My wife Jackie and I have never been ones to flee wintery New York weather and head for sunny climes, but I must admit that it was nice to take off from JFK airport in January's sub-freezing temperatures and arrive in Barcelona. There, we needed no overcoats during the day, when it reached nearly 60 F; at night another layer was a good idea, but it was still not what I would call cold. A nice but not disorienting contrast: just right.
We'd chosen Barcelona as a pre-London stop not for its climate but for its opera house, the Teatre del Liceo. There, as I discovered on www.operabase.com, they were mounting a production of Donizetti's rarely performed Linda di Chamounix, with a spectacular cast including Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez. It was terrific and itself worth the journey.
That said, we were really in Barcelona to eat. We hadn't been there since 2004 and were longing for a good plate of rice that we didn't have to cook ourselves. For this we went to the handsome old standby Set Portes, founded in 1836, which is open from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day. We were once again impressed by the professionalism with which the place is run and by the reliable versions of traditional Barcelona dishes. No, far more than reliable: the airy salt-cod fritters were as good as they get; the house cannelloni were, too; and there was nothing much to criticize about the vegetable-meat paella. We drank an interesting white wine from the Pyrenees, had an impeccable crema catalana (crème caramel) for dessert, and left very full and very contented. A nice thing about Set Portes is that even at the "early" hour of 8:30 p.m. you're not alone in the dining room -- and not solely in the company of other foreigners: apparently, some Spaniards can't wait till 10 o'clock for their suppers.
Another dinner, the finest of our four nights in Barcelona, was at Fonda Gaig, opened five years ago by Carles Gaig, a pillar of the Barcelona dining scene. It is a comfortable restaurant with clean, modern décor and an interesting, tempting menu that contains the gamut of homey traditional dishes as well as innovations and updates. Here, we were just about alone in the dining room when we arrived at 8:30, though an hour later the place was packed.
After a few plump salted anchovies in fragrant olive oil and a couple of croquetas (the best we had on this trip -- and we kept trying them in bar after bar, hoping for but never encountering brilliance), Jackie ordered calçots (mild elongated onions which look rather like small leeks), cleanly fried in a light batter (traditionally they're roasted/grilled) and served with romesco sauce: They were sweet and hard to stop eating. I had another (mostly) vegetable dish: Trinxat de la Cerdanya, potatoes and cabbage-family greens -- like an earthy-tasting English bubble and squeak -- topped with a slice of the most delicious cured pork belly.
For my main course I had salt cod. The Spanish menu offered it in two ways: a la llauna (typically made with paprika, garlic and sometimes tomato) or with garlic emulsion and mushrooms. The English menu listed only the former: a good reason to ask for both and ask about discrepancies. The cod was absolutely perfect, with crisp skin and tender but substantial flesh. The garlic emulsion was gentle, perhaps a little too gentle: a spike of acidity would have been welcome.
Jackie's main dish was Callos de ternera y capipota: a lip-stickingly gelatinous, powerfully delicious stew of calf's tripe, head and feet, rich with paprika and dotted with tender chickpeas. To eat such a thing off classy china in an elegant restaurant has a certain piquancy, especially when not all that much has been done to doll it up. (I couldn't help thinking of the way Joël Robuchon served pig's head stew at his Paris restaurant Jamin, though there he certainly did doll it up: with truffles.)
Dessert was an "innovation" on crema catalana, incorporating a beautiful gel to add variety and lightness. It was served in a glass like a parfait: when the waiter heard that we were going to share, he brought us two half portions, each in its own glass. Isn't that nice? It was typical of the service at Fonda Gaig, though: everyone (notably the woman who helped us choose our wine) was enthusiastic and wanted everybody to have a good time.
Set Portes, Passeig Isabel II, 14; +34 93 319 30 33; www.7portes.com (you can reserve tables on that website); firstname.lastname@example.org. Our dinner for two with wine and water cost €80 (about $105).
Fonda Gaig, Carrer Còrsega, 200; +34 934 53 20 20; http://www.fondagaig.com/; email@example.com. Our dinner for two with wine, water and a couple of pre-appetizer snacks cost €115 (about $150).