Not so long ago, the South Beach dining scene was one big tourist trap of overpriced and overhyped restaurants. But then came the enterprising team of chefs Jose Mendin and Sergio Navarro and managing partner Andreas Schreiner, a crew that has been single-handedly filling the trendy zip code with value-fueled, local-friendly establishments.
In the fall of 2010, they opened Pubbelly on 20th Street, and a year later they premiered Pubbelly Sushi next door. Both offered quality, chef-driven cuisine and cool, craft drinks in a casual bistro. Both also proved very popular. Then, right on the heels of Pubbelly Sushi came Barceloneta Spanish Bistro & Mercat, located on the far corner of the same street. Judging from our experiences, as well as from the consistently crowded room, it looks like the talented trio has hit the trifecta.
A combination of wood, brick, storefront windows, an open kitchen, and oversize, chalked-in blackboard menus lend the same welcoming ambiance as the Pubbellies. A lengthy 22-seat communal table running through the center of the space adds to the convivial vibe.
Although Mendin and Navarro have serious Spanish culinary experience from working on the Iberian Peninsula, they have brought a fresh trio into their new joint: Juliana Gonzalez helms the Barceloneta kitchen with Daniella Rezai and Manuel Suarez-Inclan serving as managers (Juliana is the wife of Sergio, a James Beard semifinalist this year for Best Chef in the South). The cuisine here is worlds apart from the other spots' Asian fare, but it shares important traits: creativity, tremendous flavor, and — key to the team's success — value.
Like a great actor, Barceloneta doesn't strain for authenticity but reflects real Spanish cuisine through its own perspective. On the top half of the one-page menu are "mercat" selections; the bottom portion comprises more substantial "bistro" plates. The former category includes Spanish goat, sheep, and cow cheeses — from Manchego to Mahón to the Catalan Garrotxa; all are $5 per ounce. Charcuteries are jamón ibérico at $15 and $22 per ounce and Serrano ham at $9 per ounce. That's pricey even for these admittedly costly imports, and a loaf of warm, crusty bread to go along is $2 extra.
One might also gripe about the small portion of delicious pa amb tomàquet for $3, which buys about six little bites of toasted baguette rubbed with garlic, olive oil, and fresh tomato. More involved toppings, from blood sausage with apples to chorizo with mozzarella and onion marmalade, run $7 to $12. A foie gras garnish will bloat your check by $20.
On the other hand, the rest of the menu offers real value. The market meats and fish a la planxa can rope in a juicy eight-ounce skirt steak from Meyer Ranch (Montana) or a meaty octopus tentacle from Spain for $15 each; half a young chicken from Pennsylvania Family Farms or a whole Florida snapper for $16 apiece; or jumbo head-on Madagascar langoustines — fat, fully seasoned, and scrumptious — at $3.50 each.
There are sauces to select for any of the grilled seafood — romesco, lemon-caper beurre noisette, or alioli — but there was an unspoken don't-ask-don't-tell policy involved: The waiter never inquired as to which we wanted, and we never said. He brought alioli, which is what I would have chosen, although the shrimp were so good alone that the emulsified garlic dip went mostly untouched. On another visit, the same policy was in effect over whether we wanted bordelaise, au poivre, or romesco with the skirt steak. Again, the waiter somehow guessed what we wanted: Catalan romesco sauce, or more specifically a deconstructed rendition of it with roasted peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and nary a bit of hazelnuts.
Other market offerings include a few "bar del mar" items such as oysters (currently from Rhode Island) and stone crabs (one of very few locally sourced items on the menu).
The grilled langoustines were so luscious that we nabbed some more via gambas con chocolate, whose large, scrumptious shrimp arrived in a sultry sauce of sherry, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and chocolate picada, a Catalan blend of mashed roasted almonds, chocolate, saffron, tomatoes, and toasted bread.
The bistro courses are heartier. Some are served in a traditional fashion, such as a round of tortilla española with potato and onion; creamy Serrano ham croquetas; and bacalao fritters. Other plates hew close to the classics, but a twist or two are added. Chorizo a la sidra, for instance, brings the expected Spanish sausage flamed with cider, but Barceloneta plumps the presentation with apples and creamy Valdeón blue cheese. Esqueixada, usually a raw salt cod maceration with peppers and onions, becomes snapper crudo with tomato, black olives, and pearl onions.
The most arresting plate of food we sampled involves a radical, Ferran Adrià-like reworking of the tapas combo of octopus, potatoes, and paprika. Tender sections of octopus mingle with spicy chorizo, sweet piquillo peppers, and soft, salty tomato confit — all invisible beneath a rich, delicate potato foam speckled with smoky pimentón de la Vera and drizzled with chorizo oil. The contrasts touch every part of the palate at once, as though the tongue were being teased by numerous octopus tentacles.
Arroz mamposteao is a soupy casserole of calasparra rice and white beans braised with cèpe mushrooms and pork belly that melt into the rice, along with slices of butifarra sausage. Initially, the earthy porcini-potent flavor satisfied, but after a few bites, the all-brown composition tasted as dull as it looked, even with dabs of alioli. This is peasant food in the sense of not being able to afford enough protein and vegetables to make things interesting.
There's no such problem with fideos a la cazuela from the same "arroces" category (which also includes seafood paella). The thin, browned noodles are cooked and steeped with rabbit, langoustines, spicy sobrasada sausage, artichoke leaves, tomato confit, and peas. Much better.
We also enjoyed moist shreds of roast chicken rolled in cannelloni and baked en cazuela under a blanket of browned and bubbling béchamel sauce. We ordered vegetables a la planxa as a side, which brought baby zucchini, carrots, white and green asparagus, sugar snap peas, and piquillo peppers with a chopped nut picada, fleur de sel, and a few slices of Serrano ham. Also recommended is a fetching sweet/tart mix of roasted organic beets, amarena cherries, lemony Leonora goat cheese, walnuts, and aged balsamic vinegar.
As at the Pubbelly restaurants, music and alcohol are part and parcel of the dining experience. The tunes rotate nightly, with reggae one night, Latin pop another, and a live flamenco act Wednesdays at 10 p.m. A smartly sourced and mostly Spanish wine list (exceptions being France and Portugal) boasts about 50 bottles in the $30 to $40 range and 14 reserves from $50 to $105. Barceloneta is an ideal spot to sit for a poet's dinner: glass of Tempranillo, Manchego cheese, and some of that crusty $2 bread.
Then again, a pint of pulled Estrella Damm, a pilsner from Catalonia, could ably substitute for the wine. Red and white sangrias, cava cocktails (made with the Penedès region's famous sparkling wines), martinis, a number of gin-and-tonics, and a full bar of imported spirits and Kentucky whiskeys fuel the lively local crowd. Fans of gazpacho and of bloody marys will relish the gazpacho bloody mary, a smooth, pale-pink, spicy rendition cut with manzanilla (chamomile).
The staff is cheerful and accommodating enough, but service issues need to be attended to. On one occasion, our dinner was rushed. On another visit, there didn't seem to be any bussers, and waiters switched on and off like D-Wade and LeBron running pick and rolls — except this team dropped the ball way more often. The likable workers don't lack talent or hustle, but rather training and direction.
Desserts are few and verbally recited. A cinnamon-tinged crema catalana boasted a lusciously smooth texture. Molten chocolate cake and bread pudding are also available on the ever-changing menu.
Schreiner, Navarro, and Mendin aren't finished in their quest quite yet. Their next South Beach restaurant, Macchialina Taverna Rustica, will focus on rustic Italian food. The chef will be Michael Pirolo from Scarpetta. The formula, we can only hope, will remain the same.