Beach tourism and good, local and honestly priced food and wine somehow doesn’t go well together. Visiting some tourist infested Mediterranean town in August, which is THE beach holiday month for most Europeans, usually means paying a lot for mediocre food. In my very own Istria, since few years a rising gourmet and wine star in international press and blogosphere, rather be well informed before you sit down in some sea-facing restaurant of Istria’s west coast resort towns. Even Barcelona, the home of many world-renowned chefs, isn’t a bed of roses.
In Sitges, a charming seaside resort just 40 km southwest of Barcelona, the things do get a bit better. Here is a detailed guide to my favorite restaurants (and a wine shop & bar) in Sitges.
Six years ago when I first came with my partner to Sitges, I wasn’t impressed only by its cosmopolitan spirit, vibrant nightlife, beautiful modernist villas and the fact that this place, once a small fishing village, was officially gay friendly destination decades before Croatia had its first gay pride. My heart was taken by its large restaurant offer that is diverse, of good quality and with prices comparable to the ones in Croatia. So yes, in Sitges it is actually possible to have holidays suitable both for party-beach-bar-party AND gourmet-vino-localvore crowd (they are both freaks in a way).
The summer 2013 was not exception – we ate better than ever just because we know well the scene and got great recommendations from our friends who live there (thanks Joan, thanks Ale and Lory, owners of great Bed & Breakfasts).
To pay tribute to people who enchanted me with their tasty food here is a list of my favorite restaurants (wine shop & bar) in Sitges. It may come a bit too late for an average tourist because the summer season is now over. Yet, all these places are open throughout the year because Sitges is Barcelona’s favorite seafront weekend getaway. So you may visit these fine eateries if you choose Barcelona for an autumn, winter of spring city break. Moreover, based on reliability and devotion of their staff, I am quite certain their quality level won’t go down even in the next summer season.
It is an excellent and authentic tapas bar but El Cable is above all a haven for locals desperate to hide themselves from hordes of tourists. Tourists just pass, stare a bit in the crowd drinking a glass of beer or Cava at the entrance, but rarely dare to enter inside. It is probably because of pretty indifferent service if you don’t know the bartender or if you don’t try to order tapas in Catalan (I read the Catalan menu and don’t care if my pronunciation is bad). From this season the staff is much more willing to speak in English, though. I am not so manic about service quality like American and English but I am very, very picky when it comes to food quality.
No worries, in El Cable tapas are just brilliant. They stick to local recipes and are always freshly prepared right in their kitchen which means that for some tapas you will have to wait. My favorites are chorizo with fried green pepper, fried picarels, marinated anchovies, meatballs in tomato sauce, steamed octopus… Every wine geek will be magnetically dragged in by black, wooden barrels of various sizes lined above the bar, keep many fortified, aromatized and sweet wines. Sherry, Vermouth or Malvasia de Sitges – just perfect to start the evening. From this year they have put up a special wine list dedicated to ultralocal wines from Garraf hills.
If El Cable gets overcrowded with tourists it will loose its authentic neighborhood atmosphere. So bartenders, I beg you to continue to be a bit uninterested with us, nasty tourists, but nourish us as good as locals. This legendary place is for locals and it should stay like that.
Don’t get turned off, like we did, by its central position and smart modern décor based on clean lines, minimalism and intimate lightning above every table. No, it’s not just another tourist trap whose owners invests more in decoration than in food quality. On the contrary! Bon Estar is a genuine family-run restaurant with soul whose tradition dates back to 1974. It is open even out of summer season when locals reconquer the place. The cooking uses only freshest produce and concentrates on traditional dishes from Sitges and surroundings. All dishes have that nostalgic taste of grandmother’s cooking but are prepared in a lighter, just a bit modernized style. Presentation is essential and graphic, but far from being avant-garde. Late Santi Santamaria would be happy if he saw how his ideas about Catalan cuisine are put in practice here.
Their seafood fideua served with aioli sauce and cod steak (bacalao) served with romesco sauce were masterfully prepared and both had intense, natural flavors so I am sure they know the art of making a good fish stock. For me, an average coastal Croatian, who seasons fish only with olive oil, parsley and maybe garlic, it was interesting to see how two famous Mediterranean sauces (romesco sauce originates from nearby Tarragona) get used in local seafood cuisine.
A quiet street hides this historic establishment that I perceive as the keeper of centenary culinary tradition of Sitges fishermen. On the walls there are fishnets, ropes, lanterns, paintings of ships… This well maintained decor that hasn’t been changed for decades exudes a pleasant, sweet nostalgic atmosphere. The prices are a bit on the high side but well worth it especially for those of open-minded palate and in constant search for some old, forgotten recipe.
For example, unduly neglected parts of fish – like salt cod tripes in ratatouille. These tripes have a lot of collagen, as much as pig’s feet or cotechino, that deliciously coats the mouth while acidity from tomatoes tries to clean it. Pair it with a good Cava or, as its stickiness reminds of meat cuts usually cooked in sauerkraut, with a refreshing Bavarian Pils. More mainstream palates will be happy with shrimps carpaccio, cuttlefish in umido with caramelized onions and Arroz de Sitges – a seafood rice dish more similar to Italian and Istrian risotto frutti di mare than to paella.
Wine list supports local winemakers so also here there is a great selection of Vins del Garraf. Don’t miss Blanc Subur, a dry white wine made from Malvasia de Sitges. It is a grape variety indigenous to Sitges and since recently it has its own Slow Food Presidia. There are some rumors this grape is a relative of Dubrovačka Malvasija and Malvasia de Lipari but only the DNA analysis can confirm that. Due to its significant mouthwatering minerality and opulent aromaticity dry Malvasia de Sitges pairs well with langoustines (scampi) and seashells.
The dry version of Malvasia de Sitges is relatively recent invention. Traditionally this grape is used for making strong sweet passito made from grapes which are allowed to overripen. At the end of the meal you’ll get a glass of, as they say, the most genuine produce Sitges can offer. It is a perfect match with their fig and fresh cheese crostata.
It is a modest looking bar and cafeteria popular among locals who come here to grab an honest and cheap lunch. The prix-fixe lunch menu with three courses (starter, main, dessert), bread, a drink (wine or beer) and coffee costs 10 euros.
For those moments when you get fed up by restaurant food and just want simple, everyday dishes you would prepare at home when you don’t have plenty of time. The best recommendation is to see blue-collar workers eating here regularly. Don’t worry, the food is not heavy and too fat, we’re on Mediterranean! In Croatia Triana would be a popular marenda or gablec place.
In Nem it is possible.
The concept of young English chef Lee is simple – he offers ten savory and four sweet tapas that you can combine together with eight wines offered by glass. Each month the tapas list changes and follows what the season can offer. Rumors say each day Lee personally visits the nearby Sitges market where he sources all the ingredients.
Nem’s tapas are not that small – for two hungry persons 4-5 savory tapas and 2 sweet ones is more than enough for a satisfying dinner. The name Nem, a Vietnamese sausage/rolls that are always on the menu, gives you the hint what Lee likes to cook. He takes mostly Mediterranean ingredients, like octopus, rocket, sea bass, bonito, date, goat cheese, lamb, pancetta and mozzarella, and adds texture contrasts, crispness and colors that would be more common for Vietnamese cuisine. Although he applies some Asiatic spices/herbs (curry, ginger, cilantro…), he doesn’t make the dishes too spicy or too aromatic because this would, as any wine lover knows, make pairings with wine impossible.
The desserts are responsibility of Gonzalo, a Catalan guy who even visited Croatia. His sweet treats are light yet the flavors are intense. In Italy they would be called “dolci al cucchiaio” (literally: spoon desserts) because they are based on various mousses, creams, baked fruits, frozen yoghurts and jellies.
The wine list is short, moderately priced and includes many local wines (Garraf, Montsant, Penedés) and not only ubiquitous Rioja and Ribeiro. Although I am not expert in Spanish wine, I’ll give my sommelier diploma away if it’s not true that somebody intelligent and with an exquisite taste compiled the list.
OK, maybe Nem is not the best restaurant in Sitges simply because it is just a tapas bar and not a restaurant (this is what modest and kind Lee says when I started to praise him). But it is certainly the place that for the price you pay offers incredibly intelligent, eclectic and tasty dishes and, not less important, honest wines. Barcelonians should be jealous they don’t have Nem. Reserve at least one day in advance!
For the end, here is one wine shop & bar where we felt like at home.
There are other wine shops & bars in Sitges yet only in Perbacco I felt that both the owner and his clients really care about wine and its culture. In other bars, despite the fact they pour some bland stuff, elegantly dressed people drink wine just to show off with a wine glass in hand. In Perbacco the atmosphere is much more informal, wine geeky and local. The owner, kind and talkative Pocholo who even speaks a decent amount of English, does his best to introduce novice wine drinkers and poor tourists to the vast world of Spanish bottles that lie on the shelves. There you’ll find excellent and not to pricey Priorat reds, Penedés natural wines and serious Cavas, even the rosé ones.
Ask Pocholo for his very own vermut(the Catalan word for vermouth) whose base is local white wine macerated with green walnuts and more than 100 aromatic herbs. See for yourself why this drink with retro appeal overthrew gin and tonic in Barcelona.
Although Catalans usually take it before lunch accompanied with some green olives and marinated anchovies, for me it was a relaxing prelude to a long Sitges summer night.
El Cable, C. Barcelona 1, tel. +34 93 894 8761, www.elcable.cat
Bon Estar, C. Parellades 63, tel. +34 93 894 3493, www.sitgesbonestar.com
La Nansa, C. Carreta 24, tel. +34 93 894 1927, www.restaurantlanansa.com
Triana, Paseig de Vilanova 12, tel. +34 93 811 0250
Nem, C. Illa de Cuba 9, tel. +34 93 894 9332, www.nemsitges.com
Perbacco, C. Sant Gaudenci 5, tel. +34 938 11 22 09
If you are interested in fresh, local and traditional food or you want to taste Istrian wines on the spot, take a walk in vineyards and meet Istrian winemakers contact him here.