[Originally published in Frame Magazine #118]
In creating Tunateca Balfegó Espai Gastronómic, a restaurant dedicated exclusively to dishes prepared with Atlantic bluefin tuna (atún rojo in Spanish, an allusion to the deep red colour of the raw meat), acclaimed Barcelona studio El Equipo Creativo was tasked with both the interiors and the concept of the somewhat unusual establishment. The project is the brainchild of a family from the small coastal town of L’Ametlla de Mar, in the neighbouring province of Tarragona. Having fished the Mediterranean for five generations, the Balfegós are renowned for supplying top chefs around the world with this highly prized delicacy. Don’t be confused: despite its name, the Atlantic bluefin also populates the waters of the Mediterranean.
“We were commissioned to design a gastronomic space that would promote Atlantic bluefin tuna as a quality product and, at the same time, make it known to the general public,” says El Equipo Creativo partner Natali Canas del Pozo. “We worked closely with the Balfegó family from the very beginning, at the conceptual stage, even before a space had been found.” The challenge, she explains, “was to create a showroom or ‘flagship store’ for a brand of tuna – and to do for that brand what has been so successfully done with Iberian ham: make it widely known as a local product of a very high quality.”
To achieve that goal, El Equipo Creativo based its spatial concept on the visual attributes of atún rojo, subtly referencing the fish’s colours and textures in the scheme, as well as its habitat, in this case the Mediterranean Sea. “It had to be local, of course, but neither we nor the client wanted the theme to be ‘Barcelona’ or ‘Catalonia’, which have been overdone throughout this tourist-trodden city.”
Centrally located in a monumental 19th century building on Diagonal Avenue, a major Barcelona axis, the restaurant occupies a former ground-floor retail unit selected by El Equipo Creativo and its client. The interior comprises three main spaces, each with a thematic aspect reflecting the fish in question. In the Blue Room, guests immersed in a deep marine-blue space are surrounded by the undulating folds of a perimeter curtain. Ceramic floor tiles resemble a seabed, and a sinuous school of translucent fish-shaped modules swirls overhead. Together, the various elements conjure the rather surreal environment of a subaquatic kingdom. The space is reminiscent of the famous underwater-themed dining room of the city’s Hotel Espanya, refurbished in the early 20th century by modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The fish installation recalls Michael Snow’s Flight Stop, a work of art featuring a flock of Canada geese that hovers high above visitors to Toronto’s Eaton Centre shopping mall. At Tunateca Balfegó Espai Gastronómic, an elliptical wood-topped sushi bar and fixed tables for larger groups rest on stainless-steel bases that curve in two directions, a nod to swimming fish, while natural-wood dining tables take their shapes from different cuts of tuna.
The Ronqueo Room is a more abstract and flexible space with tables and chairs that can be rearranged or cleared away for special events such as cooking classes or the occasional demonstration of a ronqueo, a traditional Spanish technique for carving tuna without wasting a smidgen of the valuable fish. Floor and wall tiles handmade by local artisans shimmer in gradated hues of silvery-grey and golden-beige to simulate fish scales, while a reddish timber ceiling with a white grain pattern calls to mind cuts of tuna. Wood dominates the third space, a mezzanine between Blue and Ronqueo that accommodates a pair of private meeting rooms accessible via a black-steel and timber stairway.
With its sophisticated references to all aspects of tuna and its use of local materials and craftsmanship, the design of Tunateca Balfegó communicates the qualities of a local product far and wide. The restaurant reminds us that brands associated with the restricted production of a costly commodity from a specific region of the world represent the ultimate mark of distinction in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world. Local has never been so global.