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A cuisine of the sea and soul

Some people refer to Barcelona, the stylish city on Spain's northeastern Mediterranean coast, as the poor man's Paris. Two people can share an elegant dinner with wine for $60, and you can still find a good hotel room for $100 a night.

Best of all, they say, Barcelona has sophistication without attitude.

I had the perfect excuse to find out for myself last spring. My son Joe, 21, was finishing his junior semester at the University of Barcelona. I was hoping he had been gone long enough to miss me and to develop an appetite for sharing a few good meals with his mom.

A modernist city, Barcelona has been reinventing itself since Roman times. It is the capital of Catalonia, a fiercely independent region of Spain with its own language, flag and history of political upheaval. (It was the center of the left-wing opposition during the Spanish Civil War.) Barcelona's popularity as a tourist destination has grown since the 1992 Olympics. This year, many architecture buffs arrived for the 150th anniversary of the birth of visionary architect Antonio Gaudí, whose distinctive, free-form works are known worldwide.

Barcelona is filled with world-class architecture and, some would say, world-class cuisine. The region's cooking uses many of the same ingredients as that of other Mediterranean countries -- fresh seafood; salt cod and anchovies; olive oil; garlic; eggplant, spinach, tomatoes and peppers; olives; wild game and duck -- and turns them into dishes of great variety, refinement and soul-satisfying flavor.

In Spanish style, the two big meals of the day are lunch, eaten between 2 and 4 p.m., and dinner, which rarely starts before 9 p.m. and which lasts a minimum of three hours. As an American worker bee who has been gulping down 20-minute lunches at her desk for the last few years, I have great respect for the Spanish, who refuse to rush the really important things in life, like meals. Shops still close, people drink wine with lunch, and friends linger over coffee and cigarettes until the last piece of gossip has been shared and savored.

It felt wonderful never to rush a meal, and reassuring to know that there was always a tapas bar open for savory snacks and prime people-watching along the lovely Passeig de Gràcia, a short walk from my hotel, the Inglaterra.

Restaurants are buzzing and reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. Service at all the restaurants I visited was warm and gracious, despite my nonexistent Spanish.

The proud Catalan character does not encourage big tipping. One taxi driver actually returned a tip he felt was too extravagant. A 5% tip is considered sufficient in this socialist stronghold.

The restaurants below, listed in no particular order, were the top picks of an acquaintance who lives in Barcelona and who gives food tours of the city.

Cal Pep: Worth a long wait

If you're in Barcelona for only a few days, this is a place you don't want to miss. Cal Pep is the prototypical, unpretentious seafood joint. It's close to the Picasso museum and the port in the hip section of town called the Born and is basically a long, narrow sliver of a room where guests dine at a marble bar without the intrusion of menus, reservations or waiters.

We arrived about 8:30 on a weeknight and encountered a 30-minute wait. It was worth it. We started with a pile of the tiniest sardines, lightly battered and crisply fried, which we tossed into our mouths like shoestring fries. We shared quartered baby artichokes, also battered and fried, and a delicious bowl of warm garbanzo beans seasoned with succulent bits of salt pork and wilted spinach.

In no particular order, we also ate small clams steamed in a white wine, garlic and parsley broth, fresh sole grilled on the bone and served simply with lemon, and the first of many steaks that Joe was to order in the two weeks we ate together. (You can take the college boy out of America, but you can't take America out of the college boy.) We drank a white Penedès and pointed to the dessert that other diners were delicately licking off their espresso spoons: three shot glasses filled with light, foamy custards of coffee, lemon and cinnamon.

Pep Manubens Figueres, the chef and owner, is obviously a local celebrity -- I noticed his cookbook in Barcelona bookstores -- and he deserves it.

Chicoa: Off the tourist route

Everything about this place was warm, welcoming and about as far as you can get from the tourist part of town, where those less fortunate than us were dining on cheap paella. With its white stucco walls, wood beams and antique cookware, Chicoa offered Joe and me our most traditional meal.

We started with plump green asparagus spears charred and served with romesco, a sauce of mashed almonds, bread and tomatoes, and a dish of calcots, young spring onions battered and fried. I ordered snails; Joe gamely dug the little bits of gray meat out of their shells with his long wooden spear and dipped them into a garlicky allioli, or garlic mayonnaise, before popping them into his mouth and shouting, "All right, I did it."

For a main course, I ordered what turned out to be one of my favorite dishes on the trip, a simple fideus rubios, or toasted vermicelli enriched with a flavorful fish broth, tomatoes and garlic and topped with a few clams. It was brought to the table in the skillet and was perfect with some of that soul-stirring allioli spooned on top. Joe had a huge dish of fried hake and calamari that looked a little heavy to his middle-age mom but the accompaniment of fried whole green peppers called pimentos padrón was just right for cutting the richness. (These small, mildly spicy peppers are often served with grilled meats and poultry and were a welcome sight to chile-starved Californians. We were surprised that the Spanish rely more on salt than pepper for seasoning.)

Dessert was hardly necessary, but Joe managed to demolish a large slice of caramelized apple tart with crema catalana, a vanilla custard. I watched in wonder while sipping an espresso and thinking about my hotel bed.

Hofmann: French with a twist

This elegant boîte, up a narrow staircase in the grungy Gothic Barrio, is for the gourmet with deep pockets who likes a little show with his fine dining. Hofmann is a cooking school that serves lunch and dinner five days a week. It was a beehive of activity the night we met friends there for a late dinner.

Our party of six sat in a private glass-walled room with views of the marble-topped pastry station, where chefs were spinning sugar cages while students scurried around lugging stockpots and mopping up spills. At the center was chef/entrepreneur Mey Hofmann -- a Latin Martha Stewart in skintight hot pink Versace and black stilettos who holds diplomas from Cordon Bleu and LeNôtre in Paris. She weds haute French technique to Spanish ingredients with style and precision in her cooking classes and local TV show.

Joe and his friends were duly impressed. Although I tend to feel cheated by small, precisely cut morsels of food huddled on oversized white plates, there were a few knockout appetizers that night. Among them were a warm sardine tart with a bottom layer of egg tortilla, or omelet; a plate of baby squashes, eggplant and tomato stuffed with tapenades; and a silky red gazpacho garnished with poached cod. I recommend skipping the entrees and going straight to desserts if you have the chutzpah. One friend's steak had to be sent back to the kitchen twice because the chef refused to cook it medium-well, and my two baby lamb chops lacked flavor.

The desserts, however, brought us back under Hofmann's spell, with a dish of crème brûlée causing communal sighs as we passed it around the table. Each bite-sized morsel was a 1-inch round of crisp burnt sugar topped with gooseberry jam. All the desserts tasted as beautiful as they looked, and we left feeling pampered, if not too full.

Txokoa: Value in abundance

Located in the residential neighborhood of Gracia, just above the Diagonal, one of Barcelona's main drags, this Basque restaurant is the type of place I'm always searching for when traveling -- small, family-owned, with great food.

Once you walk past the bar and go downstairs into the cozy dining room, all is wood, cane chairs, small oil paintings and gracious warmth. The three-course menu is fixed-price, with plenty of dishes to choose from. With house wine, a Rioja, the meal came to $25 a person.

The Basque region, on Spain's North Atlantic coast, is known for its produce, seafood and meat. And a great deal of soul. We started with a platter of refined pintxos, Basque tapas, which included foie gras on toast with plum compote, a large pillow of spinach-stuffed ravioli in bacon vinaigrette, and sweet roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao -- salt cod -- and drizzled with pil-pil, a light green emulsion of parsley, garlic and olive oil. I had an elegant entree of seared duck breast fanned over apple puree with a thin syrup of balsamic vinegar and pan juices.

Joe read the disclaimers on the menu about European beef and went for it anyway. He ordered a hearty ½-inch-thick, 1-pound serving of local beef on the bone, outlined with an inch of well-charred fat. The steak was grilled and served simply with a green salad and warm piquillo peppers, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

After his dessert of chocolate terrine topped with chocolate ice cream, he vowed to return with his friends for their farewell dinner in Barcelona. I can see why. Txokoa is a real deal, and there's not an ounce of pretension in its warm wooden bones.

Agua: It's all about the scenery

I was intrigued when our taxi driver dropped us off at an elevator alongside the sea in the old section of town called Barceloneta. From the street we could see Frank Gehry's big copper-colored fish from the '92 Olympics glistening in the sunshine, and when we stepped out of the elevator downstairs, we entered a big, airy modern dining room that could have been in California.

Our outdoor table was prime real estate, a patio practically on the beach, with a perfect view of the promenade, including topless bathers for the boys. When I eyed hamburgers, pasta and salads on the menu, however, my heart sank. I hate to waste a meal in Europe on food I could be eating anywhere. With the help of another good bottle of white wine, I recovered.

Once I accepted that Agua is all about being where the beautiful people are on a sunlit Sunday afternoon in Spain, I found it very relaxing. I practically slipped into a coma fantasizing about all the cool-looking people casually puffing away on their cigarettes as I noodled around with my food for three hours. My only regret is that I didn't order the rice al carbón. In retrospect, all the locals were nibbling this luscious-looking rice dish brought to the table in earthenware casseroles, not the weird stacked salads and lobster risottos we mistakenly ordered. As I said, it may not have been about the food, but the scenery was fantastic. Don't go at night.

L'Olive: Simple, soothing retreat

In L'Olive, a short walk from Plaza Catalunya but a world away from the tawdry Ramblas, I found my comfort spot. With its calm, minimalist décor and polished, unobtrusive service, L'Olive was a welcome retreat after a day of architectural excess or hard-core shopping. We ate there on several nights, so we got to sample lots of dishes on the large menu of updated Catalan cuisine.

Dinner starts with three types of bread: crusty rolls, toasted baguette for the house tapenade and pan con tomate, the Catalan specialty of grilled country bread drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with cut tomato.

My favorite dishes at L'Olive tended to be the simpler ones. We had an outstanding dish of fava beans in a rich brown broth studded with salt pork; tiny cockles on the half shell baked on a bed of salt and seasoned with bread crumbs, garlic and tomato; spinach with raisins and pine nuts; a good escalivada of grilled eggplant and red pepper strips bathed in olive oil; and a wonderful eggplant appetizer stuffed with a rich mixture of ground pork, cheese and tomatoes. I had a terrific plate of grilled squid one night, arranged in a spoke pattern and oozing butter; I also liked the restaurant's signature carpaccio, translucent slices of pink bacalao cured with bitter orange and sprinkled with dill.

Less impressive were the famous Spanish stews and rice dishes that rely on long, slow cooking. Joe's paella lacked soul, and my angler suquet, a traditional stew of fish and potatoes, was too plain for my taste. On the other hand, one evening when a friend's parents joined us, the father was relieved that he could order a simple dish of grilled salmon seasoned with coarse salt and lemon and garnished with vegetables.

L'Olive features a long list of delicious ice creams for dessert, from the sublime (hazelnut and plum) to the unusual (fresh cheese with bitter orange). Our college boys were happy to help us polish off the luscious ice cream-stuffed cream puffs. May their arteries stay forever young.

Helene Siegel is the author of 38 cookbooks and is director of content for Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

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