Wednesday, February 5, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas, Part I of V - Barcelona

WARNING: This blog post contains wireless calories. 

Okay you were warned.

In celebration of large puffy coats, oversize sweaters, and layering up against the cold, I think wine and multiple small plates, tapas, enjoyed with friends, is the way to go if you imagine you should be eating "light" and avoiding adding inches to your waistline and think you can hide under your large puffy coat, oversize sweater, and less than stylish layers. Advice from Zena, Goddess of Fire (and, according to Cookie, Gym Rat): go slow and learn to savor every bite. Then have another. It's what tapas is all about.

As a bit of background, according to Penelope Casas, from her book The Little Dishes of Spain (one of my favorite cookbooks of all time), tapas originated in the nineteenth century in Andalucia. The original "tapa" was a complimentary slice of cured ham or sausage placed over the mouth of a wineglass, the verb "tapar" meaning 'to cover' - to keep out the flies. I've never eaten a fly (uh, well, maybe fruit flies in my wine on the back deck in summertime) but I think keeping them out of the food should be a rule, rather than a guideline. Anyway, she says there are no rules, but most tapas are eaten out of hand, in portions that lend themselves to sampling and eating good food and moving about the bar, engaging in conversation.

While we don't have the same culture as the Spanish, with their tapas taken between meals and in the off-hours, we do have a few restaurants in the Capital district that are offering alternatives to that big evening meal, whether at the bar or seated in the dining room with friends. After scouring the web, looking for places that were offering tapas as a central option, rather than a sideline, we decided to start with Barcelona on Western Avenue, near the University at Albany.

The bar at Barcelona is lovely, but we took a table with arrangements in advance to order from their tapas menu. The dining room is very elegant, surrounded by windows looking onto Western Avenue; the crowd was older and dressy and low key. We ordered our first bottle of wine, a bottle of Marqués De Riscal Sauvignon Blanc Rueda. The wine list had a nice selection, not just offerings from California (Lexus noted that it was a nice international selection), with lots of choices by the glass,  between $7.00 and $8.50/each. We all thought the prices were very reasonable. The waiter emptied the first bottle into our four glasses (yes, there were four of us). It was light, fruity, slightly acidic, tart, not too dry, with no bosom (Foodie Friend being abundant in this department, so she should know). It was a good choice. We ordered our first round of tapas.

On the top left was the Eggplant Rollitini, clockwise to the Patatas Bravas, and at the bottom the Calamares Fritas. Note the Spanish-ish names, because all were decidedly not Spanish in nature, more Italian in keeping with the comfort zone of Barcelona's regular menu. The eggplant slices were rolled with a mixture of ricotta and fresh spinach and baked to perfection - simple, lovely, rich and delicious. The Patatas were roasted reds with a spicy chili pepper sauce served with a side of blue cheese dressing that I personally found ordinary and reminiscent of "wings". Red thought they were a bit overwhelming but tasty; Foodie Friend also liked and suggested they were a bit more complex than Frank's Red Sauce. I didn't think they were all that great. Not very Spanish.There was something really hot in there that I thought was unpleasant, so I drank more wine, which was good. The calamari was wonderful, not greasy or chewy, with the classic Italian side of marinara, although eating them out of hand without any lemon or sauce I thought they tasted very bland. The servings were quite a bit bigger than I would have expected for a tapas, which was a nice surprise, since they were all under $8.00.

Round Two: In keeping with the tapas tradition we talked and talked and decided it was time for more food and wine. Staff reset the table with flatware - very professional and attentive. Garlic Shrimp, Gambas al Ajillo, and a salad-off menu, which our server was happy to prepare for us, and Chorizo Con Cebolla. The shrimp was a classic tapas, not too garlicky served on toast points - my favorite dish of the night. Very Spanish. We ordered the salad as a double side serving with a balsamic vinaigrette - it was crispy and very tasty.

The chorizo wasn't at all greasy, very tender and smokey. Oh, and another bottle of the Rueda. A nice balanced meal, unbalanced by alcohol, and very filling and satisfying overall.

The tapas menu at Barcelona was a strange hybrid of Spanish ideas and Italian realizations that didn't quite cut it as tapas in the traditional sense, but pretty tasty. I wish they had more variety on their bar menu - things with pastry, olives, more fresh veggies. Maybe a basket of bread as part of the service, something I noticed no one in our vicinity seemed to have at table (and they weren't doing tapas, either). Lexus noted that the appetizer menu and the tapas menu had a lot of overlap. We overstayed our welcome - three hours of yak and food and wine and happiness, and had to be reminded by the staff that they wanted to reset the table for waiting guests- but we we more or less sober at that point and were ready to take our leave.

Dinner was $26/person including tax and tip at 18%. Good value for a great night out. 

I think the service at Barcelona is excellent and though I thought the food was really darn good but maybe not exceptional I appreciated how comfortable and well-cared for I felt during our time there. Sounds like love and passion and community to me, si? Good eats.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

And note there were no flies in our food. (:

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