Standing outside Abac, I feel intimidated. The restaurant, located in an exclusive resort, stands behind an imposing wall of stone and shrubbery. In order to enter, guests must buzz in, announcing their presence and validating their worthiness. As the gate swings open, revealing a stark glass building, we step into the urban sanctuary, entering a sumptuously contemporary universe of topiary and sculptured gardens. Abac always feels controlled, never relaxing its precisely starched edges for even a moment—fortunately, the sensation of intimidation does pass though, leaving only luxuriant comfortableness in its wake.
Honored with two Michelin stars, Abac ostensibly reinterprets Catalan cuisine, using super high quality meats and produce to achieve incredibly powerful flavors; nearly every composition here quivers with intensity. Everything is paradigmatic, the paragon of its kind: the most prawny prawn, the most melony melon, the most hammy ham. Within the Catalan genre, these ingredients make repeat appearances almost to the point of redundancy; but at Abac, the diner comes to view such Spanish mainstays with virgin eyes.
After the requisite series of nibbles and amuses, none particularly interesting, the first course arrives, a single oyster. Dressed with green apple and salicornia, the mollusk tastes refreshingly sweet, only barely redolent of the ocean. In Madrid, we sat on the market steps and ate enormous oysters, just shucked and overflowing with juice that swirled like sea foam in the mouth. This sample, while perfectly pleasant, fails to compare, and we sigh, too young and too jaded. Next, a riff on salt cod, tiny cubes of fish in tomato water with olives. Again, an almost conformist dish that devolves into boredom after a few bites.
Then, however, I am taken aback. “False Iberian yolk,” a plate of spherified egginess and dense ham, succeeds where chef after New York chef has failed: breakfasty deliciousness, distilled into compartmentalized elements that yawn and awaken all in concert. Fatty and salty, this dish fills my head with weak morning sunlight. I want coffee, orange juice, the crinkled newspaper and a dog at my feet.
But my face falls when they bring out the tube. Yes, the same bizarre little ointment sample, here stuffed with romesco sauce. An absurd coincidence, the apparatus brings me to comic tears. Along with the tube, a prawn is served resting on a miniature charcoal grill, as well as a demitasse of mushroom and prawn “tea.” Instructed to sauce the dish myself, I draw little squiggles of romesco on a leek, a potato, the bare plate, my big toe. Finally, I rip the prawn apart, eating the tail and sucking the pungent juices from the split head. An absurd conflation, the classically tender meat and raw Catalonian flavor profile seems disorienting, a rich Spanish barbecue hosted in a secret gastronomic hideout.
Perhaps the ultimate homage to Catalan cuisine, a pig trotter and sea cucumber composition redefines “surf and turf.” An intricate textural sonnet, the cylinder of feet meat maps out unexplored territories of gelatin and cartilage: tender, oozing, chunky, slimy soft. Next, a mouthful of sea cucumber, simultaneously spongy and crunchy. Abac conceives a new cosmos of chewiness in a pig and sea vegetable/animal/mineral marriage; Captain Nemo would be proud.
Concluding the savory courses, a roulade of veal collapses with a gentle prod. Apple purée and mousse seem more appropriate accompaniments for mid-September, not July; yet, the combination dazzles despite seasonal discontinuities. This is the omphalos of meatballs, the ur-meatball from which all meatballs sprung. I want to eat this forcemeat forever, so I might eventually understand the wasted life withering on my tongue.
For dessert, melon soup make a firm return to summer, cool and green. Here, I find a languid pool to rinse my face before venturing back into the Mediterranean sun. Not surprisingly, I never want to emerge; I want to rest underwater and blow bubbles through my nose that break the algae overhead. Even better, “textures of coconut” with lemon and yogurt reduces the primary subject to an absolute form, deriving a unified theory of coconutness. Exacting coconut polyhedrons, dehydrated coconut, coconut espuma, coconut ice, and floats of sour cream form an abstract monolith rising from the glass plate. Although the “textures” concept has been “done before” and “done over and over again until we just want the pastry chef to make up his mind about what he wants to serve,” this dessert’s form and function merge seamlessly, endlessly.
“If we hadn’t been to The French Laundry, this would be the best meal we’d ever had,” a table set against the window whispers. Possessing a similar whimsy and aesthetic to a Thomas Keller project, Abac constantly surprises and never satisfies—the last bite never suffices. In my soul, I agree with these other Americans in Barcelona, because this meal made me smile—made me smile like The French Laundry did—made me happy. Such an experience never dies, simply growing old with you, a friend that stays faithful until the end.