There's a serious problem with Atlanta's dining scene and it's been true as long as I can remember: Finding decent paella in this city is impossible. I blame two things. First, diners here don't even seem to like authentic paella. Second, paella can't be made ahead, so it's time consuming. That means delays in the kitchen and comparatively long waits for diners.
The latest to try to feed Atlantans paella is Barcelona Wine Bar (240 N. Highland Ave, 404-589-1010), but I'll get to that later. Located in the space vacated about 18 months ago by Zaya, the restaurant seems to have been under construction forever. The result is a space worthy of the Ramblas, Barcelona's famous stroll. There are wood-plank walls and an open kitchen whose bar is topped with a glistening meat slicer and a view of freshly baked loaves of bread. You'll also glimpse racks of wine — central to the tapas-bar experience. (I don't drink, so you'll have to wait for Besha Rodell's review for words on that.)
One half of the new interior is devoted to the bar space with dining tables. The other is for dining only. When you enter, manager Herman Allenson may ask you if you want to sit on the "more lively" or "quieter" side. That's a warning. "More lively" is a euphemism for ear-splittingly noisy. You may even want to sit in front of the big fireplace outside or on the heated front terrace, weather permitting.
I've visited the restaurant three times, all within the first 10 days or so of its opening. Barcelona is part of a New England group but feels nothing like a chain restaurant.
If there was any plan for a "soft" opening, it was vaporized by huge crowds.
The executive chef is Michael Blydenstein, who has a substantial history of cooking in Emeril Lagasse's empire, including a stint at the short-lived Emeril's Atlanta. The menu — which is the same at all of the restaurants in this group — is mainly a gigantic list of traditional single-serving tapas. There are also the usually larger "medias raciones," along with plates of cheese and cured meats. Let's just call them all small plates, because regardless of their category, their size ranges all over the place.
The paella is part of the brief menu of entrée-sized dishes. Barcelona's paella is one of the mixed varieties with saffron-infused rice, chicken, squid, shrimp, chorizo, clams and mussels. It's $24.50 per person, and available for two to six diners. I rate it a B. It's cooked and served in the traditional shallow pan, which enhances production of the soccarat, the crust of crispy rice that can form at the pan's bottom. That is what is almost always missing from Atlanta paellas. There was very little of the coveted stuff in our pan and the chicken was quite overcooked, but the chorizo, the rice itself and the shellfish were cooked just right.
The only other entrée-sized dish I sampled was the more-Argentine-than-Spanish grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce. It was served with sweet potato fries and garlicky spinach. My friend who ordered it disliked it intensely. Chimichurri sauce, made principally with chopped parsley, can be on the bitter side and is not for everyone. I liked it but found the sauce a bit dense.
One of my favorite tapas was thick slices of chorizo with "sweet and sour" figs, all caramelized in a balsamic-sherry glaze. I tasted nothing sour in the dish at all and, weirdly, the second time I ordered it, there were far more figs than sausage — the opposite of my first order. No complaints from me.
Nothing transported me to Spain as quickly as a plate of Manchego cheese and Cabecero Iberico, cured pork loin from the famous black Iberico pigs raised on sweet acorns. I used to eat frequently at a hole-in-the-wall in Sevilla where the owner described the genealogy of each cured meat he brought to my table. Wish I were there.
Another favorite was cachete de lechon, pig's cheek, braised until fork tender and served with a relish heavy with crunchy Shishito peppers, the Japanese cousin of Spain's Padron peppers, according to Emily, my terrific server one night. This dish, whose relish also included sweet peppers, is not always on the menu, which changes somewhat daily.
I found another special, grilled quail with fig mustard, disappointing, especially at $12.50. It was, as described, a single quail splayed upon a plate with a big dollop of fig mustard, new to me, nearby. I had difficulty spreading the thick stuff on the tiny pieces of quail and I didn't find the flavor that appealing, either.
A fat slice of roasted pumpkin with honey-tinged, whipped goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds would be a great substitute for the pumpkin pies soon to appear everywhere. You'll also find mainly excellent versions of Spanish favorites like classic octopus flavored with paprika and served with fingerling potatoes, patatas bravas, spinach-chickpea casserole, marinated white anchovies, meatballs and much more.
My friends and I didn't plan to order dessert, but the manager raided our table with nearly every sweet on the menu because of a foul-up in delivery of dishes. (Our leader, Bobby, insisted on separate checks and that turned into an even greater brouhaha.) While we appreciated the desserts, they were my least favorite of anything I've eaten at Barcelona. If you want one, I recommend the simple flan or the crepes with dulce de leche, chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. Or the pumpkin tapa.
Definitely go, but definitely make a reservation.
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