Updated: Thursday, October 26, 2017, 3:56 PM
She could have stepped right off a flamenco poster and onto that bar stool at Barcelona. With a crimson flower tucked into her raven hair and lipstick-red heels to match, the woman and her date, perched at the cresting marble curve of the big horseshoe bar that anchors this new South Philly hot spot, seemed as much a part of the setting as the rolling Spanish ham cart and steaming pans of hot paella that swirled around them. Judging from their hands-on body language, a steamy telenovela unfolding not far from our table, they were oblivious to the world around them.
The fact that Barcelona is part of a national chain — and the first to land on East Passyunk — is what worries many who have been thrilled by the avenue’s recent resurgence. Is this the beginning of the end for a strip that’s become Philadelphia’s premier restaurant row on the strength of independent restaurateurs, including seven three-bell restaurants and several other favorites? Or is this perhaps simply the beginning of a new phase for a neighborhood ready to prove it is mature and deep enough to absorb a big-money player and keep evolving forward?Such is the strange sense of intimacy that can come from being in a handsome restaurant so lit with crowds and vino-splashed good spirits you feel like you’re part of something bigger — a pulsing energy hub that’s harnessed an as-yet-untapped wattage from a rising neighborhood, at least on a larger scale. Parc achieved that sort of buzzing hive status many years ago for Rittenhouse Square. Barcelona Wine Bar has that magnetic potential for East Passyunk Avenue, with 180 seats sprawling through the wood-trimmed industrial chicness of its wedge-shaped space, plus 55 more al fresco in the triangular front patio edged with shrubs and lights.
Only time will tell if Barcelona’s success unleashes a rent war that ultimately makes it difficult for the independents to keep pace. It would be unwise to count on landlords to make concessions. But there are few, if any spaces, left on Passyunk as large as this one, retrofitted from the old Man’s Image clothing store into a moody, industrial warren of exposed cinder-block walls, fold-up cafe windows and so many wood planks it almost feels like it was built from a wine barrel.
Barcelona’s classic tapas bar concept does not compete directly with anything else in the neighborhood, so in that respect it simply adds to the avenue’s diverse menu of choices. But it also feels like a natural fit. You wouldn’t guess from the edgy design that Barcelona is part of a 14-restaurant chain started in Connecticut by partners Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz. And the service team led by general manager John Scott couldn’t be more friendly and outgoing (“How you doin’?” said our server, a spot-on Spanish counterpart to Joey from Friends), though as a whole, the pacing of our meals was somewhat uneven, with a rush of charcuterie plates followed by some lags between plates of the cooked food.
The staff’s grasp of the big wine list, with 40 by the glass and nearly 400 labels in all, is also limited to basic advice that reduces the complexity of Spanish wines to “dry or sweet?” and distinctions akin to a volume dial: “This one’s going to have two or three levels of flavor,” advised our Joey, though his recommendation for R-Oh, a garnacha-cariñena blend from Montsant, was a juicy, earthy, peppery hit, especially good with our parillada platter of mixed grilled meats. Among the other good choices, we enjoyed a sparkling dry rosé from Naveran in Penedès and a nutty Los Arcos sherry from Lustau that was a perfect match with the platter of hand-sliced Mangalica ham, whose deep red tags of salty meat were edged by a ribbons of fat that melted like butter.
Similarly, the menu is built on good ingredients, but occasionally limited in the sophistication of its presentation. That is not to say you can’t have a perfectly nice dinner. There’s a solid selection of traditional charcuterie and cheeses to anchor any meal, from two kinds of ham (sheer slices of pink Serrano if you don’t go for the more intense Mangalica), to smoky rounds of chorizo piquante, and a greatest-hits roster of Spanish cheese. A marinade of olive oil and citrus added some extra zest to typically mild Mahon.
But Barcelona, which was transitioning between chefs during my visits, will not be mistaken for Amada South. This kitchen struggled at times with basic seasoning, erring on the bland side for simple dishes that, by definition, rely on a confident touch. Some crispy eggplant, an otherwise juicy chunk of swordfish grilled a la plancha, and even a deeply steeped “bone broth” of lamb with fideos noodles were lacking a little salt.
I appreciated the fact that executive sous-chef Will Shaw, who’s currently running the kitchen under the direction of Miami corporate chef Christopher Lee (remember him, Striped Bass fans?), was savvy enough to make that soup to begin with, along with several other preparations from a whole Border Springs lamb. A little cazuela crock filled with tender chunks of that lamb stewed with peppers was memorably soulful. The big grilled lamb chops with hazelnut-thickened romesco, meanwhile, were among the best tapas bites, and also my favorite part on the bountiful parillada mixed grill (an homage to Mahr-Batuz’s Uruguayan heritage) that also brought a flavorful hunk of steak, juicy chicken, and Italian sausage. A boneless whole trout, flattened to a silver-skinned crisp but still flaky on the underside,was a pleasant entree surprise beside a crunchy pouf of salad.
There are small gestures of creativity here, mostly designated for simple seasonal offerings, such as the half-moons of kabocha squash glazed in the sweet heat of pimentón-spiced maple syrup. But for the most part, Barcelona is most satisfying as a showcase for classic bites, such as the very good Spanish tortilla of potatoes and onions layered between a frothy egg custard, the creamy-centered ham and Manchego croquetas, oregano-scented meatballs in a tomato gravy deepened by the trim of cured ham, and some plump shrimp al ajillo that would have been perfect if they’d arrived with more sizzling heat. I loved the sweet-and-sour spice of hot chorizo chunks tossed with figs in a tart balsamic glaze. The beef empanadas were zesty and flaky.
There were a couple of notable misses. A rope-thick octopus arm was so overcooked it was like eating an ocean-flavored marshmallow. The vegetable paella was so full of mushy vegetables and bland rice it seemed almost like cruel punishment to vegetarians. To view the sizzling hot pan of its superior seafood counterpart would only make things worse. The picturesque pan of good Calasparra rice crowned with shrimp and crustaceans was properly cooked to order and full of seafood savor, the tangy sweetness of a slow-steeped pepper and onion sofrito and texture from squid rings embedded deep inside the grains. If only the kitchen had more delicately cared for all the seafood added on top — instead of roasting those clams and mussels to chewy bits — this paella could hit another level.
But the rice was still flavorful enough that I kept heaping extra portions on my plate. The wines were flowing. The crema Catalana was superbly creamy for dessert. And then, of course, there was the endless parade of colorful people-watching, from beanie-wearing hipsters in flannel to large tables of families, and more than a few couples out for a big night, including that colorful flamenco couple, whose bar stool romance had begun to attract an audience. The date was going well.
And so did our meal at Barcelona, even if it wasn’t perfect. Dinner there is clearly about more than simply the food, but also a sense of place and fresh ambitions, and the electric energy that is still shaping its future.