You know when you should go to the new Spanish restaurant, Barcelona Wine Bar? On Sunday night, and here’s why: The dining room will be busy, but not totally insane. Nearly every bottle of wine on the seriously cool list is 50 percent off, and there’s a whole roast pig in the kitchen. Your portion, topped with a Flintstonian rib, will arrive heaped on a wooden platter.
You know when else you should go? Early on a weeknight, say at about 6 or 6:30 p.m., for a quick bite before a movie or a concert. You should be able to secure a table in the ever-lively bar area at this hour and down a few quick tapas and a glass of wine. So fortified, you’ll last long into the night.
Then again, you might just want to jump into the rugby scrum that is Saturday night. Good luck. I’ve been afraid.
But I’ve loved getting to know a place that gets its tone so exactly right. The crowds come because this restaurant — surprisingly, a link in a small Connecticut chain — delivers the whole dining package wrapped up in the kind of energy you can’t bottle.
The Spanish-themed food is mostly good and sometimes very good. But here’s what’s important: The kitchen staff hits all its marks. Maybe this team is a little like the ice dancers who get dinged by the judges for not attempting more difficult jumps or showing better technique, but who still charm the audience for completing their routine with spirit.
Count me among the charmed. Of the more than two dozen tapas, half are vegetarian. Yay! Honest, light pre-dinner bites. Halved Brussels sprouts ($6.50) come steaming hot from the pan and kicked up with smoked paprika and pickled onion, while Tuscan kale ($6.50) arrives in raw shreds, jazzy with the sweet-tart flavor of arrope (a treacle made from boiled grape must, like Italian saba). Sugar snap peas ($7.50), sweet and oily, are the vehicles for transporting flavorful bits of almond, garlic and chili to your mouth.
I’m less happy with our cazuela (that iconic brown ceramic tapas dish) heaped with cauliflower and fennel ($7.50) in a watery manchego cheese cream sauce. I imagine this is an execution error, swiped from the oven before it could glaze. But the roasted pumpkin with honey and goat cheese, and the fried potato cubes (papas bravas) at the next table, look good.
With a few heavier tapas or raciones (dishes served in larger, if not quite entree-sized, portions), you’ve crossed the line from snack to dinner. Have some cheeses and cured sausages from that display you noticed on the way in, or dig into a cazuela of albondigas ($7.50) — juicy little meatballs in tomato sauce. Striped bass ceviche ($10.50) with cilantro, mint and jalapeño comes a little too doused in olive oil, but is gorgeously fresh. Serrano ham and manchego croquetas ($6.50) bring crunchy fried orbs of soft, cheesy goodness. It’s just what I want with my tasty glass of Bodegas Atalaya “Almansa” ($11), one of those Spanish reds that greets you with exuberant fruit and plays out with an austere, mineral finish.
Maybe I want a second glass of wine. Or another tapa. How about the Pulpo Gallego ($10.50)? Good choice: These fall-apart-tender chunks of octopus and roast fingerling potatoes sport a piquant paprika wash that warms the soul.
Barcelona understands the desire that drives your dining choices so well. As soon as you walk in you feel the competing pulls of the boisterous bar to one side and the dining room to the other. On the left: a scattering of tables and groups hovering by the curvaceous marble counter. On the right: a compact dining room with white-clothed tables and a glassed-in wall of wine separating diners from the fiery energy of the kitchen. You could knock the decor for being a little slick, with its faux-rustic plank walls and oversized black-and-while photos that bring to mind a mall clothing store. But it sure pulls you in.
And as I said, get yourself pulled in one Sunday night to try the three-course pig roast ($29). A forgettable salad and very good flan bookend the main course: a generous serving of roast meat with sauteed greens. Some pieces are chewy, others tender, and all of it a good vehicle for exploring the half-off-on-Sundays wine list.
This list focuses on wines from Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, and you’ll find a lot to try. We went nuts for the Bodegas Raul Perez Vico Mencia 2008 ($68, but $34 on Sunday), a red grape (Mencia) you can’t find often in Atlanta. We all loved the way the wine had dense but very pretty flavors that unfolded. We followed it with a bottle of 2008 Mas Igneus Barranc dels Closos ($52, $26 on Sunday), a funky mouthful of licorice from the Priorat region that we didn’t care for at all. But what fun to explore.
We also dug into an enormous pan of paella ($49 for two, but could feed all of Valencia) overflowing with shrimp, clams, mussels, squid, chicken and chorizo. Happy with our wine, we all ate it with spoons directly from the paella pan and let our chatty waiter tell us about the sequined supermodels who occasionally emerged from a private room in the back. They were there for a movie wrap party.
The paella, by the way, was good. It didn’t have the bottom crust that is the mark of a superior version, and it didn’t have the rubber squid that is the mark of a lousy one. But it was exactly what it needed to be, much like this restaurant that makes its neighborhood an infinitely cooler place.BARCELONA WINE BAR 240 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta, 404-589-1010 Food: Spanish, with a focus on tapas Service: Attentive and well-informed. Back waiters in kitchen whites bring the food: a nice touch. Best dishes: Sunday roast pig, roasted peppers, croquetas, fluke ceviche, Brussels sprouts Vegetarian selections: Yes Credit cards: All major Hours: Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4-10:30 p.m. Sundays. Brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m, Saturdays-Sundays. Bar open late. Children: Not a great spot for younger kids; get a babysitter. Parking: Valet parking Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Very high but in a good way; you can still talk. Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes