Is it my imagination, or have restaurants been getting bigger and bigger lately? Increasingly, many joints seat 100, 200, or even more. No chef seems happy with a single place or even two, and rare is the “name” chef who doesn’t dabble in serial restaurateuring, often with deteriorating results. Eateries are assembled into octopussian conglomerates, using Wal-Mart as the model, shaving procurement costs and maximizing profits by working on the largest scale possible. But the savings are not passed along to consumers; on the contrary, it often seems that the bigger the place, the more expensive the food. Like dinosaurs, these behemoths battle over well-heeled patrons, plying them with potent cocktails and bombarding them with noise to fog their senses of taste and self-worth.
Weighing in at 220 seats, Barca 18 is the latest outpost of the B.R. Guest chain, which boasts 13 restaurants in the city, and more in Vegas, Scottsdale, and Chicago. It numbers among its diverse holdings one very good place (Fiamma) and some awful ones, too (both Ruby Foo’s). Rather startlingly, Barca’s chef of record is Eric Ripert, four-star figurehead at Le Bernardin, the haute French seafood spot. But the sprawling Park Avenue South newcomer is neither fishy nor French. The menu specializes in Spanish tapas with creative twists, as if the chain had looked around the corner at the tiny and wildly successful Casa Mono and shouted “Let’s supersize it!”
Barca 18 counts among its tapas triumphs a Spanish tortilla ($7) ramified with asparagus, black olives, and blood sausage, the latter imparting a loamy flavor and crumbly texture. There’s also a meritorious but meager charcuterie platter ($12) and an innovative salt cod “pizza” mounted on a cracker, which would have been better had it been baked to order rather than simply assembled. A warm octopus salad laced with sweet pepper strips features a few thin slices of tentacle. Was an actuary supervising the line cook?
But it’s the nature of restaurant dinosaurism that, even though the recipes may be good and the raw materials unimpeachable, the cooking can’t achieve the consistency found in smaller places, where the chef presides over the kitchen rather than just faxing recipes from remote locales. Thus a Barca soup begins with a teeny pile of raw lobster and shrimp in the bottom of the bowl. An exhausted runner from far across the room arrives with a teapot of red broth, pouring it over the cold heap. But the broth is no longer hot enough to cook the seafood even slightly, leaving the hapless customer fishing for invisible sashimi in a bowl of tepid tomato soup.
Part of the dinosaur formula involves offering something for everyone. While Barca 18 might have been conceived as a tapas bar, the masterminds behind it couldn’t bear to forgo entrées, “gently priced,” as New York magazine would say, in the $23 to $29 range. These tend to be as hit-or-miss as the tapas, though I admired the braised short ribs, and the seared tuna, too, in its Basque sauce. But the paella was a hoot. The predictable collection of a stingy half–lobster tail, clams, mussels, and shrimp mirrors the ancient paella palaces of the Village, but there is one astonishing difference. There’s almost no rice underneath, defeating the entire purpose of the dish. Atkins or Scrooge?