it-looks egg-and-mustard dressing.

Botafumeiro offers half rations of most entrées; this is the way to order. Enormous sautéed prawns are a garlic lover's dream, and anglerfish served over diced tomatoes is simple but tasty. Broiled lobster is where Neira's laissez-faire style really shines--the lobster is so rich with natural flavor that we're almost through eating when we notice the roasted red pepper sauce it's served with. King crab and spider crab (a larger and even more expensive variety) are also on the menu, as are several types of seafood paellas and a selection of clams and oysters. The waiter will bring any item to the table for a pre-order inspection.

Save room for dessert. On our visit, the special pastry is a tall, flaky monument of chocolate, prunes and apricots in a sauce of mango juice and honey. As if that's not enough, it's served with vanilla gelato on an almond cookie and a scoop of palate-cleansing lemon sorbet.

Spain is possibly the most cigar friendly country in the world, and Botafumeiro is no exception. Post-meal cigars were smoked at no fewer than four tables in our vicinity, without a sideways glance from other diners. Reflecting the general preference of Spaniards for small cigars, Botafumeiro's humidor is stocked with Montecristo Nos. 1, 4 and 5; Cohiba Lanceros, Coronas Especiales and Panetelas; and Partagas 8-9-8s.

Reservations are a must, especially for the large private dining rooms in the rear of the restaurant. But don't make reservations for earlier than 10 p.m. unless you want the place to yourself. Spaniards, and especially Barcelonans, begin dining long after most Americans have finished dessert and are thinking about bed.

Mayor de Gracia 81
Phone: (011-34) 218 42 30
Dinner: $75 to $100 per person, with wine