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International Food Bizarre

Barcelona hostesses wait for a well-dressed crowd to arrive.
Erik Guzowski

Local businessman Danny Hendon found his success in soapsuds, as owner of the 13 Danny's Family Carousel Carwashes across the Valley. Now, the entrepreneur has trained his sights on a spiffy new upscale supper club in the East Valley. If it sounds like an odd pairing, it is. The resulting restaurant -- Barcelona in Chandler -- is so confused a concept that guests seeking an elegant dining experience are more likely to feel they've been pushed the wrong way through a spin cycle.

Barcelona, which opened in mid-December at the booming intersection of Ray Road and I-10, has been highly promoted as the hot spot du jour. And to see the swarms of guests even on weeknights, the message has been well received.

But who's going there? Not people drawn in by the restaurant's self-titled haute cuisine, likely. No, my guess is most customers are coming for the Valley's latest adventure into that wild world of entertainment paired with food -- eatertainment.

The restaurant is worth a trip for a peek inside, certainly -- the jumbled, frenetic interior design is a great satire of a Las Vegas eatery. As its flacks glowingly describe it, "Rising from the floor of the Sonoran desert, the restaurant conjures sensual images of life on the Mediterranean. Barcelona is a monument of timeless Old World charm, European architecture and the latest in New World design technology."

Strict foodies will derive some pleasure, possibly, from smug giggles over the quirky menu -- despite its Spanish name, Barcelona offers a roller-coaster mix of Continental, Southwestern, Mexican, pizzas and pastas. There it is, right next to cilantro-pesto-marinated rack of lamb with black currant jelly: a relleno, enchilada and burrito feast. And next to the crème brûlée, mud pie.

Just in case anyone's still feeling left out, the 240-seat Barcelona also tosses in live jazz, two large bars with TVs and, get this, a hydraulic dance floor that appears when dinner tables are pushed back after 10 p.m.

Unfortunately, all the novelty is no tongue-in-cheek comment on the state of today's growing emphasis on dining in an MTV environment. The folks behind Barcelona are dead serious. They're threatening, in fact, to open four more Barcelona restaurants Valleywide.

The supernova of sensation begins at the front door, where a greeter/bouncer dressed in a long black Keanu Reeves/Matrix coat stands sentry. Barcelona has a no-reservations policy, and diners with incomplete parties are left to mill in a small foyer. While waiting, they can read two signs reminding them of an "enforced dress code" (meaning casual elegance, with no jeans, shorts, tee shirts or tennis shoes, although several jeans-clad customers are left unmolested when I visit).

Walls (developed in Germany, we're told) open to the outdoors. Decorator touches include 16th-century wooden doorways, swollen burgundy drapes and massive stone columns that double as speakers. Ceilings are gilded in antique silver, anchored by a 30-foot dome inset with a mural of dancing angels and cherubs. A raised stage off the dining area/dance floor houses musicians and a writhing blond singer against a backdrop map fresco of Barcelona, and at 8 p.m. on weekends, management flips on the multicolor stage lights surrounding the room for a strobe show. Even the restrooms are theater, with carved stone sinks, burnished metal stall doors and faucets that look like cantaloupe-size metal tea balls stuck with tentacles.

Feeling dizzy? Patrons could pass out, and their dining partners likely wouldn't notice, with throbbing music all around and screeching bar guests just steps away. Conversation, refined or of any kind, isn't a part of this "upscale" evening out. Waiters have to circle tables, even parties of four, in order to lean in close enough to interpret orders.

If Barcelona were a movie, the staff would be played by Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken. My waiter promises me Barcelona doesn't have an above-average number of servers, but these people are everywhere, slicked (of course) in head-to-toe black, lined up like solemn soldiers along one bar with their arms clasped behind their backs. Rather than attentive, it's kind of creepy. It's also not effective. When we order wine one evening, nobody ever stops by to pour it -- it's beyond awkward dragging a dripping bottle out of an ice bucket placed behind my back. Silverware doesn't get replaced -- we have to scavenge a neighboring table. And fine dining shouldn't include repeatedly mixed-up drink orders or the "who gets what?" query when meals arrive.

Elegant meals don't center around chicken quesadillas, either, but that's one of Barcelona's signature dishes, specially requested by Hendon and brought to us by chef Patrick Bria. Bria's got a strong background, trained under Chef Christopher Gross, with previous positions at the Orangerie at Arizona Biltmore, Wolfgang Puck's Citrus in Los Angeles, and Puck's now-defunct Obachine at Biltmore Fashion Park.

 

Like the restaurant decor, though, Barcelona's food is a case of too much foolish fashion and too little good taste. Why mess with smoked salmon, a dish that needs nothing but good breeding? Here, the appetizer is flat-flavored, the fish much too dry. It's squashed, too, by an inelegant planking of grilled focaccia with lemon dill aioli -- the bread's much too sturdy for the wimpy fish. A topping of deep-fried capers is nasty, too, coming off like greasy, salty buckshot. And whoa, what happened to the side of fried greens and chopped tomato -- they're so overcooked they reflect of crunchy tar.

Baked feta cheese, on the other hand, needs as much tweaking as it can get. The serving of three stuffed Anaheim chiles is generous, but the pods have been scraped obsessively clean of any heat-bearing seeds. If not for the distinctive stem at the fruit's top, I'd have thought we were eating bell pepper. Feta is fine, creamy stuff, but there's way, way too much of the strong cheese -- it's like trying to choke down a mouthful of wallpaper paste when piled on in such quantity. Complicating the mess is an obscene ladling of roasted tomato sauce that reminds me of enchilada sauce, plus a sauce-soaked platform that might be tortilla, might be cheese, I can't tell from the flavor, but it stretches like an overcooked poached egg. The best thing about the plate is a sprinkling of salty tortilla frizzles.

Barcelona dip is a much more successful starter, keeping things balanced with a multi-cheesy blend of green chiles, spinach, artichoke hearts and tomatoes with a subtle touch of elephant garlic (more mellow than standard garlic). It's on the greasy side, but addictive enough spooned with fresh tricolor chips. A Southwestern spice dusting is unnecessary, though, since the chips don't need anything other than a little salt in the face of the rich dip.

As for salads, skip on by the house version. One salad is enough for two, and actually, enough for four-plus if your group appreciates fresh lettuce. There isn't any here, in a halfhearted toss of red and yellow peppers, Jack and Cheddar cheeses and a dressing so insignificant it barely raises a shadow of jalapeño or ranch.

I have no idea how much Hendon paid for his dinnerware, but instead of impressing, the gaudy pewter plates add to already complicated presentations. These pizza-size dishes are heavy and medieval, embossed on the rim with the restaurant's name in Gothic font -- a perfect match to the Renaissance-style silverware and ostentatious napkin rings.

What's even funnier about the faux fancy flatware is how entrees come universally presented on tortillas, obscuring plates to their inner rims. Okay, I'm open-minded when it comes to a Southwestern pork loin. A tortilla bottom's not needed, but whatever. Plop it underneath pan-roasted halibut though, and we're stretching it. Under paella, or fettuccine, however, it's ridiculous. And when a tortilla shows up as the base for a quesadilla, I'm thinking that if Barcelona's tortilla purveyor weren't so busy counting money, he'd be rolling on the floor and spitting up laughter.

My party, in the meantime, is spitting up over the rubbery halibut, simply unacceptable at $18 in this day and age of expertly prepared fish so widely available. This is more dusted than crusted in breadcrumbs (so why bother?), and the guy with the salsa pan must have been beeping when he backed up with the truckload of corn and tomato rice that avalanches the fish. I now understand why Richardson Brown of Richardson's in Phoenix is so protective of "his invention" of chile potatoes -- the red version served here puts the specialty to shame. The kitchen scrapes the seeds from the Anaheim (again!) and substitutes sweet potatoes, too sugary for their vessel.

Sugary saucing is too much for pork tenderloin, as well. Pork tends to be sweet, anyway, and a braising with jalapeño jelly brings it up to uncomfortable for subtler taste buds. A side of excellent, crispy Blue Lake green beans is welcome relief from a return appearance of the chile spuds.

Rib eye steak comes in more quietly, with an average cut of beef grilled and mounded over Spanish rice. It's topped with mild green chile sauce and potato frizzles (forget the steak, but marry these frizzles with the tortilla frizzles as a cocktail snack, and I'll play at Barcelona's bar when I need a buzz), sided with blissfully crispy steamed baby carrot, squash and broccoli.

I don't know what makes a quesadilla an "Old World Dish" as Barcelona calls it, but at this point, I'd hardly be surprised if the staff broke into a rap version of "It's a Small World After All" for a neighboring group's highly boisterous birthday party. This is a mundane munchie, stuffed with sautéed shrimp struggling under Cheddar and Jack cheese, topped with red chile sauce and a drizzle of chipotle aioli. No way is it worth $15 -- even with sides of fine black beans and rice -- but hey, there is that extra tortilla bottom to consider.

 

At Barcelona, the best dishes are the simplest. Southwestern pizza, while curious with its representation of what looks and tastes like sliced beef stick as cilantro pork sausage, is satisfying, with the bonus of obviously wood-and-gas-fired pizza-oven crust. A cozy blend of feta, mozzarella, Parmesan and caramelized red onion seals the deal.

Chicken linguine shows talent, too. The chipotle cream sauce is spicy, bold and well-partnered with red chile linguine, scallions, fresh-from-the-block Parmesan and a generous tumble of grilled chicken breast. But why in the world the tortilla bed?

If desserts had come sparked with firecrackers -- or served on a chocolate flour round -- I would have tossed down my notes, stopped in the bathroom to wrestle with the sink faucet and marched out. Desserts, though, are entirely worthwhile. An apple and pear crisp comes warm (yes!) as promised, hulking under a crumble of brown sugar and sided with vanilla bean ice cream. Mud pie needs a classier moniker, given its updated style -- coffee ice cream is encased in Oreo cookie crust, slathered with rich fudge sauce and dotted with whole fresh strawberries.

When we leave Barcelona, there are no trumpet calls, no maidens tossing blossoms, no Wayne Newton look-alikes inviting us for sing-alongs, but there might as well be. Barcelona is a whole lot of things, but not an upscale dinner experience. In short, Hendon's take on cuisine isn't all it's washed up to be.


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