In their cuisine, as in the rest of their culture, the cosmopolitan Catalans who inhabit Barcelona share two basic principles. While they love tradition, they always wish to be thought fashionable and up-to-date. And their antipathy to Castile and its capital, Madrid, often leads them to embrace the trends that blow over from neighboring France. So, it should come as no surprise that the most talked about restaurant in Barcelona, and arguably its best one, is owned by a French-born Catalan.
Jean Luc Figueras--the establishment named for its master chef and owner--occupies a lovely townhouse that was once the studio of the famous fashion designer Balenciaga. The decor is still just as chic: chandeliers, potted palms in the corners, and tile floors bearing a gray-and-mauve mosaic pattern. One almost expects a parade of models in elegant gowns to descend the curving staircase.
Despite its haute couture past, Jean Luc Figueras is a relaxed, informal restaurant with an eclectic list of guests. They range from businessmen who might feel naked without a tie even on a hot summer evening to bare-shouldered actresses with a starving-gamine look and oh-so-smart interior designers in white silk T-shirts under black jackets.
Fortunately for travelers coming from countries where dinners don't always end in the wee hours of the morning--a culinary lifestyle preferred by inhabitants of Iberia--this restaurant's schedule is as flexible as its dress code. It's actually possible to be served a meal by 9 p.m., and to discover that other tables are occupied by fellow diners who don't feel deprived to be in bed by midnight.
Chef Figueras was born and raised in southwestern France, then moved across the border and spent the better part of a decade honing his skills in the kitchen of restaurants in Sant Feliu de Guixols and Costa Brava before settling in Barcelona. French ingredients are assimilated so well in his nouvelle Catalan cuisine that he seems to have made them his own, modifying them according to his own style and taste.
Fully a third of the 30 entries in his menu have evolved from classic Catalan recipes. The sea bass with salt cod tripe and black sausage has been prepared in the region, in one guise or another, since the Middle Ages. So have the veal head terrine with black sausage and the young pigeon with black sausage. Other dishes have more recent Catalan pedigrees. Sea bass, cuttlefish julienne and creaking vermicelli is one example, and rock fish with garlic tomato and smoked eel is another.
Some dishes clearly owe at least as much to French gastronomy as to Catalan roots. The shrimp salad with truffle cream and the pork cheeks with mustard sauce and goat cheese are two that come to mind. The geography of the desserts ranges farther across the globe to the New World and the Middle East, with such delicious hybrids as cold verbena soup with pineapple and hot yogurt sorbet, or the orange cream with cinnamon, milk and tomato jam.
Although there is an ample selection of French and Catalan wines, the best price-to-quality ratios are--no surprise, here--the Rioja labels from northern Spain. Patrons can also choose from a large selection of premium smokes in this cigar-friendly restaurant. The choice is clearly one of the many Cuban brands.--Jonathan Kandell
Jonathan Kandell, a freelance writer in New York City, was formerly a correspondent in Central and South America for The New York Times.
Jean Luc Figueras
Carrer Santa Teresa 10
Phone 34 (93) 415-2877
Dinner $75, including wine and 10 percent gratuity