Famed for its tapas, cocktails and oh-so-perfect setting, Ocana is the perfect initiation into casual Spanish dining.
The late afternoon sun is beating down on us as we make our way through narrow canyon like alleyway of the passage de la Paz. Above, ornate arches and mosaic bridges join neighboring buildings. Stone meets stucco and cobble meets concrete.
The alley opens up into a large plaza, The Plaça Reial, a square in the heart of Barri Gòtic, just off La Rambla. It’s a hive of people and outdoor activities that attracts visitors and locals alike. Young boys run after a bright soccer ball, laughing and calling for that perfect pass. Older folk languish in the golden sun, not sure whether to try and nap here or to head home for siesta.
Tall palms offer little shelter for those in the middle of the plaza. Equally prominent, ornate lamp posts, like much of Barcelona’s design sensibilities have been styled by Gaudi. Skirting the borders of the square, Ancient stone colonnades provide welcome shade to diners or those nursing a frosty cold beverage or two. It looks enticing. Too enticing.
Ocana has always been on our Barcelona bucket list. The promise of quality tapas is consistent across blogs and review sites respectively and it’s commanding position on the edge of one side of the square shows that it’s still a success today.
All along the wing, tables are placed shielded from any riff-raff and stray footballs by large potted plants that add to the lazy almost tropical vibes. In perfect weather like today, outdoor dining is all the flavor, but the presence of outdoor heaters indicates we’re still on the wrong side of summer.
The inner restaurant (only open for dinner) is suitably charming, yet heavily weathered beyond its years in the way that all cool bars now are – except this is completely natural and not art directed – it’s just old. Hanging candelabras are twisted creatively together and cast-iron columns with Corinthian capitals extend into a ceiling covered in pearl gray velvet Nepalese silk. Stylized acrylic paintings by local artists adorn the walls – it has a casual vibe so warm you almost wonder why they even need heaters. At night, the basement becomes a banging club, Apotheke, known for its cocktails but thankfully it’s broad daylight and we’re seated outside, undisturbed by the cacophony of euro dance anthems you’d get come 11pm.
Ocana’s terrace café menu is sparse but delicious. Most tapas are seafood based and we hungrily select the Andaluza fried calamari, homemade Iberian ham croquettes, anchovies from the Cantabrian sea with extra virgin olive oil, artisan dressed olives and patatas bravas – the French fries of the tapas menu. To accompany our choices and to cool down in the balmy heat we try a pink mojito (basically a raspberry and mint mojito served in the international vessel of bars and clubs this decade – a mason jar) and a local Pilsner.
The calamari are soft and not at all rubbery. The croquettes remind us of ones we used to have growing up. The exterior is crunchy, but the insides are a hot, gooey mess. Never a fan of anchovies, these come swimming in olive oil and guess what – we’re converts. In the context and not straight out of a budget brand can, they’re less salty and stringy than expected with just a little bony crunch from the tail. Finally, the patatas bravas have a tang commensurate with the spice, the orange sauce adding a zing that has us reaching for our drinks.
There is also the full restaurant to try at night, with a more involved menu that looks worthy of a return visit.
Ocana is popular and gets packed particularly in the peak of summer – but it’s for a reason, the food and ambience deliver to a level that justifies the hype. You can feel comfortable adding it to your Barcelona foodie itinerary.