Review: At Barlata, the intimacy of strangers

 
 
Barlata
1500 S. Lamar Blvd., Suite 150 in the Post South Lamar apartment building. 512-473-2211, www.barlataaustin.com.
Hours: 5-11pm daily
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.11.13
 
When we cast our happy-hour lot among the citizens of the bar at this new Spanish outpost, I’d never have thought those stools and that long burled plank would define Barlata at its best. My guest was a missionary in Spain for 13 years, and he’s looked for places to re-live the most golden of those days. At Malaga and Fino. At the Tapas Bravas trailer on Rainey and likely soon at the new Winebelly.
 
But at Barlata, it seemed like he’d found a place he could call home away from home again, where Spanish is spoken with a lilting digraph “th” where you’d expect the hiss of the “s” and words pick up extra syllables like spangles: aioli becomes allioli, ensalada becomes ensaladilla and salt-cod baccala becomes bacalao.
 
Barlata celebrates the intimacy of strangers, relaxed by cool wine and hot food, sitting at elbow’s length along a well-lit bar. The Spanish woman across from us was so happy to find morcilla blood sausage that she invited us to taste from her plate, because her only grocery outlet for the stuff had stopped carrying morcilla because “it was just me and this one German guy who were buying it.” But there it was at Barlata, in its rusty glory, with sharp edges of iron and spice with a blanket of white beans for $9.
 
And so it went with the sharing during happy hour, which runs 5-7pm Sunday-Thursday (hours updated 9/17) and only at the bar. Small plates are $3-$5 and sharp white sangria and cava and Estrella Damm beer start at $4. We traded crisp cubes of fried potato with red sauce and allioli (patatas bravas) and a cross-sectioned link of snap-cased chorizo with mashed potatoes and red wine gravy. We passed around a bowl of fried calamari and a dish of bright red piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp and white asparagus, even though the former suffered from tired oil and the latter was thin and runny.
 
We learned that this same Spanish woman was part of the Paella Lovers United, an Austin devotional group that fires up the pans for competition and community every fall. At Barlata, I’ll award a ribbon to paella Barceloneta, with firm grains of amber-colored saffron rice, peas and bites of seafood, one of 10 paella, rice and fideo noodle dishes on the menu. Some can be sampled as $5 plates during happy hour. They’re all available in small or large shield-style paella pans for $14-$24. But at no size would I want the seafood fideua again, a loose stir-fry of greasy pasta strands with tiny rings of squid and other peekaboo bits.
 
 
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: A calimocho with red wine and Coca-Cola. A trio of gazpachos. Chorizo and mashed potatoes. Grilled lamb brochette. Paella Barceloneta.)
 
On another night, the people around me chanted as I raised the spout of a bong-shaped glass porrón high above my mouth, trying to catch a stream of cold, sparkling cava. One of those people was owner and chef Daniel Olivella, we found out later. He opened Barlata in July, the sister to his first Barlata in Oakland, Calif., and a close cousin to his B44 Catalan Bistro in San Francisco. In a ballcap and T-shirt, he was part of his own celebratory clientele.
 
In Austin, Barlata is full of light, pouring in through windows like stair-stepped Mondrian blocks, illuminating a bright yellow scaffold of pipes and wallpaper printed with cartoon bicyclists and creatures of the earth and sea. There are booths and two-tops, but also a long communal table to augment the group aesthetic of the bar. Among the cocktails and tapas, there are upwards of 60 Spanish wines.
 
The communal spirit encourages you to stroll the place like a plaza, up to the colored tiles by the kitchen’s hot line, in front of which stands a table mounted with a desiccated bronze leg of prized jamon Iberico (pictured at left). It’s been carved to show the deep ruby meat and bright lacework of fat underneath. It’s $18 for 1.1 ounces’ worth of slices so delicate they’ve begun to melt even from the friction of carving. It almost evaporates in the mouth, and it left my ears ringing the way only the carnal union of fat and lean and flavor can do. The way caramelized fatty brisket does, or foie gras or tuna belly nigiri. Could Barlata improve the product? No, but the presentation needs work. Instead of just slices tiled on a white plate, maybe a compartment dish with olives or pickles or just bread, which we begged for and got, a sliced baguette from Easy Tiger with a dish of oil over a fine sediment of crushed olives.
 
You can order from the full menu at the bar, and I was happy to stay there through a three-hour dinner that included juicy skewers of spiced lamb ($9). The small plates go up only a few dollars after happy hour, and the menu runs from about $7-$11 for small plates and $14-$24 for composed plates and paellas.
 
Barlata’s thin tortilla española ($3 bar/$9 full) will put you in the mind of Moons Over My Hammy rather than la Luna más Madrid, a well-executed omelette instead of the tall egg-and-potato pie of your Spanish expectations. Surely true to one of Spain’s various styles, but a modest rendition in a setting where modesty doesn’t feel like a virtue.
 
Latas are hot little bites packed away in what look like sardine cans, a presentation somewhere between tableside curiosity and street food. Barlata’s octopus lata ($10) presented a texture like barbacao with little of the octopod’s customary spring-mounted resilience. It was heavy with smoke from adobo sauce, but it was a clean, crisp smoke like a seaside barbecue accentuated by potatoes that texturally matched the octopus bite for bite.
 
A dish of boquerones layered with sliced pears and chips of firm, salty idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese ($8) brought canned fish to mind. The best canned fish, those bouncy white anchovy fillets sparkling with vinegar. The dish combined salty, sweet and sour in good balance. Anchovy, this time bristly and brown, was also part of ensaladilla rusa, a tuna salad held together with mayonnaise, potatoes, green beans and carrots.  Almost like a mid-American lunch if you didn’t count the roasted red peppers and the salty little interloper that kids here would flick away in horror.
 
My Spanish education continued with a trio of gazpachos served in small bar glasses, one a traditional cool and grainy tomato with pureed bread and cucumber, another called salmorejo that glowed a more viscous orange with jamon serrano and its attendant curehouse aromatics and a third called ajoblanco like garlic buttermilk. At $8, it was like a savory shot-bar sampler.
 
 
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: A communal table at the entry to the dining room. The Mel I Mato dessert, with goat-cheese mousse and oloroso ice cream. A pan of arros cazadora. Patatas bravas and tortilla española.)
 
But on another night, we moved from bar to table, and it was like we had shut the doors behind us. The collegial bluster of the Spanish experience dissolved into the same flatline booth shuffle you’d get anywhere. Not even that, because the runner was on his first week and didn’t really know how to deliver plates or reach for glasses without getting in the way.
 
The staff struggled through the experience just as we did. My tablemate’s gin and bitters was an $11 overdashed ruin, and the table was set with a dirty wine glass.  When we wanted the noisy funk of the salted cod called bacalao ($9), it came in a bubbling broiler dish, domesticated like an apologetic crabcake. The fish was mixed 50-50 with mashed potatoes, something our server didn’t know or tell us beforehand, just as she didn’t know whether the oloroso sherry ice cream with the Mel I Mato dessert ($8) was made in-house. It is, and its boozy cool is part of one of my favorite desserts this year, with goat cheese mousse over a crumbled walnut torte with brickled honeycomb candy and strong sherry gastrique.
 
We had moved to the table because we needed the space for the full-pan paella experience. “Arros cazadora” ($15/$20) implied a hunter’s feast, but it was more of a hunter-gatherer’s thing, with chicken, mushrooms, rabbit and pancetta. Because the meat was cast in boneless nuggets, it was hard to distinguish the furry from the feathered, and I’d lobby for legs and thighs and other bone-in pieces for the flavor and spectacle they’d add.
 
As it was, the blushing tan panscape was broken only by radiant dots of salsa verde. The visual hegemony extended to the texture, a uniformity of bite among rice, meat and mushroom. For me, paella means two or three grades of rice: the fluffy simmered stuff, a mid-layer of firmer grains and a toasted bed like a miner’s motherlode, the cracklings some cultures save for honored guests and patriarchs. There was no caste system here, just a steady line between the firm and fluffy.
 
Emblematic of my Barlata experience was the calimocho, a blend of Spanish red wine and Coca-Cola over ice that did as much for the tannic snap of the cola as it did for the wine. Like the place itself, the calimocho added Spanish spirit to the American experience, creating a spiced portmanteau that amplified both.
 
(TOP, clockwise from left: Barlata is on the ground floor of the Post South Lamar apartments. Octopus lata. Piquillo peppers with shrimp and white asparagus. The decor radiates life and color. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)