Barcelona Wine Bar traces its humble origins to where most great tapas restaurants begin. In, um, Connecticut.
I don’t mean to be snide. But it’s a source of understandable skepticism when trying this new Spanish restaurant in Brookline, the latest outpost of a small chain that first opened in 1996 in South Norwalk, Conn., not far from the New York line. Since then Barcelona Wine Bar has fanned out to include six Connecticut locations and one in Atlanta. There are plans to expand in Washington, D.C., soon.
Its unlikely backstory makes its success that much sweeter. Barcelona Wine Bar is a franchise, but in concept only. Two meals here recently were among the most memorable I’ve had in Boston, from the inspired take on tapas, which are reasonably priced and number nearly 40, to its precise attention to details to the impeccable service.
The menus tend to be the same at all locations, but the Brookline restaurant, which opened in early January under the eye of executive chef Steven Brand, prompted the chain to revamp its offerings at other locales. The sourcing for the ingredients, of course, is local. I ask our server about the fluke a la plancha, which is incredibly fresh and grilled just long enough to maintain its moist flesh, and she tells us it’s from New Bedford.
There are obvious touches that owe to a corporate supervision. When the bill arrives, tucked behind it is a comment card. “How was everything? We’d really like to know!’’ it reads, signed by Andy and Sasa (that would be Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz, the chain’s owners). It includes six topics to grade, ranging from excellent to poor. Taberna de Haro, the beloved tapas restaurant 2 miles up the road in Brookline, would never fuss with such formalities.
Barcelona’s various outposts all share similar decor touches, which is to say each spot has a rustic feel meant to conjure the motherland. In Brookline, reclaimed wood lines the walls and floors, with metal light fixtures in the bar area and tubular fluorescent bulbs casting a soft, yellow tint overhead. Between the bar and two dining areas, it accommodates 190. (An outdoor patio, which they hope to open in April, will add upward of 100 seats.)
There’s no pretension here, as I learned one night watching a patron try to speak to the bartender en español. “I don’t speak Spanish,’’ the bartender said flatly. On the other hand, on another visit, one of the table runners gleefully delivers his plates with a description in Spanish.
The kinks are being worked out. On a bustling Thursday, we show up for a reservation for three people at 8 p.m. and wait an extra 40 minutes for the table. Like any hot spot relishing its initial sweep, the place gets crowded.
A Monday evening is more laid-back, more conducive to lingering and easing into conversation. With a party of five, we dig deeper into the menu this time. Our solicitous server recommends two to three tapas per person if you’re also sharing one of the larger platters meant for the whole table. We say stick with just two tapas per person in that case.
There’s a disparity between portion sizes — the kale salad is hearty enough for a small entree, but the shrimp (gambas al ajillo) are suited for two or three. The spiced beef empanadas have the texture and appearance of something from an abuelita’s oven: a bit misshapen and incredibly flavorful. The jamon and chicken croquettes are petite bites that burst in your mouth with a rush of melted cheese, ham, and chicken.
The tortilla española, listed on the menu as potato tortilla, is a staple of tapas dining, and it’s hard to mess up this omelet-like concoction of eggs, potatoes, and onions. Barcelona’s take is buttery with a soft texture. The Spaniard among us decides it’s not as good as his grandmother’s version, but it’s at least better than what he makes at home in Southie.
Among the platters meant for sharing, priced per person, we opt for the mixed grill Barcelona. It’s a fine example of no-frills dining: pork chop, chicken, steak, sausage — grilled with salt, pepper, oil, and cooked at the right temperature where everything oozes juices. Served on a wood cutting board, it’s all you need.
For dessert, skip the expected (¿Cómo se dice, “Why is warm apple crisp on this menu?’’) and go for the more Spanish-centric choices. Dulce de leche bocadillos arrive as a plate of delectable sugar cookies filled with the rich caramel sauce. Churros y chocolate are a fine take on the Spanish classic, long fingers of fried dough with a dark chocolate sauce for dipping. Meanwhile, it tastes like no eggs were harmed in the making of the flan Catalan. It’s so creamy and saccharine that you’ll surrender after a bite or two.
In addition to a long list of sherries (11, each poured by the glass or bottle), the drinks program is strong on wine of Spanish origin and features a particularly lively cocktail list. The Bourbon Spice Rack — bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice, and cardamom and lavender bitters — is winter’s last stand in a chilled martini glass. Of the three sangrias, the Flora is delicate on the palate: French rosé with a splash of St. Germain and soda water.
The tapas are interesting and abundant enough that they make the paellas — three varieties offered, including seafood, vegetarian, and one with rabbit, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), and chickpeas — seem irrelevant. The rice is undercooked, and a heavy hand with the seasoning overpowers our seafood paella.
Salt, it turns out, is an issue here and apparently has been for a while. A friend who was a fan of the Connecticut locations mentions it was a problem even in the beginning.
When a manager drops by to check in, one of us pipes up about the excess of salt. He listens closely, nods, and insists on taking the paella off our bill; he’s heard that complaint before, he says.
That’s Barcelona Wine Bar’s appeal in a five-minute exchange. That fine line between corporate ownership and the good-natured charm of a Mom-and-Pop joint lets the place transcend its roots and become something else entirely: a top-notch addition to the neighborhood.