on April 27, 2013
The first warm weather of the year can bring out the worst in us Northern Europeans. At the first sign of sun we’re flashing too much flesh, polishing off the rusty barbeque and looking for places where we can eat outside, never mind the noise, the insects or the fact that it’s actually not that warm. I pondered on this behaviour this week when I found myself in Barcelona with some colleagues, all determined to eat outside ‘just because we can’ at a restaurant called Merendero De La Mari.We were a group of four – two Germans, two Brits – although we should have been more. The Portuguese and Spanish colleagues had made their excuses because it was St George’s Day (St Jordi) and they had other plans. In Catalonia the locals love to celebrate the saint that we English (whose patron saint he is) tend to forget about. They were off indulging in the Catalan habit of exchanging roses and books leaving the northern visitors with a booking for a restaurant by the Port Vell. When we’d discussed what to do for dinner earlier in the day, I’d seriously thought about not bothering but then I received a link for the restaurant website and I realised there was no way I was going to miss out on this one. The menu at Merendero De La Mari looked so good that I put all thoughts of opting out behind me. I also know that the secretary who recommended the place and made the booking has fantastic taste.We were – unusually for us – early. Our EasyJet flight had been scheduled to take 2 hours from Paris when it only needed an hour and a quarter. We had a booking for 9.30 pm which is pretty normal for Barcelona, maybe even a bit early, but we landed around 8 pm and hopped in a taxi at the airport and went straight to Port Vell. I think we all knew that if we went to the hotel first we were so tired that we’d probably give up on going out altogether as we were part way into a really tough travel week.The taxi dropped us as close as he could go and pointed in the right direction telling us it was the second of the restaurants, not the first. There is a large block of buildings which appear to be mostly restaurants and Merendero de la Mari has a prime position overlooking the port. Compared to the more touristic Port Olympico, I prefer the Port Vell. It’s quieter, less exploitative and the views are nicer. We stopped to take in the view across the harbour whilst our sailing-fanatic German colleague puffed a cigarette and looked at the yachts. We then took the tough ‘in or out’ decision. It had been a warm day but the evening was cooling quickly so we weren’t sure that we’d be warm enough but to go inside when the view was so good just seemed wrong. Then we spotted the patio heaters (evil eco-unfriendly things that they are) and decided to eat outside. We had our luggage with us but the waiters quickly whisked the bags away and we settled on the terrace with the patio heater keeping things cosy. The chairs were metal framed with wicker-like backs and seats and totally the wrong shape to hang your jacket over the back. We later realised that the strange fish-shaped metal stands scattered around the terrace were perfect for holding our coats although I’ve no idea if that was the proprietor’s intention or not. Tables are laid with thick cloths and set with sparkling glasses and cutlery so it’s not the sort of place where you’re served less elegantly just because you’ve chosen to stay outside. When we arrived at about 8.45pm we were not surprised to find we were the only customers but by the time we left, only a few more tables had been taken. I’m not sure if this is a sign of the economically tough times or an indication that St Jordi is an evening when people spend time at home with their families. I also can’t rule out the possibility that Munich versus Barcelona in the football might have meant the population were home, glued to their televisions.The waiter brought the menus which were in English and took our drink orders. All of the staff spoke good but heavily accented English and we had no issues on communication. I’ve previously been given things that were nothing like I’d ordered in Barcelona due to waiters assuming they knew what I mean and not what I actually said. For drinks, Kerstin and I started with white wine whilst the boys, Bjoern and Phil, went for beers. For starters we picked three dishes to share. These were baby octopus(es), roasted red peppers with smoked tuna slices, and a dish of codfish esquixada (a combination of chopped, probably raw, codfish with chopped onions and tomatoes and olive oil). For my main course I chose ocotopus Gallician style (Pulpo a la Gallega), whilst the boys went for two slightly different interpretations of paella and Kerstin had grilled shrimps (she’d wanted grilled squid but it wasn’t available).A basket of small rolls came with the starters and we had plenty to share with the three dishes. Nobody mentioned me being the awkward meat avoider and everyone just ordered fish. The starters arrived after about ten to fifteen minutes and were beautiful. The portions were mostly good for sharing. The baby octopus were lightly fried and slightly salted in the classic local style and each was about an inch long complete with their titchy tentacles. I love these ‘ciperones’ and I can’t resist if they are on the menu but I also couldn’t eat a whole portion. The cod fish was delicious though a bit heavy on the olive oil for my liking and the red peppers with smoked tuna presented us with a slight problem of how to divide 3 slices of fish between four people. It was intriguing to have tuna presented a little like Iberian ham.I’m still unsure if my octopus main course was intended to be a main course or a starter but it was the perfect size for me and I wouldn’t have really wanted it any bigger. It was one of the cheaper dishes which contributed to my starter or main confusion. I received a normal sized dinner plate with slices of octopus (sliced through the tentacles to make round pieces), perched on top of slices of boiled potato and sprinkled with paprika. The whole lot was drizzled with lots of olive oil but was otherwise perfect. The octopus was tender and tasty and the potatoes were cooked to perfection. Kerstin’s prawns were massive and rather more like tiny lobsters than prawns. The two paellas were polished off without any trouble and were clearly good as nobody offered us a forkful to try.We all felt full enough to skip the puddings and if memory serves me right, we even skipped the coffees. It had been a long day and we had another long day ahead of us so we called it a day and asked for the bill. The total for the four of us with three starters, four mains, two beers and a bottle and a half of white wine came to around €200. That might sound like a lot but by Barcelona standards, it was probably less than I’d have expected given the quality and the location. Tripadvisor reviews on this place are a real mixed bag with some very stroppy unhappy diners claiming the food is awful and the staff are rude but neither were the case during our meal.I had previously eaten in another restaurant close to this one and I think this is a very pleasant area for dinner, quieter and less aggressive than Port Olympico but with all the waterside charm that visitors love to take advantage of. The lack of other customers in no way reflected the quality of the restaurant and I noticed that all the others in the area were also pretty empty. All the locals were home crying over the football results.
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