It’s unsettling to walk into a place called Barcelona Bistro and see that the dominant art is a large photo of an Amsterdam canal. The staff is friendly, but not noticeably Iberian. Paella, garlic soup and flan are served, but the menu of this Pitman restaurant also includes pasta, spring rolls and red velvet cake.
The mash-up turns out to be intentional. “With the economy the way it is, the town being a little conservative, and wanting to please everyone who comes through the door, I thought it would be too challenging to stick with just one type of cuisine,” Brazilian-born chef/owner Mark Nascimento told me in a phone call after my visits. “Because of all the influences on Barcelona food—French, Portuguese, German, Italian—it allowed me to keep that concept and call it Barcelona Bistro.”
In the 30 years since he emigrated to the United States, Nascimento has cooked in Spanish and Portuguese restaurants in Newark and New York. More recently, he opened restaurants for others around the country. Finally, four-plus years ago, he decided his time had come.
The room is austere, but the 41-year-old chef has flair, especially with garlic. We happily lapped up shrimp in a bubbling garlic, onion and tomato bath. Thick and creamy garlic soup announced its namesake ingredient just forcefully enough. Steamed clams luxuriated in a satisfying, garlic-infused white wine, brandy and cilantro broth. Even the white wine and herb broth for roasted sweet red peppers (stuffed with sautéed shrimp, scallop and crab) flashed serious allium credentials.
Other starters proved to be non-starters. Spanish spring rolls filled with braised filet mignon, caramelized onion and brie (an offbeat ode to the cheese-steak?) were doomed by their dull, heavy wrappers. Similarly, empanadas sank under thick, doughy crusts that crowded out the seafood filling. Calamari stuffed with prosciutto were tasty, but should have been served warmer.
The best entrées tended not to be Spanish. Rack of lamb—a generous nine tender chops in a crunchy pinenut crust with a lamb jus—was outstanding. So was solomillo, a juicy, pan-seared, 11-ounce beef filet in a rich reduction of veal stock, wine and balsamic vinegar. Flaky branzino, its skin nicely crisped, was served over creamy risotto studded with shrimp and chunks of lobster. Properly cooked fettuccine Barcelona, seemingly named for its saffron cream sauce, was loaded with tender clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp.
Traveling in Spain a few years ago, I had a surprisingly hard time finding great paella. So I approached Nascimento’s paella Valencia cautiously. It arrived dismally overcooked, the saffron rice, chicken and seafood (including a whole lobster tail) as punishingly dry as the sirocco wind.
Spanish, or at least Mediterranean, flavors rebounded with dessert. Even better than the excellent flan was a sumptuous vanilla and chocolate crema Catalana, a kind of Iberian crème brûlée. Closer to home, cloying cream cheese frosting mugged a slice of unsuspecting red velvet cake, and a demure chocolate mousse cake, crudely sandwiched between a boorishly sweet brownie and some chocolate ganache, appeared lost and miserable.