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Despite the profusion of Spanish restaurants that have opened recently in the city -- one of the latest being Barcelona, on a romantically narrow Financial District alley -- there is still something exotic about Iberian cuisine.
True. Yet the food of Spain (like the language) is in many ways strikingly similar to that of Italy, and Italian food is the most popular food in America. Lovers of prosciutto will find that Spain's controlled-denomination serrano ham compares favorably to the Italian product; paella is a close cousin to risotto, as the tortilla is to the frittata. The Spanish even have an item -- the wondrous piquillo pepper, deep-flavored and subtly hot -- that has no clear Italian counterpart. Some telegenic chef ought to be able to make something big out of all this, though popularization does have its dangers: The last thing we need is Spanish Raviolios.
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Barcelona catches that distinctive Spanish balance of formality and rusticism. The waiters are all neatly dressed in white shirts and black trousers and operate with friendly efficiency behind a polite reserve. And the space itself, under colorfully tiled arches, strikes a sunny Mediterranean stylishness. But Thursday through Saturday evenings, in the dining room farthest from the door, there's a live flamenco show of moody guitar music and beautiful young women whose dancing is frankly and voluptuously erotic. We watched in fascination as the male diners stopped talking and set down their forks to stare at the dancing women.
At lunch the mood was more businesslike. Packs of downtown suits filled many of the tables, and their hearty talk of deals and insurance riders broke the Iberian spell. If later in the evening Barcelona might seem like a restaurant in Spain, at noon it was a purely American place serving (fairly pricey) Spanish dishes.
One of the better ones was the tortilla campesina ($5.50), which filled a niche on the continuum between omelet and quiche. The tortilla was basically a potato-and-egg pie served at room temperature and flecked with chorizo, peppers, and (for a bit of eye-popping green) peas. From the list of hot tapas came albondigas ($8.75), briskly seasoned meatballs of lamb napped with a bay-scented tomato sauce.
The Mystery Writer was impressed, though he was and remains unsentimental about tapas culture, having studied in Madrid after college.
"Tapas are basically bar food in Spain," he pointed out, "something to go with all that Spanish wine they're drinking."
Maybe so; but to Barcelona's credit the two small plates, while traditional, were meticulously prepared, and the waitstaff refrained from pushing alcohol.
Arroz Costa Brava ($12.95) -- saffron rice liberally stocked with whitefish, mussels, and shrimp -- was indistinguishable from paella except that it had not been cooked in the traditional paella pan, which looks something like a flattened, two-handled wok and gives a crispness to the bottom layer of rice. It can also, if used improperly, dry out the whole dish. While the arroz might not have qualified as paella, the golden grains were all appealingly plump and moist.
Pechuga de pollo ($10.95) had a rich, sweet cast: a boneless chicken breast stuffed with spinach, figs, and pine nuts and finished with a caramellike honey sauce. I worried that it would be cloying (honey and figs?) but there was enough savoriness elsewhere on the plate to keep a balance.
At dinner we opened with the entremeses Espanoles ($10.95) -- essentially a plate of charcuterie, including paper-thin slices of buttery serrano ham (smoother and less salty than prosciutto, we thought), bright-red, bologna-size slices of chorizo, and cured pork loin that resembled Canadian bacon. There were also accompanying slices of mild, white Manchego cheese.
Barcelona's treatment of the piquillo pepper ($9.95) was simple and definitive: one of those moments in the kitchen when, as in an eclipse, all the elements aligned themselves perfectly. The peppers had been stuffed with shredded beef and then broiled with goat cheese, which caramelized satisfyingly around the edges of the plate.
We ordered -- and then reordered -- the potatoes ($6.95), another deceptively plain-sounding dish executed with gusto. Nicely roasted quarters of red creamers were dressed with a saffron sauce studded with bits of shredded veal -- a simple meat-and-potatoes dish, given a sly but distinctive spin by the saffron.
There were so many other delicious tapas -- grilled squid a la plancha ($9.95) in a sauce of garlic, peppers, wine, vinegar, cumin, and coriander; mushrooms in garlic sauce ($6.95); and clams almejas ($9.95) in a green sauce -- that the abject failure of a main course, braised chicken ($12.50) hardly mattered. The bird, though well-cooked, was soggy, and the accompanying sauce of white wine, onions, green peppers, and bay was acrid.
By the time our desserts were served, the flamenco show was going full tilt, and we seemed to be the only table with enough willpower to go on eating. Certainly the desserts deserved the serious attention of sweet freaks: brazo de gitano ($5.50), a log of chocolate cake and espresso cream; tarta de Santiago ($5.95), a tiramisu-ish combination of almond cake and mocha sauce; tres vicios ($5.50), a medley of chocolate mousses -- white, milk, bittersweet -- arranged in little pillows on a bed of almond sauce; and a moist chocolate cake ($5.75) garnished with a pile of puckered cinnamon cherries that looked like little windfall apples and were boldly tart.