225 Park Avenue South (at 18th Street)
Dress: All sorts
Noise Level: High
Wine List: Mostly Spanish, around 150 bottles
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, $18 to $28
Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, to 1 a.m.
When I called Barça 18, before I even had a chance to book a table, I was asked for my telephone number. “Bergman!” exclaimed the reservationist when I gave it to her. Bergman? Then I remembered using that name at another Stephen Hanson restaurant two years ago.
Mr. Hanson’s company, B.R. Guest, has over a dozen highly successful New York restaurants, among them Fiamma, Vento, Ruby Foo’s and Blue Fin. When you book at any of these places, your name goes into the computer and your number of visits is logged.
Apart from Fiamma, an upscale Italian restaurant in Soho, Mr. Hanson specializes in big, energetic crowd-pleasers serving decent, middle-of-the-road food. But for his latest venture, he’s partnered with Eric Ripert, chef of the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin.
Barça 18 (pronounced “Bartha,” with a Catalonian lisp) is named for Barcelona’s soccer team; the “18” is a nod to the cross street. Mr. Ripert is no stranger to Spanish cuisine: He grew up in Andorra, the mountainous principality between Spain and France, a couple of hours from Barcelona. He’s installed Brian O’Donohue, his sous-chef of eight years, in Barça 18’s kitchen. So it was with high hopes that the Bergman party arrived on a Saturday night at 10 p.m., the proper hour for dinner in Spain.
When we walked in, the hostess—straining her voice over the loud thump-thump-boom of the music—sent us to the bar to wait for our table. The bar, which has a glowing glass top lit from beneath, was packed several rows deep, and people were passing cocktails over their heads to friends behind them. It was like the meatpacking district on a weekend. Tree branches separate the bar from the dining room proper. The cocktails were good, but the swarms of people filled me with misgivings about the food. Could the kitchen turn out great Spanish cooking in a place this big?
The cavernous gray dining room is on two levels. It’s punctuated by gray industrial pillars and six immense square lampshades covered in an orange parachute-like material hanging from the ceiling. The gray walls are hung with giant tilted mirrors and lined with dark red Gaudiesque banquettes and tables Hispanicized with brown leather cloths. The staff wears black.
There are 17 kinds of hot and cold tapas on the menu. The current trend for making a whole meal out of tapas seems to me reflective of our attention-deficit-disorder age, akin to channel surfing on T.V. But I like them to start off with, and at Barça 18, we began very well. They’re simple and accessible (none of the strange concoctions or froths and foams favored by Barcelona’s cutting-edge chefs).
A plate of Spanish olives with Marcona almonds and lemon confit was being delivered to the next table and looked so good that we had to have some, too. Pimientos de Padrón, fried baby green peppers of varying degrees of spiciness, were sprinkled with Maldon salt and served in an earthenware dish. They were wonderful. Croquetas filled with mashed potatoes and Serrano ham were very light, the calamari were crisp, and the pulpo was cut in thin, tender rounds tossed in olive oil, with slivers of red pepper confit and lemon. Raw tuna en escabeche, marinated with aged sherry vinegar and olive oil, arrived in an opened can—an amusing touch. Clams were arranged on a vivid green broth laced with white beans; white anchovies marinated in white-wine vinaigrette were lined up on a slivered chunk of romaine, with a mustardy sauce. So far, I was impressed.
But in a restaurant this size, the most difficult thing to accomplish is consistency—a fact confirmed by our main courses.
Swordfish was properly cooked and prettily served with slices of chorizo, tomato and mushrooms on top. But a filet mignon à la plancha, topped with a cheese-stuffed pepper, had no taste at all and was flabby, as though it had been marked off and grilled again to order. Why filet mignon, the cut with the least flavor? The accompanying thin, parsley-garlic fries were good, though.
There are three paellas on the menu. Paella negra, flavored with squid ink, is almost jet black, and laced with pieces of seafood. The grains of rice should be at once creamy and al dente, providing a frame for the seafood. Barça 18’s paella negra, made with long-grain rice, tasted like a damp towel after a few days at the bottom of a hamper; the desultory sprinkling of seafood on top included (if you could find them) puny, shriveled mussels and some pieces of calamari and rock shrimp.
Another night, I tried a lobster paella. The rice was short-grain this time, flavored with saffron, peas and peppers. It was a world away from the paella negra, but the rice needed seasoning and was a little dry. The lobster was fresh and juicy; the mussels, however, were tiny and shriveled again, but there was a generous supply of clams, calamari, shrimp and chorizo.
The desserts of pastry chefs Elizabeth Katz and Michael Laiskonis ended the meal on a higher note. Their crème catalana was like a deconstructed ice-cream sundae: foamy vanilla custard with caramel and cinnamon ice cream under a crunchy burnt-sugar crust. Flourless chocolate cake was also excellent, dark and intense, topped with a piece of salted toast. The salt was a good idea, but the toast was thick and hard. The churros—cinnamon-dusted fritters—were terrific, served with a coffee cup of spiced chocolate. But the espresso was terrible. We sent it back because it was burned. The next cup was almost as bad.
“It’s made with a pod,” explained the waiter.
Of course. Isn’t that how they do it in Barcelona?