Tapas Without Passion

The wrong location, the wrong vibe for this lively style of dining

May 14, 2003 at 4:00 am
Could there be a more inappropriate location in the St. Louis area for a tapas restaurant than downtown Clayton? Tapas is a boisterous, decadent style of Spanish dining wherein little morsel-plates are shared and enjoyed, ideally by large groups. Clayton is a monied enclave where homogeneity -- as opposed to daring and letting the hair down -- dictates the social, cultural and culinary landscapes. Tapas is about allowing yourself to get carried away by the food and drink, the spicy headiness of it all, until the next thing you know hours have swept past and you and your friends still haven't run out of appetite or wine or things to say and there is noplace else you'd rather be. Clayton is about the suit jacket and the sweater set, the shiny cars and the polished nails. Tapas is soulful; Clayton is clean. Tapas is earthy-sexy; Clayton is primpy-sexy. Tapas is for lovers; Clayton has intercourse.

So it is that on a weekend night, when you walk into BARcelona -- which opened in a postage-stamp storefront near Pomme and John P. Field's late last year -- you get the loud and the crowded but not the warm or the rousing. The bar up front is in full swing, sending out Anglo libations (such as martinis), Latin ones (such as mojitos) but mostly drinks that only sound Spanish (such as the house-named cocktail, prepared with vanilla Stoli, Midori, pineapple juice and Chambord). It seems that as far as most patrons are concerned, this is just the district's latest trend bar.

I don't fault them for thinking this way. Truly, I have no problem with Clayton or the people who live, work and play there. Do your thing, I always say, and besides, I like getting gussied up and having men with portfolios offer to buy me drinks, too. But as a food writer, I'm saddened that BARcelona's management -- former Bermuda restaurateur Frank Schmitz and co-proprietor/chef Michael Johnson, whose résumé includes Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Emeril's in New Orleans -- has cheated the tapas concept, taking the easy way into the black. (Surely you've noticed by now the emphasis of "BAR" in the name.) If what they really wanted was to create a great, great tapas joint, they might have considered opening it in an off-the-beaten-path locale, where they would have become a destination restaurant for adventuresome palates who love and appreciate this stuff, like maybe in Forest Park Southeast, where fellow newcomer JaBoni's (for my money, the best new restaurant in town by far) has become a reservations-required hotspot. Or at least on Delmar or South Grand, where ethnic-food lovers tend to congregate. The end result of the Clayton location is that nobody who goes there seems to go there for the tapas at all. And why should they, when Modesto -- the tapas place on the Hill, much raved about and rightly so -- already exists?

That said, the food at BARcelona isn't bad. It's simple and traditional, employing mostly quality ingredients. It's not quite fiery enough, but that's no big deal. The grilled shrimp swim in a flavorful garlic-infused chili oil. It's so oily, in fact, that it doesn't cling well to the shrimp, so sopping it up with bread -- hot, dense, moist, crusty and right on -- is recommended. The baked goat cheese in tomato sauce is curious; the sauce alone reminds me of Ragú, but when I got a little hit of the goat cheese with it on the accompanying garlic bread, it called up the one clear memory I still have of my Poppy, who died when I was four, and I always remember showing up at his house for Sunday dinner and seeing him at the six-burner gas stove in his basement, perched on a stool to get up over the lip of the big cast-iron pot, stirring and stirring his gravy (New Jersey Italian for "tomato sauce"). I'm a fan of the grilled-meat dishes, particularly the beef tenderloin with blue cheese, the beef brochette (which is French, mind you, for "skewered") in a swell horseradish cream and the lamb chops with mint aïoli. And I actually loved the two hot vegetable items I tried: the lip-smacking roasted potatoes and the roasted cauliflower and spinach, tossed with saffron, raisins (!) and pine nuts. This last is perhaps BARcelona's most audacious dish.

In other news, better mussels can be found at plenty of other establishments; those at BARcelona rate rather wimpy -- minuscule and too briny. And the paella Valencia gets it half right: The rice it's founded on out-risottos risotto, creamy and delectable, but it's done in by the chicken and chorizo pieces on top, which are dry and tough.

Desserts don't fail -- indeed, this may be BARcelona's strongest course. The orange flan gets as eggy as possible without going overboard. The Spanish crème brûlée tastes like a thin, creamy, light and slightly runny cake frosting, which I enjoyed. Both the chocolate brownie and the pound cake are billed as Spanish-style. Whatever that means, they do just fine.

BARcelona keenly assimilates many of tapas' trappings and accoutrements, but -- as with those Latin-but-not-Spanish drinks -- it's all surface and no substance. The interior is painted in fun colors (red, turquoise and yellow), with high, round, mosaic-tiled tables and tall barstools up front. The closet-size kitchen is open and visible, something food lovers love. Members of the all-female waitstaff, clad in clingy black, are pleasant, but they're best at looking like the model-cute hotties they are. They never offer water, and they ask too early and too often to remove plates that still have food on them. To tapas is to linger, dammit! The menu is plentiful, divided as it should be into ensaladas y sopas (salads and soups), tapas frias (cold plates), tapas calientes (hot plates), and postres (desserts). There are even a couple of helpful paragraphs at the end headlined "About Tapas," which assert that tapas "defines a lifestyle as well as a culinary style" and that the "primary purpose ... is to talk to friends, to share the gossip of the day."

I firmly believe that a pitcher of sangria for the table should begin every tapas meal, given that I also firmly believe that every tapas meal should end with tipsiness all around. I hate BARcelona's sangria. What should taste like red wine and then some -- a tantalizing mixture of vino, fruit juices, fruit chunks and a liqueur or two (a bit strange but unquestionably seductive to American taste buds) -- doesn't taste like red wine or even grape juice but, rather, like grape juice from concentrate. It is weak, weak, weak, with teeny Del Monte fruit-cocktail bits of fruit. I even ordered it again on my second visit, hoping my first try was just an off night. But no.

There was a moment during my first visit to BARcelona when I turned to look at the table of four to my right. There were two men and two women -- a double date, I assumed. The woman closer to me was listening to the others converse, her fork poised just so in her hand, off to the side. Then she brought it down, very refined, to a plate, put the tines to her lips and chewed demurely with mouth pursed shut.

I reached down with my hand, picked up a slab of beef tenderloin bare-handed, tore off the meat with my teeth and tried to flag down a waitress for a stiff drink.