Classic Spanish cooking usually is not innovative, but at Barceloneta Mercat and Bistro — a restaurant in South Beach now opening a second location in South Miami — a Puerto Rican chef’s twist is making tapas chic.
With its convivial atmosphere and authentic wine list, Barceloneta has become a South Beach hot spot. The new location in South Miami comes at a time when the neighborhood is becoming popular for happy hour, and Catalan cuisine has solidified its place in bars around the country because of its radical simplicity.
Co-owner and Chef Juliana Gonzalez said the name comes from the vibrant Barceloneta towns of Spain and Puerto Rico, which both have sandy beaches and fun restaurants. The focus on freshness reminds her of the colorful Boqueria food market in Barcelona. In the kitchen, equipped with traditional cookware like the paellera pans and terra-cotta cazuelas, she gets creative with the presentation and plays with ingredients.
“We don’t make the traditional Pimientos de Padrón peppers. We use a Japanese pepper called Shishito, which is very similar,” Gonzalez said. “Unlike the traditional recipe which only sautéed the peppers with salt, I add the sea salt Maldon, the blue-cheese Valdeón from León, made with cow and goats milk, and top it with a powder of candied walnuts.”
The 75-seat dining room at 5850 Sunset Drive is set to open in December. It will have terracotta ceramic tiled floors, chalk boards and will be decorated with rustic dark wooden furniture, and low ambient lighting. Its straightforward menu includes dishes focused on quality ingredients from the Mediterranean coast and fresh organic vegetables from local farms.
Gonzalez, a Johnson & Wales University grad who also studied marketing in Puerto Rico, trained with the famous culinary trend-setter Chef Sergi Arola and Chef Ángel Palacios at La Broche, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid. It once had a small location in Brickell, where she also trained with Chef Jordi Vallès at the former Mosaico and Salero restaurant. Now sous-chef John Gallo will be learning from her in South Miami.
At any taperia, the meal always starts with Pica Pica, a snack such as spicy marinated olives, anchovies or chips. The artisan cheese, at $5 a portion, is presented on a “tabla” with bread and marmalade. There are plenty of choices, including the famous sheep’s milk Manchego from Don Quixote’s La Mancha, the Idiazabal from Basque Country, which has a salty earthy flavor, and the creamy goats milk Garrotxa from Catalunya.
Diners can expect small saucers with the most basic of tapas — tortilla de patata or tortilla española, a small potato omelet, the crispy croquetas with ham, jamón serrano fermin, and sausages like embutidos, chorizo, and morcilla.
“We consider ourselves a product kitchen. Our chicken and beef is organic. We get our tomatoes, micro basil and baby arugula from Paradise Farm in Homestead,” co-owner Daniella Rezai said. “We get our fideos from Barcelona, the garbanzos from Navarro, the rice arroz bomba de Calasparra from Murcia and the L’estornell olive oil from Barcelona.”
The olive oil is used in almost every dish. For example, in the $10 Huevos Estrellados, it is used to mix fried fingerling potatoes that are creamy and butter flavored, onions, and chorizo. The mix is served in a casserole and topped with two organic fried eggs. Other dishes include local yellowtail snapper, langoustine from Nigeria, Calamari from Vietnam and Octopus from Spain.
“I cook them a la planxa because it doesn’t change the flavor,” Gonzalez said.
The velvety sauces are served separately. There are five choices. The traditional Romesco is a red pepper based dip. And the Aioli is a white paste with a garlic taste. The French influence is seen in the bordelaise which has red wine, the creamy aux poivre with reduced cognac and the beurre noisette with lemon, brown butter and parsley.
The desserts feel home cooked and are served on tiny casseroles or glass jars. The luscious crema catalana or Catalan cream is like the French crème brûlée and the British burnt cream, but it is chilled instead of baked. And you can’t forget the wine. The restaurant has a 15-seat communal table set in a cozy room with bottles from foreign wineries.
“We offer more than 50 labels from Spain,” co-owner Manuel Suarez-Inclan Jr. said. “We also have some eclectic choices like a German pinot noir and Lebanese wines. We want you to experience something new every time you come.”
The menu will adapt as they get to know their clientele and like in restaurants in Madrid they will offer a “menu del dia,” a daily special. Dinner will be served from 5 p.m. to midnight starting the first week of December, and they will be closed on Monday. In January, lunch will start at noon and brunch will be served on Sunday.
The three majority owners – Gonzalez, 34, Suarez-Inclan Jr., 35, and Rezai, 27 – won’t be taking any siestas. They have been working hard on their South Miami venture since they joined forces with a few investors in late September and got some help from the successful Pubbelly trio of restaurateurs — Andreas Schreiner, Sergio Navarro, and Jose Mendin.
“It was a happy coincidence. We have all known each other for years,” said Rezai, who like Schreiner and Suarez-Inclan was a former food and beverage manager at the Four Seasons in Brickell. Rezai and Suarez-Inclan studied in Les Roches Marbella International School of Hotel Management in Spain.
The owners said they have done their best to balance quality and affordability, so unless the meal includes the irresistible $23 jarra de sangria, a chopped fruit wine punch, the cost for dinner is about $40 per person including wine and liquor, and for lunch is about $25. Cocktails range from $10 to $15, beers from $5 to $7 and wine by the glass from $6 to $12.
“We are focusing more on the tapas side of it, and we have a fantastic gin and tonics menu,” Rezai said. “The bar concept is perfect. It’s going to be fun.”