Obsessive food people have been obsessed with Spain and its cooking for a good long while now. They embark on pilgrimages to hot new restaurants in Barcelona and San Sebastián, engage in heated debates over different grades of Ibérico ham, and wax philosophic about the brilliantly arcane recipes of the great Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià. Except for the occasional, momentarily hip tapas bar, Spanish food has registered only the faintest blip in the hearts and minds of the greater dining public. Perhaps it’s the insular sensibilities of the grand Spanish chefs, the regional quality of Spanish cuisine, or its inherent stark simplicity. Perhaps it’s the lack of a large Spanish community in New York or the lack of a single gimmicky dish (lasagne, General Tso’s chicken, cheese soufflé) to capture people’s imagination. Whatever the reason, the restaurant impresario Stephen Hanson seeks, with the opening of his latest glitzy, big-box production, called Barça 18, to set things right.
If there’s anyone who can turn Spanish food into a mainstream gastronomic event, it’s Hanson, whose company, B.R. Guest, operates a string of highly successful restaurants (Dos Caminos, Ruby Foo’s, Fiamma, Blue Water Grill) around town. Hanson has sometimes been accused of catering to the middlebrow masses, but at Barça 18, which opened a little more than a month ago among the jumble of restaurants lining lower Park Avenue, he’s enlisted the help of the king of New York City’s highbrow chefs, Eric Ripert. Ripert, the seafood genius who runs the kitchen at Le Bernardin, grew up in Andorra, a landlocked principality sandwiched between France and Spain. Ripert is listed as a “partner” on the menu here, which means, presumably, that he has a financial interest in the proceedings but doesn’t do any cooking. The actual chef at Barça 18 (Barça is the shorthand name for the Barcelona soccer team; 18 refers to the restaurant’s cross street) is a gentleman with the very un-Spanish name of Brian O’Donohoe, who formerly served as Ripert’s sous-chef at Le Bernardin.
No one should confuse Barça 18 with Le Bernardin, however. The Hanson-esque theatrical touches are apparent as soon as you walk through the door. First, there’s the room, which is built for volume (and, therefore, profits) and is as big as an industrial cow barn. The walls and ceiling have been painted in an inky, brooding Iberian grayness. Six giant lamps swathed in yellowy-orange cloth twirl slowly above the tables in dramatic fashion. The bar area seems a little cramped for a Hanson restaurant, but the bar itself has a glass top that’s lit from within in flaming colors and separated from the dining area by branches from the kind of scraggly, leafless trees you’d presumably find in the more arid regions of Spain. Predictably, the menu is cluttered with lots of paellas and tapas dishes, and it’s interspersed with improvised seafood fusion specialties (New York–style seared tuna in sherry vinegar, very un-Mediterranean swordfish layered with chorizo and tomato) that prompted one of my Spain-obsessed foodie friends to let out a sigh. “Of course, there’s nothing remotely Spanish about any of this,” he said.
He’s right, although some of the food holds up anyway, especially early in the meal. The tapas are not as various or refined as anything you’d find in a serious New York tapas parlor, but I had no problem with the smoothly crunchy cod fritters (with a saffron aïoli dipping sauce), the white anchovies marinated in white wine, or even the charcuterie platter set with ribbons of Serrano ham, chorizo, and wedges of oily toast. The crispy calamari are fine also, as was a bowl of fresh mussels set in a tasty sherry broth. The seared tuna seemed gimmicky, however (the tuna comes in a sardine can), and although the little log-shaped potato-and-ham croquetas seemed decent enough, the Spanish snobs maintained they were thick as glue. The salads I sampled were generally edible (except the one with cactuslike thatches of radicchio and frisée and big, gnarly balls of Cabrales cheese), and after a couple of failed attempts, I even grew fond of the salt-cod “pizza,” a peculiar fusion creation involving strips of cod, a buttery crust, and shavings of grilled yellow and red peppers and manchego cheese.
The experiments are more pronounced among the entrées, with mixed results. The best seafood item is the swordfish, which is very fresh and goes nicely with its blanket of baked tomatoes and chorizo. But a thick piece of striped bass I sampled didn’t quite cohere with its buttery sherry emulsion, and my piece of filet mignon à la plancha tasted, well, like filet mignon, which is not a bad thing but is surely not very original. For a Spanish restaurant, there is a strange dearth of pork dishes on the menu (except for a good cubano sandwich served at lunch), but hefty eaters can make do with an excellent braised oxtail piled on a mound of mashed potatoes laced with apples. Other attempts at rustic heartiness are less successful, particularly the chicken (it’s cooked to an inert blandness in saffron broth) and the leather-tough rabbit, which has no taste until you smother it in garlic aïoli. Given this, you might expect the paellas to be disastrous, but they aren’t, particularly the paella negra, a rich, salty mix of mussels, fresh calamari, and other random seafood items, all bound together with squid ink.