Barca ★★ (Very Good)
If Barca were theater, it would be off-off Broadway. Located on the first floor of the Design Center in Hartford’s hip Parkville section, where the real action is in terms of avant-garde art and design, it fits right in. In a vast loftlike space, its walls fairly vibrate with huge Rorschach blots of the primary colors Miró and Picasso favored. Like modern art, this restaurant/tapas bar/lunch spot/nightclub is designed to banish boredom—no matter how many decibels it might take.
On our first visit, Frank Sinatra was singing and the crowd was quiet. The second time around, we came late and a deejay was spinning disc after disc of syncopation so violent it rattled the tableware—no small feat since it’s handsome, ergonomically designed and heavy as lead, as is the stemless glassware.
Manager Rosario Rodrigues says he likes to mix things up—hip-hop, R&B, reggae, merengue, bachata, salsa, whatever. Same with the food, which is all over the map. Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese and Italian dishes spangle the menu, and since the Spanish chef acquired a Peruvian girlfriend, Peruvian specialties have been showing up, too.
Luckily we were hungry, because only after they arrived did we discover that Barca’s tapas are minimeals, too much if you plan to have a main course as well. Still, we managed to devour four tapas and share a spinach salad. Our choices ranged from crab cakes with remoulade sauce to a new-to-us Peruvian dish our waitress described as potato-and-chicken salad. The crab cakes were outstanding, almost all crab, moist and lightly sautéed. The chicken salad, finely diced and spiced with a peppery kick, was rolled in a sheet of mashed potato, and sliced to form attractive and tasty rosettes on the plate.
Seared sea scallops wrapped in Spanish ham were especially good served warm over garlicky white beans. Spinach salad, sprightly with pepper, bacon bits and sherry vinaigrette, was embellished with tiny, delectable, freshly made goat-cheese fritters.
But stuffed peppers were the big hit of the show. Two small, bright red piquillos stuffed with creamy mushroom risotto bloomed like tulips on a white plate, with a strip of sauce for a stem. Add a basil leaf for verisimilitude and, voilà: a masterpiece.
Already we had eaten enough to realize that, for a nightclub, this is seriously good food—some of which is served until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. I note this because I’m an art-film buff and one of my favorites—Black Orpheus, say—might be showing at RAW (Real Art Ways). It’s a few blocks away.
Perusing the entrée menu, we chose two from Pescados/Fish and two from Carnes/Meats. We batted two for four. Salmon à la plancha was piquant with fresh lime sauce and paired with delicious thin-sliced lyonnaise potatoes, and the salmon flaked away from the fork in tender petals. I loved it. A cacerola of clams, shrimp, squid, mussels and fresh tuna with rice in “a traditional green sauce” promised much and was proportionately disappointing. The squid was tough, the shrimp, clams and mussels small and tasteless and the tuna juiceless and gray. It was as if everything had been boiled. Green sauce was in short supply and there was no rice.
On the other hand, flank steak, which we only halfheartedly ordered, was a delightful surprise—even to the eyes. Striped with charcoal-grill marks, it was twisted into a decorative spiral and displayed atop roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. A normally tough cut, it was tender and juicy and medium-rare as ordered, from one end to the other. Braised short ribs, a hefty portion served with red potatoes and broccoli rabe, was good but a bit clunky next to that cleverly prepared and prettily presented flank steak.
Portuguese rolls were served with olive oil so peppery we sent it back and asked for plain. I’d have liked the rolls better had they been hot, but not filling up on bread paid off because every house-made dessert we tried pleased us a lot. No surprises but richly satisfying riffs on Spanish and American classics. Crème brûlée, more of a wedge-shaped flan, was custardy and soothing. Chocolate Barca was described as chocolate mousse but was much heavier, and in my opinion, a thousand times more intensely delicious. Chocolate cake seduced us with a molten center made with exceptionally good chocolate, and who could resist a grown-up sundae (dolce de leche ice cream with chocolate sauce) served in an oversize martini glass?
Edible art, culinary fun and games, surround-sound music. Viva Barca! But long before dessert, we had given up trying to hear one another talk. As the room filled up and adjoining tables were pushed together and chairs double-parked, the noise level inched up, threatening to break the sound barrier. We skipped espresso and fled. But we had to admit, we’d eaten well and not been bored.
The Design Center, 1429 Park St., Hartford (860/724-4444)
Open Monday 5 to 10, Tuesday to Friday 11:30 to 10, Saturday 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $10, entrées $10 to $21, desserts $5.