It was an abrupt goodbye, but not a sad one. Boxing Room, Hayes Valley’s Creole-and-cocktails spot, never quite caught on. It was the kind of restaurant you’d book because it had availability on OpenTable, not necessarily because you were in the mood for fried alligator. So it wasn’t all that surprising when, one day, it was no longer there, and suddenly, in its stead, stood a tapas place called Barcino.
Almost overnight — well, technically, within two weeks — the esteemed Absinthe Group overhauled the sprawling space, swapping po’ boys for paella and immediately bringing buzz to a corner that had lost it.
Dying to try Barcino! the people posted. SOMA’s Spanish-inspired Bellota, from whence chef Ryan McIlwraith came, was such an insta-success that everyone expected Barcino to be, too.
Myself included. I ate at Bellota only once, and it was a memorable meal. My three dinners at Barcino, however, were more… fine bordering on forgettable. Few dishes —and we ordered a lot — made a lasting impression.
But my gin and tonic, enjoyed at the tail end of the heat wave, did. Choosing a G and a T was fun, like one of those mix-and-match word games people play on airplanes. Aided by the cheery bartender, of the 54 gins, I picked the citrusy Four Pillars Dry from Australia and the 1724, an effervescent, fruity tonic from Patagonia refreshing enough to sip on its own. Together it was even better. Served in a bulbous glass and adorned with slices of orange, lime, and lemon, along with twists, plus sprigs of rosemary and thyme and a bay leaf magically contorted around a toothpick, it was cocktail art — and a reasonable $13. (Or have I just been San Franciscoified?)
The patatas, too, would singlehandedly lure me back to Barcino. Typically a throwaway order at most tapas places, here, potatoes of all things were the highlight. They looked more like Kara’s Cupcakes than like the largest, most delicious tater tots I’ve ever had: golden, crackling-crisp cups frosted with a creamy, pale green, charred scallion aioli and sprinkled with blackened scallion “dust.” After wolfing down our one-patata-per-person allotment, our trio battled forks over the fourth.
We attacked our gorgeous raw bar platter with equal gusto. The octopus — chewy, tender chunks marinated in a cucumber-celery salpicon with smoky chorizo — was the first to go. Followed by the dry-aged strip loin carpaccio, sliced paper-thin, rubbed with black truffle, then wrapped around the Luke Cage of breadsticks, with sweet tomato jam.
Otherwise, most of the plates fell in the middle of the pack, like a team in preseason training with potential, but still struggling to cross the finish line. Oddly, every dish recommended by our robotic server lacked excitement as much as he did. The watermelon in the watermelon salad tasted like a watermelon I let sit on my counter too long before cutting up — not like the fresh, vitalizing fruit it should be when mingled with heirloom tomatoes, mint, and Persian cucumber for $14.
The “Ou” was also recommended. It sounded good: a bright yellow sunny-side-up egg set over a mound of mini potato chips that looked like a pile of gold, with slices of jamon and a healthy spoonful of paddlefish caviar. What’s not to love? It turned out that wilted chips and mushy caviar in an eggy-fishy combo fell flat. I would have rather eaten my jamon Iberico de bellotta without all the fanfare. The Coca, Spanish flatbread spread with foie gras, pickled peaches, and membrillo (a sweet quince paste), harkened back to the Smuckers jam on chewy-hard days-old white bread I ate as a kid. The foie was a sophisticated stand-in for peanut butter, but not enough in itself to salvage the $24 tapa.
It was the paella — arguably the star of any Spanish menu — that came in last. We were told that it would take 40 minutes to prepare. Expected and no biggie. But because the rest of our dishes arrived in such quick succession — and on one occasion, before our cava (hey, just like at Duna!) — the lag time for the paella was long enough that we actually forgot, for a second, that we’d ordered it. When it arrived in its pan, the handle was wrapped in white linen. A warning: hot! Except it wasn’t. Rather, it was a lukewarm paella scattered with sizable prawns and sweet heirloom peppers and microgreens, shredded pork shoulder — and fat strips of pork belly that were more tough than tender and seemed out of place, like whales on the beach.
Suddenly I missed chorizo. I missed mussels. I didn’t want pork belly in my paella. (And yet, on all three nights, the daily-changing dish came with it.) I just wanted a muddle of rich, distinct flavors. I wanted to taste individual kernels of rice. I wanted even just a little crunch. I scraped the bottom of the pan in search of soccarrat, but there was none. It was a $50 disappointment.
Which brings me to my main beef with Barcino. Cocktails notwithstanding, it was expensive for a mostly mediocre meal with moments of glory (which included the churro s’mores, which will forever ruin you for the graham-cracker kind, served open-faced with vanilla marshmallow and chocolate ganache). Still, two hundred bucks for two, before tip, with one lone glass of wine (albeit a crisp, moderately priced albarino from Rias Baixas) is something only high-flying San Francisco will support.
And clearly it’s currently happy to, given the nightly crowds filling the booths, the bar, the tables tucked behind an oversized metal trellis that — without even more lovely leafy plants lining it — left me feeling like I was eating my lamb meatballs with saffron-braised noodles behind bars.
But when the bubble bursts or even punctures (and it will eventually), I have to say: I probably wouldn’t put my money on Barcino.
I know it’s wrong to compare siblings, but as its eldest sister approaches its 20th anniversary — having survived the city’s highs and lows — I can’t help but wonder about Barcino’s staying power. Perhaps, and I hope, with a little more practice — and more of those patatas — it will go the way of Absinthe, not Boxing Room.