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."
"Here it's $12 a pound in little wooden boxes from Canada, so peasants can't afford it," I observed.
Pricey for an appetizer ($15) but well worth it was a special of four grilled langoustines (giant freshwater shrimp). The shellfish were huge and so were the unfussy flavors: the sweet meat, the luxurious liquid shrimp-fat just under the shell, and the woodsy smoke from the grill. Inspired by the simple perfection of the dish, Nick thought of his grandfather. "The Catalans," he said, "are superpractical and clever. My grandfather was like that -- his pride was having good, well-kept tools for every task. But most of the surrealists were Catalan -- Miro and Picasso were from Barcelona, and Dali grew up there. They must have developed a rich fantasy life as a reaction against all that pragmatism."
As we nibble-nibbled, Nick resumed the history lesson. "Nine hundred years goes by as a Roman outpost," he continued. "In A.D. 711, Islam swept through and started to take over Spain. The Catalans went to Charlemagne in France and they made a trade-off: 'We'll be your vassals if you protect us against the Moors.' Ever since, Catalonia has been more connected to France than to Spain. Today's Catalan language is the closest surviving link to the langue d'oc, medieval Southern French, the language of the troubadours who sang at the great 12th-century court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Catalan still has a voiced 'j,' not the Castilian aspirated jota, proving it's not really Spanish."
Another simple, savory Catalan dish was an entree of botifarra amb mongetes ($11), grilled sausage with white beans. The beans were garlicky, with a coarse-ground fresh pork sausage flavored with fennelseed, like Italian sweet sausage. We all enjoyed the dish, but Nick was a little disappointed because his cousins made it with fava beans and a distinctive Catalonian version of blood sausage. "Blood sausage and favas, ahh, makes you strong!" he said. In Vinga's defense, unlike fresh pork sausage, blood sausage is difficult and messy to make, and I hope the restaurant eventually finds a local manufacturer it can talk into it. The commercial blood sausages available around here are based on the French, Italian, or extremely bland Irish models, quite different from any Hispanic version.
"Spain only began to unite into one country just before Columbus went sailing," Nick continued, "when Isabella, Queen of Castile, was married to Ferdinand, King of Aragon. Ferdinand was also the Count of Barcelona -- he couldn't be its king, since it was still vassal to the king of France -- and that's how Catalonia fell under Spanish sway. But even after 500 years there's still a strong secessionist movement." Our other entree was a demonstration of culinary secessionism. Arrosejat ($40 to serve at least two) is a "paella" made with thin noodles instead of rice, and Vinga is the only restaurant in Northern California to offer it. Like a well-made rice paella (or a Hong Kong chow mein), the noodles were deliberately crisp-crusted at the bottom. Their flavor was smoky and piscine, re-emphasized by smoky grilled langoustines and shrimp. It was a fascinating dish, but strange enough to evoke a full spectrum of reactions at our table, ranging from TJ's considerable enthusiasm to Mary Ann's active dislike. There are plenty of easier choices among the entrees ($15-23) -- roast chicken, rabbit with aioli, several grilled meats, and numerous fish dishes, along with no fewer than five rice-based made-to-order paellas ($30-40 for two). Those include the great Costa Brava classic, arros negre -- rice blackened with squid ink, bedecked with cuttlefish and squid.
"Isn't Barcelona where they have the running of the bulls?" TJ asked. "No, that's Pamplona," said Nick. "In fact, Catalans sort of look down on bullfights. Instead, they make castilleras -- human 'castles.' They're human triangles with the big enormous guys on the bottom and a child on top -- except in about a third of the towns the women form the whole castle. They get as high as seven tiers of people. If it becomes unstable and wobbles, people can actually die. I saw one guy rolling around in a wheelchair -- he'd fallen and the town supported him with a pension for the rest of his life. But it's not about machismo ..."
"That's not machismo?" Mary Ann scoffed.
"No," Nick insisted. "It's scary and dangerous, but it's not bullfighting; it's not about maleness, it's about foundation, about community. You see the pyramid start to tremble and loosen and come apart, it's utterly terrifying -- but then it'll close by sheer force of group will."
Not one of our desserts was something we'd ever had before. The star was brac de gitano ($6), "Gypsy's arm," chocolate sponge cake rolled around creamy chocolate mousse.
"Ah, it's like buche de noel," said Mary Ann, ex-patissier, happily savoring a forkful of the luscious stuff. From stranger realms was bisbalenc ($5), puff pastry topped with "angel hair candy" -- sweetened spaghetti squash strands -- and toasted pine nuts. If only we all hadn't tried so hard, 10 years ago, to use spaghetti squash as a low-cal pasta substitute, we might still like it. Gelata de safrà ($6) had terribly intense saffron ice cream -- it almost tasted curried -- atop a puff-pastry round lightly topped with apples. The puff paste, slightly denser and more Middle Eastern-tasting than the French version, was great for sopping up the sauce -- which in all cases was a warm, loose crema catalana, better known in English as creme anglaise. (The menu also offers a firmed-up custard version of crema catalana, close kin to France's creme brulee.)
Catalan cooking remains absolutely exotic even here, where the cuisines of nearly every corner of Southeast Asia are comfortable; hence, we didn't all love everything we ate. However, one or another of us wholeheartedly adopted each dish, and all four of us loved the restaurant, the overall flavor of the dinner. Vinga is already a culinary thrill, and will only get better as Buendia develops local food-supply sources. When we got home we were still in such a high mood, we kept talking nearly until dawn. (Between Vinga and our earlier meal at Zarzuela, I'm beginning to suspect olive oil and garlic meld into some euphoriant drug.)
"It's time for our farewell to arms," TJ finally declared.
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls ...," Nick riposted.
"Look, in another coupla hours the sun also rises," I said, grabbing the last word, indeed.