BARCELONA -- El Bulli, the restaurant run by superstar chef Ferran Adrià, has held the world's attention for several years. With such unconventional dishes as melon caviar and ravioli of malt filled with sea urchin, lime, and butter, El Bulli has caused customers to cry, giggle uncontrollably, or even vomit -- from anticipation.
The restaurant is a huge part of the reason Spain has basked in the culinary limelight lately. To keep the creative juices flowing, Adrià closes the restaurant's doors six months a year, retreating with his staff from the village of Roses to a ''laboratory" in the heart of Barcelona.
Ferran Centelles, one of two sommeliers at El Bulli -- and, at 24, a baby in the world of three-star sommeliers -- agreed to guide me on a tour of his favorite hometown food spots, establishments characterized by the same combination of tradition, revolution, and curiosity that flows through the city itself.
I met Centelles's co-sommelier, Lucas Payá, 30, and they led me down a set of side streets to Múrgula, an unassuming restaurant whose chef, Rafa Clarasó, is an El Bulli alumnus.
''The best places in Catalonia are the ones where you don't feel like an outsider," Centelles said. At Múrgula, the two sommeliers were treated like family and ate like hungry college students.
The food was much closer to family style than to El Bulli, but that's nothing to be disappointed about. Clarasó's goal is to make the most of the products from the nearby Boqueria market.
''The Boqueria has 26,000 products and everything we serve here comes from there," Clarasó explained.
''It's like having an enormous stocked refrigerator at our disposal."
So where's the revolution? ''It's in everything," he said, citing one example: ''Shorter cooking times help each ingredient conserve its texture." He also pulls from his El Bulli past with innovations in timing and presentation.
For other diners, Clarasó constructed a tasting menu that included such elements as anchovy fillets over baby fried broad beans with olive oil and sherry vinegar glaze, sauteed foie gras on a fried duck egg over a bed of fried baby artichokes, bonito wrapped in Iberian ham over cabbage, and a cabbage and potato pancake known as trinxat.
For those who still had room, there was a hearty tripe stew.
We rolled out the door, and as Payá bid us adios, Centelles steered us toward a favorite wine shop.
En route, on a street lined with chocolate shops, he pulled into what he considers the city's finest coffee roaster, Cafés El Magnífico, run by Salvador Sans Velasco. A fireplug of a man who also runs the tea shop across the street, Sans began his take on food by explaining his preference for filter coffee. Surrounded by customers, workers, and the smell of caffeinated heaven, he tied Spain's culinary revolution to the end of its national revolution.
''Under Franco, we were closed off from the world," he said. ''[Afterward] this left Catalans curious to see what was going on in the outside world [and bring it back home]. Not in the mentality of copying -- it was to learn."
Next, Centelles headed to meet David Lenti Berrospi at Vila Viniteca. Modern in design, this wine shop and gourmet deli is as forward-looking as much of the Spanish wine industry.
''Wine work in Barcelona is improving -- you can feel it," said Lenti.
''Two or three years ago, there weren't many people participating in tastings and sharing experiences. Five years ago, nothing like this shop existed. Now, you can't believe the number of wine shops that are opening."
''Five years ago there was only one sommelier school in Barcelona," Centelles added. ''Now there are three. There are many more qualified people working in the business."
''There's a lot of interest [in wine]," Lenti said. ''Sometimes it's snobbism, but in most cases people are simply interested. They want to learn where it's from and how it's made."
Vila Viniteca cheese monger Laia Pont Diez said that while food and wine are hot, the Spanish cheese renaissance is happening at a slower pace.
''Many people who come here just want Manchego," she lamented, ''but there's a growing number of people who want to see things differently."
She's working against history. Here, cheese is still thought of as a way to fill the stomach, not as a delicacy to savor. Though it's easy to find cheese in Barcelona, Vila Viniteca is one of only three or four top quality cheese shops in town.
However, Pont, who makes her own cheese in her free time, has seen encouraging shifts in Spanish cheese, with both an improvement in quality and a move toward organic production. Most important, her clients are coming back for more.
''People might not know that much about cheese," she said, ''but it's good that they're asking questions and want to know more."
Plus, she's banking on something for the future: ''Everybody who likes wine likes cheese."
It was getting late and we still had an appointment to keep, so we hopped on the metro, rode across town, and ended up at the Celler de Gelida, a five-generation family wine shop and a supplier to El Bulli and many other top restaurants in the region.
Centelles and Gelida's owner, Antonio Falgueras Pujol, quickly started talking shop. He had a few bottles of wine he was excited about and some 100-year-old sherries that Centelles held as tenderly as babies.
It came out that the two of them, along with Falgueras's daughter Meritxell, are knights in a cava association, devoted to Spain's traditional sparkling wine.
''They put swords on our shoulder, we say an oath, then we have to down a glass of cava in one gulp!" said Centelles with a grin.
''And we promise our fidelity to cava!" chimed in Meritxell, who has the added distinction of having been elected Miss Cava in 1999.
Her brother Ferran, who gave up a career as a lawyer to join the family business, gets a good deal of ribbing for being Catalan and preferring champagne. He admitted he's outnumbered: ''My mom opens a little bottle of cava every night!"
So why did a lawyer leave his profession to sell wine? ''I prefer wine and gastronomy," Ferran said. ''It's a greater pleasure."