Traditional Tapas in the Riverbend
Xavier Laurentino is a happy man. About three weeks ago, he opened Barcelona Tapas in the space formerly occupied by Café Volage at 720 Dublin St. For the past two-and-a-half years, he’s been engaged in a monumental renovation of the ancient cottage that is impossible to appreciate unless you saw the restaurant’s former condition. Now that he’s completed the transformation and has begun to welcome guests, it all seems worthwhile.
Laurentino is originally from Barcelona and credits his father for teaching him how to cook and how to select the best ingredients for a meal. To this day, when he looks over a delivery of produce to his restaurant, he says, “My father’s voice is always in the back of my mind.”
Laurentino is a fascinating character, the kind of person who is always looking for new experiences. During the course of a conversation that lasted more than an hour and which I can only touch on here due to space considerations, he told me about working as a bodyguard at a high-end resort in southern Spain; an actor on Spanish television shows; a sculptor; a jewelry-maker; a contractor; and, most recently, a chef.
In 1986, his career as an actor in Spain had reached a plateau, limited by his inability to speak English. When he was denied a part in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan the Destroyer, he knew it was time for a change. He traveled to New Orleans, where his brother lived, intending to spend a year in the United States learning the language. After spending several months touring the U.S. with his brother in a Volkswagen bus, he returned to New Orleans. Though he still travels frequently, he has called the city home ever since.
An anecdote about Laurentino is illustrative of his nature: Bothered by his lack of formal education, he decided to enroll at Loyola not long after arriving in the States. During his first semester, he signed up for nine courses. It has been awhile since I was a college student, but my memory is that my course load was closer to nine hours than nine courses. When he was confronted by a dean concerned that his still-shaky grasp of English would make such a heavy course load problematic, he offered a wager. “I bet you at the end of the semester, I’ll get all A’s, and if I don’t, then you can tell me what to do.”
He won the bet and graduated summa cum laude in 1992 with a degree in television production and direction. During his time at Loyola, he received only one grade that was not an A, and that was a B+. Did I mention that he arrived in the United States unable to speak English? I swear, if the guy weren’t so entertaining, I’d hate him.
A few years later, Laurentino was working as a contractor when his friend Angel Miranda asked for some help. Miranda’s restaurant in the Warehouse District, Altamira, was closing, and he was opening a new restaurant on Esplanade Avenue. That restaurant, Lola’s, is still a thriving neighborhood favorite, and Laurentino is responsible for the turning the building from a hair salon to its current state.
Lola’s is also where Xavier got his start as a professional cook. Not long after opening Lola’s, Miranda was involved in a serious accident and was unable to work for months. To avoid having the restaurant close, Laurentino stepped into the kitchen, reasoning that since many of the recipes Miranda used were his, he could pull it off. “Cooking a meal with my girlfriend and taking three hours is nothing like working in a professional kitchen,” he says, and I can confirm that –– not cooking for his girlfriend, mind you, but the pace of cooking recreationally as opposed to professionally.
But again Laurentino was determined, and within three days, he was up to speed. He told customers, “Listen, I’m not a chef, but if you give me time, I’ll get food on the table, and it will be good.” The customers were patient, and the restaurant held on. When Miranda returned, Laurentino assisted him for a few days until Miranda kicked him out of the kitchen. Miranda needed to get back to work on his own terms, and Laurentino was happy to see his friend recover from his injuries. The two remain close friends.
Laurentino’s time in the kitchen at Lola’s was an epiphany, however. He saw a similarity between his former career as an actor and his new calling as a chef. “A restaurant is nothing but a theater,” and diners are the audience, he says. In 2002, he opened Laurentino’s at 4400 Transcontinental Drive, in Metairie. The restaurant was a success and closed only recently, in October 2009, when the owners of the property sold it.
The work to create Barcelona Tapas was grueling, but when Laurentino describes the lengths to which he went to realize the vision in his mind, it’s with a sense of pride. He essentially gutted the entire structure, replacing the drywall in the kitchen with a cement-based product that resists humidity and fire and removing the claustrophobic drop ceilings to create a more open sense of space. He stressed that almost everything in the restaurant was recycled from the original structure. The base of the bar that greets visitors on entering, for example, is faced with lathes that were taken from the interior of the walls after he stripped them to remove the drywall. The tables are made from recycled bargeboard from other sections of the walls, as are the backs of some chairs.
The bar alone took Laurentino three months from conception to completion and features beautiful, detailed tile work. It’s a long, sinuous work of art, and Laurentino calls it his homage to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. In Spain, tapas are most often enjoyed at a bar, and the 20 or so seats at the bar and the long, narrow shelf that lines the opposite wall are a perfect place to sample the menu at Barcelona.
That menu is, to my knowledge, the most authentic of its kind in New Orleans. Laurentino wanted it to reflect his memories of his home city rather than “modernize” tapas, as is more often the case in this country.
The samfaina is the perfect example of Laurentino’s insistence on authenticity. It’s a traditional Spanish dish that’s a sort of cousin to ratatouille. According to Laurentino, the Spanish dish predates the French and is different in that it is cooked until the eggplant and other vegetables lose their individual textures. In Spain, it’s used as a sauce and as a base for multiple other dishes. It shows up at Barcelona as both a hot and cold tapa over bread. I prefer the warm version, which better allows the flavors to meld.
The stuffed piquillo peppers are a specialty of the Navarre region of Spain, and they are a must-order at Barcelona. The filling is a smoked salmon pâté, and it’s an excellent foil for the sweet-tart flesh of the peppers.
The Canoes section of the menu is what Laurentino says would be known in Spain as montavitos, or “little things on top.” These are all small bites served on top of slices of bread, and it’s the bargain section of the menu. Prices run from $1.99 to $3.99 for the small open-faced sandwiches, which include beef tenderloin with Gouda; Serrano ham with cheese or roasted green pepper; garlic shrimp with allioli (the Catalan version of aioli, basically); and pork tenderloin with Gouda, which Laurentino asserts is the most popular tapa of its kind in Spain.
The garlic shrimp also turn up as a hot tapa. The shrimp are served in a small clay dish, just-cooked and swimming in olive oil, garlic and paprika. If that sounds off-putting, it’s worth remembering that olive oil is good for you –– because the dish is delicious.
The bombas is an orange-size potato croquette with a spicy beef stuffing and was also very good. It’s one of a few hot tapas –– another is a lamb chop served with fries and allioli. The fries are hand-cut and fried twice in peanut oil, and they were outstanding.
I would probably not order the grilled squid again because it was a bit off when I had it, but I’m willing to believe it was an anomaly because it was the only hitch in an otherwise excellent meal. (And I still ate the squid.) I would definitely order the Serrano ham again, in just about any form it’s served at Barcelona. The 18-month-cured variety was terrific as a topping on the garlic-tomato bread, which you can also order with manchego, Gouda, Spanish chorizo or havarti.
Just about the only item on the menu that’s not truly Spanish is the seviche, which can be ordered with fish, shrimp or a mix of the two. The fried Spanish almonds and the tortilla española are more typical of the menu and of Iberian cuisine generally. The almonds are almost too salty at first taste, but they are addictive as all hell. The tortilla –– a sort of layered potato omelet –– arrives as a thick disk cut into quarters. It’s substantial and probably best shared with another person or two.
There are six entrees available, including paella Valenciana and Creole pasta, Laurentino’s version of fideuà, which is essentially a paella made with vermicelli. Both dishes require 20 to 30 minutes to arrive from the time ordered, and both are $24.99. A rack of lamb and a rib-eye steak, both served with fries, allioli and asparagus, both cost $32.99.
I asked Laurentino what he thought of the current popularity of tapas in this country. He compared tapas to Chinese food, which was eagerly adopted here but underwent an Americanization in the process. The same is true of tapas: “It’s been translated in the U.S. as something very sophisticated. In Spain, it’s a simplistic thing and an inexpensive thing.” It’s what he ate growing up, particularly when he had little money, he says.
There are a few beers from which to choose, as well as house red and white wines from Rioja, but after enjoying the sangria on my last visit, I’m not inclined to order anything else. A glass of the sangria costs $5.99, a half-pitcher is $10.99, and a full pitcher runs $19.99.
At the moment, the restaurant is open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday, but Laurentino has plans to open for lunch at some point. Call the restaurant at 861-9696 to make a reservation or for more information.