Thursday, July 31, 2014

Barcelona Journal V: Barceloneta

drawing by Hallie Cohen
When you ask the concierge in your run of the mill upscale Barcelona hotel where to go for fish, he or she will generally point you to Barceloneta. It’s down by the waterfront, overlooking the harbor and it is, they assure you, really excellent, despite the fact of being a magnet for tourists. The fact is that Barceloneta epitomizes all that is wrong with Barcelona, a proto-modernist mecca of architectural design which seems to have neatly circumvented the birth pangs of other European cities tittering precariously on the precipice between tradition and modernity before making their leap back to the future. Any rumor of innovation and invention you can wish for is to be found in Barcelona which is the epitome of spaceship earth. Design is everything in this city and a tourist in some redoubts might spend a day of his vacation trying to figure out how the advanced lighting system works in his or her room. But Barceloneta represents the dark side of progress. It has the efficiency of an emergency room where fish are brought in to triage. The kitchen is visible so you can see the chefs aka surgeons preparing to operate. Scientists working on a cure for a deadly virus in a sterile lab might be another appropriate comparison. Everything moves along seamlessly or rather spinelessly (along with the sole which is brought out on its gurney before being deboned). The waiters are just like interns and residents doing  rounds. They evince a generalized concern with the feeding process, but have about much personal contact with the diner as say the pilot of an Airbus flying from Kennedy to Barcelona has with his passengers. And when you dig into your wallet to pay the bill, you are tempted to whip out your insurance rather than credit card. There is nothing particularly wrong with the food. It’s perfectly cooked according to textbook standards, lacking only one thing: taste. Oh yes, there is that picture postcard view of the harbor which is admittedly nice. But the popularity of Barceloneta, which on a recent Friday night was filling up to predictable capacity like say a tire which is being pumped full of air, can unleash a kind of Orwellian self doubt (there is a square commemorating the author of Homage to Catalonia and l984 in Barcelona). What to do if everyone else is marching off like sheep to slaughter? What is the difference between good and bad? Who is right and who is wrong? And will the meek once again inherit the earth? Barceloneta is a metaphor for progress in cuisine as well as lots of other things and represents all that is awry with the exultation in newness that Barcelona represents. Simple indigenous cuisine at reasonable prices is what you begin to crave after paying the tab for your rubbery monkfish at Barceloneta. The servers at Barceloneta might also remind those who flew to Barcelona with Delta Rewards Points of their crew. Yes they got there and everything worked, but unfortunately all the romance had been taken out of flying. Yet Barceloneta and establishments like it raise an even more profound question. Why go anywhere? On the low end you find a world populated by Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and McDonalds in virtually ever hamlet inhabited by more than a couple of thousand souls; on the high end you have the ubiquitous what we might call “cuisine mechanique” which turns historical memory into a footnote. Big Brother has now become the Style which treats globetrotters with a few bucks in their pockets to an elevated version of institutional food. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Barceloneta, which sits adjacent to one of Barcelona’s institutions of higher learning, had a future incarnation as a clinic or even elite hospital. Goodbye Barcelona! "Hasta la vista, baby!"

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