As Austinites, we’re very proud of our local food culture – and the farm-sourced, sustainable, ‘real food’ roots that continue to cultivate it.
“Austin is a good restaurant city, but it’s not a great restaurant city yet – ethnically, it’s still lacking,”
– Daniel Olivella
One could even argue that the food movement our city has enjoyed over the past few years has been the primary stimulus to Austin’s burgeoning growth and national interest. But with all the accolades and excitement surrounding one of the city’s cultural cornerstones, there are still areas where we have room to mature. “Austin is a good restaurant city, but it’s not a great restaurant city yet – ethnically, it’s still lacking,” says Daniel Olivella, executive chef of the now seven-month old Barlata tapas restaurant on South Lamar.
Born and raised in a province 25 miles south of Barcelona, Daniel has demonstrated a knack for aligning himself with some of America’s most recognized movements – pursuing a career as a jazz musician in Chicago in the 70’s and working his way up from line cook to chef in San Francisco in the late 80’s. It’s a bit reassuring then that he finds himself, with his wife (and general manager) Vanessa Jerez and their three children, here in Austin – with a hope to influence and shape the city’s ethnic foundation.
Great Plates: Barlata Tapas Bar
Two opinions are better than one.
In GREAT PLATES we offer two stories for you to enjoy. Get the gluten / dairy-free perspective from Jess and get the non-dietary restriction perspective from Chris. Read one article or read them both; either way, you’ll get a better feel for the atmosphere and food before you make a reservation or walk through the restaurant’s doors.
Daniel has always had his own style, a distinction he believes has lent to his success. As he talks about it, you imagine a curious young boy poking his nose into his grandmother’s kitchen: “I think chefs try to recreate the flavors and smells they were around growing up.”
He defines the urban rustic cuisine he prepares as a list of ingredients: “homemade tomato sauce and stocks, olive oil, peppers, nuts, and lots of seafood.” And you’ll find these items in abundance across the over 65 items on the menu at Barlata, because Daniel wants you to always have a new experience you can come back for.
I’m told by Daniel that “in Spain, you start your meal at the bar, and end your meal at the bar.” So Jess and I do just that – grabbing a seat at the long bar that reflects the casual approachability of Spanish dining culture. I started the meal with an Ozarka Sour – Spanish sherry, tequila, and lime – a drink that that is bright and crisp with a plummy sweet finish from the sherry.
Jess and I order up a variety of plates, as you should at a traditional tapas restaurant, and were delighted with just about all of them. The Gambas Ajillo arrive behind the aroma of fried garlic, with red-fleshed shrimp crackling in the cast iron skillet it is served in – a definitive crowd pleaser. The Bravas, potatoes that glow beneath a bright red spicy tomato sauce, are perfectly cooked. The thin crispy crust and soft center of each individual chunk, achieved by double-frying and steaming, lead me to believe these are better than any I had in Barcelona.
I’ve been told that I shouldn’t leave Barlata without getting inked. So I tried the Baby Squid stuffed with fennel sausage and served in a sardine tin overflowing with a deep black squid ink sauce. Though the squid and sausage were very good, I found the ink a bit overpowering with a sour brininess I haven’t quite yet acquired a taste for.
Daniel tries to keep the ingredients as authentic as possible: “we bring in the best olive oil, cheeses, white anchovies, and pastas from Spain.” And it shows in the flavor and execution of their paella dishes – a beautiful meld of flavors of which you must order at least one.
“I think chefs try to recreate the flavors and smells they were around growing up.”
The Paella Vegetarian delights with aromatic saffron rice and a medley of vegetables, currants, and pine nuts. You’ll find yourself scraping the bottom of the iron paella pan for more of the socarrat (a flaky caramelized crust that is an indicator of a well prepared paella). The Arros Negre, black rice with squid, clams, and more squid ink, is another great and distinctly different choice. This time the squid ink didn’t bother me, with the dish successfully melding the flavors of each individual ingredient to create a taste all its own.
With Vanessa mindful of the service and Daniel focused on the food, Barlata delivers a beautifully executed culinary tour of Spain – right here in Austin. But the humble pair credit their early success to the open-minded and adventurous palates of Austinites. “The things I make here would be things people wouldn’t have enjoyed 10-12 years ago,” he says, a statement that touches on why our city may have just the right mix of ingredients to evolve into one of the next big cultural influencers. For, we not only have an enthusiastic community that supports and appreciates new flavors, we now have chefs like Daniel Olivella who will bring these tastes to our tables and expand our culinary diversity.
Executive chef and co-owner, Daniel Olivella, is a native of Spain and his personality is reflected in the superior hospitality, food and design of the authentic tapas restaurant. Barlata serves up urban rustic cuisine with locally-sourced organic ingredients, tons of seafood, interesting meat cuts and vegetarian dishes galore. Boasting a seriously handsome interior, Barlata is bright, colorful and industrial with a stunning natural pecan wood bar that begs to be bellied up to – and, of course, we have award-winning Austin architect Michael Hsu to thank for all that.
Grab a pre-dinner drink at that bar for the liquid gusto you’ll need to help make decisions from a menu that offers over 65 choices. I sipped on the beloved Yard Sale: a cocktail reminiscent of a margarita, but with an effervescence from the house-made ginger beer. You could also peruse the wine list entirely comprised of Spanish wines and opt for Olivella’s favorite, a 2007 Pedralonga do Umia. He has, after all, won awards for his wine selections.
Barlata’s menu has over 65 choices – so there’s always an experience you can come back for.
When you’re better able to handle menu choices after a cocktail (or two), you’ll want to start with my absolute favorite, the Brandada. It’s a baked bacalao (salted cod) and mashed potato served up in a traditional Spanish pot. This “cazuela” settles in its own perfect niche between a little weird and downright sensational. Creamy perfection made from fish and potatoes? Do it.
You also don’t want to overlook the Gambas Ajillo – perfectly cooked shrimp with a hefty dose of garlic and adobo with a slight kick. I had trouble sharing this dish and will definitely order my own next go-round. Swiss chard lovers will rejoice over Barlata’s “Catalana” version sauteed with pine nuts, raisins and a zesty tinge of balsamic vinegar. Hello, swiss chard done right.
That brings me to the highlight of my Barlata experience: paella. The word alone makes my heart thump a little faster. With ten different paellas to choose from (yes, ten!), I went with the Paella Vegetarian made with saffron rice, mixed vegetables, pine nuts, currants and vegetable stock. My only wish for this paella was for the dollop of allioli to be about a bucket or two larger in size…and to come with a side of allioli. The paella featured slight Spanish flavors and a perfect mix of vegetables with a hint of sweetness from the currants. Their winning paella formula, especially with that allioli on top, makes this a dish worth stealing.
Ordering gluten and dairy-free at Barlata was an absolute cinch, but choosing between the many options was not — a rare problem for my relatively restricted diet. In fact, because much of the menu is inherently free of gluten-containing ingredients, you may feel like this restaurant was made just for you. Which is precisely why I feel like I’ve found my new favorite South Austin dining spot.
Who wants to meet up for a Yard Sale in the 78704?
This article originally published in The Admire Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [February 2014].
Download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
As a lover of all that’s local, seasonal and full of flavor, she loves to create things in her own kitchen and sample all the gluten-free & dairy-free eats Austin has to offer.
She shares her photos and recipes on Forgiving Martha.
Founding Editor / Lead Photographer
Chris Perez is the founding editor of Citygram Austin magazine – a popular local lifestyle magazine and city guide. Featuring a high-profile team of Austin tastemakers and culture writers, Citygram connects readers to local people, businesses, and topics that are of the moment.