Restaurant Reviews

The European Experience, Via Katy

I have a confession to make: I'm a big-city food snob. So when I was told that there was a great Spanish restaurant in Katy, my initial reaction was, at best, one of skepticism. Its chance for greatness, I harshly estimated, was about equal to finding a terrific kosher deli in Billings, Montana. Even after reading some other reviews of Barcelona, I had my doubts, which were definitely not assuaged when I arrived at the shopping mall where the restaurant was located.

Its rather nondescript entrance was deceiving: We entered a pleasant wood-beamed room similar, I suppose, to a European hunting lodge. But what immediately struck me was the atmosphere, one of comfort and leisure. The soft sounds of live Spanish classical guitar filled the room as we sank into our chairs (complete with armrests!). Our charmingly attentive waiter, Fernando, introduced himself, and I immediately sensed that this restaurant knew exactly what it was doing. In fact, when we finally left the place after our luxurious two-and-a-half-hour meal, I was certain that I had enjoyed one of the best all-around dining experiences I had had in a very long time.

Barcelona isn't an eat-and-run kind of restaurant; plan to make a night of it. Start with some tapas for the table to share. Do not -- repeat, do not -- miss the pimientos piquillos ($10), sweet roasted baby red peppers stuffed with crabmeat and served in a pool of chef Antonio Molina's special sauce, which is based on the juice of piquillo peppers and garnished with enough salty caviar to pull the whole plate together. It is superb. Almost as good are the gambas al ajillo ($7), sautéed shrimp in a robust white-wine sauce with what seems to be a mother lode of garlic. If you're among the garlic-phobic, go for the calamares a la plancha ($6), lovely, tender grilled calamari with a hint of herbs. One more great sampler is the embutidos ($7), an assortment of chorizo, manchego cheese, delicately cured serrano ham and salty, salty olives. (It goes ever so nicely with the restaurant's crusty bread and even better with a glass of dry sherry.)

Being the eager eater that I am, after tapas, I suggest that you move on to a soup or salad. The gazpacho ($4) is light, cool and smooth, almost elegant, with just a few chunks of vegetables as garnish. If there is a better taste during a Houston summer, I have yet to come across it. At the risk of sounding like I'm a partner in Barcelona, the bisque de langosta ($16) is probably the least "civilized" -- and one of the most delicious -- lobster bisques I've ever had the pleasure of eating. With no cream to mellow it out, this Catalan version is not much more -- or less -- than liquid essence of lobster, flavored with sherry, chunks of sweet lobster meat, and whatever garlic happens to be left over from the aforementioned sautéed shrimp.

This critic, who usually avoids greens like fast-food restaurants, can even recommend two of Barcelona's salads. (Hey, there's a first time for everything.) The Caesar ($5) is particularly creamy, with a nice jolt of anchovy, but it is the ensalada Barcelona ($8) that makes my heart skip a beat. Shrimp, asparagus, mushrooms and artichokes are lightly sautéed in olive oil and served on a bed of romaine with a mustard dressing, a truly splendid combination of flavors and textures.

I'm guessing that for most people Spanish food means "paella." Rest assured that with this staple, Barcelona doesn't disappoint. At $22 per person (two person minimum), the paella marinera is the restaurant's most popular dish. One bite explains why. Served tableside from the traditional shallow paella pan, this is truly a meal that can be called a "plethora." The pan is brimming with lobster tail, shrimp, fish, calamari, clams, mussels and scallops, barely allowing room for the seafood-flavored, saffron-scented rice. A note of local interest: Instead of using a slightly more traditional, slightly stickier short-grain rice, chef Molina uses a Texas long grain, which offers a lighter, fluffier paella. (Incidentally, even at $36 per person, next time I'll order the paella Barcelona, for which the chef personally selects the ingredients on the day it will be served -- fresh lobster, jumbo shrimp, etc. Unfortunately for me, it requires 24 hours' notice.)

Those not fond of the sea or its edibles can cast their nets at the cazadores ($26), a selection of grilled rack of lamb, quail, veal and pork loin, all served with a cognac sauce. Or maybe the pollo al ajillo ($13), large chunks of incredibly juicy chicken sautéed and served in a rich sherry wine and balsamic vinegar sauce, then flavored (of course) with garlic. It doesn't really seem to matter what you order, though. It's all good.

You'll be thankful dinners last so long at Barcelona when the dessert tray rolls around. Perhaps by the third hour, you'll have room for the restaurant's sweet offerings. There's a good dense flan ($4); there's an even better crema catalana ($5), a light sugar pudding with a glazed sugar top -- call it an extraordinarily creamy crème brûlée. The best desserts, though, are the fruit ones: Fantasia ($7), a flambéed (in the kitchen, not tableside) mixture of bananas and berries served over homemade ice cream, is wonderful; approaching ambrosial is the peras y kiwi al Ron ($6.00). Slices of pear and kiwi are marinated in red wine and roasted, then glazed with rum and honey and served with ice cream. It's so good mere words fail me.

About a week after enjoying this memorable (and gargantuan) meal, I called the owner, Joe Marazita, to compliment him on his restaurant. He thanked me and asked if I was wondering why it was located in Katy. He explained that he owns several businesses in the area and has many Spanish and Latin American clients who visit. Tired of driving them all the way into Houston for dinner, he opened his own restaurant. Ironic, isn't it? He opened his place so he wouldn't have to schlepp into the big city, but the restaurant turned out to be so good that Houstonians are making regular pilgrimages to Barcelona, the miracle of Katy.

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Dennis Abrams