Tom Sietsema reviews Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant on 14th Street NW

The restaurant makes a statement with its aesthetic, but smart diners will head to entrees.

Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant has some little problems. They’re the Spanish small plates called tapas. Few of them tempt a diner to return.

The 10-month-old establishment on 14th Street NW, one of nine branches from the Connecticut-based Barteca Restaurant Group, seems to be relying on its design to bring in the masses. Who can resist an outdoor court with a fire pit, and a dining room and bar that suggest an urban forest for all their wood, stone and light? The setup is so alluring that if you show up for dinner after 6 p.m. without a reservation, the keeper of the clipboard at the front door is apt to steer you to the bar after letting you know it might be an hour before she can seat you.

Bad news first: If you’re judging the tapas against Jaleo, Washington’s finest source, you’ll be sorely disappointed. At Barcelona, the meatballs are dense, their tomato sauce less than the advertised “zesty.” Fried calamari is stiff enough to suggest starch was applied in the kitchen. Chicken liver pâté isn’t especially Spanish or particularly good; the spread, topped with clarified butter, leaves a slick of flat richness on the tongue. Even a notion as basic as chopped beets and crumbled cheese falls flat. If there’s a dressing on the salad, it eluded me.

Glazed duck drumettes, anyone? Decline the offer unless you dig fowl so sweet it edges into the realm of dessert. Caponata is also more sweet than sour. Worse, the eggplant dish manages to taste as if it came out of a can.

The comparison between good and not-good among Washington tapas extends to variety: Jaleo seduces with more than 70 options; Barcelona counts just more than 30.

During one meal, a manager drops by to check on us and to humblebrag about how lead employees get to fly to Barcelona to check out the genuine article. It’s hard to imagine her returning from the ad­ven­ture and not feeling underwhelmed by the tapas she’s helping ferry to her customers.

My Don’t-Do-Tapas rule at Barcelona comes with a few exceptions. Child-size empanadas stuffed with ground beef and swabbed with a light red pepper sauce make a nice companion to a glass of wine (thoughtfully offered in three- and six-ounce pours and in 30 or so styles). On a hot summer night, raw slices of yellowtail lashed with passion fruit sauce cool diners down, even as garnishes of serrano chilies and julienned radishes volley back. Skinny asparagus draped with minced capers and pickles, and pink folds of dry-cured Spanish ham, signal that simple is a path to satisfaction. It’s hard to go wrong with, say, anchovies in a gloss of olive oil, or lemony padron peppers sprinkled with sea salt.

The lesser tapas may come as a surprise if you know who’s heading the kitchen these days: John Critchley, the former executive chef of the well-regarded Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, who earlier in his career cooked at Toro, a popular tapas bar in Boston. Critchley says he was lured to Barcelona in May by Adam Halberg, the restaurant’s culinary director and a longtime friend, as well as the opportunity to help his new bosses expand the brand.

Critchley’s focus appears to be on main courses, some of which remind me of his good work at Bourbon Steak. Thick rounds of roast pork, stuffed with house-made pork sausage, delivers bite after bite of herbs, garlic and heat. Shoring up the beast was a feast of braised kale and crisp potatoes. Chicken cooked as if under a brick (but actually beneath the weight of a pan) has been part of the Barcelona repertoire from Day 1, and one taste of the dish tells you why. Pleasing on its own, the crisp-skinned centerpiece, presented in a haze of garlic, is made explosive with the addition of hot cherry peppers in the pan. Most recently, Critchley has added to the menu roasted lamb leg fideos (“noodles” in Spanish). The gathering of soft lamb and toasted, half-inch-long pasta, fragrant with sofrito and zesty with harissa, is rich.

The single disappointment among the larger selections is, curiously, a seafood paella. Critchley offered the Spanish classic, one of the best I’ve experienced on this side of the Atlantic, at Bourbon Steak. In his new roost, the shallow pan of rice, clams, mussels and prawns takes 45 minutes to cook — time you’ll be sorry to have wasted on the bland assembly, punctuated with pockets of salt and smelling none too pleasantly of the sea.

Flan is firm and fine. Rolled crepes — some tender, some leathery — exude dulce de leche when sliced with a knife. But my favorite way to end dinner is the last of whatever remains in my wine glass.

Among the assets at Barcelona is sommelier Jeffrey Barrientos. It was at his recommendation that we bridged chicken and lamb with a $38 bottle of Bernabeleva Camino de Navaherreros garnacha. A good value, the wine calls to mind a pinot noir with its elegant fruit and hints of spice.

The Barteca Restaurant Group is scheduled to open two more dining rooms, one in the Reston Town Center this summer and another in Washington as part of the Cathedral Commons project this fall. Fingers crossed, they will retain the good looks, but improve upon the flavors, of their predecessor.

For the moment, my food advice to the Barcelona-bound is this: the bigger the better.

1.5 stars

Location: 1622 14th St. NW. 202-588-5500. www.barcelonawinebar.com.

Open: Dinner, 4 p.m. to midnight Monday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday; brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Tapas, $3.50 to $12; main courses, $18 to $24.50.

Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

THE SCOOP

Location: 1622 14th St. NW.
202-588-5500.
www.barcelonawinebar.com
.

Open: Dinner, 4 p.m. to midnight Monday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday; brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Tapas, $3.50 to $12; main courses, $18 to $24.50.

Sound check: 76 decibels/
Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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