Last November when Las Ramblas: a Spanish Café and Bar Barcelona opened, PR pieces and some press noted its similarities to tapas bars in Barcelona. The restaurant community shared tales of Executive Chef Blake Hartwick spending weeks at a time in Spain to get every dish just so. Spanish friends called to give me their unsolicited opinions of yet another Spanish restaurant not owned by a Spaniard opening in Charlotte.
The reality of Las Ramblas, it turns out, is that the key ingredient that makes Barcelona tapas bars what they are is absent. What is missing is that intangible joie de vive of the eating public of Barcelona, a pulse that emanates like an anticipated Broadway opening night throughout the dining rooms and stand up bars; the throngs of people pouring in after 9 p.m. with friends and families eating, laughing and drinking until after midnight; the friendly bouncer outside the current favorites speaking Catalan to friends and Spanish to tourists. It's Picasso, Miro, Dali and the physical twist on traditional by Gaudi and Chef Adrià that is missing. And without these elements, what do you have? Quiet. Hardly like the extremely noisy boulevard, packed with tourists, street vendors, and entertainers, for which this restaurant is named.
Las Ramblas is the fourth Charlotte restaurant for J.D. Duncan, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America's Napa campus. Las Ramblas' sister restaurants are Bonterra Dining and Wine Room and Mac's Speed Shop. Executive Chef Blake Hartwick has been with the company for seven years.
We entered Las Ramblas through a quiet patio area. Don't get me wrong: Dining al fresco is one of the better aspects of Charlotte's restaurants since the evenings are gorgeous this time of year. But the cosmopolitan within me yearns for cafés along crowded boulevards filled with interesting people that only enhance a meal and sprinkles the conversation with astute life observations -- you know, a street like Las Ramblas.
What is lively at Las Ramblas, though, is the open kitchen behind a long bar, the dashes of red throughout the dining room and the playfulness of the servers' red T-shirts (front side features the head of a bull, back side the tail).
What is even better is the perceptiveness of the staff and servers who can as handily recommend a well-matched beer to a dish as a bottle of wine. The Las Ramblas wine list is Spanish, long and well-selected. Eric Solomon Selections, an import company of French, Spanish and Portuguese wines that moved from Manhattan to Charlotte several years ago, features prominently on this list.
Once seated on cushy woven high back chairs, a complimentary glass of sherry arrives. The menu, filled with dozens of tapas, a selection of flat breads, cheeses and sweets, takes time to peruse. Some of the tapas on the roster seem to be pitched to Western palates like the too-marinated anchovies smothered in fennel shavings. Fresh anchovies -- even fried anchovies -- should be plump and sweet and sing of the sea. These tasted of fennel. Other tapas dishes deviate from traditional Spanish to swerve to favor of the American penchant for salmon or newly chic Kobe beef.
So go traditional. A sparkling crisp cava with fried sardines is a wine and food match not to be missed. Actually, no food quite screams Mediterranean as this lowly, yet incredibly popular fish. And the difference between fresh sardines and canned sardines is as striking as raw yellow fin tuna to canned albacore. Trust me. Canned foods are nowhere as popular as they are in Barcelona. Some tins are so pricey, stores encase them in plastic like video games. So if the fresh sardines are popular in Barcelona (as they are around the entire Mediterranean) they must be better and Chef Hartwick's fried sardines are sensational.
The albondigas (veal and pork meatballs) bathed in a robust wine sauce were so good, my dining companion who does not eat veal on principle, horded the entire dish. These were followed by the excellent, perfectly grilled lamb skewers fainted flavored and served with a yogurt sauce. We should have skipped the Serrano ham and chick pea dish -- in fact the ham (cut too long before serving?) was a bit dry.
A safe bet is the patatas bravas, not as fierce as heat seekers might hope, but spiffed up with a wonderful allioli. The ubiquitous tortilla (Spanish omelette) is a modest dish and only four bucks.
In fact, depending on how much food you can handle, two can eat here reasonably. Tapas range from $4 for an array of Spanish olives to an entrée-sized portion of seafood paella with shrimp, calamari and mussels for $20. Flat breads, such as the Catalan with eggplant, caramelized onions, piquillo peppers, anchovies and Manchego, are $9, while cheese and ham plates are five bucks each.
Stay for the well-made crème de Catalan or the olive oil ice cream (it just tastes creamy) with the chocolate churros (like funnel cakes, only better). These churros are already dipped: too bad they aren't served with a tasty cup of Spanish hot chocolate.
Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.