Best of 2019: Anthony Bain

The Clandestine Chef

Barcelona, Spain

Deep in the heart of central Barcelona, I step into an apartment building entranceway. The décor instantly grabs my attention, created when the city experienced a metamorphosis of modernist architecture; intricate multi-colored murals look down at me from high ceilings. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, designed to disarm any visitor. For a second, I cannot believe I have the right place, nothing indicates that a social event is in full swing, there are no lights, no muffled conversations, and no scent of cooking seeping out into the stone corridor; only silence, the flickering of defective strip lights, and the musty, humid smell of the apartment foyer.

I follow a winding staircase up to the first floor and knock on a large wood paneled door and hear the knocking reverberate beyond the door and into the next space, which seems vast and expansive. I stand for a moment, reading from a crumpled paper in my hand to make sure that I haven’t stumbled across the wrong address. The door opens, I suddenly feel like a tourist exiting a plane in a strange and mysterious land, exotic aromas spill out into the stairway; the compression chamber is open. I have finally arrived.

Using the same approach as the supper clubs of the Jazz days of post-prohibition America, Mount Lavinia is a clandestine restaurant, moving from basement flat to art loft, to kitchen space. Keeping the concept of exotic gastronomy fresh and on the move throughout a city well-known for its gastronomic prowess. For a long time, I have yearned to take my taste buds on a journey. Not just dine out at a restaurant and order an exotic meal, but to live the experience and have the chef explain every intricate detail of what goes into the preparation of the food, from market to table. Total immersion dining.

Chef Faraaj, the creator of Mount Lavinia Supper Club, hands me an imported Lion beer and shows me towards a group of eight people who are circulating around a work surface and an open chill out area. They talk amongst themselves, while he carefully blends spices in a stone mortar and pestle and hands out titbits on the history of Sri Lanka and the spice trade.

“It’s based on quite a few periods of colonization.” He says, constantly picking up jars from his work surface, measuring spices hand to eye, and adding them to a pot which has already begun to sizzle on the hob. “It’s a blend of indigenous ingredients and local cooking techniques with influences from Portuguese, Indonesian, and Malay cooking.”

I ask him about the idea behind Mount Lavinia Supper club.

“In one word; disillusionment,” he says, sighing in obvious frustration. “Asian food in this city tends to be modified or diluted to the Spanish palette. I want to give Barcelona authentic Sri Lankan cuisine as you would eat it in anybody’s house in Sri Lanka without compromising on taste.”

As an entrée, Chef Faaraj rolls mango slices covered in grated coconut, sprinkled with lime juice and a bit of chili powder for “a kick,” to wake up the taste buds and hands them out to his guests along with fresh tuna and black pepper croquettes and Okra Samosas.

Two foodies from New York introduce themselves to me and intensely discuss the quality and flavors of the food while Chef Faaraj dispenses another round of Lion beer to his guests. He then gets down to work on the main course, dhal, a lentil dish which he adds the array of pre-blended spices to, he then turns his attention to a large bowl of basmati rice seasoned with finely crushed cardamom and coriander seeds and cashew nuts.

The rest of the guests chill out in the apartment lounge where a Sri Lankan travel documentary silently plays on a projector while Asian hip-hop spills out from a sound system. The whole setup is designed to whet the guest’s appetite and give an encompassing feeling of being in-country and clandestinely traveling via the senses.

I ask Chef Faaraj if he’s ever thought of opening his own restaurant.

“I could never open my own restaurant,” he says surprised by my question. “I need to be able to shop and cook the food personally. That way I know what I’m serving. I have one hundred percent quality control on everything, something which I would risk by opening a commercial enterprise. Cooking for me is like painting a picture. I could never allow anybody else to pick up the paints and easel and takeover.”

He tells me that all of his ingredients are sourced from La Boqueria, Barcelona´s famous food market and every local chef’s favorite hangout, where food is shipped in daily from all over the world. Every ingredient he meticulously researches to keep the menus as “Sri Lankan as possible.” Preparation and execution from the market to table are profoundly personal things to him.

Several of the guests have now migrated towards Faaraj who is busy slicing locally farmed marbled beef to create a beef curry, he warns us that “the curry might be spicy,” but encourages us to sip the fruity Lion dark beer to “chase the spice,” and, “bring out the flavors.”

While he is busy adding the beef to a sizzling pan, he tells us stories about how his family prepares dishes back in Sri Lanka. By now all the guests are around the kitchen central table unit and carefully listening to him. Some of them are returning guests. “He changes the dishes, every month,” they whisper to me, careful not to interrupt the chef in mid flow. “One month it’s seafood, the next it’s street food, and sometimes he does Sri Lankan tapas.” It’s clearly the innovation and variation of the chef’s food that keeps them coming back.

Two of the guests are French chefs who are doing a clandestine restaurant tour of Barcelona, to see for themselves the frontier of culinary exploration. They behave like two children in a sweet shop, wide-eyed, in awe of their surroundings. “People are becoming more adventurous,” they tell me. “They no longer conform to the normal dining standards, they want to be more involved in the process and interact with the chef on a personal basis, the clandestine restaurant allows them to do that.”

Clandestine restaurants also offer a promising chef a way to evolve and grow without the make or break pressure of opening a restaurant. The idea of the clandestine restaurant´s secrecy means that it attracts like-minded people, who seek something more intrepid and more tangible. Reservations are made via social networking websites. The whole social concept of the clandestine restaurant is a natural extension of social media; previous guests can invite friends, the experience works to perfection in Barcelona, a social, culinary hub continually renewing itself and pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine, pioneered by vanguard chefs like Albert Adria and Joan Roca.

Chef Faaraj announces that dinner is ready and all the guests take a seat at the table and immediately tuck into the food set out like a banquet on the work surface. We dine on Roti pancakes, succulent beef curry with potatoes, rice with cashews, dahl with coconut cream, fried okra with green chilies and Pol Sambol: a coconut and red chili accompanying dish.

As the guests begin to devour the food, a silence falls across the table which is eventually shattered by Chef Faaraj, he shrugs his shoulders and starts to belly laugh, this breaks the ice and the conversation around the table takes off from there. The evening shifts into the later hours of the night as the guests share travel stories and food secrets around the table.

After we have all enjoyed several courses and several beers somebody suggests that we watch the documentary projected on the chill out room wall. With desserts and sweet coffee we settle in for the viewing, all us sharing the same encompassing feeling; as if we are in Sri Lanka.

Later, led by Chef Faaraj we spill out into the boulevards of Barcelona, many of us didn´t know each other before the dinner, but we have become a tight-knit group, with food secrets shared within the safe environment of The Mount Lavinia Supper Club. We’ve confessed our culinary sins to each other and it has brought us closer together than we could ever have imagined. The Chef leads us like a beacon into the night as we head off into a labyrinth of Gothic streets to experience what the city can offer in the way of underground experiences. Giving secret passwords to gain entry into oak paneled cocktails bars, ushered into back rooms by stern men in black uniforms, where famous cocktail waiters present gin tastings to members of secret tasting societies. Later, giddy with intrigue we slide past the queue into the VIP room of a velvet decorated discotheque, still riding on the shared experience, a rite of passage into Barcelona’s clandestine world.

BIO: Anthony Bain is a British writer and journalist living in Barcelona. His first travel book, Wanderings along the Camino, is available on Amazon.

Photo from Wikipedia

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