Off of Barcelona’s famous tree-lined street, named La Rambla, down a tiny road disguised as an alley by its narrowness, past a gift shop and a bar, is a patio lined with tables against an ivy-lined building. Across the street is a small restaurant, its unassuming door covered by traditional Japanese noren cloths with a tiny sign that reads Dos Palillos.
The location, the street, even the storefront of Dos Palillos all wasn’t what I expected from one of Barcelona’s best restaurants. Awarded a Michelin star in 2014 (maintained from 2013), I expected Dos Palillos to have a flamboyant exterior, not one I almost walked by without noticing. But Dos Palillos would continue to surprise me throughout the entire evening — through all 17 courses and then some.
Once inside the restaurant, there was a cramped sushi bar with seating for maybe a dozen people. We walked beyond the bar to a room with bar-like seating around an open kitchen; imagine one large table at Benihana. My skepticism remained.
Dos Palillos is a tasting-menu only restaurant with two options: 17 or 21 courses at designated seating times (7:30 and 9:30 pm), the earlier of which I assume is mostly full of tourists who aren’t accustomed to Spain’s typical 10 p.m. dinnertime. My assumption proved true when those eating around us eventually shared they were tourists. (I love that tasting menus tend to turn fellow diners into friends.)
The cuisine is Asian-Spanish fusion, an intriguing combination that only piqued my interest further once the courses began. The Asian influence was evident throughout most of the dishes, especially the use of Japanese sashimi.
Courses started light :: sweet and sour Cantonese-style vegetables paired with crispy chicken skins; then shitake mushroom and monkfish liver simmered in soy sauce and rice wine, a dish that emphasized the livery texture in both foods; horse mackerel marinated in rice vinegar with dried kombu (kelp) that added an interesting dryness to the deliciously juicy sashimi; and fresh seaweed and mollusk sunomono (salad), containing seaweed that looked like it was pulled from a fish tank and the most unusual mollusks I’d ever seen. (I will add the goose neck barnacle to my list of Weirdest Things I’ve Ever Eaten.)
Next we had an oyster the size of my hand filled with warm sake, giving it a sweet flavor; a nambanzuke shrimp, a true Japanese/Spanish fusion dish where the shrimp is fried, then marinated in vinegar and served cold (nambanzuke is the Japanese term based on the Mediterranean dish, escabeche); followed by mussels made table-side with Thai basil and limes. Next came one of my favorites, tempura sea anemone, a juicy, salty, fried taste of the sea.
The dishes only got more amazing. Next came red king crab pankoage, crab rice with fresh crab and crab eggs, with a dash of wasabi on the side. It was superb. Another fusion dish followed, this time steamed dumplings a la Chinese dim sum with fresh shrimp and Iberian pork inside, definitely the best dim sum I’ve ever had. Then came tuna belly “toro” te maki with nori, green shiso and ume boshi (not pictured); and lobster with beef tendon, a complex, crunchy contrast of textures.
The “Nippon Burger” followed (meaning “Japanese burger”), a tiny, rare slider with a light teriyaki sauce and crunchy greens that was wonderfully savory, which prepared us for the most mind-blowing pork jowl (cheeks). The Iberian pork jowl was served Cantonese-style and was the most juicy, sweet, amazing piece of pork I have ever had and will probably ever have. The first bite of this stopped time and threw me in a bit of a haze of amazement. I will fantasize about that pork for years to come.
The more I visit restaurants with open kitchens (like Rogue 24 in Washington DC), the more I appreciate seeing the artists — I mean chefs — at work. I find watching them meticulously work their craft so interesting. At Dos Palillos, there are half a dozen chefs at work, each one able to tackle several dishes, and watching them was incredible.
When it was time for dessert, once again Dos Palillos shocked me. We were taken outside to the patio across from the restaurant that we’d admired before walking inside to finish our courses. At first it didn’t make sense, but when we realized that in Spain rushing someone’s dinner isn’t part of their repertoire, I understood that we could relax outside for as long as we wanted while freeing our spot in the dining room for the next set of people. Great idea!
The dessert courses didn’t really do it for me, but not much could compare to the pork jowl. The final three semi-sweet courses were lychee and shochu slushie, an awkwardly-textured blob; strawberry maki-mochi; and chocolate ningyoyaki, a Japanese molded pastry containing liquid chocolate that we were told to eat in one bite. (I went against instructions so the chocolate squirted all over.)
As I nibbled on Spanish-style mochi (my Grandma would be floored to try it), we chatted with our now-friends seated beside us. They had just arrived in Barcelona from Madrid and had been told by everyone they’d met to try Dos Palillos — if they could get a reservation. We told them we made reservations weeks before arriving in the city, then they shared their favorite dining spots in Madrid before heading out into the night.
I love that about food, the way it can combine two cultures in cuisine and connect us with strangers. I also love that after eating so much in so many cities around the world, I can still be shocked by a restaurant, just like I was at Dos Palillos.
Go to Dos Palillos for :: an incredible journey of Asian and Spanish cuisine as told through seafood. Notes :: They are open Tuesdays-Wednesday 7:30-11:30 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 1:30-3:30 p.m. and 7:30-11:30 p.m. Closed in August. The 17-course tasting is 75€ and 90€ for 21 courses. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Everyone at the restaurant spoke English (and I even overheard Japanese!).