Small Bites Make a Big Splash in Oakland
4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Open daily, 5 to 11 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted
Tapas—the small-portioned bar food of Spain—have been all the rage for years in the Bay Area, but few restaurants have done it justice, I feel. Most people would just cut their portion sizes in half and called them tapas.
But the new Barlata in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood has brought some authenticity back to the tapas movement. In both food and ambiance, this new restaurant by Chef Daniel Olivella (who also owns B44 in San Francisco) comes close to the tapas bars I visited in Barcelona a few years ago.
It’s also exciting that Barlata, less than a month old, is right in my neighborhood. I recently checked it out with my friends David and Ann, who live even closer to the restaurant than me.
Chef Olivella grew up in the Catalan region of Spain, which hugs the eastern coast of that country. The cuisine and culture are very different than the rest of Spain so you wouldn’t want to just lump Catalan cuisine as simply Spanish. Many of the dishes reflect the fresh ingredients found in the nearby Mediterranean.
The colorfully decorated spot looks big but actually fills up quickly as buzz has gotten around. They don’t take reservations and many of the tables are for small parties, although there’s a communal table on the way to the kitchen. The bar, at the front of the restaurant, will soon be serving pinxtos, which are smaller tapas served on toothpicks. (In Barcelona, these are offered free with drinks, but at Barlata you’ll be charged $2.50 per toothpick.)
Since Barlata just opened, they didn’t have their pinxtos set up yet. But no worries because the regular menu has an impressive list of options to choose from, with olives and jamon plates to a variety of tapas to paellas.
We started off with the Ceviche Shrimp ($8), which came looking like shrimp cocktail but served with bits of octopus, scallop and tomatoes framed by a slice of avocado on one side and lime on the other. I really enjoyed the freshness of the ingredients and the lively presentation.
The Grilled Sardines with red onion and fennel salad ($8) was also nicely done, except it was a lot of work dealing with the fine bones of the sardines (I wonder if there’s any way around that?) and the flavor was more subtle than the other dishes.
Several dishes are served in tin cans, a play on the Spanish word for tin cans, or latas (get it?). For example, the Lata de Setas ($7) is a mix of mushrooms that were grilled. It was simple yet fun at the same time.
BTW, the wine list is made up of Spanish wine only. My knowledge of Spanish wine is limited to the ubiquitous rioja, so I went with the suggestion of our server who recommended the 2005 Mas Donis Barrica ($7 per glass) from the Montsant region of Spain. It was a nice medium-body red wine that was smooth rather than tannic-laden.
Our parade of small dishes continued with the Lata de Chipirones ($8), one of the more successful dishes of two baby squid stuffed with fennel sausage, peas and ink sauce. The squid was tender and perfectly cooked and the sausage filling was tasty and filling.
The Mar I Muntanya ($8) was another one of my favorites. They’re lamb meatballs served in a chocolate and tomato sauce with bits of squid and peas. (David commented that peas were a common ingredient in the dishes and apparently he’s not a fan of peas. But I am, so I didn’t mind the overuse of peas. It seemed really Spanish to me, for some reason.) The lamb meat, however, did lack the nice gamey flavor that I enjoy, making the meat taste like any other ground beef.
Another lata dish we got was the Lata de Pulpo ($10), which is another octopus dish, but here the octopus is advertised as cooked for two hours. It definitely tasted tender, reflecting the slow braising, and it was served with fingerling potatoes and then overly dusted with what I’m guessing is pimenton, the smoked Spanish paprika.
David suggested we try a paella (there are six options), so we ordered a large version of the Seafood Paella ($20) or Barceloneta. It looked enticing when it arrived, with its mix of mussels, clams and prawns (and yes, peas). Overall, the rice had a nice authentic flavor and carried the deep hue of saffron, but unfortunately our paella had some bad mussels. Not just one, but all the mussels we tasted in the paella had a stinky flavor, which marred an otherwise tasty dish.
We capped off our eating adventure with a special dessert of the day, which was an almond cake with honey and fig center. The cake itself had a mild flavor, but had a nice light texture to it. I wouldn’t say it wowed me, but it was a satisfying end to our dinner.
Chef Olivello was often seen in the dining room checking on patrons and getting to know his new neighbors. From the look at the crowds, I’m guessing a lot of people plan on being regulars. (In fact, David and Ann say Barlata is going to be their new regular hangout.)
I have to admit that when I traveled in Barcelona, I felt the food (which was rising to international acclaim at the time) was oversimplified and thus, a tad boring (with a few rare exceptions). But Barlata has shown me that you can be authentic but inventive, playful and tasty. It’s another welcomed global addition to the hood.
Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Small plates with big flavor)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Small Bites Make a Big Splash in Oakland