- Walter Novak
- The staff at Viva Barcelona hopes you brought your appetite.
Even more than a glass of Manzanilla, being addressed as Señora and purred at in a thick, melodious accent is my aperitif of choice, and at Viva Barcelona, they pour on such charms without reserve. Ultimately, it doesn't matter that we can't always understand our waiter as he recites seemingly endless lists of daily specials. More likely than not, he'll tell us what we ought to order anyway, so our inability to comprehend all our options seems unimportant. Because I am a sucker for a dark-haired man in formalwear, I will succumb when our waiter assures me I don't want the tilapia in green sauce from the regular menu, and I do want the Chilean sea bass special instead. And, of course, he is right: The pearly 12-ounce filet is incomparably light, its mild natural sweetness deliciously complemented by a silken parsley-flecked butter sauce.
The sea bass is one of nearly a dozen fresh fish specials offered this evening -- grilled, broiled, or blackened, with a choice of any one of several complementary sauces. There also are lobster tails of various sizes and origins; meats, including baby goat and suckling pig; and seafood combinations, including a bouillabaisse-like dish of mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, and prawns. In combination with an already interesting and sizable menu of regular offerings, including classical paella, a 16-ounce beef filet in sherry wine sauce, and filet of sole with a garnish of dried fruit, the broad selection makes the waiter's suggestions not only helpful, but nearly essential. But be warned: If you are the kind of diner who likes to thoughtfully weigh your options, compare and contrast ingredients and prices, and make a leisurely choice from among well-defined alternatives, the multitude of unwritten specials at Viva Barcelona and their rapid-fire recitation may set your head to spinning.
Of course, downtown diners have been putting up with this type of thing at Mallorca for years, and along with the attentive, formal service, it's something that Fernando Nunez brought with him when he left his position there last winter to open Viva Barcelona (his partner is restaurateur Tom Culkar). But in many ways, the new restaurant improves upon its inspiration. While the Warehouse District's Mallorca has always seemed crowded and noisy, Viva Barcelona is more intimate and significantly quieter. Low ceilings help muffle chatter, and several half-walls, some "distressed" to resemble stucco and brick, not only soften the sound level, but divide the space into cozy subsections. Mellow, honey-hued lighting flows out of a variety of artful fixtures, infusing the two main dining rooms and a small, stylish bar with a golden glow. Well-spaced tables are draped in cream-colored linens and topped with shaded oil lamps. And in the background plays a soundtrack of intricate Spanish guitar music that, at least during recent visits, tickled our fancy, with reinterpreted versions of "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones and "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin tucked in among the classical standards. ("Hey, those are classics," objected our music-loving companion.) But in any case, the snugly sophisticated setting makes it surprisingly easy to forget that the restaurant is on the ground floor of a large contemporary office building in Westlake, rather than on some quaint little urban street corner.
As at Mallorca, big platters of rice, properly tender-crisp but unseasoned vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and snap peas), and freshly made potato chips are served, family-style, with entrées. Lengths of warm Orlando French-style bread with pleasantly garlicky herb butter and a choice of soup or salad also accompany each meal. Our advice is to go for the soup -- one night, a homey chicken broth full of slowly cooked lentils and another night, a tasty spinach-and-garbanzo-bean creation -- as opposed to the hearts-of-palm-flecked salad, an otherwise mundane toss of lettuce, onion, and tomato in a thick, sharp, liqueur-spiked French dressing.
Chef Pedro "Augustine" Caceres heads a kitchen where most of the output is simply prepared and plated without much apparent thought of hype or guile. Well-made sauces and reductions provide flavor and zest, although many of the dishes needed a pinch of salt to kick them up a notch or two. Meats like rack of lamb (six thick, double-boned chops finished with a tasty red-wine sauce) and a large, tender seafood-stuffed veal chop, garnished with two whole prawns, were gently cooked as ordered to a moist medium-rare. However, other than the delicate sea bass, much of the seafood came to the table overcooked to various degrees. Scallops, especially, seemed to present a problem, arriving nearly rubbery in an otherwise pleasant Paella Valenciana, a gigantic offering of rice, green peas, chicken, chorizo, clams, mussels, prawns, and shrimp; excessively fishy in the bouillabaisse-like special; and disappointingly chewy when they were grilled and served as an appetizer in a simple white wine sauce. Better first-course choices were the buttery Langostinos al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) and the rustic Chorizo Salteado a la Andaluza, slices of mild, meaty broiled Spanish sausage tossed with rings of black olives. ("Pizza toppings," we initially scoffed, before proceeding to devour nearly every savory bite.)
Even in those instances when particular preparations failed to wow us, we still gave the kitchen and the service team high marks for sensitive pacing, which guaranteed that the pause between courses was never longer -- or shorter -- than it should have been. As a result, on one weeknight when we were pressed for time, we found ourselves able to enjoy a pleasantly unhurried meal and still be out the door in little more than an hour. Yet on a leisurely Saturday night visit, we happily lingered over portions of superlative housemade flan and snifters of stellar Spanish coffee, spiked with Kahlua and brandy beneath a towering cumulus cloud of whipped cream. Even as the dining room emptied, our waiter continued to smile upon us, apparently delighting in our enjoyment.
In fact, if he hadn't already won us over with his professional but friendly demeanor, he certainly did the trick when he took a moment to shake hands with each member of our party as we finally prepared to leave. "Please come back," he smiled warmly. And chances are, we will.