November 11, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
It worked when the power was out so Barrio 47 introduces Mondays by Candlelight.
When power died below 39th Street, it didn’t stop the cast of characters at Barrio 47 for long. After all, what do New Yorkers need in a crisis? A stiff drink. Something crusty and savory from the wood-fired oven. A cocoon lit by candlelight where friends can share anxiety and tales of escape and bravado. The French-born brother owners, Roman and Alex Volland, had conceived of this spot as a sexy “Villagey” hangout emphasizing serious cocktails and Mediterranean dishes, celebrating especially their passion for Spain. So they lit a few candles and sent out an e-blast.
That the Peruvian-born chef, Franco Barrio, just happened to have the same name was not nearly as important as his own passion for Spain and his time at Boqueria and Mario Batali’s Casa Mono.
That first Monday, it felt like the narrow Village space waited to be discovered.
Our adventurous foursome had already found Barrio a few days before the storm. The long, narrow tunnel of a room on a hard-to-find curve of Eighth Avenue had an air of waiting to be discovered that Monday. A sole drinker at the bar. A lone duo flirting at the communal table. A twosome at a small, tall station along the wall, opposite the open kitchen where a couple of squat cooks prepared our mushroom coca – Spanish for what turned out to be a crispy, thin flatbread piled with lemon cottage cheese, mushrooms and spinach.
“This is good,” my French friend observes.
“It’s burned,” I complain.
“I like it that way,” the man on my right insists.
“Me too,” says Frenchie. I wonder if they are flirting with each other.
I’m not sure why octopus has to be $18 but it was surprisingly tender and delicious.
I try to avoid high stools because a chair is usually more accommodating than a backless stool with steel legs. It’s getting harder to avoid suspension these days as restaurant creators seem to equate youth and heat with tall tables. But we’re an improvisational gathering, determined to have fun. The oven-glazed octopus on butternut squash purée is satiny and sensuous – nicely teamed with cherry heirloom tomatoes, and drizzled with confit garlic aioli.
Two scallops with hen of the woods mushrooms on butternut squash puree are a starter.
Big, fat Long Island scallops are smartly caramelized too, with hen of the woods mushrooms (“Wild from upstate,” the house suggests), slicked with a toasted almond vinaigrette. Small rectangles of patatas bravas coated with spicy aioli and then twice fried, are crunchy on the outside, melting within, instantly addictive.
Exquisitely cooked lobster and crusty soccarat stuck to the pan make paella a triumph.
Even the paella – so often soggy with its sea creatures forlorn and dry – is a triumph, its savory squid rice properly stuck to the bottom of the black iron pan. That’s the essential soccarat we scrape out and share. The tender flesh of a huge lobster chunk suggests it was smartly tossed on at the last minute. Pappardelle with short rib might better be called short rib with noodles. The meat is served in one big piece, juicy and lush.
A hefty cut of juice short ribs with root vegetables rides in on pappardelle.
Granted the chicken, also on butternut purée, is bland and overcooked. And the apple- smoked bacon supposedly at the heart of the crumbed croquettes is elusive. But a generous crosscut of salmon decked out with shavings of raw fennel is rare as ordered and full of flavor. A mustardy buerre blanc helps. Could it really be “wild,” as the menu claims, for just $24. “We trust our fish suppliers,” Roman Volland insists.
I question wild salmon for $24 but whatever it is, this fish is rare and full of flavor.
Though $80 a person struck me as aggressively pricey for a casual dinner on tall stools with bare brick walls – somehow we’d managed to order three glasses of $18 Tempranillo – none of us is complaining. That paella looked rather small, but it stretched to feed us all and was surprisingly good. Our final bites left us smiling too – the crumbly butter cookie stuffed with peanut butter and berry marmalade topped with ice cream. That three taxis swooped up in the chill, as if on order, to ferry us in various directions seemed felicitous too.
Since so many specials come out of the oven, why not do dinner by candlelight?
I promised myself I’d come back for “Farm to Fire Tuesdays,” when the kitchen serves a different cut of meat or fish from the oven with two sides for $25 per person. Tuesday the 13th, the house will do Oxtail cazuela, on November 20th, lamb shank and osso buco the following week. But the Hurricane, stalled subways and a threatened shortage of cabs keep me away.
I return in the slush and snow of the Nor’easter. I am cranky because it was impossible to see the joint’s sign in the whiteout and my dinner guest is going to be late – her subway “unexpectedly closed down,” she calls to tell me. Surely a $14 Dark and Stormy is the drink to order.
“I won’t be able to top it with the rosemary rum mousse,” the waiter apologizes. “We ran short of supplies.”
Even better for me. It’s the rosemary rum mousse that almost stopped me from ordering it. “Just fill up the glass with more rum,” I suggest. The owner sends a dish of warmed bread with a marvelous spread of sun dried tomato, garlic and mayo. I snap a few photos.
We’re not sharing the lamb shoulder because two couples ordered it in advance.
Suddenly I notice the kitchen crew setting a huge roast on a wooden cutting board. It’s gorgeous. I’ve never longed for a pet but this I could take home. “It’s a lamb shoulder,” Volland says, as the waiter totes it off to the communal table and starts sawing away for the foursome seated there.
The first coca tasted of singe but tonight’s crisp mushroom flatbread is fine.
“We’ll have some too,” I say as my friend finally trips in from the slush, unwinding her furs. Her El Diablo with homemade habanero-vanilla bean tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur and dashes of cholula spicy salsa lacks the scintillating edge of my Dark and Stormy. But on this try, the croquettes give off a smart taste of bacon inside and the coca is crisp but not burned.
Then sadly I discover we are not getting a taste of the lamb shoulder because it belongs to the couples who ordered it ahead. They’re wrapping the leftovers to take home and not even offering us a tendril to taste.
Brussels sprouts in varying sizes are unevenly cooked. Patatas bravas lack aioli.
My appestat is set for meat. I guess we’ll have the rib eye, I decide. She’s game. We agree it should be rare. The Brussels sprouts are almost great: the bigger ones need more fire, the small ones are perfect. The bravas aren’t as crisp nor as spicy as they were last time. And the steak is unappealingly gray.
“Why didn’t the chef caramelize this steak?” I ask the owner as he hovers near.
“It’s the chef’s night out,” he confides, not even ashamed.
“Well you shouldn’t let the chef take a night off till he teaches the kitchen how to cook,” I suggest. (I know I should save criticism for my blog but sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
I love this crumbly cookie with peanut butter and berry marmalade by the chef’s mother.
The truth is I like Barrio 47. On third glance I like the look, the iron ribs of a chandelier hugging the ceiling over the bar. The bartender with her chic black turban and lineup of vegetable elixirs to invent new cocktails. The sophisticated graffiti on the bare brick walls. The intimacy of bar stools with rungs to tuck your heels in. The promise of suckling pig on Sunday. I’m planning to put together six or seven friends and order our own lamb shoulder for $50 per person. I’ll make sure Chef Barrio is there.
47 Eighth Avenue between Jane, Horatio and West 4th Street. 212 255 3900. $1 oysters and happy hours from 5 to 7 pm. Dinner 5 pm to 1 am. Bar till 2 am. Brunch starting November 17, Lunch starting November 19. Check out “Feast for the Senses,” the house’s proposal to do a roast for 6 to 20 guests – leg or rack of lamb, a rib of beef or suckling pig, Sunday to Wednesday.