Dali, Back to Your Drawing Board
Jorge Luis Fernandez calls himself "The Dali of the Kitchen." The comparison makes sense, because Fernandez, the chef at La Barraca in Hollywood, is a dead ringer for Salvador Dali in his middle years, before the publicity-mad surrealist went nuts with the mustache wax and took to signing blank canvasses. The real Dali was an egomaniac frequently known to pitch a tizzy, jumping up and down like an apoplectic brat if people ignored him; he was as greedy for attention as he was for moolah. His pal André Breton once scrambled the letters of Dali's name to spell Avida Dollars.
But Dali was a genius too. So when Fernandez draws the comparison, he sets the bar high.
I'd been all atwitter to get over to La Barraca since one of the owners sent New Times a letter protesting our choice for Best Tapas Bar in 2006. George Beza implied that we didn't know our tapas from our tuchis. "We would like to invite any food critic from New Times to come and experience for himself our true flair and originality," the letter said. So I was looking forward to eating crow along with many little plates of Serrano ham, Spanish sausages, grilled octopus, and warm goat cheese. If we'd completely missed the boat, ignorantly misleading the tapas-starved public of Broward and Palm Beach, I figured it was my solemn duty to set the record straight. As it was, critics at other papers had been gushing over Fernandez's food for years; he'd received "best" awards all over the place. Even a 3-year-old review in New Times had waxed ecstatic over the virtues of the original, much smaller, La Barraca in Plantation particularly when Fernandez refused to serve our critic paella del monte because he had only frozen rabbit on hand and he was such a stickler for cooking his game absolutely fresh! With sinking heart, I perused Barraca's press: I was going to have to swallow my pride and squeeze my ever-expanding bulk into the old hairshirt: Evidently, I was due to take some licks.
And 200 people can't be wrong, right? La Barraca holds that many raucous revelers in its new location; they turn the place into Bedlam on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. By the time the Flamenco show starts at 9, the place is jammed with every variety of tapas-muncher imaginable. Show up for an early supper at 7 and the rooms are so empty they echo. But you'll have a ringside seat when the party people show up an hour later: extended families, gaggles of teens, toddlers with parents, moony dates, birthday parties, singles drinking at the bar. Sixty-five percent of the diners appeared Latin the night we went, and about 50 percent were drop-dead gorgeous, which should have been a good sign. By the time the Flamenco show got started, La Barraca was so full of high-test octane that it could have chugged a couple of blocks on its own steam. Fernandez, in his white chef's jacket, hair flying, was prancing around the noisy room, rolling his eyes and whipping up the crowd like a mad conductor at an orchestral climax, the maestro in his element. I only wish he'd turned all that wild energy on his kitchen.
The menu at La Barraca looks terrific. There's a gigantic selection of hot tapas: baked goat cheese with herbs, brandied lamb chops, warm Spanish sausage, chicken breast in sherry. You can have scallops with almonds and saffron, or cuttlefish in garlicky olive oil "essence." Prawns, crab cakes, sea bass, octopus, mussels, calamari you're in good shape if you like seafood. As for the cold tapas, there's a traditional tortilla española, white anchovies cured in vinegar, Manchego cheese, Serrano ham. Each little dish is priced from $7.75 to $9.75 (a plate of olives is a bargain at $4.50).
These prices are fairly reasonable when you consider that they include the show. We ordered one hot and one cold tapas plate each and put in our request for the paella del monte; all the paellas need 40 minutes' advance notice.
La Barraca has a warm vibe, although the tables are crammed so close, you're virtually in your neighbor's lap. The walls are umber; bottles of Spanish wine, bags of Calasparra rice, and musical instruments decorate the center divide between the bar and the main room. The staff is lovely; practically the entire house stopped by our table at least once to say hi, make a mild joke, be charming. We were teased, jollied, paid attention to. We felt loved.
But true love is in the details, isn't it? And the details at La Barraca could use fine-tuning. Oh hell, let's just call the fight right now the details need a complete overhaul. First off, the bread is terrible. If you took a ream of photocopy paper, ground it into fine flour, soaked it in pond water, and threw it into the oven, you might end up with a better loaf of bread, particularly if you slathered it with sweet, fresh butter. But the only thing available to spread on the bread-like substance at La Barraca is a small tub of half-rancid, over-refrigerated herb butter. I have a bad feeling about this butter. The flavor of it makes me imagine things that couldn't possibly be so.
Such is your introduction to the fare at this highly acclaimed Spanish restaurant, and I only wish I could tell you that things go uphill from there. I wish I could shrug and say, "Well, so what about the bread?" But at a tapas bar, where you'll have a lot of garlicky olive oil and saffron sauce to mop up, the bread does matter. Of course, a brilliant round of tapas would make one forget all about the bread, but no brilliant round was in our future. We had a tortilla española ($7.75) that had the same mealy, long-refrigerated flavor as the butter, one of the blandest, most unappetizing egg and potato tarts I've ever put in my mouth. I couldn't eat more than two bites. My partner had scallops in saffron with almonds ($9.95), a creamy sauce over prefrozen scallops, at least a few of which, in their thin, perfect circles, looked like those fake scallops restructured from other seafood. If not, they might as well have been; the whole dish emitted a mildly sulfurous flavor. Those scallops should have been seared anyway before being plunked down in their sauce. A cold plate of shiny silver pickled anchovies ($7.75) with parsley and garlic was slightly more interesting a tangy, preserved flavor to wake the taste buds that would have been yummy with... some good bread. We both liked the cuttlefish ($9.75) tossed in garlic and olive oil "essence," although that last bit about the essence is just marketing it was plain old olive oil. The cuttlefish was tender and had absorbed flavors of lemon and oil and parsley, although it too would have been improved by being grilled.
By this time, we were starting to feel that maybe Chef Jorge Luis Fernandez not only didn't love us but that he didn't much like us at all. And I was feeling pretty trepidatious about the paella del monte. The classic Valencian rice dish is made with snails, chicken, and rabbit. In the old country, it's slow-cooked over a wood fire so the rice absorbs all the lovely flavors of the meat, snails, and vegetables usually green and lima beans. La Barraca adds red and green peppers, peas, and artichoke hearts, which would probably cause a major brawl if you tried it in Valencia. A great paella is as intensely flavored as a risotto but lacks risotto's creaminess because it's traditionally made with the short-grained Calasparra rice of the region (unbelievably, you pay $3 extra for this rice at La Barraca). Calasparra rice is highly dehydrated, so it sucks up flavor, and during long cooking, it forms a delicious, dark, caramelized crust on the bottom of the paella pan.
Oh, what a sad pan of paella arrived at our table. The chicken parts were impossible to identify I think there was a piece of wing and maybe an upper back, or a couple of thighs that were virtually meat-free. We found only one tiny, desiccated piece of rabbit. As for the snails, they were horrendous things that in retrospect I wish I hadn't eaten pitch black and mushy, although they did hint at the flavor of sweet paprika. The only genuinely tasty morsel on my plate was the artichoke, a completely nontraditional addition. There was no delicious crust. I pushed my food around, miserable, vowing to go home and make my own Valenciana to elide the memory.
Honestly, I'm not sure a restaurant serving 200 people over three hours should even attempt paella. It's a delicate procedure, fraught with perils. On the other hand, any restaurant ought to be able to turn out a decent piece of chocolate cake ($6). But here too, Fernandez is flummoxed. Our torta de chocolate lacked the faintest whisper of chocolate flavoring. It had apparently been made with Crisco (or the same "butter" we'd had with our "bread").
Enough with the theatrics! I was ready to take Jorge Fernandez, still tap-dancing and schmoozing around the room, by his waxed mustache and lead him forcibly back to the kitchen.
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