Spanish Fry

One of my guests substituted the gazpacho Andaluz for the soup of the day (cream of cauliflower). The gazpacho was a just-chilled version of C centsrdoba's famed soup, a fine, thin blend of tomatoes, olive oil, green peppers, sherry vinegar, and bread. My guest embellished the smooth and sharp pinkish puree with chopped onions, cucumbers, and eggs from a tray the server held. The rest of us enjoyed the tasty little salad, a mix of shredded romaine and juicy tomatoes, dressed with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. A leaf of endive and a radish rose garnished the bowls.

A special that night of chicken and Florida lobster tail was adorned unexpectedly with two beautiful langostinos, large shrimp with shells, heads, and legs still attached. Langostinos are a street food along the Spanish coast, as common as hot dogs in Manhattan. Locals suck the juice from the crustaceans' heads, but my friend turned as green as the trim on the walls. Fortunately for her, the lobster tail had been shelled, curling modestly on the plate as if to hide its fresh naked pinkness. The entire affair was topped with a rich, mildly piquant chocolate sauce, similar to the Mexican and American southwestern moles but not as thick.

One of the pleasures of Spanish cuisine has always been its emphasis on fresh fish; the real treat at Cafe Barcelona was the lubina a la sal, whole sea bass sealed in salt and served for two. The service of this dish was more entertaining than the piano man. The white-fleshed bass was completely covered by coarse sea salt, which became a crust when baked in a clay pot. The entire casserole was brought tableside, where our waiter inefficiently chipped away at the salt with two knives. We suggested an ice pick but he either hadn't seen Basic Instinct or he didn't appreciate our encouragement. At any rate, he eventually removed all of the salt and proceeded to skin and bone the fish, dividing the fillets between two plates. Food cooked in this fashion is surprisingly unsalty and exceedingly tender, and the sea bass was no exception, the salt acting like a lid to keep the flesh moist as it cooked. A trio of sauces was served on the side: a thick tartar, an admirable garlic-and-tomato, and a parsley-vinegar, none of which was necessary to enhance the plain but superb sea bass. The fresh, clean flavors of the accompanying sauteed vegetables were more than enough complement.

"When it comes time to die, I want to breathe my last in a kitchen," writes Banana Yoshimoto. "If it's a kitchen, I'll think, 'How good.'" Much as I enjoy restaurants, I don't want to die in one. But I wouldn't mind living at Cafe Barcelona more often. "How good.

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