Tickets, Ferran and Albert Adria's Barcelona tapas bar, is supremely hard to get into, but is well worth the wait.
The wife is always the last to know. “I have got Tickets,” says my husband, Paul.
“Tickets? For what?” “No, not tickets — Tickets, Ferran and Albert Adria’s Barcelona tapas bar. It is supremely hard to get into. You have to book online months in advance. Erm, only thing is it is in February half-term, so I thought we would take Joe, too.” He rushed that last line.
“Result!” said our 11-year-old, Joe. Seeing my bemused stare, he went on: “We have wanted to go there for ages. They do the exploding olives they had at El Bulli and all sorts of insane stuff.”
And so I discover my husband and molecular-gastronomy-obsessed son’s plot to spend our 20th wedding anniversary stuffing their faces in the Catalan capital.
Fast forward three months. We are booked into The 5 Rooms — a hip B&B of 12 rooms (it has grown) sprawled stylishly across two floors of a late 19th-century building on the border of the Eixample and the Old Town.
We explore Eixample on foot and refuel at Casa Alfonso (casaalfonso.com, tapas from about R58). A Barcelona institution, this charcuteria (delicatessen) and café has been wowing locals with its porcine produce since 1934. Twitter account aside, little has changed: the marble bar, tiled floor and chairs are all original — as, I suspect, are several customers.
Squeezing in alongside pensioners and office workers, we order traditional tapas such as morcilla à la Catalan (rich, crumbly blood sausage) and chistorras al vino (chorizo in rioja).
All are piggy-perfect: with wine and coffee we are stuffed for about R650.
High on protein, we head to Macba, Barcelona’s museum of contemporary art in the Raval district, where we spend the afternoon intrigued, horribly confused, or struggling to contain giggles.
We walk for kilometres, refuelling with indecent regularity. La Taverna del Clinic (latavernadelclinic.com, tapas from about R78), a long, thin finger of a restaurant crammed with surgeon types from the nearby hospital, is a lucky find. Unctuous stewed oxtail, slow-cooked suckling lamb, and wild mushrooms sautéed with black and white sausage are superb.
Ditto Reserva Iberica (reservaiberica.com), where, surrounded by aged hams, we nibble at marbled slivers (tasting platters, about R233). Joe is smitten and confused: “If this is ham, what is that stuff you put in my sandwiches?”
Another random success is Muhba, the Museu d’Historia de Barcelona (museuhistoria.bcn.cat), where we discover the remarkably intact remains of Roman Barcelona in the basement. (“Gross. They used wee to bleach clothes.”)
Only the Museu de la Xocolata (museuxocolata.cat) disappoints. It is a deathly dry journey through one of my family’s favourite things; even the technically brilliant chocolate models of Tintin and Gaudi’s Park Guell dragon fail to impress. (“I want to melt the chocolate and drown in it, that is how boring this is.”)
But if Joe is searching for Willy Wonka, he finds him at Tickets. A top-hatted ringmaster channelling Gene Wilder is on the door — and, like Charlie Bucket entering the Chocolate Room, we too are “bewildered and dazzled”. It is a carnival of organised chaos: chefs furiously at work at open cooking stations, toy biplanes made from Coke cans dangling from striped canopies, waiters dressed as cinema ushers zipping beneath a ceiling strewn with garlands of theatre lights.
“It is impossible to take it all in,” says Joe. And that is before we see the menu. We start with those exploding olives — an emulsion of olive purée, somehow encapsulated in its own gossamer-fine skin. Laia, our waitress, warns us: “Eat them in one go.” Exquisitely intense, they detonate as soon as they hit the tongue. We stare at each other
in shock — and then burst into laughter.
“Oh my God,” says Joe.
“Could not agree more,” says his dad.
Mini-airbags stuffed with Manchego cheese disappear in a split second — not because we are pigs, but because they literally vanish, leaving just a creamy mousse filling.
“I do not think I have ever tasted food that has made me laugh so much,” Joe says. “It is magical.”
Nothing is quite as it seems. Jamon de toro resembles finely sliced ham, but is heavenly tuna belly painted with cured ham fat. Avocado Galician crab cannelloni looks like some sort of giant caterpillar. Fried duck egg with truffled fat and potato cream arrives masquerading as a boiled egg in its shell, but tastes like obscenely luxurious egg and chips.
“I would eat that for breakfast every day,” says the son who until now has never finished an egg in his life.
Desserts are equally whimsical. The living forest, a fairytale concoction of meringue toadstools, pistachio moss, wild strawberries and coconut sorbet, looks too beautiful — and potentially poisonous — to eat, but Joe manages. “The toadstools are like super-posh space dust — they fizz in your mouth.”
A fantastical cotton-candy tree is more a potted bush, each branch bearing a froth of fruit-flavoured candyfloss, studded with mint leaves, mixed berries and edible flowers.
“Even the wood is chocolate,” raves Joe.
“Really?” asks Paul.
“No. That was a joke. But the soil in the pot is.”
And so we mark our anniversary, with belly laughs and edible earth.
Bookings at Tickets (Avinguda del Paral-lel 164, ticketsbar.es) have to be made online and are taken from 60 days in advance. Tapas from about R40 to R208.