At times Ferran Adria seems tortured by the “bestial pace” of El Bulli demands in Rosas. The thousands on waiting lists. The need to come up with new extrusions and inhalations to utilize the technical inventions of his crew. The strain of financial losses. Still, the gob-smacked food world reeled when he said he would close forever. I almost expected a relocation of the angst at the Ferran brothers' new tapas shop in Barcelona. And yes, it’s already who-do-you-know to get in – but if you can just relax, you’ll see that Tickets is about Boys Just Wanting to Have Fun.
It’s a child’s dream. Saturday matinee double bill at the movies. The Circus. The Good Humor Man. A Basques adolescent’s dream. Can it possibly be booked three months ahead? At the admittedly unfashionably early (this is Spain, after all) lunch time of 2PM, looking in through a window devoted to flutters of paper on which friends have described what a tapa is, all I see is the hired help loitering. The door is locked.
Then a smiling blond ringmaster in a flat top felt hat scans her list - and we’re in. Well, not quite. We are herded into a small holding pen where we are supposed to brush up against favored others drinking cava, “like in a Groucho Marx movie.” Our Barcelona pal doesn’t see the step up and staggers to avoid a fall. Yes. No. Cava? Before even a leer or a mustache twirl we’re being led to a table, our heads swiveling, bombarded by icons, hams and toys. Is it fast food America? Is it Disneyland? An adorable toddler staggers by us, squealing with joy to lick the glass display case of the pastry station.
There are cars and trucks and helicopters made out of tin cans hanging high at the sweets post, hams and tomatoes framing the charcuterie, the staccato lights of a theater marquee announcing Tickets. Shouldn’t we sit at a counter to watch master chefs injecting, shaving and otherwise resuscitating whatever we’re going to eat?
Maybe we’re fine at this bare table, where the waiter with his mastery of English and the quirks of this menu (in Spanish, Catalan, Basque and English) is quickly becoming our best friend. The listings unfold like a fan on both sides in many categories, with Moet & Chandon listed below Coca Cola among the house patrons. Yes, “Patrocinen,” it says.
“Should I order the empanada? Do you like sardines?” I ask our local pal. “Try it,” says the waiter, thumbing away on a computer pad. “If you don’t like it, you can send it back.” Something is excessively fishy between those thin leaves of pastry. Back it goes. Somewhere.
I order pescaito frito with Galician seaweed powder from the snacks column to nibble while we study the options and decide what to order. It arrives on a plank of wood, salty squiggles and chips of fish skin, spilling out of a paper cone, evoking fish and chips, but not close enough. A trio of forceps appear. Can that be related to the mini air bags stuffed with Manchego cheese froth and Iberian bacon grease?
Well, in fact, the food is jokey but it can be good, like the pointy air “baguettes” wrapped with splendid Joselitos Iberian ham. Tomato tartare with the classic beef flavorings, a quail egg, watermelon chunks and broken bread crisps is a stunning intensity of tomato. Forget the green apple bread, a Styrofoam crunch alongside perfectly good tuna belly with a squirt of juice from the Basque pepper pipparo and a sprinkling of salmon roe.
Order liquid ravioli and you know that it will arrive as a jelly blob on a white china spoon to pop in your mouth for an explosion of payoyo cheese. Tapitas of the earth include asparagus with black truffle vinaigrette, minted peas, roasted red peppers with jellied hot pepper sauce, and something as familiar and reassuring as orange salad with olives, cumin, mint, orange zest and a peppery after-kick.
The pork rib juiced-up sauce with patatas confit’d in olive oil and Iberian boiled ham is too good to leave behind. “Do you have bread so we can sop up this sauce?” my friend asks our waiter. He nods and brings bread, good bread, real bread. Bread baked in an oven. It feels naughty to be eating it – in the church of air bread.
Now we have been noticed. Ferran’s brother Albert, the pastry wizard, stops by. “Mark Bittman is coming,” he says. “Do you know him?” Now I see why the tables are spaced far apart. A server must be able to maneuver the ice cream cart between them. The multitudes on wait lists would be shocked to see how few people are eating here today. How friends and family monopolize the tables: Mark Bittman eating lunch with Ferran’s wife, Isabel.
The little girl in love with sweets has brought a little boy to have a lick at that pastry window. He’s too young to get it. Happily we are not. The desserts are sensational, not to be missed, and in our case, a gift from the house. No joke here. Chocolate cake with silver leaf and a pansy petal. Molten almond cake running across the plate paired with marvelous apricot ice cream. The bill comes stuck into a Pallerro cured ham tin. Less than $45 per person. Service not included. Seems like the waiter forgot to charge for three beers. I never did make that perilous cliffside trek to Rosas for El Bulli and I probably would not return to Tickets. But I wouldn’t have missed the adventure of being here. To read an earlier Postcard from Barcelona, click here.