When Connecticut-based chain Barcelona chose the South End for its 10th location, locals reacted with bemusement. “Who thinks we need a third Spanish place? We’ve got Toro and Estragon, two beloved indies with loyal followings.” The C-word didn’t help. To food geeks, chains evoke a triumph of uniformity and scale economies over soul and idiosyncrasy, MBAs over cooks. At least this Barcelona puts familiar local names on the masthead, like executive chef Steven Brand, a veteran of the beloved, bygone UpStairs on the Square. And it’s certainly gratifying to see a fresh, attractive design in the former home of the long-moribund Sibling Rivalry, the dining rooms nicely opened up, making for a noisy, lively atmosphere dominated by a central U-shaped bar in front of an open kitchen.
That throbbing, frequently packed bar features a list of 10 sherries ($4-$18/glass) and 40 wines ($6-$14/glass). Customers nibble on tapeo classics like Spanish olives ($3.50), potato tortilla ($4.50) with chive sour cream, boquerones ($6.50), blistered shishito peppers ($7.50) and any of a dozen varieties of imported cold cuts and housemade charcuterie, plus 15 cheeses ($6.50 each, $17.50 for three). A short list of respectable craft cocktails ($8.50-$12) includes the Enabler ($12), like a mojito punched up with Green Chartreuse and habanero shrub. The beer list includes four drafts and two dozen options in cans and bottles (most $5-$7), and there are five variations on housemade sangria ($6.50-$9/glass). In its role as a swank, high-volume watering hole, Barcelona has already found a heady groove.
But Barcelona has greater culinary ambitions, boasting one of the longer Spanish menus in town, with many small plates too generous to be considered tapas, a welcome variety of vegetable dishes, a few substantial entrees, and a handful of paellas and mixed grills for two or more diners. Paper-thin slices of jamón mangalica ($11 small, $22 large), a Hungarian pig cured in Spain in the style of jamón ibérico, is a sweet, delicate knockout of a ham, hand-carved by the chef tableside right of the hoofed haunch. Items cooked simply on a flattop impress with their clean, vivid flavors, as in prawns a la plancha ($9.50), two huge, bright-pink specimens in their full exoskeletal glory. Ask for extra napkins, put down your knife and fork, and shell these two fat beauties with your hands; they hardly need the accompanying red chimichurri. Pulpo gallego ($9.50) is another nicely cooked seafood dish, albeit less work, its tender octopus tentacles sliced into disks alongside fingerling potatoes, given a brick-red tone and hint of smoke with a dusting of pimentón. Squid-ink fideos ($14) offers a beautiful, substantial variant on paella, subbing chopped, stranded fidelini pasta for short-grained rice, loaded with squid and the rich, briny accent of squid ink, with creamy aioli to stir in.
Grilled morcilla ($7.50) with new potatoes and saffron offers a few pretty, carmine, iron-tangy dollops of blood pudding. Migas ($6.50), croutons mixed with bits of chorizo and topped with a fried egg, suffers from too free a pour of oil. Vegetable dishes range from a lovely winter chopped salad ($9.50) with quinoa, pomegranate seeds and chunks of chestnut, to crudites-like raw, thin-sliced sweet carrots ($6.50) in ginger vinaigrette, to a spicy eggplant caponata ($5.50) that lacks fire but has a strange, not-unpleasant sweetness. Of several somewhat bland root-vegetable preparations, Macomber turnips ($6.50) with rosemary, garlic and jamón registers the strongest. More memorable is a casuela (terra cotta crock) of spinach, chickpeas and roasted garlic ($6.50) with a gentle Moorish accent of cumin.
Brand occasionally gets to wander afield of Spanish tradition to show off his haute-French chops, as in a gorgeously done hunk of skin-on crispy pork belly ($9.50) with a brightly acidic tomatillo sauce, like a fine-dining take on chicharrónes; grilled quail ($7.50) with bacon, Brussels sprouts and kale, a single spatchcocked, perfectly cooked little bird; and an exquisite version of spiced veal cheek ($13.50) on pureed celery root with bits of green apple and lime—a subtle, rich braise topped with a beautiful pan sauce. Grilled pluma ibérica ($16.50), a tender, well-marbled pork loin cut, is alarmingly ruby-rare in the center, but this proves a respectful, delicious choice when the source is acorn-fed Spanish black pig. From a short dessert list, the most traditional entry is the best: flan Catalan ($6) in a thin caramel sauce.
Service both at the bar and in the dining room reflects a level of hustle and polish that is surely a requisite of the long menu and an advantage of a corporate training operation. Given the neighborhood context, Barcelona Store No. 10 would be easy to approach with skepticism. A menu and space this big often lead to dilution, to a something-for-everyone versatility that’s at odds with both tradition and innovation. With any luck, Barcelona’s local management will keep finding and highlighting the islands of individual heart, originality and excellence peeking out from behind its efficient, noisy, occasionally overgroomed facade. Out here in the neighborhoods, that’s what keeps the locals coming back.
-Prawns a la plancha
-Crispy pork belly
-Grilled pluma ibérica
-Spiced veal cheek
Hours: Daily, 4 pm-12:30 am (bar till 1 am)
Parking: Metered street spaces and nearby garage
Liquor: Full bar
Barcelona 525 Tremont St., Boston (617-266-2600) barcelonawinebar.com