The simplicity of the Enigma

The most avantgarde restaurant of Adrià’s El Barri in Barcelona, in the words of its executive chef, Oliver Peña

17-08-2019
Oliver Peña, at the helm of the kitchen of Enigm

Oliver Peña, at the helm of the kitchen of Enigma since the first day. Of his boss, Albert Adrià, he says: «I knew from the start that one month with him would be worth six months with any other chef»

Enigma is not a common name for a restaurant. But after all there’s nothing ordinary, and classic at Enigma. Which is indeed the most ambitious and recently opened restaurant (in January 2017) of the Adrià brothers and of their “El Barri” (literally: the neighbourhood) in Barcelona.  

Since its birth, Enigma was presented as a project that at least in part was mysterious: besides the name, to access the restaurant you must make a reservation and wait for a code. You then have to type the code at the entrance, which has no sings, in a building in Poble Sec. For the first months they even highly discouraged (only because saying they forbade it did not sound nice) taking photos and most of all sharing them on social networks. The experience at Enigma had to be a surprise. 

One of the spaces at Enigma: the room where they serve most of the menu 

One of the spaces at Enigma: the room where they serve most of the menu 

In the same location as EnigmaAlbert Adrià had already managed, for a few successful years, a place called 41°, in which the most avantgarde mixology was matched with the culinary research inspired by Elbulli. Part of the inspirations of that restaurant can now be found at Tickets, which is part of the new Enigma

Two and a half years after its opening, most of the aura of mystery that enveloped this restaurant has dissolved. Without this being a flaw, in fact the contrary. Once you type in the code, which you receive on your mobile phone on the day of the dinner, they guide you inside a place with rigorous and minimalistic aesthetics. Here grey dominates, whether you’re looking at the stones on the walls, at the iron used for the furniture, at the glass separating the different areas, at the ceiling covered with a very light fabric shaped as if it were clouds. 

The open view kitchen 

The open view kitchen 

Then every guest will be invited to sit in different areas, "stations" of a culinary and experiential journey, each one with specific features. First there’s Ryokan, then Cava (cellar), Barra (the counter), Planxa (the grill), Dinner (the dining room), and finally 41°, which recalls the place from which it all began. All this in a series of over 30 tastings, from the most aethereal to the richer ones, mostly of delicious and surprising goodness.  

Percebes and Codium

Percebes and Codium

Executive chef Oliver Peña has been running the kitchen of Enigmasince the first day. He was born a few kilometres away from the Catalan capital, in Rubì, and has been working in all sorts of restaurants since he was 17, until back in 2004 he arrived at ElBulli Hotel, in Sanlucar, near Sevilla, where he met Ferran and Albert Adrià. Then he returned to Barcelona to work with Carles Abellan, until Cristina Losada, now his wife but also the Manager and Sommelier at Enigma, told him that Albert Adrià was looking for a chef for what was to become Enigma

Oyster cooked in jamòn fat, with broth of jamòn

Oyster cooked in jamòn fat, with broth of jamòn

«I worked on the Enigma project for two years, before we opened – Oliver Peña tells us -. I worked full time on the project, and when I wasn’t working here, I was helping the other chefs of El Barri, especially at Hoja Santa. I participated in the development of every detail of this restaurant, from the kitchen to the décor. We did a really great job and we still do, to this day: Enigma is an extraordinary lively place, always moving, we continue to change, to evolve, always moving outside of our comfort zone, and trying to improve every day. After two years and a half, I believe we’re experiencing an excellent moment».

Rabbit Tamal: the brain of the rabbit is cooked in escabeche, then served with rabbit broth in a soufflé of tamal

Rabbit Tamal: the brain of the rabbit is cooked in escabeche, then served with rabbit broth in a soufflé of tamal

We also thought this is a restaurant in great shape, when we visited early in June, a few weeks after it arrived at number 82 in the World’s 50Best (Tickets is instead at number 20). But since we couldn’t compare it with the past, we had to ask the chef of Enigma how a project like this can evolve.

Mushroom chawanmushi with vinaigrette of black truffle 

Mushroom chawanmushi with vinaigrette of black truffle 

«Over these two years and a half we have changed many things, especially in the moving from one space to the next. We have looked for the right rhythm for the experience that we wanted to offer our guests. Today I believe it is easier for everyone to get into the right spirit and to understand right from the start our gastronomic approach. In our dishes we seek simplicity and essential flavours, even though there is surely lots of technique in our cuisine, and it couldn’t be otherwise, since this is Albert Adrià’s restaurant. We use and experiment many techniques, but we have no intention to have them prevail».  

Calamari handkerchief

Calamari handkerchief

A perfect example of the approach described by Oliver Peña can be found in the La Barra “station”. In the five dishes served in this leg of the journey you mostly have great raw materials, all coming from the sea, prepared with evident minimalism. As in the case of calamari handkerchief served with two different seasonings: soy and oil – lemon - salt. A perfect representation of the inspirations that you can find in this small part of Enigma.

Broad beans, wasabi and lime

Broad beans, wasabi and lime

«Our seafood bar – the chef confirms – was recently added, and has a Japanese approach to raw materials, but even lots of Mediterranean influences. We have included it in the journey replacing the cocktail bar, in which we paired mixology and different snacks. But then we realised that while people loved the following station, the hot one with the grill, we could also offer a cold version, dedicated to fish». 

Asparagus cooked in three ways 

Asparagus cooked in three ways 

Simplicity and avantgarde: a hardly easy balance. Perhaps this is the real enigma. «One of the most complex exercises for us is surprising and conquering our clients while keeping an essential approach, presenting dishes based on two or three ingredients at most. Another very important aspect for us is seasonality, and this is why our menu never changes all of a sudden, but month by month we replace some dishes so as to keep on using seasonal raw materials. Moreover, in the sequence we offer in the real dining room, we seek to offer the richer and tastier dishes at the beginning, when clients are still hungry. For some it’s a little strange, but I am convinced that the best thing is to have the most demanding dishes at the beginning of the meal: if they were served when clients are already half full, they would not enjoy them».

Warm spring salad, with sea anemones and lettuce heart 

Warm spring salad, with sea anemones and lettuce heart 

Indeed, we say so with no shyness and with no intention to criticise, but it’s not easy to keep focused for the three and half hours necessary for a dinner at Enigma. Even when the series of dishes, from one station to the next, strongly demands the attention of the guest. In our memories, the Mushroom Chawanmushi with black truffle vinaigrette, a Japanese style flan with horn of plenty infusion stands out: an extraordinary tasting, which surprisingly recalled bone marrow on the palate. 

Lobster matured in beef fat 

Lobster matured in beef fat 

And then Rabbit tamalWagyu pâtéWarm spring salad made with sea anemone and lettuce heart, White asparagus cooked in three ways (boiled, steamed, seared in the Josper: but the asparagus is only one, cut into pieces).  

Pan de cristal with hazelnut and mushrooms 

Pan de cristal with hazelnut and mushrooms 

What about Oliver Peña? Which dish does he feel represents him the most? «Of course, it’s difficult to answer because there are many. But I’d say Lobster matured in beef fat, which we cook in the Josper for two or three minutes. It’s a rich dish, it fills your mouth and surprises you, even though it’s based on a simple technique and only two ingredients. I could mention Pan de cristal with hazelnuts and mushrooms, but the “pan de cristal” is made with a complicated, avantgarde technique. So, it’s something very different for me. Perhaps people expect from us this kind of things, but today I don’t believe it’s these dishes that define our style».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

Enigma
Carrer de Sepulveda, 38
Barcelona
+34.616.696322
Closed on Sunday and Monday 
Tasting menu 220 euros


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