The last time we were in Barcelona we had four nights of amazing meals, ending with what I consider my best meal ever at 41 Degrees Experience, owned by Chef Albert Adria. 41 Degrees has since closed and is in process of being reimagined as Enigma, but multiple delays in its opening meant we would not be able to try it on this trip. However, that doesn’t mean Adria hasn’t been a busy man; in fact, he has opened several other restaurants during our absence, so there was still plenty to choose from. We had already been to Tickets, which we enjoyed; but it didn’t quite live up to a hype which has only grown thanks to a Michelin star and its placement on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. No, we wanted to try something different, so we chose two of his restaurants to begin and end our trip: Hoja Santa and Pakta.
Hoja Santa has Chef Paco Mendez at the helm, with a focus on the pre-Hispanic cuisine of Mexico using traditional ingredients and ancient techniques. The two chefs traveled to Oaxaca, where they gathered their inspiration for the menu. The hoja santa leaf, an aromatic herb also called the “root beer plant” and which means “sacred leaf” in Spanish, became its namesake. It has a casual vibe – not much fancier than your local neighborhood Mexican restaurant, except with a tasting menu and an army of service staff.
Hoja Santa does have an à la carte menu – but where is the fun in that? So we naturally went for the tasting menu. I had also read that there was a wine, as well as a mescal, pairing available but neither of those options were offered to us. Instead, we started with the Hoja Santa margarita topped off with salt foam, which was a very promising start indeed. The next thing we knew, our table was full of an overwhelming amount of food – small bites like avocado gazpacho, corn fritters, and pickled vegetables with “ant” salt. Interpret that as you will. We were told to not worry, to take our time, and that it’s just about the presentation. That would be fine, except plates were cleared out as soon as we were done, so it did feel a like they were anxious to keep us moving forward.
The menu continued with a variety of plates – most very good, some exceptional. My favorites were the sea urchin tostada, barbeque jicama lamb cheeks, and mussels ceviche with pineapple. The biggest disappointment was the artichoke. Personally, I love artichokes, but Craig isn’t crazy about them. Our server assured us that customers who are on the fence about artichokes end up being a convert after trying this dish. Too bad we didn’t have a wager on it. It was smoked, and that’s all I could taste. Instead of enhancing the artichoke, it was overwhelming and heavy with a pistachio margajada sauce, contrasting with so many of the other dishes that had a more delicate nature and tasted fresh and bright.
The savory main courses were a series of moles. First was monkfish, prepared tableside with a black recado originating with the Mayans. Next was a chichilo mole, which originates in Oaxaca and was served with waygu beef in a taco form. We were instructed on how to roll up the “taco” and eat it, then seemed to get a disapproving look when we didn’t do it quite right. It was not easy and we were not the only ones struggling. The final dish was a black garlic mole served with avocado. We were told this was a super-special seventeen-ingredient mole that cooked for a week. All the moles were good, but I wasn’t blown away.
Desserts came next and we began with alternating bites of an herbal popsicle and a pumpkin honey Mexican candy. A cream puff with banana and caramel followed, and dessert concluded with figs, chocolate and a grapefruit sorbet. This was followed by mignardises of merengue radishes and chocolate stones. At this point, we were left on our own and no staff came over to see if we wanted anything else: coffee, digestif, the bill. Our neighbors to both sides got their bills, but we couldn’t even get eye contact and so sat there awkwardly for some time. For all the service staff on hand, it felt like at a certain point in the meal they decided to abandon us, making it a disappointing ending.
Our last big meal – although not our last night – was at Pakta, which means “together” or “union” in Quechua, an original language of indigenous Peruvians. Pakta serves Nikkei cuisine, which is a joining of Peruvian and Japanese culinary traditions. This may seem an odd combination at first, but Peru has a very large Japanese population that began to establish themselves in the late 19th century. This had a big impact on the country and their respective culinary traditions, both relying heavily on fresh fish, began to merge.
With Albert Adria guiding the experience, Pakta is led by two chefs: Japanese native Kioko Li, and Jorge Munoz from Peru. The first plate came out with a beautiful presentation of delicious bites, reminding me of 41 Degrees. I felt a surge of excitement. The menu didn’t maintain that same look and taste throughout the meal, but I was generally really happy with the food, aside from the prawn ceviche. The tuna belly sashimi with sea urchin, the Chliean waygu beef with potato chips and ponzu, the mussels with daikon and apple kimchi sauce and smoked coconut powder, the king crab maki, and the homemade soba green tea noodles – all delicious.
But it wasn’t a perfect night, even before the stomach troubles began. I am well aware that there is an important element of timing with a tasting menu, and the kitchen can get thrown off if individuals in a party are constantly getting up for bathroom and smoke breaks, but when our waiter told us at the beginning that we should let him know when we needed to use the bathroom I thought that seemed a bit much. Did we really need to ask for permission? Apparently, we did. At some point in the meal, instead of asking if I could use the restroom I just asked where the restrooms were, and although he pointed them out he asked if I could wait because the next course was about to come out. In this case, I could wait, but it felt very awkward and unnecessary. It was at least five minutes before that next course came out, so I could have made it to the restroom and back in time. It’s a small restaurant, after all, and there wasn’t far to go. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t get up when I needed to at any restaurant I’ve been to – tasting menu or not – and I wasn’t happy about that.
I had read about the drink pairing options, including sake pairings, but there wasn’t anything on the menu and it wasn’t offered up to us as an option – much like at Hoja Santa. While we started with a cocktail, the menu did recommend beer and sake as being the best accompaniments to the food, so we asked if they could make recommendations but we were looked at as if we were speaking a foreign language. Well, actually, we were. But they didn’t seem to be able to help us, so we selected our own sake and beer and made it work, although not without some confusion and odd looks.
Despite some service issues, I left feeling like we were (almost) ending our trip with a great meal. I really enjoyed all the flavors and tastes. Unfortunately, several hours later and I would wonder how I could get so sick at such a highly rated restaurant. I assumed it was food poisoning, but the pharmacist said it was norovirus, with food as the likely delivery vehicle but not the culprit. I still don’t know for sure – and I don’t know for sure if it was from that meal. Whether it was from Pakta or anywhere else, Craig and I ate almost identical food, so it seems a little strange that one of us would get sick but not the other. Regardless, it was a pretty unpleasant final thirty-six hours in Barcelona followed by long day flying from Barcelona to London to Seattle to get home.
At both restaurants everything was beautifully, carefully presented, and the taste very good, but what it lacked was the surprise and delight and fun that I remembered from 41 Degrees. These are all different restaurants with different concepts, and shouldn’t be compared to one another, but I think my expectations were pretty high despite the fact that I had read quite a few mixed reviews of both. Most disappointing was the service. It was professional and generally friendly, but lacked a more personal touch that should accompany a meal like this, especially when the atmosphere is casual and convivial. Mostly, I’m disappointed in the feeling of being rushed. Pacing is one of the most important elements in a tasting menu, and when I’m committing this much time and money to a meal I don’t want to feel like the staff are just waiting to turn over the table. I’m not sure I would go back to either restaurant, although that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try other Adria ventures. Enigma is still very high on my list, but there is just so much good food in Barcelona that I would not want to limit myself by repeating less than phenomenal experiences.