In a city overflowing with unique fine dining options, deciding on which ones are worth the splurge can make for a daunting task. While ideally you’d treat it as some sort of culinary bucket list, checking each location off with glee as you lean back into your chair satisfied and smiling, unless you have a fairly generous budget it’s generally not prudent to be spending triple digits (or more) on a single meal on a regular basis. This is why the list of marquee places we’ve been is relatively short–and most of the visits were made when we still lived in New Haven, and since we’ve moved here we’ve made the conscious decision to mainly focus on home cooking.
But as much as both Michael and I enjoy cooking, we do enjoy a break from the kitchen and a chance to let off some steam now and again. We tend to prefer the laid-back ease of a Dinosaur Barbecue over one of the fussy white tablecloth establishments found all over the Upper West Side, but there is something to be said to getting dressed up a bit and going someplace nice for a knockout dinner. So when an email turned up in my inbox a few weeks ago inviting us to the James Beard House for a special dinner being prepared by the Barcelona Wine Bar team, it took all of a few hours of debate and a few perusals of the menu before I was calling them up the next day to place our reservations for April 2nd. As friends of the restaurant we were generously given the member rate which made the justification a bit easier in the end, as was the knowledge that we’d be getting a fair amount of food paired with top-notch wines.
In the end we enjoyed 15 dishes (plus five or six passed appetizers)–even served tapas-style, it was a substantial feast that certainly deserved the analogy to “marathon” that was being tossed around at the end of the evening. We don’t want to bore you with the details of absolutely every dish we enjoyed, but we do want to offer both our perspectives. Continue with us (and forgive us for some blurry photos) after the jump.
Elizabeth: I wish I had snapped a photo James Beard’s kitchen, as you have to pass through in order to go out the glass-enclosed atrium where the cava was being poured and the hors d’ouvres were being passed (and quickly snatched up). By New York standards it’s huge–maybe as large as our living room and dining room/office combined–but when you have a good eight to ten chefs squeezed in there making their share of 15 dishes it must feel incredibly small. Not getting in the way was ultimately the primary reason why I avoided pulling out the camera while we walked through. But it is really gorgeous, and I will always aspire to have a two-ringed kitchen rather than one with an island: cabinets and a big oven and fridge lining the walls, and then a nice rectangle of counterspace (complete with range) in the middle, inviting people to pull up a chair and watch what’s going on. Needless to say, it’s a sweet setup.
The reception and cocktail hour was a bit…smushed (oh, were it warm enough to spill out onto the terrace!) but delicious cava and even more delicious small bites kept appearing and swiftly grabbed. My absolute favorite of the bunch was breaded goat cheese topped with an apple julienne and drizzled with honey, but the fava bean/asparagus tortilla was delicious, the baccalo croquette scrumptious (if a bit hot, emerging directly from the deep fryer and therefore difficult to eat delicately), and the bass ceviche refreshing–had someone placed a bowl of it in front of me instead of a spoon, I would have gladly lapped up every last drop. But I was determined to restrain myself; we had serious food waiting upstairs and I didn’t want to blow my culinary wad before the first course had even been plated.
With everything being served tapas-style, this was essentially like a night at our favorite New Haven restaurant…if the chefs decided to go absolutely wild for a night. What I loved so much about the food that we ate was that none of it felt out of place, because all of these ingredients, in some shape or form, belong in Spanish cuisine. The innovation comes from combining it in ways that aren’t the most traditional, and when their main wine importer commented that this was a very modern Spanish menu that he couldn’t wait to share with his cohorts, I couldn’t help but agree.
Standouts among the fifteen dishes for me included the baked cod with fennel and olives, the sweetbreads with quince and almonds, the pork belly with maple powder, the oxtail-stuffed piquillo peppers, and the morcilla with chickpeas and preserved lemons. The fennel practically perfumed the cod with its essence but the olives balanced out that anise flavor, while the sweetbreads were rich and heady and a little sweet–it’s piqued my interest in quince paste to the point that I may pick up a jar to experiment with it. I had to giggle when I saw the morcilla with chickpeas, as I had done a slapdash version of this myself a few days before–but this was substantially better than my pathetic effort: homey but still elegant, and the richness of the morcilla gave it a complexity that belied its simplicity.
As for the rest of the dishes, including a banner dessert, I’ll let Michael take over.
Michael: After a night like the one we had at the James Beard house, it’s hard to enumerate everything that happened point by point as I am not a proper journalist, I’m just a guy who likes to cook. The reception was nice, albeit cramped, but well filled with lovely appetizers and cava. Delightful ceviche, fritters, even some very surprising deviled eggs all went past. I realize that no matter what your station in life, no one is above mobbing a kid carrying a narrow tray of tiny food stuffs in the hours before dinner.
As E remarked above, we were served off of about fifteen plates over the next four hours. I’m not going to enumerate and comment on each little dish, but certain dishes certainly stick to my memory. There was an octopus and artichoke dish that both had been grilled, but they had the perfect amount of smoky subtle char flavor that I was surprised and delighted to find in them. There was some truly modern fancy fare, foodstuffs I’ve seen on TV like sweetbreads and pork belly prepared with maple powder, but the true victory was the understatement with which they were served. Afterward, the chefs precessed out and shared with us a few of the secrets of the meal, but the food was so unpretentious and virtuous that you couldn’t tell the homecookin’ from the haute cuisine… indeed, the way it should be.
The most substantial courses of the evening were based on that greatest of all culinary traditions/tricks, the braise, giving us oxtail stuffed piquillo peppers, duck confit and veal so tender and flavorful that one taste would supersede the rational guilt center of the brain of even the most enlightened diner. Dessert was a red wine sorbet coke float (pictured above). Seeing (and tasting) the frozen wine made my admittedly dulled science sense tingle- how was this accomplished? The freezing point of ethanol is wicked low! As if reading my mind, the Barcelona group’s wine expert Gretchen told us, unsolicited, that they had used liquid nitrogen to create the frozen delight (FYI… liquid nitrogen comes in at -320 F, and ethanol freezes at -170 F, so there ya go. Sweet thermodynamics, you never, ever fail us).
I think it’s clear that E and I was an amazing evening and we are beyond honored to have been invited. We truly felt as if we were in the presence of food greatness.
E: It certainly was a singular evening of food and drink, and despite our fullness we managed to sneak in a few bites of the delicious churros and chocolate, a Barcelona signature, as we sipped our coffee and tea. We met some wonderful people at our table including a Spanish wine expert who entertained us with stories of the salad days of chefs like Tom Colicchio as well as the parents of one of the co-founders of the restaurant group who were kind and charming all through dinner and generously gave us a ride back to our apartment on their way home.
It was a night like none other that we’ve had here in the city (and we’ve had some interesting nights, believe me), and I’m so happy that we were able to take advantage of such a culinary experience. All of the chefs did an extraordinary job–and if you find yourself in Fairfield County or in New Haven or Hartford, you must experience Barcelona for yourself.