Review: La Rambla by Catalunya brings Spanish flair and flavours to IFC

Updated on January 14 2018

After five years of operation, Spanish restaurant Catalunya has packed up its paella pans and moved house to IFC, rebranding as La Rambla by Catalunya and debuting a new look and menu. In a mall rife with everything from ramen to xiao long bao to gourmet burgers, there’s a surprising lack of Spanish offerings, which works in La Rambla’s favour as it stakes its claim as IFC’s shiny new gem. For the veteran restaurant, it’s also a welcome change of pace, evolving from a quiet, out-of-the-way operation in the hinterlands of Wan Chai to a Central location that’s been abuzz since its opening in November.

Ambience

La Rambla
Live greenery evokes the feel of dining in a Spanish courtyard.

Gone is the red-and-black motif, and in its place is a more modern and cleaner aesthetic accentuated by green, grey and natural wood tones. Inlaid brass strips are mixed with mother-of-pearl shells in the terrazzo flooring; up above, an interior skylight keeps the ambience light and airy. The focal point is the live tree sprouting up between the curvilinear green-velvet booths, aiming to replicate the feel of a Spanish courtyard.

While the casual aesthetic is more suited for the heavy foot traffic flowing in and out of the mall, catering to those looking for a quick meal or respite from shopping, we can’t help but miss the sense of grandeur and occasion that seemed to fill the old Catalunya, with its striking interiors, tile-patterned floors and extravagant chandeliers. While that space existed to transport diners away from Hong Kong straight to Catalonia, La Rambla (named after Barcelona’s busiest thoroughfare) feels more like an assimilation to its surroundings.

However, any of the less desirable aspects of the dining room — including the stiff, rattan-backed chairs that will make you want to skip out on dessert — are saved by two factors: the buzzing energy emanating from a fresh crowd in the dining room (and a much larger one, at that), and the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out towards Victoria Harbour, providing a glittering backdrop to your meal and upping the level of intimacy at night. And beyond those windows is the most covetable addition to the new restaurant: a spacious and alluring outdoor terrace, sure to be a hit come summer.

Terrace
A spacious terrace is primed for summer.

Food and Wine

An impressive resume is the catalyst for the creative cooking from head chef Ferran Tadeo, who previously trained under the likes of Ferran and Albert Adria from renowned restaurant El Bulli, as well as Sergi Arola from Arola. In fact, loyal patrons of the old Catalunya will know that the restaurant has strong ties to El Bulli, with several of the staff having cut their teeth at the pioneering temple of molecular gastronomy.

Ferran Tadeo
Executive Chef Ferran Tadeo of La Rambla by Catalunya.

With our meal thus placed in the capable hands of Tadeo, we begin with a celebration of the country’s fine ingredients, minimally dressed as they should be: a plate of thinly-sliced, sublime 48-months-aged Iberico ham (HK$360); ‘pan con tomate’, where pulpy ripe tomatoes flaked with sea salt seep their sweetness into rafts of rustic country bread (HK$70); and finally, a teasing few strips of Cantabrian anchovies (HK$140) plucked from the coast of Northern Spain, which our server proclaims are some of the best in the world. He is right, and for the rest of the meal I ponder where I can get my hands on these meaty, umami-laced fillets.

Jamon
Start your meal with a platter of Jamon Iberico ham.

As I’m still savouring the lasting impression of salty anchovies dressed in fruity olive oil, a flurry of hot and cold tapas descends on the table. The foie and eel terrine (HK$180) is a new invention of chef Tadeo’s, where smoky eel is pressed into the centre of creamy foie gras, lending a smoky counterpoint to an otherwise indulgently rich ingredient. The plate is scattered with fresh strawberries, cubes of raspberry jelly and dots of balsamic, the colours popping on the plate and providing acidic relief.

The other dish we love is the avocado and lobster roll (HK$220), a holdover from the old Catalunya that’s been slightly tweaked to sit in a fortified shellfish sauce. The remaining components haven’t changed: creamy half-moons of avocado shaped like a caterpillar around a sweet crab-mayo mixture, dotted with bright jewels of fish roe, caviar and edible flowers. It’s an Insta-worthy dish that passes the flavour test with flying colours.

Avocado crab roll
The avocado & lobster roll: Still a standout dish.

Other dishes hit shy of their mark: the torched Wagyu beef on bread is sinewy, chucked onto some toasted bread with a wobbly quail egg topping; while the truffle ‘bombas’ (HK$90) tastes more Italian than Spanish, with the bravas sauce lacking vitality and the spicy, Basque-inspired flavours that we’d expect. The fist-sized ball is topped with a few shavings of black truffle, but the delicate pungency is overpowered by the sauce. A serving of croquetas (HK$120) perks us up, the panko-breaded crust cracking open to reveal a creamy béchamel filling studded with salty bits of Iberico ham.

For mains, you can go the meat (a range of steaks, rack of lamb, free-range chicken or Segovian-style suckling pig is on offer) or the seafood route (available at market price from the fresh seafood display); or, tuck into La Rambla’s classic paellas instead. We opt for the red prawn squid ink paella (HK$550 regular, HK$650 large), which arrives as a striking layer of jet-black rice (well cooked but overly garlicky) dotted with seafood. The rubbery squid and clams are saved by the exceptional Carabinero Spanish prawns, imparting the heady aroma of the sea in a juicy burst of maritime funk.

squid ink paella
Squid ink paella is brightened by red Carabineros prawns.

Stuffed, we manage to squeeze in a few bites of dessert: crispy churros dipped in dulce de leche and velvety chocolate sauce (HK$110); and the ‘textures of chocolate’, with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate shards drizzled in a delicious salted caramel sauce (HK$95). For a lighter end, there’s also a baba au sake dessert with fresh lemon curd, strawberries and sake foam that sounds worthy of a try on our next visit.

As for drinks, a 28-page wine list is ripe for discovery, from Spanish reds divided by various climates, to international labels, fortified wines, a selection of cava and Champagne. There’s also a small section dedicated to mixed drinks (we particularly love the Stairway to Heaven (HK$120), which blends Bacardi Carta Blanca with pineapple purée, vanilla syrup, lime, egg white, coriander and celery for a slightly vegetal, refreshing elixir) and a creative martini list that should pique the interests of classic cocktail fans.

Verdict

Whether a calculated PR move or critical for maintenance, restaurants often feel a need for a “brand refresh” when it comes to the five-year mark or so, unveiling new décor, menu or other improvements to the space.  In the case of Catalunya, it has completely shed its old identity — for better or worse — to take over a prime piece of real estate inside one of HK’s busiest landmarks. While we love the added convenience of the location, the bright open kitchen, and the stunning views from the adjoining terrace, the downside is that it’s been stripped a bit of its old character and sense of occasion. That being said, the move to IFC is undeniably a smart one for a restaurant which may have seen its days limited at its old location.

What’s constant is that Catalunya has always been a fine restaurant when it comes to what matters — the food — and our dinner at Catalunya offered ample proof that chef Tadeo is still at the top of his game. While La Rambla seems to have graduated beyond its molecular-inspired roots (gone are dishes such as oysters with ‘fake lemon’ and the spherical olives with suspended green olive juice, first pioneered by Ferran Adria at El Bulli in 2005), there’s still fun and creativity, twists and turns to be discovered in the revamped menu. With the terrace beckoning, we’ll be back before long for more innovative tapas in the bustling harbourside restaurant.

La Rambla by Catalunya
A taste of Basque country at La Rambla by Catalunya.

Opening Hours: Lunch Mon–Fri 11:30am–3pm; Dinner Sun–Thurs 6–10:30pm, Fri–Sat 6–11pm. 
Recommended Dishes:
 Pan de cristal con tomate, Cantabrian anchovies, avocado & lobster roll, croquetas, red prawn squid ink paella.
Price: HK$500-$800 per person with 1–2 drinks.
Noise Level: Comfortable.
Service: Professional and knowledgeable, slightly brusque.

La Rambla by Catalunya, 3071-73, 3/F, IFC Mall, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2661 1161

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