It was a literal breath of fresh air. After a couple of weeks of the old and dark and narrow -- entrancingly old and dark and narrow, I hasten to add, but nevertheless -- I found myself in a lively modern city of broad avenues, pedestrian malls, fantastic architecture, all-night rambunctiousness, and dazzling public art in primary colors. The charcoal palette I'd become accustomed to vanished under the technicolor onrush of Gaudi, Picasso, and other municipal taste-makers. The city's frisky Catalan birthright -- that particular amalgam of Gallic and Iberian is heard and sensed entirely as often as Spanish -- is reflected in a prevalent lightheartedness more or less foreign to the rest of Spain.
Barcelona isn't aquatically informed by a measly strip of Thames, Tiber, or Seine, but by the glittering and expansive Mediterranean, and its salty breezes were a benison to this California native. It is the city rhythm to stroll to the sea in the evening, to embark upon a bar-to-bar chateo, or tapas hunt, to drink the good jerez and vino as you go, to absorb the music and wander through the night and into the middle hours of the morning. Like Venice or Amsterdam or New Orleans, Barcelona is the sort of city you can find yourself getting homesick for.
A few nights ago, three Barcelona-lovers (including a proud Catalan-American complete with unexpectedly placed x's to his surname) converged on B44, a 6-month-old self-styled Barcelona bistro nestled along one of downtown San Francisco's more glittering alleyways, Belden Place. It is the ideal location for the venue, because despite all of Barcelona's sunny dernier cri, its old quarter, just north of the main drag, is a labyrinth of meandering alleyways dotted with plazas, cafes, and restaurants. Belden is a striking facsimile: The Buddha Bistro, Cafe 52, Plouf, Tiramisu, and Cafe Bastille share its narrow confines with B44, and the passageway is packed with effusive doses of humanity in silk, sunglasses, and even the occasional ascot, sitting at the few hundred sidewalk tables, drinking and chatting and, best of all, eating.
Inside, B44 is absolutely reminiscent of the neoteric tapas bars that make Barcelona such a hip locale in which to dine: Soaring ceilings, exposed concrete, abstract art, bright colors, sleekly curved furniture, a stunning black marble bar, and a loud, convivial sound design result in a striking, industrial-chic setting. Video monitors display the creation of an immense human tower, a feat accomplished each year since the 14th century by the men of Villafranca del Panadés, a town 20 miles west of Barcelona and the birthplace of chef Daniel Olivella. Olivella's Catalan upbringing, combined with his experiences at Zuni, the wonderful and woefully departed Maltese Grill, and Servicio Wilson, the first California-cuisine restaurant in Spain, served him well when he became executive chef at the Thirsty Bear Brewing Co., a fun and festive place decidedly fueled by Olivella's wonderful tapas. At his new venue, the food is even tastier.
Spanish food is too often overwhelmed by olive oil and salt; Olivella's creations, on the other hand, are fresh, vigorous, and bursting with flavor. Example: the following array of tapas (best enjoyed with Lustau Los Arcos amontillado, $5 per glass). The whole shrimp ($8), heads, antennae, and all, are huge, succulent, fragrant with lime and garlic, and accompanied by fried garbanzos as habit-forming as a sackful of peanuts. The esqueixada ($7.50), salt-cured cod fillets, are surprisingly smooth and supple and pleasantly cushioned by escalavida, a goulash of roasted peppers, eggplant, and onions. The baby octopus ($8), a particular Spanish specialty, is pleasantly briny and ably contrasted by its platemate, a warm and soothing potato salad. The fish cheeks ($8), however, are a bit on the overwhelming side, with too much salt, garlic, pepper, and wine adding a surfeit of flavor. By contrast, the boquerones ($8) is simplicity itself, and a near-replica of the best meal I had in Spain: just satiny, delicate white anchovies accompanied by wedges of sharp Idiazabal cheese and sweet, crisp pear -- perfection.
B44 offers eight different paellas served in their own individual single-serving paella pans, an option as attractive as it is potentially tasty -- there's the vegetarian Hortelana with pine nuts, currants, and a variety of mushrooms ($15); the Negra, an ebon aggregation of sepia, squid, and squid ink ($17); and the briny Barceloneta: squid, monkfish, sepia, shrimp, mussels, and clams with green peas and string beans ($19). We opted for the Cazadora ($17), a land-bound concoction of chicken, rabbit, pancetta, and mushrooms. The individual components were distinct and tasty; the fragrance of rosemary and the richness of olive oil intermingled throughout, and their essences flavored the encompassing rice so that every mouthful was wonderfully satisfying.
Another entree, romescada ($20), also served in a paella pan, bore no rice to distract us from its essence and cynosure: seafood, that mainstay of the Spanish diet. It was here in abundance -- clams, mussels, prawns, squid, monkfish -- perfectly, succulently prepared and served with a silky, addictive romesco sauce: the best dish of the evening. Runner-up: the tiny, grilled lamb chops ($19), a perfectly simple dish but memorably moist and smoky, with a dribble of aged sherry vinegar and the aforementioned pepper-eggplant escalavida on the side. And the roasted rabbit ($17.50), sparse of meat but nicely sweet and succulent for all that, was perfectly set against a vinegary, Zuni-like grilled frisée-and-bread salad studded with currants and pine nuts.
For dessert we had the comforting, Christmas-like rice and cinnamon ice cream ($6.50), soothing as a gelid rice pudding, and a ridiculously enjoyable example of interactive culinary show biz, Mel I Mato ($6.50). When you order the latter, you are presented with a plate of milky-fresh soft white cheese drizzled with honey and studded with walnuts, and a porronet of cream sherry not unlike the bota bags you use to shoot a stream of wine into your mouth after a hot day of picking grapes. You stick a forkful of cheese, honey, and walnuts into your mouth, then zap a squirt of sherry in to chase it down. Not only are the gustatory combinations delightful, it's a fine way to end an evening of Barcelona-style conviviality.
Sandwiches are offered at lunchtime, the perfect hour in which to sit at a sidewalk table and soak up any available sun- beams. There's roasted pork with honey mustard and roasted onions ($9), sautéed fish with watercress and aioli ($9.50), and the Catalan BLT -- smoked bacon a la plancha with Idiazabal, lettuce, and tomato ($9). The 37-item wine list is properly Iberian, with three jerez by the glass ($5-8), a cava from Penedes ($20), vinos from Rueda, Valdeorras, Galicia, Jumilla, and Rioja ($20-48), and five after-dinner brandies and anisettes ($5.50-10). Or try a glass of the house sangria ($6.50); the sparkly cool cocktail of red wine, brandy, gin, peach schnapps, several breeds of fresh citrus, and a pinch of cinnamon is audacious and effusive, a grand slam of tradition and innovation served on the rocks -- a potable artistic statement not unlike Barcelona itself.