Step into Barcelona Wine Bar and it hits you immediately — that crackle in the air, that new restaurant excitement. I have missed that excitement during these long dark months of recession and restaurant stagnation. There have been some exciting restaurant openings in 2011, but, honestly, Barcelona has all the energy of boom times.
The raucous and slightly dark but cavernous lounge to the left invites me in with its circular bar and huge chalkboard above, adorned with a pig butchering diagram and list of wines by the glass. There's something warm, inviting, convivial about this place, something missing from many restaurant bars these days. What is it? Then it hits me. There are no televisions. All the energy is purely human — the bubbling cauldron of voices and laughter and friendship and food and wine.
To the right is a quieter, marginally brighter dining room, a room flanked by a huge glassed-in wall of wine. The walls are constructed of wooden planks, like a rustic hand-built house turned sleek, and are adorned with large black and white photographs – iconic images of Sophia Loren and John Lennon. Beyond that lies a patio of elegant wooden outdoor seating, with a large rustic brick fireplace at its end. This may be the most inviting restaurant patio in town. It's hard to believe this place is a chain.
Yes, that's right – the Inman Park location is the seventh incarnation of Barcelona, the first having opened in South Norwalk, Conn., 14 years ago as a tiny 38-seat wine bar. It may be the best conceived upscale chain I've ever encountered. This is likely because each location shares a name but not a look or feel or menu. Some specialty dishes are served at all locations, but individual chefs have control over most of what they serve.
In Atlanta that chef is Michael Blydenstein, and his menu is daunting. There are a la plancha items, grilled simply and served with salt. There are more than 30 tapas, and a few raciones – plates bigger than tapas but smaller than entrees. There's a large selection of charcuterie and cheeses, some salads, and a selection of entrées. And then there's paella for two to six, and parrillada for two — a mixed Argentine grill that includes pork chops, a half chicken, sausage, NY strip, and fries. On Sundays, the restaurant cooks a whole pig. This place is a serious operation.
For such a large, multifaceted operation, it runs exceptionally well. Service is bright, enthusiastic, and educated. There are waiters, backwaits, food runners, and managers — a seemingly endless number of folks taking care of tables unobtrusively and efficiently.
The food is exactly as good as it needs to be. A slightly heavy hand with the salt on some dishes, an overly mushy octopus tapa, and some tough, too-sweet collards were really the only disappointments over the course of many meals and probably 30-plus dishes. Likewise, only a couple of things stood out as excellent: The farm egg a la plancha, which comes fried over beautifully thin, crispy, oily papas fritas (fries) with a drizzle of chimichurri is drunk food gone to heaven. A mellow kabocha squash that just appeared on the menu is all autumnal roasty sweetness, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and creamy goat cheese with a hint of honey. The half chicken entrée comes with the crispest rendered skin and is unabashedly piquant, with a lemon juice white wine sauce and puckery spicy cherry peppers alongside.
The rest is good enough. The paella could use a touch more fresh herb and saffron flavor, a slightly crisper layer of rice on the bottom, and more succulent seafood, but there is nothing wrong with this version. Most of the tapas are great for gobbling with wine — salt cod fritters are crispy on the outside, mellow and potato-rich on the inside. Chorizo with figs pairs hearty sausage, almost kielbasa-like in its heft and density, with sticky sweet fruit. A raciones plate of braised rabbit legs had a hunter's stew appeal, the simple brown sauce, herbs, and carrots giving it a warming but uneventful allure.
What is far better than good enough at Barcelona is the wine list. As a matter of fact, these folks have the opportunity to march into Atlanta and teach our native restaurateurs a thing or two about selling wine, the first lesson being: do not underestimate your clientele. The list is primarily made up of Spanish, Portuguese, and Argentinean wines, mostly by producers I've never heard of. The result is a thrilling game of discovery — a full-bodied red from Uruguay perhaps, or a white Priorat made up of macabeo, garnacha blanca, and muscat that is rich and full but completely savory, and which was a perfect match for the vinegar tang and fish oil of the boquerones (fresh anchovies). The list stretches across all price points but becomes especially affordable on Sunday nights, when every bottle is half-price. I plan to drink my way through this selection for many Sundays to come and learn a good deal in the process. It appears that the unfamiliarity of the list hasn't turned anyone off — Barcelona has been decidedly packed with drinkers since its opening.
When you stack up all that Barcelona has going for it, it's hard to argue that the good-enough food is a detriment. This place is social at its core. The atmosphere, the service, the wine, and the huge range of options on the menu do what other places have set out to do but rarely achieve: Barcelona channels the spirit — if not the experience — of casual European dining. If only all chains were so refreshing.