BCN Taste & Tradition's trio of breaded lamb chops are artfully laid, bone over bone, atop a golden swath of slightly lemony sabayon. A bite through the breading reveals a bit of succulent fat that has been allowed to remain on the outer edge. A second bite seems even meatier when swiped through the sabayon. Propping up the chops are strips of roasted red bell peppers with rounds of zucchini, all of it anchored by a base of thinly sliced potatoes. A flag of rosemary adds a touch of scent and deep-green background color.
"BCN" is the airport code for Barcelona. It's simply a hint that this is a Spanish restaurant, and thankfully, that's where the similarity ends. It is located in a repurposed Mediterranean-style house on the corner of Richmond and Roseland. Only about 60 diners can be seated downstairs, although there is a private dining room upstairs for larger parties. BCN seems to be trying to maximize seating, because the two-seater tables along the perimeter are both small and close together.
Be prepared to do some lip-reading, because when the place is full, it is jackhammer-loud. Couples might have to settle for spending the evening soulfully gazing into each other's eyes.
Yet the quality of the food, service and cocktails often makes these inconveniences worth putting up with. A respected tenet of Spanish cuisine is that high-quality ingredients should be used and allowed to shine in elegant simplicity.
With the interior all in muted creams and beige accents, BCN feels a bit like an expensive beachfront villa. The only pops of color come from the series of paintings that tie the space together all the way from the entrance to the back dining room.
The staff of seasoned professionals abides by a hierarchical dress code: Servers and managers are in jackets, while the others are in vests. This subtly tells diners who is in charge. It's a bit old-fashioned, but appropriate for the sophisticated environment. Water, drink orders, bread service and food orders happen when needed. Diners are cared for without having their (attempted) conversations constantly intruded on.
The complimentary bread course sets the tone. Almond-stuffed Manzanilla olives are not overburdened with vinegar. A small glass-tipped vial of high-quality olive oil allows diners to add just the right amount to their bread with scientific precision. A few slices of manchego cheese are allowed to come to full flavor at room temperature instead of being brought soullessly right out of a refrigerator. Crystalline flakes of salt in a tiny bowl reflect the dining-room lights. They are seldom needed, but it's nice to know they are there.
One of the appetizers at BCN consists of slices of jamón ibérico de bellota laid upon crusty bread that has been simply rubbed with a ripe, juicy tomato. The bit of tomato juice and pulp adds freshness and moisture -- an uncomplicated accent. Those who are shocked at the $25 price tag may be equally surprised at how satisfying it is.
Why is it so expensive? Jamón ibérico de bellota is different from regular jamón iberico, which is still pricey. Both come from ibérico pigs, but in the more highly prized type that BCN is serving, acorns are added to the pigs' diet. That makes the meat more tender and flavorful.
Still, BCN is capable of ignoring its own precepts concerning simple preparation. Does ethereal custard overlaid with precious slices of fresh truffle really also need to be doused with truffle oil? That's the case with the "poached quail egg immersed in potato foam with seasonal truffle," or "huevo escalfado de codorniz ahogado en espuma de patata, trufa." It's gilding the lily and hampers appreciation of the subtle flavors of the truffle. Underneath the custard, at the very bottom of the glass cup, are two soft-cooked quail eggs. The last few bites are heavenly and silky.
Every once in a while, BCN misfires entirely. A dish of bland cod jowls arrived in a pale yellow cornstarch-laden goo that was supposedly "pil-pil" sauce. Pil-pil should be garlicky and spiced with guindilla peppers. This impostor was thick, flavorless and mouth-coating. It did the soft fish no favors at all.
There's an entrée featuring bacalao -- dried and salted cod. The process not only preserves the fish but, after proper preparation, results in its being firm and flavorful. As New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman noted in a 2004 article titled "The Minimalist: The Cod Transformed: First by Salt, Then by Fire," it's like the difference between ham and prosciutto. Before cooking, the cod is soaked for 24 to 72 hours, which rehydrates it and removes most of the salt.
BCN uses it to great effect in its bacalao con sanfaina y gratinado con muselina de azafrán, or poached cod topped with saffron aioli and a neatly diced ratatouille alongside. This dish is all about textures -- the contrast of the firm, mild fish against the buttery creaminess of the aioli. Saffron adds the palest golden hue to the aioli, then it's browned on top with some light-handed torching in the kitchen.
There's a fun gin and tonic program. There are four types, and the bar uses a different tonic in each -- whichever is most suited to the other ingredients in the cocktail. The Mediterranean version, with black olives and salt, is paired with Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic and Bombay Dry Sapphire gin. Despite the ingredients, it never approximates a dirty martini. It's beautifully restrained, with just a hint of salinity. The saffron one is the color of a pale orange sunset thanks to saffron-infused Beefeater gin. It's garnished with blood orange slices and whole juniper berries that merrily bob around in the glass.
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There is more than one bottle of wine in the $40 to $50 range that's flexible enough to serve throughout dinner, including Espelt Old Vines Garnacha 2012 and Descendientes de J Palacios Bierzo Pétalos 2011. Both have deep, smoky, dark-cherry notes. However, be aware that they retail at around $14, so BCN is marking them up three times over. While that's not an uncommon practice in fine-dining establishments, it's a factor to weigh when you're deciding whether or not to order a bottle.
Plates are small, so a couple will need to order five or six. That adds up. Entrées average $35 each, so after adding a few other small plates, the cost is around $65 per person, not including wine or cocktails. (By the way, BCN doesn't list prices on its website.)
The desserts are very good (and at $10 each, a good value), but aren't particularly remarkable. While the "chocolate cake in two textures" was fine for a chocoholic, a better one was the crujientes de filo con crema catalana y pasas al ron, in which Catalan vanilla custard and rum-saturated raisins are enrobed in fillo dough that's baked to a crisp. At BCN Taste & Tradition, it's easy to fall deeply in love with some of these dishes, but passion runs both ways. The successes fly so high that the occasional failure seems even more significant. The trick to fine dining is not only to do many things very well -- which BCN proves it can do -- but to excel consistently.
Jamón ibérico de bellota y "pan con tomate" $25 Fatty tuna with fresh herbs and smoked paprika vinaigrette $22 Poached quail egg immersed in potato foam, seasonal truffle $16 Cod jowls in a pil-pil sauce $22 Seasonal vegetable salad with foie gras mi-cuit $20 Smoky roasted vegetables $18 Poached cod (bacalao) with saffron aioli gratin $35 Breaded baby lamb chops, vegetables "tumbet" and aromatic herb sabayon $38 Stewed pork cheeks in a merlot ragout with sautéed artichokes and prawns $35 Chocolate cake in two textures $10 Crispy phyllo with vanilla brûlée and rum raisins $10 Mediterranean gin and tonic $13