Grazing: Barca Tapas & Bar and Tartufo
An early look at Buckhead's new Spanish tapas fusion restaurant
"Money," Mounir Barhoumi told me when I asked him why he had closed La Fourchette to open Barça. "People aren't spending money in restaurants the way they used to. We decided to try tapas, since customers can control the cost of their meal."
It's a common story these days. La Fourchette's kinda-sorta Mediterranean fare earned good reviews during its several years and you would think its Buckhead location, across the street from Bone's, would make the upscale prices irrelevant. But, while the rich may be different from you and me, they love to attribute their wealth to frugality. Or, maybe they just prefer Barhoumi's pizzeria, Tartufo, next door.
To clarify the source of some common confusion: The name of the new restaurant, co-owned with Salem Makhlouf, is how young Europeans commonly refer to Barcelona now. The city is part of the region of Spain called Catalonia (which is threatening to secede). The cedilla in "Barça" is characteristic of the area's language, Catalan. It means pronunciation is "barsa," not "barka."
Not surprisingly, then, the cuisine of Spain is emphasized here, but there's plenty of fusion cuisine just as you'd find in Barcelona on Spain's Mediterranean coast. The two owners are Tunisian and some dishes by chef Dustin Haney show that spicy influence.
I visited the restaurant with three friends and we ate a brain-numbing quantity of dishes. As soon as we sat down, one friend instantly ordered the mussels. This has become the case wherever we dine, giving me both a broad survey of the city's mussels and a peek into the world of food obsession in others. The mussels were extra-chubby — perhaps rope-raised — and served with a classic Catalan sauce, romesco. The sauce's tomatoes and typically mild red peppers were hyped with some hot Tunisian seasonings.
Probably my favorite dish was a small bowl of extraordinarily rich shellfish paella. The saffron rice was wet but not soupy and tossed with lobster, shrimp, mussels, and some green peas. You'll want a big bowl. Speaking of lobster, we also ordered a plate of it cooked with mac and cheese, scented with truffle oil. The table applauded but it's the kind of dish that goes a bit too far for me. The Mornay sauce brought an even deeper level of fatty cheesiness that made the lobster's taste disappear. I needed a fat foil.
Another favorite that reminded me of my many trips to Spain was a simple presentation of four white anchovies. Each was laid upon a strip of crusty bread with lemon aïoli and some faint garlic purée. Here, contrary to the mac and cheese, the flavors were sharp and tingly.
For sheer decadence, try the roasted fresh figs glazed (almost to excess) in balsamic vinegar, garnished with bits of crispy ham and served with creamy goat cheese. The latter was also the ingredient of a "cheese fondue." Mercifully, this was not a Swiss melting pot with skewers. It was the dense cheese dotted with cranberry bits served with bread in a small bowl. The fondue changes daily.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
There were only two dishes I disliked. An interesting take on saltimbocca, made with chicken and a Madeira sauce, was overwhelmed by herbs. That's easy to fix. And eggplant involtini simply didn't work. The eggplant basically melted into goop over the mozzarella. It was the only dish I'd recommend you avoid for sure. Even the garbage mouths at my table panned it.
Service is mainly good, especially for a brand-new restaurant. If Barhoumi's wife, Linda, is helping out, she can describe the dishes in detail. The new look of the place is minimalist but warm, with terra-cotta walls and comfy banquettes with colorful, mosaic-like panels.
The next day, I decided to check out Tartufo with Wayne. I visited with the same friends a year earlier when it opened and it was one of our favorites. Nothing has really changed.
The open kitchen's brick, electric oven turns out 14-inch pizzas in a flash. Like last year, I ordered the margherita and when it came to the table it looked gigantic. "You can take some home for breakfast," Linda said.
I ate the whole damn thing.
Wayne ordered the Napolitana — anchovies, fresh mozzarella, and San Marzano tomato sauce. He likewise devoured his.
The pizza crust was nicely charred, partly crisp, partly chewy, and partly gooey, but in the center only. A year ago, the pizzas tended to be gooey all over, but that's no longer true. Take your slice, fold it, and if the center point dangles, pop it in your mouth quickly or flip it toward the slice.
Tartufo reminds me of the original Pasta Vino, when its chef was Danny Arturo and he cranked out the best pizzas in town. Tartufo is a lot more organized, but the hospitality, good quality, and look remind me of that '90s hot spot.