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New tapas in Old Pas

September 23, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

It took me a while to get past the name. Bar Celona -- get it? -- as in the city on the Mediterranean. Barcelona.

But though it's billed as a modern tapas restaurant, this new bar and restaurant in the heart of Old Pasadena is not like anything you'd find in old Barcelona.

This is Tapas 101 for the crowd that trolls Colorado Boulevard looking for moderately priced food in a lively atmosphere. Little dishes are perfect for the kind of bar- and restaurant-hopping the weekend crowd loves to indulge in. And Bar Celona reels them in with sangria by the glass and pitcher, and a smart menu of tapas, plus larger dishes for people who actually want dinner.

The most "modern" thing about Bar Celona is the edgy decor, which eschews cliches and pairs exposed brick walls with panels of bright, saturated colors. A bar takes up fully half of the large space, and soon, our enthusiastic waiter tells us, they'll add yet another room for live music.

The staff seems a little nervous about how the concept will go over here. When our first flight of tapas arrives, the host fusses nervously, telling us what fun it is to eat this way, as if he needs to sell the idea.

Not to me, he doesn't. I love to eat this way. And I presume a lot of other people do too. Call it small plates, with prices to reflect the size, and you've got something that's going over with a crowd young enough to have entirely missed the grazing phenomenon.

First off, order up a plate of mixed olives and some fried almonds to whet the appetite. And maybe a plate of Spanish cured meats and cheeses -- they're pleasant enough but could include more interesting choices. But for an introduction, they will do.

They've got the classic gambas al ajillo (shrimp sauteed in garlic sauce), though this version is a bit more timid than most I've had in Spain.

There are empanadas stuffed with chicken or lamb, the lamb version accompanied by a pomegranate aioli. (It may be modern, but it's not as gutsy as the original.)

Tortilla espanola, which has nothing to do with the familiar Mexican tortilla, is a good bet. This frittata-like omelet is seasoned with onions and potatoes and a little Idiazabal cheese from the Basque country of Spain. There's also an avant-garde gazpacho -- in fact, it's three different ones, made with red, green and yellow tomatoes, served in three shot glasses like oyster shooters. Good idea, but they taste more like liquid salsa than gazpacho.

If you want to stop in for a bottle of Rioja or Ribera del Duero and something substantial enough to qualify as dinner, go with the lamb shank braised in Rioja with paprika and mint or the short ribs, also braised in Spanish red wine.

But if you want something truly Spanish, you can order one of three paellas, the most familiar of which is paella Valenciana, the one that includes all sorts of shellfish, chorizo, pork and chicken in a rice tinged gold with saffron. It's not brilliant, but it's good enough, which is saying a lot compared with the paellas I've tasted around town.

As for the desserts, they all pale against the restaurant's signature "split" -- a flamboyant concoction of Fosselman's dulce de leche, toasted almond and cappuccino ice creams dressed up with warm caramel and fudge sauces, bananas flambeed in Grand Marnier and freshly whipped cream.

It may only be slightly Spanish, but it suits Colorado Boulevard's sensibilities to a T. And that's what counts in the end.


Bar Celona

Where: 46 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, to midnight Friday and Saturday. Bar open until 1 a.m. Monday through and Saturday, to midnight Sunday. Valet parking.

Cost: Tapas, $4 to $10; salads, $5 to $15; entrees, $16 to $19; paellas, $21 to $23; desserts, $7 to $10

Contact: (626) 405-1000

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