Monday, May 5, 2014

Barcelona Wine Bar Lacks Spice of Spain

Brookline’s Washington Square neighborhood has certainly undergone a culinary transformation over the past couple of years, as evidenced by newcomers Fairsted Kitchen and universally revered contemporary Italian hotspot Ribelle, restaurants that have deservedly received wide acclaim for their innovative cuisine. Barcelona Wine Bar – a well-regarded national chain - has received similar attention, and it’s apparent when walking over to the restaurant one evening that it is busy. In fact, the place is packed to the gills, with a lively, younger, twenty-ish crowd that appears to prefer a nightlife scene over sophisticated cuisine. Unfortunately, Barcelona Wine Bar appears to cater to that very clientele. While there are evident hits across both its menu and service, the results are disappointingly, sometimes maddeningly, inconsistent.

Diners seeking an intimate, romantic dining experience that one may experience on the streets of Barcelona, consider yourselves warned: Barcelona Wine Bar is excessively loud. From it cramped, noisy bar area (where our party, along with several others were forced to wait at least 30 minutes over our reservation times), music loudly blares. A nice touch, however, is the restaurant staff acknowledging the extended wait, as a server brings out complimentary fried cheese wedges subtly sweetened with lavender. When the first table becomes available, guess where the hostess plans on seating us? Tableside right by the bar, where our voices have gone hoarse and eardrums are pierced. “Uh, no thank you,” I insist. We are thankfully soon seated in the dining room next door, which while an improvement, has terrible acoustics that still force us to shout over the loud music that continues to pulsate from the bar. In hindsight, given such a lovely evening weather-wise, I would much rather have opted for Barcelona’s outdoor seating with heated lamps. The restaurant’s dimly lit, sleek interior showcases brown wood paneling and a fun open kitchen featuring hanging meats that are a fun nod to the Spanish butchery windowsills. Spanish-themed pictures including the Barcelona national soccer team and a bullfighting arena, along with a bull head plaque, playfully adorn the walls.

Barcelona Wine Bar’s focus is on tapas – fun, Spanish small plates intended for sharing – and there are several fine ones to be had. The menu, our genial waiter acknowledges, nicely reads from top to bottom in terms of lighter to heavier options. Smaller bites – apertivos – include addictively spicy mixed Spanish olives ($3.50) that are gone from the plate before one can say “Rapido.” Asparagus topped with fried egg and manchego cheese brings me back to my college days abroad in Seville, the ultimate traditional comfort food that my senora used to prepare as part of their most important meal of the day, almuerzo (lunch), a perfect dish to precede their siesta. Another traditional, heartier dish that is well executed is the potato tortilla ($4.50), a Spanish omelet whose firmness and denseness are traits not always evident in previous failed carbon-copy attempts I’ve sampled, and is nicely paired with chive sour cream. Patatas bravas ($6.50) are crisped just enough and layered with salsa brava and garlic aioli. If I had one minor quibble here, it’s a mistake of my own doing: this dish seemed a bit repetitive starch-wise following the tortilla, and I would have opted for the latter plate if I could re-order. Albondigas ($7.50) – luscious meatballs in a sinfully good, zesty sauce – were delightful, and disappeared nearly as quickly as the olives. Lastly, a highly innovative dish of octopus-infused noodles with black squid ink pasta ($14.00) was breathtaking to both look at – served in a large, round steaming black iron skillet – and eat. The octopus tentacles were meaty and the dish was topped with garlic aioli. It was by far the most memorable dish of the evening.

Unfortunately, there were several notable misfires that offset some of the fine cuisine we’d sampled. A pity, given Executive Chef Steven Brands’s (formerly of the highly regarded, now shuttered Harvard Square staple, Upstairs on the Square) reputation for delivering consistently tasty fare. Migas ($6.00), a traditional Spanish dish which fried egg over chorizo, was surprisingly bland, and would have greatly benefitted from some heat, either by way of a spicier cut of chorizo or that wonderful aforementioned sauce dousing the meatballs. Another major problem was with Barcelona’s menu, where groups are typically encouraged to share small tapas plates. If groups, however, prefer to blend standard tapas with larger, intriguing plates such as paella or mixed grill options, it becomes cost-prohibitive (as well as straining stomach capacity), since you must order at least two plates per table at $24.50 per person. This is a blemish that the restaurant needs to rectify – pronto – as it runs entirely counter to the tapas sharing dining concept. With that being said, our table orders one portion of the grilled churrasco ($23.50), a tender, thinly pounded slice of steak that while nicely cooked medium rare, is a tad salty for my taste. The meat is topped with sweet potato frites, which while they sound enticing, are slightly undercooked and not crispy.

Forego desserts here – they border on disastrous. Flan Catalan ($6.00) is average at best (a good thing we didn’t order it – it was mistakenly brought to our table). Crepas salguero ($7.00) have no crispness whatsoever, two thin, limp slices of dough filled with grocery-store quality whipped cream and covered with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce that resembles Hershey syrup. I’ve also sampled far tastier churros. These dough sticks, while crispy enough, should come piping hot tableside – they’re not. What they are is excessively sweet and over-dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Sometimes, a little restraint from the kitchen is a good thing. The aforementioned chocolate sauce with which these are paired should be thick and gooey, not drippy. The mediocrity of desserts at Barcelona Wine Bar makes me feel as if I’ve stumbled into Applebees, not a well-regarded restaurant.

Sangria ($6.50/glass, $24/pitcher) should be Barcelona’s signature drink. Sadly, it’s not. Instead, this version is weak alcohol-wise and far too sweet with no tartness to balance it whatsoever. “Is this house-made?” I ask the bartender. “Yes,” he confirms. Tastes as if it came out of a can, I think to myself, relieved that I did not order an entire pitcher. You’ll have much better luck imbibing on Barcelona’s interesting cocktail selection, including the Hot Dahlia ($9.50), a unique, intensely spicy blend of roasted Jalapeno infused tequila, muddled orange, cilantro, and lime juice. Also noteworthy is the Bourbon Spice Rack ($10.50), a complex, balanced, subtly sweet beverage combining Four Roses bourbon, Doc’s maple syrup, lemon juice, Scrappy’s cardamom, lavender bitters, and is served over one giant ice cube that maintains the drink’s chill.

Barcelona does boast a large, interesting selection of wines that are heavily weighted towards Spain, and available by the glass ($6-$12.50), ½ glass ($4.25-$6.75), or wine flights (a trio of tastes for $15). There are several tempranillos (including a medium-bodied, ripe La Montera), along with ten different types of sherry ($6-17/glass). Beer lovers will take solace in several intriguing options, including a Staropramen lager imported from the Czech Republic ($7) and more adventurous, pricier types such as a St. Peter’s cream stout hailing from England ($14) and Estrella Damm. Inedit out of Spain ($28).

Much like the cuisine, service is wildly erratic. While our server is extremely helpful and knowledge of the menu (he even graciously takes the time to check off dairy-free options for my wife), he disappears in stretches (understandable, given how busy the restaurant is and how many tables he is covering), while the wait staff is barely noticeable, as water refills were nonexistent.

Barcelona Wine Bar may be attracting throngs of customers, but its hype does not live up to the reality of its inconsistent cuisine and service. For better executed cuisine and more polished service, head to the South End’s Toro. This Brookline eatery, however, is unfortunately literally and figuratively continents away from the best restaurants that Spain’s beloved Catalan-based city has to offer.

No comments: