Of the 12 concepts that make up the hyperlocal mega-corp Back of the House, Inc. — among them Super Duper, Delarosa, and The Bird — most are fast-casual or something very close. The rest home in on something very specific and run with it, as with Belga or A Mano. Restaurateur Adriano Paganini has a soft spot for the cuisines of the Spanish-speaking world, and after Uno Dos Tacos, Flores, and Lolinda, it was probably obvious that a tapas bar would be the company’s next foray once it announced an expansion into the former La Urbana space on Divisadero Street.
That expansion is Barvale, and rather than overwhelm people with four-dimensional towers of meats from land and sea or dozens of obscure gins, it sticks to the Back of the House ethos of hip approachability without feeling formulaic. The path Barvale sets for itself requires staying true to its Spanish heritage without putting out a menu of things everyone has eaten before. That it does so and also stays within the realm of the affordable is much to Executive Chef Patricio Duffoo’s credit. It’s an easy menu to navigate, half cold tapas and half warm — and the cold are (mostly) $6 each or three for $16.
The boquerones should come with a “KAPOW” cartoon bubble on them, because they’re stunning. Smoky and intense, they’re like eating dressed bait fish, with an appealing heat that lingers amid the salt. I would have preferred a little more of that smoke to rub off on the squid salad, which felt like a combination of its constituent parts and little more. In spite of having mussels in it, too, the seafood felt ornamental, and although the olive oil and vinegar were balanced, sugar dominated. Basque piquillo peppers stuffed with morcilla are probably as good as one’s tolerance for cold, fatty sausage runs, but there’s plenty of zip to them.
Consistency is strong overall, but on two separate occasions, the eggplant escabeche came out completely differently. Each time, it was flavorful in a broadly enjoyable way — vinegar, garlic, oregano, no fuss — but the texture was velvety on one visit and slimy the other.
The grilled setas (king oyster mushrooms with garlic and shaved manchego) were quite nice, owing to that particular mushroom’s ability to retain a lovely texture no matter what you do to it. But even though neither garlic nor manchego is low-key, there’s a subtlety to this plate. Same goes for the bagna cauda with chicory and almonds. Since almost every dish on this menu is salty, you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t. Go with more, not less. The garbanzo-and-pimenton puree — which is to say, peppery hummus — is a good counterpoint.
Elsewhere among the hot dishes is a plate of pulpo with fingerling potatoes, olives, and pimenton ($14). Tired of octopus? Never! This is the peas-and-carrots of Galicia, and if you need something with more creativity, the winter greens ($8) have raisins in them. A disappointing tempranillo-braised oxtail with mashed potato and mirepoix ($17) was much too quiet, but the best dish was the fabada with morcilla, pork belly, and chorizo ($16). That would be three distinct pork preparations — including blood sausage — and that labor is more than evident, plus it’s over a bean stew that’s almost as creamy.
Although the pintxos are available only at the bar, Barvale churns out paella roughly every half hour, and there’s no attempt to make it look like it was the food of choice for royalty, so you better like socarrat, the slightly charred rice clinging to the bottom of the pan.
There are several excellent cocktails on Jessica Everett’s gin- and sherry-focused list, among them the Moorish Invasion (Spanish brandy, fino, pineapple, ancho, and harissa, $12) with its inviting blob of chile oil collecting around the ice cube. The house gin-and-tonic ($10 or $20, and one of four variations all told) happens to be on tap, which raised my hackles a bit, but it’s juicy and refreshing. Even though it’s almost never hot enough in S.F. for a quintessentially summery drink to work its cooling magic — we’re more Asturias than Granada — it’s well worth ordering, even in January.
Farther out to sea is the $11 Canary Isle, a tiki-adjacent drink made with rum, pine nut, grapefruit, manzanilla, and the cinnamon-y Czech liqueur known as bechevovka. A few of the ratios could stand some tinkering, as in the Salty Spaniard (gin, fino sherry, dry vermouth, and orange bitters, $11) which was light but ultimately unsatisfying, a weak martini. For its part, the G&T #2 was a little muddy owing to the celery bitters and the aloe. And as a nod to the mezcaleria that used to occupy this address, there’s the La Urbana (mezcal, applejack, banana, palo cortado). Palo cortado is something of a mystery sherry, neither amontillado nor oloroso, and the overall drink starts out as a car crash until it resolves itself into something really wonderful.
The measure of this restaurant comes in two parts. First, it’s a lot of fun. Second and more importantly, can you go here on a date, spend roughly $100, leave feeling entirely satisfied, and also walk out reasonably confident that your date won’t think you were cheap? Yes, you can. Tapas bars gave birth to the small-plates phenomenon that went on to engulf the entire dining world — with assistance from Korea and Japan, to be fair — yet Barvale feels ruddy and vigorous. It’s as if all of this were new.
Barvale, 661 Divisadero St., 415-654-5211 or barvalesf.com