There was a minor boomlet of Cajun-Creole and Southern food this past year, as Alba Ray’s and Bayou opened in the Mission a few months apart, The Elite Cafe relaunched itself, and The Front Porch cruised past the 10-year mark. But after opening chef Justin Simoneaux left Hayes Valley’s six-year-old Boxing Room, the net NoLa increase fell by one, as parent company The Absinthe Group opted to go with an entirely different concept and leave the fried alligator behind for good.
So we have Barcino instead. In spite of its logo, which looks like a bat wearing a crown, the name has nothing to do with flying mammals; it’s the ancient name for Barcelona. And the Catalan influences are everywhere, refracted through the expected NorCal seasonality. Since that combines two of the world’s most crowd-pleasing approaches to food, most dishes are quite good — and even when they aren’t, they’re full of brio. Barcino aims to delight.
The carpaccio ($12), a 28-day dry-aged striploin wrapped around a humble breadstick with tomato jam, black truffle, and pico, is a little tough to eat elegantly, but it’s simply fantastic, with all its component tastes sitting upright with their arms raised, like eager students waiting to be called on. The $10 patata, a potato cup with bravas salsa, a charred-scallion aioli the color of matcha, and “dust,” wobbled like a pudding. Crisp on the outside and with a gooey interior, it’s like a pain perdu that soaked overnight — and I loved it.
Somehow, the tomaquet ($14) was my first truly satisfying heirloom tomato of the season, and when you get a bite of one of those, it’s like finding a Golden Ticket in your Wonka Bar. Juicy and refreshing, with a little cucumber and a big old rectangular prism of watermelon, it’s summer incarnate. I usually go out of my way to avoid cherry tomatoes — it’s the way they explode in your mouth — but this was just the right use for them, and the hummus-esque Pedro Ximenez sherry crema was a stroke of genius.
However cryptically named, the ou — a sunny-side-up egg with caviar, idiazabal crema, jamon iberico de bellota, and potato chips, $20 — was my favorite dish. A mix of high and low, with the precious meat of a pig that fed upon acorns served atop a proletarian classic, it’s not so much a joke as an indication that Ryan McIlwraith’s kitchen has a sense of humor about itself. (That salt and pepper shakers sit on the tables also signals a lack of excessive pride.) Depending on your tolerance for yolky chips, this might not be for everyone, but it’s beautifully balanced — and not nearly as salty as it looks or sounds. A head-scratcher that nonetheless paid off, the saffron-rich albondigas ($16) looked like the Frankenstein’s-monster equivalent of meatballs, served over an odd, thin noodle and gilt with olives and raisins instead of just letting the tagine-rich sauce and the shishitos stand on their own two feet.
A little pruning would have done well in that case. Overall, even when the dishes don’t gel, the creative effort put forth is valiant and the mistakes are usually correctable ones. In all likelihood, a few items are trial balloons, like a $12 platter of kale that’s probably meant to be a vehicle for stone fruit and/or a break from all the animal fat, but which chews like the overdressed contents of an Easter basket. Or take the sobrasada, a spreadable pork sausage on open-faced toasted tomato bread, goat cheese, and honey ($14 for four pieces). Served at room temperature, it’s a very distant cousin of a tomato pie — and I think the honey is a mistake. A discordant sweetness is all it adds, as if the kitchen panicked at the thought of sending out something stridently salty — but the honey coats the goat cheese without muting the sausage.
Then there’s the bomba, two beautiful potato balls with hazelnut-garlic crema, mahon cheese, and pickled chanterelles ($13). Although a pun is basically unavoidable here, it’s not that it’s a bomb but a dud that refused to go off. There’s plenty of flavor, but too much of it is in the vinegar-drenched chanterelles. They overpower the mahon, a mild cow’s-milk cheese from the island of Minorca — and the garlic, too. I was sitting at the bar when I ate this one, and unlike the case with the tables, there’s no S&P handy — which was what the whole thing cried out for. One exception to the everything-has-oomph-even-if-that’s-all-it’s-got rule was the octopus ($12), which was cooked just so but needed more of a sauce to help it find its outdoor voice. But again, almost all of this is fixable.
And from what I’ve tried, the cocktails — all $13 — need no fixing. Barcino has several dozen gins, grouped into four flavor profiles, that you may use to create your own “gin tonic.” But I think the cocktails are thoroughly excellent. La Marca (mezcal, Aperol, charred peach, lemon, and fino sherry) has nothing to do with the similarly named Prosecco that’s the toast of BevMo!, and the garnish was clothespinned to the lip of the glass to keep it solely aromatic. While the Barca (gin, atxa vermouth, celery, and manzanilla sherry) felt like a clenched fist at the first sip, it gradually opened up, and the tartly herbaceous Puente (vodka, rosemary, juniper, dill, cucumber, lime, and fino sherry) straddled — bridged? — the other two. Folded and speared several times over, its cucumber-ribbon garnish looked like a pintxo. Clever!
This isn’t the Absinthe Group’s first foray into Spanish cooking. Last summer, on the ground floor of Airbnb headquarters at 888 Brannan St., the company opened Bellota. It’s a masterpiece, but the sheer size of its dishes — from the paellas to the five-course Mar y Montana — means it’s got a serious intimidation factor. You really need to eat there with a group of four or more, and that group needs to be very hungry, to gain a true appreciation for what it’s capable of.
This foray is considerably more approachable, and the airy space and convivial scene conspire to make a meal here feel a little more special. Just sitting there is a pleasure. I’m glad the management hung onto the Boxing Room’s ring-shaped lighting fixtures, too. In all, Barcino is kind of like a machine that works as designed but makes a noticeable, persistent clatter — one that can be completely eliminated by tightening half a dozen screws.
For whatever it’s worth, I moved to Hayes Valley during the last week of August — and my first dinner at Barcino wasn’t merely a reviewing expedition but a Jesus-Christ-I’m-glad-that-ordeal-is-over celebration. I was already primed for a good time, and I found one.
Barcino, 399 Grove St., 415-430-6590 or barcinosf.com