Homage to Catalonia

Vinga
320 Third St. (at Folsom), 546-3131. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Validated parking at a garage on Folsom west of Third Street. Muni via the 12 Folsom, 15 Third, 30 Stockton, and 45 Greenwich.

Robert L., much-missed member of our tasting crew since he up and moved to Berkeley, cornered me at a Christmas party. "Have you been to Vinga yet?" he asked. "It's absolutely great, you've got to go!"

"Ha! I knew it, I knew it!" I answered. "I heard of that chef when he was still down in Miami. And Catalan food -- oh boy!" To put this into longhand, one of the cooler hot spots in Miami's current "culinary renaissance" (given the previous state of South Florida cookery, maybe it'd be more accurate to just say "naissance") is Cafe Barcelona, featuring the cui-sine of Catalonia rather than chic Miami's usual nuevo-cubano. Vinga's Antonio Buendia served as Barcelona's chef for the last four years, and did a cooking show series for the Discovery Channel. His late-October arrival in the Bay Area marks a good day for San Francisco restaurantgoers.

Here, as in Miami, Catalan food is a rarity. Although we're well-supplied with Spanish restaurants and tapas bars, Catalonia (on the Atlantic coast just south of the French border) is an eternally rebellious province, speaking a dialect as different from Spanish as Sicilian is different from Italian, or as Glasgow's English is from Mississippian. The food in this fishing and olive-growing area (which includes the Costa Brava, a favorite European vacation spot) is also distinctly regional, with many local specialties found nowhere else. "Vinga" is the Catalan version of venga, literally meaning "come" but implying "bienvenido, aloha, y'all come see us!," and to essay a dinner there we called on a friend who's been to Catalonia -- Nick, the man of many ancestries, including a Catalan grandfather. Nick's youthful travels landed him in a village near Barcelona for a couple of months' stay with cousins he'd never met before. Although they laughed when he tried to cook paella, to this day his Catalan is better than his castellano.

Vinga's a spacious, nice-looking room. First you pass the bar and then the hostess guides you past an open kitchen and counter seating, while a craggy-handsome chef at the center station greets each arrival with a warm "Hola!" (I don't know if he's Buendia, but his face made my day.) The previous occupant, a would-be sophisticated eatery called Cosmopolitan Grill, may have left behind the silvery palm tree lamps among the center tables. On that rainy weeknight there were few patrons; our foursome rated a luxurious booth with a big, rufous polished-mahogany table and squishy black-leather banquettes. "I want one of these!" declared Mary Ann, Nick's honey, a lapsed pastry chef. "This is softer than my bed!"

As we pondered the menu, a waiter equally fluent in Catalan and English brought tall, coarse, warm bread, sweet butter, and an amuse-geule of four grilled garlic mushrooms on herbed grilled-bread croutons. The mushrooms ($5 for a full appetizer) arrived blisteringly hot but a bit bland-flavored. From a long, interesting list of mainly affordable mainly Spanish wines, Nick chose a chardonnay from Navarre, Vega Sindoa ($20), and all four of us fell in love with it. With a clean, balanced freshness, no weirdness, and just a touch of oak, it could serve as a lesson in adulthood to a lot of California vintners: If all your lovingly tended grapes and Limoges oak barrels still can't make a Meursault-class chardonnay, then -- Grow up! Get over it! Just make a good, no-BS drinking wine and not some gawky, pimply wannabe!

On the menu, appetizers are called "Pica Pica" -- "nibble nibble." Espinaques ($5) is a specialty that Catalonia shares with parts of Italy, buttery spinach leaves "melted" with sauteed pine nuts and golden raisins. "Adorable" was TJ's word for it. Torrades amb boquerons ($5) is another typically Catalan snack, grilled peasant bread topped with delicious roasted red peppers and lightly pickled fresh anchovies, larger and less salty than their canned cousins.

"Catalonia had a much stronger Latin presence than the rest of Iberia," Nick explained. "Barcelona was founded around 200 B.C. by Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian ..."

"He invented the BarcaLounger and that's why these seats are so comfortable?" I butted in.

"... who was the father of Hannibal, who crossed the Alps on elephants," Nick continued. "When Hannibal headed for Barcelona, the Romans sent in two legions to protect the area, and their settlement gave the region its Roman roots."

A "pica pica" that caused some debate was brandada de bacallà, salt cod blended with olive oil and, apparently, mashed potatoes. The salt fish had evidently been so thoroughly soaked that only a hint of fishiness remained. Mary Ann loved the creamy texture; TJ disliked the blandness; and Nick and I mildly enjoyed the mild, subtle flavor. "In my family," said Mary Ann (whose family is New Orleans Sicilian), "salt cod was considered peasant food."

"In mine," said Nick, "it was a treat. But they usually just soaked it and then mixed it with vinegar and oil."

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