Noshing around the world

Barcelona Tapas Bar offers eclectic, if mediocre, grazing

Maybe grazing is best left to zebras or buffalo or $32 filets that were once West Texas cud chewers. I don't know. But I remember in the mid-'80s when grazing became the hip way for the young and trendy to eat as well as label themselves gastronomically eclectic. And labeling is what you'd have to be worried about when engaged in the act of grazing--or progressively nibbling on saucers of food--because it's doubtful most of the portion allotments could stress the waistline of a tsetse fly.

It was during this period of naming their sophisticated dining habits after those of plains-roaming, hoofed herbivores that Americans discovered tapas, or Spanish appetizers. Ushered into the states by places such as the Ballroom in New York and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in Chicago, tapas bars, serving tiny portions of such things as stuffed mushrooms, marinated beans, paella, olives, snails in spicy sauce, cheeses, and stuffed peppers--have since popped up everywhere.

Actually, the origin of tapas is far more noble than its spread in the states, which seemed driven by cutting-edge gastronomes who could easily be convinced to eat a plate of "squid in their ink" before running strands of Gucci dental floss between their teeth. The custom of serving tapas originated in the 19th century in Andalusia--the southern region in Spain where sherry is produced--when tavern owners topped wine glasses (tapas comes from the verb tapar, meaning "to cover") with slices of ham, sausage or bread. This practice not only provided tavern patrons with a salty snack to spark thirst, thereby generating drink orders (similar to the 19th-century custom among American tavern owners of serving extremely salty sandwiches for free), it also kept the glasses of sherry from being Stuka'd by flies.

That's what I like about Spaniards: They put everything into the proper context. They know that the only ring Mike Tyson is good for is one with a pissed-off bull; that real aerobics is dizzyingly intricate footwork done to the tempo of a flamenco guitarist; and that appetizers aren't for culinary worship. They're to keep bugs from doing the backstroke in your glass of fino.

Today, each region of Spain distinguishes itself by its tapas offerings, and the variations and abundance of this food propel it beyond the narrow designation of drink prophylactic and into the realm of a full micro-course meal. This is where Barcelona Tapas Bar, a new eatery on lower Greenville, comes in. Barcelona not only wants tapas to serve as your meal, it wants to broaden the Spanish regionality of the stuff to embrace the world, creating a whole menu of multicultural drink tarps. So not only does the menu have marinated olives, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled vegetables, it's got spicy french fries, satay chicken, and buffalo burgers. Buffalo burgers? That's right. And they're designated as a "house specialty" on the menu (though the waiter acted embarrassed when I asked him if this was really the signature dish).

Actually, while I'd never lay it atop my glass of sherry, the buffalo burger was one of the best items on the menu. Stuffed between two halves of French bread, the meat was light and tasty with a feathered texture topped with marinated mushrooms, tomato, lettuce, and Dijon mustard. The whole thing oozed a rich, lively tang. Those fries, however, felt like a taste bud chemical peel. Sophisticating this fast-food vegetable with a heavy dusting of salt and cayenne pepper is a little like adding volcanic passion to a quiet, romantic dinner with a napalm centerpiece.

The satay chicken kabobs were even more puzzling. While moist, tender, and delicately flavored with a light application of seasonings, the chicken didn't benefit much from the peanut sauce: a cold, lumpy, curry-spiked paste blotch that didn't marry well with the chicken. Heck, it didn't even strike up a conversation.

A few of the more traditional tapas offerings were only slightly better. The marinated olives, a collection of Greek, Italian, and Lebanese pit fruits, were large and meaty, but didn't reach much beyond a basic brine flavor profile. The cheese and fruit plate had a pleasantly unexpected scattering of pomegranate seeds along with grapes; apple slices; juicy, fresh blueberries; and firm, tangy wedges of peach and nectarine. But the pineapple slices had flat flavors and were starting to brown while the cheese wedges (a vegetable-speckled jack, goat cheese, and a nice, mellow Manchego) were skimpy.

One thing you'd expect at a place with a spiritual anchor in Spain and global ambitions is spectacular culinary offerings of a Middle-Eastern pedigree. But the Mediterranean plate suffered from hummus that was strangled with garlic; warm pita bread that was drying and beginning to harden; nearly flavorless grape leaves stuffed with pasty, undercooked rice; falafel that was too hard, dry, and chewy with a dull spice kick; and baba ghanoush (a pureed eggplant dish) that had little else to offer other than another shot of garlic overabundance. The saving grace of this conglomeration was the tabbouleh, which was fresh, tangy, and crisp.

Two offerings that reached above these predominately mediocre norms were the sizzling garlic shrimp--succulent, sweet, and chewy with a charred coating of garlic and other seasonings--and the lamb basil wrap with cucumber dip--tender, sweet lamb flesh threaded with basil leaves and wrapped in slightly dry pita bread. The cucumber sauce--cool and refreshing--compensated nicely for the parched pita.

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