One of the outstanding culinary experiences of my life took place in the city of Barcelona. As I was leaving the Picasso Museum in the Gothic Quarter I noticed a small eating establishment across the street. Its menu was simplicity itself: fresh anchovies, Manchego cheese and cava, the local sparkling wine. The anchovies were briny and luscious, a far cry from the desiccated salt bombs I was accustomed to; the Manchego was all assertive sheep's-milk succulence; the crisp, effervescent cava cut through the lushness and salt spray and brought it all together. It was a crowning example of the tapa, the widely ranging between-meals snack that tantalizes the taste buds, encourages good fellowship, and makes the Amontillado taste that much better.
Like antipasti, antojitos, dim sum, mezes, and zakuski, tapas are the ideal get-together food. They're fun to share. They offer an array of options for every inclination. They're meant to be consumed with a glass of wine or a beaker of beer, and in girth and complexity they tend towards the light, the casual and the unassuming. In short, one of the best ways to pass the time in Barcelona or Madrid or Andalucía is to go on a chateo, or tapas hunt, and compare and contrast the empanadas, tortillas, grilled prawns, marinated squid, olives, bacalao and chorizo available on a given evening.
BarCeluna, an Alameda tapas joint with a global attitude, is a good place to start if you don't have the Euros for a jaunt to the old country. A few months ago the restaurant moved from its old Park Street location into a century-old building, reinventing its look and menu in the process. Past the heated front patio is a handsome custom-built bar and the barnlike dining room, a two-tiered, high-ceilinged space with a rustic, homey atmosphere. Earth tones, exposed rafters and envelope-pushing art give the place a hipster-loft vibe that's nicely abrogated by friendly and speedy service.
The venue's aforementioned global attitude translates, menu-wise, into a baker's dozen of tapas as reminiscent of an antipasti bar or a Mexican cantina as a bodega in old Seville. One small plate with a pronounced Spanish accent was the braised wild mushrooms, meaty little fungi doused in jerez and jazzed with the flavors of fresh thyme and roasted shallots. The promising "garlic and rosemary papas fritas" turned out to be run-of-the-mill French fries, but the piquillo pepper-laced aioli made for one luscious dipping sauce. There wasn't much to the braised lamb tacos either; despite their two salsas — a tomato-onion sofrito and a cilantro crème fraîche — the dish was on the bland and forgettable side. A better Mexico-esque option was the duck tostada, lush, smoky and drizzled with a sweet 'n' tangy plum sauce. The Tuna Luna looked great — big chunks of seared ahi, cucumber and avocado overflowing a martini glass, a crisp tortilla forming a moonlike backdrop — but the culinary execution was murky, rendering the different ingredients tasteless and interchangeable. But the tea-smoked baby back ribs glazed with spicy mango salsa were smoky, sweet, spicy and tender to the bone, while the pepper-crusted skirt steak crostini was everything an over-the-top snack item should be, accenting the luscious meat with arugula, shallots, shaved Parmesan and a dollop of horseradish-infused mascarpone.
BarCeluna serves up a handful of full-sized entrees in addition to the small plates. In keeping with the tapas-bar feel of the place, the primary offering is paella, the Spanish national dish. Properly prepared, it's a soul-warming, saffron-fragrant adventure; unfortunately the house rendition was nothing special, just a listless, barely seasoned casserole of damp rice, rubbery prawns, chewy, overcooked chorizo sausage and so-so clams, calamari and mussels. Better to stick with the small plates and supplement them with the goat cheese salad, a bountiful vitamin-rich platter of peppery field greens, crunchy Fuji apple slices, a scattering of dried cherries and roasted pistachios for contrast and ballast and lots of fresh, puckery goat cheese.
The best dessert on the menu, and one of the best in our extensive experience, is zeppole, deep-fried doughnut holes of Italian origin. Usually eaten up and down the peninsula during La Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19, BarCeluna's chefs prepare them to order so they arrive at the table hot and crunchy on the outside, thick and creamy on the inside, with a dreamy buttery apple-scented caramel sauce gilding the lily. The dessert menu also includes a perfectly tasty Frangelico crème brûlée subtly flavored with hazelnuts, and a serviceable yet overly fluffy chocolate pot de crème redeemed by its crown of raspberry-infused whipped cream.
The token vegetarian at our table expressed satisfaction with the menu's several meat-free options. They include two salads (the goat cheese plus a house salad of mesclun, gorgonzola, dried cranberries and Fuji apples); a vegetarian pasta dish; two pizzas (mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh basil, and wild mushrooms, roasted shallots and garlic); and several small plates, including citrus and herb marinated olives, bruschetta with tomato, basil and garlic, and the sautéed wild mushrooms, and the garlic papas fritas.
In keeping with the menu's international thrust, the thirty-nine-item wine list offers an eclectic array of varietals from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Chile, and Argentina as well as several boutique examples from our own backyard (including two from Rosenblum's Contra Costa County vineyards). Eighteen wines are available by the glass (such as Trenton Station's Russian River Lost Canyon Syrah, especially tasty with the baby back ribs). The beer list features all the usual suspects — Dos Equis, Heineken, Anchor Steam, PBR — and the full bar shakes up a number of classic and cutting-edge cocktails, many of them involving chartreuse, the modern hipster's libation of choice. (We were especially taken with the house pisco sour, a sweet, tangy, frothy concoction of lemon, egg whites and Chilean brandy.) Nonalcoholic options include freshly made lemonade and Fever-Tree's all-natural top-shelf tonic water and ginger ale.