Going outside with wet hair won't make you sick, reading by dim light won't leave you blind and 90 percent of restaurants won't fail in the first year, despite what an American Express ad confidently proclaimed in 2003, parroting a number that had been careening through the food-and-beverage industry for decades. But as it turns out, in this case, the truth is worse than the tale.
The 90 percent figure didn't sit right with an Ohio State University hospitality scholar, who a few years ago ginned up spreadsheets conclusively proving only one out of every four restaurants flops before its first birthday. The survivors, though, are far from home-free: Restaurants keep failing at remarkable rates until they turn three. About 60 percent of restaurant don't make it.
That means celebrating three years in business, as Barsa did on New Year's Eve, is a terrifically significant accomplishment. Like dog years, restaurant years aren't perfectly analogous to human years, but there are overlaps between 3-year old people and 3-year old restaurants, which have developed distinctive personalities and (generally) calmer demeanors.
Barsa, still Charleston's only full-fledged tapas bar, is an outstanding example of a restaurant settling into its own sustainable rhythms. With a new sous chef in the kitchen and new collaborations with Abundant Seafood in the works, the restaurant's far from stagnant.
But it's acquired the steady, nonchalant air of a neighborhood fixture, the kind of place where you get the sense that the bartenders would notice if you dropped by again and again, and would probably pour your drinks accordingly. (Although with cocktail prices already knocked down by $3 during weekday Happy Hours, drinkers don't need to make friends to score a deal.) Supremely energetic on live music nights, Barsa deserves a permanent spot in local eaters' rotations.
New hire James Burge, late of the Barcelona Wine Bar tapas chain, has hinted at more exotic offerings on future menus. But for now, Barsa serves the standards. In addition to the roster of meats and cheeses, there's a pan con tomate; sauteed shrimp sprayed with lime juice; dates plumped with manchego cheese and bready migas, which I belatedly learned isn't considered strictly breakfast fare beyond Tex-Mex country. Everything I sampled was solid, but it's the impressively fresh seafood preparations that make the notion of Spanish cooking on Upper King Street seem totally intuitive.
Seafood fans with 45 minutes to spare will gravitate toward the paella, the elaborate Valencian rice dish that's distant kin to pilau (they share a Persian ancestor.) In South Carolina terms, though, the preparation probably has more in common with barbecue, another slow-cooked point of regional pride that's largely an excuse for debate.
While a base of garlic and tomatoes cooked in oil is fairly constant, paella cooks are forever fooling with rice types and add-ons. Barsa avoids taking sides by serving a vegetable paella, a chicken and chorizo paella and a paella stocked with gaping clams, flush shrimp, columnar mussels and a thin filet of fish, expertly fried. The garlicky shrimp were overcooked until their heads curled past their tails, but I'd rather be dealt quality shrimp botched in the kitchen than questionable shrimp dolled-up with skillful technique. All of the oceanic components tasted fresh and clean, which made the mayonnaise slaughter even stranger.
My server offered me hot sauce before the paella arrived, which seemed ominous, like a steak knife arriving before a trout almondine. But the server was just being friendly: The rice had plenty of deep, smoky flavors, although not much in the way of fluff. Yet the textural issues, including a flimsy undergirding crust, or socarrat, weren't as disconcerting as the aioli abuse. The bivalves looked as though they'd spent the day prepping walls for painting.
Beyond the paella, there's a handsome seared tentacle of octopus stretched across a pileup of oiled potato wedges, which aren't quite cooked sufficiently to ease into their pimenton-dominated spicing. But a hunk of pan-roasted red snapper, flattered with acid and accompanied by a parsley salsa verde, was downright great. The firm fish, just mildly suggestive of sweetness, was handled with exquisite care.
Barsa tends to lean heavily on lemon and garlic. A shower of chopped garlic functioned as a fanfare for meaty, erratically trimmed pork ribs, pungently announcing their arrival a few moments before they hit the table. Woodsy mushrooms heaped with goat cheese are zapped with a lip-puckering amount of citrus.
The balance evens out on dishes such as the lamb meatballs, in which a heavy helping of manchego cheese sands down the spicy tomato sauce's acidic edges, and grilled broccolini, featuring crisped leaves with a vivid greenness that trumps the garlic cloves.
And even where flaws are apparent, it's testament to what Barsa has achieved in three years and it's somewhat hard to care. The L-shaped room is warm, the servers are hospitable, the ingredients are fresh and local, the menu's well-rounded, and the very fair pricing is indicative of a restaurant that wants to do right by its customers.
Do I wish the wines-by-the-glass better matched the tapas? Do I wish the cheese selections were more daring? Do I want to rush the kitchen and commandeer half of its garlic supply (preferably the cloves bound for that paella frosting)? Yes, yes and of course. But Barsa will have plenty of chances to make whatever tweaks are necessary. Statistics suggest the restaurant isn't going anywhere. For Charleston eaters, that's an excellent finding.