Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Barceloneta - South Beach

I was sure I was going to love Barceloneta. I have a long-abiding passion for Spanish food, so when the team behind Pubbelly set out to create a restaurant inspired by the markets and bistros of Barcelona, it seemed aimed for my sweet spot. Indeed, even at Pubbelly, which styles itself as an "Asian-inspired gastropub," it was the Spanish influences I was most drawn to, and I found myself wishing they would just open a straight-ahead Spanish tapas bar.


Wish granted. Playing off the success of Pubbelly, its owners have taken over most of the rest of the short block around the corner from Purdy Avenue, heading in a more Asian direction with Pubbelly Sushi on one end, and in a distinctly Spanish direction with Barceloneta on the other, where Chef Juliana Gonzalez runs the kitchen.

So is it everything I hoped for? Almost, but not quite.

In my head, I imagined a Barcelona tapas bar like Chef Carles Abellan's Tapaç 24, a place with lots of small dishes served at a big bar. Barceloneta's layout is instead dominated by one long communal table that stretches most of the length of the room; and while there are other seating options - several 2- and 4-tops inside and outside, a few barstools around wine barrels - only about six of them are actually at the bar, which regularly gets crowded with people jostling for drinks while waiting to be seated.


(You can see all my pictures in this Barceloneta flickr set; apologies for the wonky lighting in several of them).

The menu, likewise, is not really a tapas bar format. Instead, it's divided into two sections: "Mercat" and "Bistro." Though it makes up the bottom part of Barceloneta's menu, let's start with the "Bistro" category, as it comes closer to the tapas bar of my imagination, featuring both some very traditionally Catalan dishes and others with more contemporary twists, though with portion sizes (and prices) that skew somewhat larger than customary tapas offerings.[1]

pulpo a feira

As to the more contemporary dishes, one of my favorites was the Pulpo a Feira. Traditionally a Galician dish of boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika and served with boiled potatoes, Barceloneta's version takes a number of liberties. First and foremost, its initial appearance reveals no octopus at all, as it's hidden beneath a veil of thick potato foam. Also lurking within are bits of chorizo, piquillo peppers, and confited tomatoes, the surface then dusted with pimentón de la Vera and drizzled with chorizo oil. The peppers and tomatoes provide a nice bright contrast to the potato foam, which otherwise might overwhelm the dish with its richness.

(continued ...)

gambas con chocolate

Gambas con Chocolate (prawns and chocolate) sounds like an unlikely and avant garde combination, but it apparently has traditional Catalan roots. Barceloneta uses some beautiful head-on prawns, which are basted in a sauce of sherry, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, and chocolate. The chocolate adds a rich mellowness to the sauce but not really a distinct flavor, and I actually found myself seeking out a more pronounced hint of its complex bitter presence (maybe a dusting of cocoa powder? or cocoa nibs?). But the stars here were the gorgeous, meaty prawns, whose heads I gleefully sucked and gnawed.

alubias con butifarra

Alubias con Botifarra is definitely old school Catalan, and Barceloneta makes their own pork sausage to serve with a stew of white beans. It's not quite as refined as the version at Sra. Martinez that uses duck and foie gras sausage, but it's at least as hearty, and then some. I was less enamored of the Caracoles a la Llauna, snails drowning in garlic butter and topped with both rabbit sausage and puff pastry - too much richness, not enough contrast.

ensalada de alcochofa

The same heavy-handedness also marred the Ensalada de Alcachofa, one of two salads on the menu, where a very nice combination of artichokes, spinach, serrano ham, and manchego cheese was smothered by too much lemon truffle vinaigrette. There are a few other vegetable dishes, and one of the better ones we had was the Pimientos del Piquillo, delicious piquillo peppers stuffed with melting Garrotxa cheese, hazelnuts and onions.

arroz mompostiao

There are always a few rice dishes offered, and the couple I've tried have been highlights of each meal. The Arroz Mampostiao,[2] made with Calasparra rice that's soaked up the flavors of slippery pork belly, white beans and mushrooms, made up for its homely, brown-on-brown appearance with great hearty flavors; adding a dollop of creamy aioli is a guilty but worthwhile pleasure. Even better was the Rossejat, a noodle dish prepared in the style of a paella, studded with little clams, pork belly, and sobresada, and served with a bright green allioli verde - one of the best versions of this dish (which also gets called "fideua") I've had anywhere.

"Mercat," meanwhile, conjures happy memories of Barcelona's wonderful food markets like the Boqueria, which houses not only hundreds of vendors selling gorgeous fruits and vegetables, seafood, meats, charcuterie, and other products, but also several small market-driven restaurants like El Pinotxo and El Quim de Boqueria. Those places serve up outstanding dishes made from the market's offerings: chipirones (baby squids) with white beans, grilled razor clams, sautéed wild mushrooms and the like.

But Barceloneta's "Mercat" menu seems to have little connection to the spirit of Barcelona's Boqueria, or any South Florida markets either, for that matter. It basically consists of imported Spanish charcuterie and cheeses served by the ounce, fresh oysters, and simply grilled seafoods and meats, with a choice of sauces. While I love Spanish hams as much as the next guy - in fact, probably quite a bit more - it's hard to get excited about paying $9 an ounce for jamón serrano, or $18 an ounce for paleta ibérica, tariffs that are three to four times the retail price for these goods (which are readily available at places like Delicias de España).[3]

paleta iberica

The only local product is a yellowtail snapper grilled on la plancha. Otherwise, the langoustines come from Nigeria, the calamari from Vietnam, the octopus from Portugal, the steaks from Montana, and vegetables are nowhere to be found. Obviously there's no Boqueria on South Beach, but there are surely enough local products to form the basis for a more genuinely market-driven menu. Even if not, something more akin to the variety of dishes you can find at the counters of the Boqueria's small restaurants would at least be more interesting than this uninspired list of plain meats, seafoods and cheeses.

The best part of the "Mercat" section of the menu are the "tostas," various things on bread, ranging from a simple (and excellent) $3 toast rubbed with tomato, garlic and olive oil (every bit as good as the version I raved about at Pubbelly, where it goes by the Castilian "pan con tomate" instead of the Catalan "pa amb tomaquet") to a fancy $20 flatbread topped with foie gras, escalivada and Forum vinegar. My favorite lies in between, combining the rich, sticky meatiness of crumbled morcilla (blood sausage) with a sweet-tart stew of tomato, apples, raisins, pine nuts, and onions.

For reasons I can't fully explain, the gin and tonic has become the official cocktail of Spain. Barceloneta is clearly hip to this phenomenon, and offers no less than five different variations (even if one is called "Not a Gin Tonic"). Of these, my favorite is the "Martin Miller," with the citrus notes of the namesake gin enhanced with a zap of flamed orange zest and a couple muddled amarena cherries. Not far behind is the "Hendricks" with cucumber, mint and guindilla peppers. The list is rounded out with an interesting selection of mixed drinks, red and white sangrias, several cava-based drinks, and a few other Spanish peculiarities like a Calimocho (red wine and Coke) and a Clara (beer and Sprite).

So my wish was fulfilled: the Pubbelly folks opened a Spanish place. Is it greedy to keep on wishing? I wish the "Mercat" menu actually had more of a connection to the market. I wish the "Bistro" menu was more amenable to ordering several smaller dishes. I wish so many dishes weren't so unremittingly heavy. But I also wish Barceloneta much success: there's still plenty about it to like, even if it's not quite the tapas bar I imagined it could be.

1400 20th Street, Miami Beach FL

Barceloneta on Urbanspoon

[1] As a result, it's difficult to do the kind of grazing that is the typical style of eating at most tapas bars. In Spain, we'd typically order 3-4 items per person (which would typically be priced under $10 each) to make a meal, or maybe one or two to snack on before moving on to someplace else. At Barceloneta, two items per person is maybe a bit shy of a filling meal, but three often seems too much. Those seeking to do the "Pubbelly Crawl" (hitting Pubbelly, Pubbelly Sushi, and Barceloneta in the same night) would be wise to pace themselves.

[2] Can anyone tell me if this dish is actually Spanish or Puerto Rican?

[3] Also: there is absolutely no need to drizzle oil over a product as preternaturally perfect as paleta ibérica.


  1. Arroz Mamposteao is Puerto Rican

  2. The word "mamposteria," from which Arroz Mamposteao probably derives, is defined roughly as stonework done with stones of different sizes and types, and arranged in a seemingly random manner.

  3. When you stated in you review that many of the dishes were unremittingly heavy, I like to expand upon that from my perspective. In the opinion of this son of a Spaniard, the menu is too carb centric. All those dishes with either rice or potatoes are tasty but really the only items on the menu that hit a reasonable price point. Barceloneta should aim to improve the menu to include the predominate protein dishes at a better price point. I think you hit upon this in the mention of the jamon platters. After having been there three times, I expects more value and simply not be be filled up predominately by carbs, albeit yummy ones.