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Enchanting Neichel
The Best Restaurant in Barcelona

Though it’s oft been referred to as Paris with a Latin beat, Barcelona can stand on its own as one of the great romantic cities of the Continent. In the same way, Barcelona’s sole two-star Michelin-rated restaurant is owned and operated by a famous French chef. Yet it maintains a distinctive Catalan identity.
When the Alsatian-born John Louis Neichel and his wife Evelyn, who comes from Segovia, decided to open a restaurant in Barcelona over twenty years ago, they found space in a hotel in Pedralbes, the city’s newest residential district at the time.

Rising north from the Avinguda Diagonal which cuts a slanted swath across Barcelona, it stops at the base of the Tibidabo Hills that overlook the ordered regularity of the Eixample – the region built in the 1850s when the old city’s wall were demolished, the gothic quarter below the Eixample with its closed-in, warren-like streets, all the way down to the glittering harbor-front facing the Mediterranean.

At that time, Pedralbes was known chiefly for its still-functioning 14th century gothic monastery, which now houses masterpieces from the Thyssen collection, and the royal palace and gardens built in 1924. Since then, it has become the city’s most expensive and desirable neighborhood, home to football stars, CEOs of major companies, government leaders, even the son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia – who, along with his Madrid-based parents, frequently dines at Neichel.

Neichel - click to enlarge Small wonder. Neichel enchants from the moment one walks through a little garden at the base of a many-storied hotel/apartment building into an inviting space that accommodates about 50 diners. We were welcomed by Evelyn, a neat and smart-looking woman who keeps a careful eye on an operation that, we would soon see, does not miss a beat.

She escorted us to a table beside one of the large windows that line a wall of the dining room -- there is also a smaller lounge-like area -- and looked out onto the garden where, this wintry evening, trees were festooned with garlands of light, and pots of poinsettias stood in a row. A single gourd lay on our table beside a candle in a silver candlestick and a slim green vase with two perfect roses that seemed to have opened but a moment ago.

The mood was cool serenity. Walls were covered in a smooth gray fabric, floors with rich carpeting in a deeper charcoal gray. Mahogany  chairs upholstered in grooved burgundy velvet stood around tables set with crisp white linens while mellow lighting from strategically placed standing lamps and small table lamps added a kind of 1940s supper club chic to the almost minimalist décor.

This weekday night nearly every table was taken, some with casually dressed diners which led us to assume Neichel is a neighborhood as well as a destination restaurant, an impression that was confirmed when we noticed how many of the patrons seemed known to the staff.

We looked over the extensive and beautifully designed menu – decorated with a watercolor of a lemon blossom – while nibbling on addictive seaweed chips, delectable little toast squares topped with eggplant and dried tomatoes, and a tray of miniature vegetables. There was a wealth of choices, from seafood to game. Unable, unwilling to decide, we opted for the tasting menu which the chef prepares according to the diner’s preferences – in our case, we quickly told the waiter, yes to seafood, no to game.

Although Jean Louis Neichel infuses touches of his native French cuisine, the style is primarily Spanish/Mediterranean and highly dependent on virgin olive oil. A pure white plate on our table held a sprig from an olive tree, a miniature covered clay bowl holding very coarse sea salt (from Scotland), and a cruet of the award-winning, cold-pressed oil from the Arbequina olive grown in the Tarragona region of southern Catalonia. To taste a piece of homemade crusty bread that has been dipped into the olive oil and sprinkled with a dash of coarse salt is to implicitly understand the universal appeal of Mediterranean cuisine.
Olive oil enlivened tasting-sized salads: succulent lobster meat out of the shell topped with shavings of  black truffles rested on a mound of delicate greens; a blue and white bowl held radicchio, slivers of potatoes, white truffles, smoked salmon and crayfish; hearts of palm were blended with slithers of celery, and artichokes.

There was also “black rice,” dyed by squid ink, with scallops and the tiniest, most delicious clams we’d ever seen or tasted; the incomparable Spanish ham from Salamanca that for some reason never is as tasty outside of Spain; and a wonderful duck pate.   

From a wine list that is largely Spanish but also includes a nice selection of French, the youthful and engaging sommelier Jose Antonio guided us to a 2001 full-bodied and very satisfying merlot – an atypical grape for Catalonia -- from the Augustus Vineyard in Penedes, a region south of Barcelona that produces some of Spain’s best wines.

Jean Louis Neichel is an artist as well as a chef -- his still-life watercolors adorn the restaurant walls – and his visual gifts extend to the presentation of dishes. Lamb roasted with herbs and served with pea pods, a small potato nick and tomato puree; and a flaky, moist turbot with onion marmalade in an anise-flavored wine sauce delighted the eye as much as the palate.

Neichel - click to enlarge The cheese tray held a ring of French and Spanish selections accompanied by quince jelly, walnuts, and little breads. Loyal to our Spanish environs, we focused on a Catalan goat cheese in (what else?) olive oil, a Catalan sheep cheese called Bal de Nes, and our old favorite Manchega.  
Miniature scoops of sorbet preceded dessert: mandarin orange with raspberry sauce, mango with fennel, and (would you believe?) black olive with yogurt sauce – a tart and slightly salty, novel taste sensation. After this cooling interlude, the dessert cart arrived with an array of gorgeous temptations: crème Catalan, apple tarts, chocolate cake with luscious icing woven around strawberries and apricots, a creamy cheesecake, fresh raspberries.
Neichel - click to enlarge The pleasures of dining at Neichel were accentuated by the many attentions to small details: a sugar stand with separate compartments for brown and white sugar, both mini-cubes and granulated; mignardises that included olives (again) coated with powdered sugar and rosemary in a crystal dish, and finally a grappa-like liquer called pacharan banero served in a glass with a pointed bottom that sits in a little holder. Jose Antonio, who attended to us with enormous graciousness, told us he gathered the herbs for this seemingly innocuous but wallop-packing drink himself.

When we met Jean Louis Neichel after dinner, we could see how his effervescent personality stamps the entire Neichel experience. The chef has a Michelin star-studded resume that includes stints at such stellar French institutions of haute cuisine as Alain Chapel in Mionnay and Georges Blanc in Vonnas. Building on that level of experience, he has succeeded in making his Barcelona dining room the very best in the city. But it is his engaging warmth that colors the attitude of servers, sommeliers, even bus-boys who attentively refill the water glasses.

Extraordinary cuisine, aesthetic environs where the smallest detail is noticed, an atmosphere marked by care and courtesy – taken together, these make dining at Neichel an event not easily forgotten.

Neichel Restaurant
Carrer Beltrán i Rózpide 1-5 (before Avinguda Pedralbes)

Phone: (93) 203 8408
Fax: (93) 205 6369.

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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