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Small plates with big flavors dominate at Barsa

Tasty Tapas

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When restaurateur Drazen Romic stepped up to fill the void left in Charleston's tapas scene after the closing of Raval and the transformation of Chai's into a dessert bar, his experience at Lana allowed him to make bold moves. He completely remodeled the former Shine space on the corner of King and Line streets and gave it an old-world feel. Despite its almost warehouse-like bones, tall ceilings, and big interior windows, Romic has warmed the space with thick paint, dark wood furniture, and leather chairs, with a bar that wraps around much of the roomy interior. It's a congenial atmosphere that meshes well with Barsa's straightforward focus on well done, Basque-inspired tapas, solid cocktails, and a well-curated wine list.

Apart from a couple of small hiccups on recent visits, Barsa has me excited about its potential to add quality and variety to the Charleston food scene. When I met a friend there on a recent Sunday for brunch, we saddled up to the quickly populating bar. The bartenders were attentive and helpful and made us feel welcome. They suggested we start with a refreshing naranja fresca ($8, $5 happy hour), a not-too-sweet cocktail made with Hendricks gin, muddled cucumber, lime, and a little orange marmalade. It hit the spot. With the edge taken off, we turned to sampling a few small plates from the tapas menu.

First, there were croquettes ($4), three golden-brown and crispy orbs formed with puréed potatoes, goat and gruyere cheeses, and studded with pieces of chorizo sausage. They were lightly breaded, deep fried, and served on a simple tomato sauce with a drizzle of smoked paprika aioli. The contrast of crisp exterior and creamy interior with chewy chorizo was satisfying, and the flavor of paprika from the chorizo was just smoky enough. The generous portion definitely put a dent in our hunger early on. The less authentically Spanish but still welcome apple and fennel salad ($7) was a crunchy, bright, chilly contrast to the croquettes. The shaved fennel and apple were tossed with fresh arugula, lemon vinaigrette, and bits of Valdeon blue cheese for dots of earthy richness. And the ceviche was refreshing, too, as clean-tasting as any I've had. The flounder was marinated in lime until slightly "cooked," then tossed with diced avocado, tomato, fresh orange, orange juice, and a little olive oil, topped with pickled red onion and surrounded by crispy tortilla chips. The fresh, oceany flavor of the fish was beautifully highlighted by the surrounding ingredients' balance of sweet and tart.

With another naranja fresca on deck, we focused on the brunch menu. My friend was all about the indulgence of the ham and cheese béchamel ($9). It sounded to me like Barsa's version of the French croque madame sandwich (basically a croque monsieur with a fried egg on top), but ended up being lighter than we expected, especially with claims of "it's a really rich sandwich" from our servers, not to mention the inclusion of béchamel. But it's hard to go wrong with Spanish ham and manchego cheese between two slices of grilled buttery brioche bread, a little béchamel sauce and Dijon mustard for bite, and a sunny-side-up egg topper. With a spoonful of additional béchamel from the saucy sidecar we ordered, indulgence was realized. I picked out the steak and eggs brava hollandaise ($10), another sauce-centric dish that ended up being minimalism on a plate. The thinly sliced and perfectly cooked beefy shoulder tenderloin came alongside two perfectly cooked over-easy eggs and a clear glass of fresh fruit. When the small pitcher of paprika-kissed hollandaise finally came to the table (it lagged a few minutes behind the steak), it gave the steak the decadence I had hoped for.

Another recent Barsa visit was on a weeknight for a friend's birthday. This time the place was bustling, and the big space felt a little cozier in the dark. Again, we sat at the bar. The bartenders got our menus set up quickly, but then it took an awkwardly long time for them to come back to ask for our drink order. Unlike our servers at brunch, these bartenders seemed preoccupied and even aloof, even though the bar was only half full. We finally managed to get their attention and settled on a couple of glasses of Gruner Veltliner and the romesco dip ($5) to start. It was a traditional, simple, and flavorful romesco made with puréed red peppers, almonds, olive oil, and vinegar. It was served with beautifully grilled warm asparagus, steamed cauliflower, and raw, thin celery and carrot sticks. The warm-and-cool, creamy-and-crunchy contrast made the romesco hard to put aside. Next we ordered the ceviche, and it was again impeccably fresh, bright, and citrusy. The stuffed peppers ($7) were perfect, too: three simple pan-seared piquillo peppers stuffed with melted, nutty roncal cheese, served alongside perky, citrusy baby arugula. Another dish with addictively contrasting flavors and textures.

Good thing, too, because the servers were difficult to flag down (and weren't voluntarily checking back in with us). When we managed to make eye contact, we asked for our empty plates to be cleared and ordered a little more food — the Serrano-wrapped dates ($4), the grilled and fried calamari ($7), and another glass of wine. The dates were good but not my favorite of all the dishes we tried. Smallish dates were wrapped in ham, manchego-stuffed and baked until the ham was crispy, then drizzled with aged balsamic. The flavors were good but the fruits were small and the colors monochromatic. I loved the presentation of the grilled and fried calamari. The "bodies" of the olive-oil poached and grilled squid were fanned around a pile of leggier, deep-fried calamari, with a quarter wedge of lemon on the side. While the fishy flavor of the poached squid was a little much, the fried side of the plate was right on. Word is that the dish is about to be all fried — apparently we aren't the only ones who don't love the strong flavor the oil-poaching gives the grilled calamari.

When I called the restaurant later after my visit, I was surprised to hear that since opening, Romic has parted ways with chef Derek Falta. On the two recent visits mentioned in this review, 23-year-old chef Cole Poolaw, who worked for five-plus years under Romic at Lana, was manning the kitchen. When I told Poolaw by phone that for the most part the food was great but that we felt a little neglected one night at the bar, he said he had been working on "strengthening the front of the house." Lucky for us, he's also aiming to add more authentic Spanish dishes, seafood, salads, and local and seasonal ingredients to the menu.

Poolaw is obviously a talented cook. If the service can live up to the continually improving food, Barsa has the potential to offer some of the best tapas in Charleston. I look forward to going back, whether it's for happy hour and a quick bite, a sit-down dinner, or to check out the late-night bar scene.

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