720 Dublin St.
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
For years, chef Xavier Laurentino cooked traditional dishes from his native Spain at his original restaurant in Metairie, a place he called Laurentino's. The menu there always seemed like a bit of a work in progress as he added different tapas dishes, but also Creole-Italian standards more familiar to the local palate. Earlier in 2010, however, he relocated to the Riverbend and reopened under a new name, Barcelona Tapas, which now seems like the fulfillment of everything the old restaurant was trying to become.
If you remember this Riverbend cottage as the former Café Volage you're in for a surprise when you first walk in. The building has been thoroughly revamped with custom woodwork everywhere and a mosaic-patterned bar designed as a tribute to the Modernista style of Barcelona. It's a casually charming space, long on personality, intimate and loose.
A tapas-style meal should be a parade of small plates shared around the table, and this format holds unique challenges for any restaurant that tries to meld its peculiarities with the popular expectations for a conventional American restaurant experience. Who gets what dish? How much should we order? What will the timing of dishes be like? If you simply give yourself over to the wait staff here, however, you'll be in good hands. The tapas menu reads like the checklist at a sushi bar, and they can guide you through it with advice on how much to order and when. Be aware that the restaurant presently accepts only cash, and while there is an ATM by the bar it was out of commission during my last few visits.
The best meal at Barcelona Tapas will naturally be a succession of tapas, which vary in size here from three-bite snacks to modest appetizer-sized dishes. At their most basic, these tapas can be a plate of fine, imported Spanish ham, sliced thin and served with garlic and tomatoes to smear on toasts. Follow the curve up and you get a steamed artichoke heart drizzled with oils, misted with vinegar and set atop a composition of manchego cheese and chorizo. Some of my favorite tapas here are called "canoes," and these are essentially combinations of meats and cheeses over sliced French bread. It's utterly simple, but the flavor combinations are superb. Try the seasoned slices of roasted pork loin layered with roasted green peppers and topped with tangy, melted gouda cheese and you'll know what I mean. Allioli, the Catalonian version of aioli, plays a starring role on many of the tapas and wherever this house-made garlic and olive oil emulsion appears an addictive, vivid flavor follows. It's applied like dessert topping over a plate of asparagus and it transforms fried potatoes into the seriously delicious patatas bravas, spiced up with the addition of red pepper
The list of dishes here beyond tapas is short, and centers primarily on variations of paella. This famous dish of rice, meat and seafood is sometimes compared to jambalaya, but it's a different animal altogether. The key is the seasoning and the texture of the finished rice, and at Barcelona Tapas you can taste how this is all supposed to work together. The grains are suffused with flavor and they are bound by a creamy, savory richness. The other great dish here is the fideau, which is essentially paella made with thin noodles instead of rice. This is no new innovation but rather another deeply traditional dish, and if you've never tried it I recommend giving this version a shot. The noodles form a delicious crust along the bottom of pan that is delightful to scrape up with the serving spoon.
Flan is the standard dessert here, and it's a good enough rendition, sent out glistening with caramel sauce and flanked by blossoms of whipped cream.
There's a full bar and the wine list, though modest, has a good selection of Spanish wines that goes beyond the everyday variety we tend to find around here. Try the Txakoli if available. This white Basque-style wine is just slightly effervescent and is wonderfully refreshing alongside this zesty food.
The final bill can be a bit of a surprise here. Few individual items are particularly expensive, but when you get into the heat of ordering round after round of tapas the $4 or $6 hits start to add up. Still, if you order sensibly, a couple should be able to share a few tapas and a pan of paella for about $75 with wine.
Barcelona Tapas may not be the place for everyone. Some just might not enjoy the small plates format, for instance. But if you crave convincing flavors of Spain, with the spirit and gusto to match, this is the place. It's my favorite Spanish restaurant in the area, and for a mid-range, adventurous, sure-to-please dining experience it's one of my favorite restaurants of any type overall.