A Birthday Dinner with the Besties at Vinitus

I had been looking forward to a trip back to Barcelona from the morning after I first left, back in February. But when the chance finally came, I never really made an itinerary for what I’d do while there. I knew I wanted to walk a lot, to spend time with friends and revisit some old haunts. But the plan didn’t really come together until I was there and, as is usually the case when spontaneity isn’t suffocated by over-planning, I ended up having a perfect weekend. I had just enough time to myself to work in some of my favorite spots for working in (Alsur Cafe with a coffee and Antic Teatre Bar with a beer a few hours later). I had a chance to walk through my old neighborhood, crossing the market and noshing on a skinny sandwich. But I also got to try new places, now frequented by my friends, who stayed. So while I did choose to indulge in a nostalgic evening out at Jamboree, the drinks before happened at PAX 49, a snazzy cocktail bar, brand new to me. And while a friend’s birthday nightcap was enjoyed at good old Boca Chica, dinner was at Vinitus, where I’d never been before.

Set right off Rambla de Catalunya in Eixample, near the university, Vinitus is a very cool place to have dinner. Like most tapas bars in Barcelona, the interior is centered around a U-shaped counter with various pre-assembled montaditos, ham plates, cold ensaladillas rusas set under a spotlight behind glass. In the curve of the U is a display of fresh seafood lain out on ice. There are big bags of aveja clams next to bundles of navaja razor clams, skewers of pretty pink shrimp and gorgeous cream-white cod. There are sardines, crab claws, larger langoustines, darker redder shrimps, mussels, octopus tentacles and lobsters still feebly waving their bound pincers in the air. The wine bar is, quite cleverly, right next to this seafood case, such that while waiting for a drink, guests can ogle at the variety, using it as a reference later on, when choosing what to order.

The walls around are decorated with elegantly backlit wine bottles and there are large floral displays everywhere to class up the joint even further. A visit to the bathroom downstairs to reapply lipstick confirms that the dining area down there is just as vibey as the one upstairs.

They take no reservations, but the wait is fine with a glass or two of wine enjoyed at the long seated area flanking the place outside. To appease the appetite, order a ramekin of their very large olives or a little dish of bread with cured ham. We sat and ordered and the dishes began arriving pretty quickly and in no particular order.

We started with the eggplant chips, sliced thin and fried, then drizzled with a sweet and slightly sour reduction of balsamic and honey. These hit the spot. They were crunchy and held a pleasantly sandy texture, but weren’t overburdened by batter as this Andalusian specialty so often is.

I had been eyeing the ensaladilla rusa, which always reminds me of my grandmother’s Francia saláta, decorated with pretty wedges of hard-boiled egg at special Sunday lunches at their home in Budapest. Vinitus’s version hits the spot. It’s perfectly chilled, which this dish really needs to be, and contains a lumpy melange of potato, carrots, peas, hard-boiled egg and tuna, held together by mayo. The latter merely complements the flavor of the vegetables, rather than taking over completely. There were two toasted wedges of bread, rubbed with tomato and drizzled with good olive oil, to spread the creamy salad over. As we were all pretty hungry from the wait, it was nice to have something so hearty to enjoy as we waited for other dishes to arrive.

The birthday gal ordered asparagus and mushrooms, which didn’t look too exciting when they first arrived at the table, but were deceptively delicious. The asparagus was perfectly cooked, still with a bite, sprinkled with good salt, sauteed in good oil and boating a beautiful dark green color. The mushrooms were also great, plump and tender with a great caramelized, roasty-toasty flavor from the grill.

Next up, some bravas, because no tapas dinner is complete without them. Topped with creamy aioli, the uneven chunks of potato were crunchy and delicious, fresh out of the frying pan. Some spicy red sauce was served on the side to apply as needed.

Next, a beautifully blistered round of goat cheese melting slowly over a warm blanket of escalivada, a mess of roasted eggplants, red peppers and onions. This dish is pure comfort, with the slightly tart cheese complementing the caramelized natural sweetness of the vegetables below. The cheese is also brûléed in a broiler to form pretty golden brown patches on the surface. These give off a sensual nutty flavor that makes this dish irresistible.

Then, some very simple grilled shrimp. These were plump and juicy, licked by the fire of the grill, mixed up with some garlic and a spicy sauce that complemented, but did not mask, the shrimp’s natural sweetness.

Then, an old classic and a must-order at any tapa place with such fresh seafood so proudly displayed. Pulpo a la gallega may have Galician origin but is now commonly found throughout Spain. Vinito’s version is delicious. Juicy, decadent slices of octopus are layered over not the usual thinly sliced boiled potatoes, but instead an impossibly creamy, smooth potato puree. The surface is dusted with smoked paprika, which gives the dish a pleasant heat.

And finally, some canelons, a popular dish in Catalunya, often enjoyed the day after Christmas as a way to recycle the meat from the carn i olla (a kind of meat stew) the day before. Although pretty full, I had a bite and found it very satisfying. The layer of pasta had a nice bounce still, but was tender enough to slice through easily. The steaming clumps of pulled beef inside were juicy and delicious, lightly seasoned and not too greasy. A layer of cheese melted over the top added an indulgent, creamy touch.

Somewhere in the middle of our meal I sneaked away from the table to ask whether the waitstaff could do a little “Happy Birthday” for my friend and maybe bring out some sweet surprise. They were very friendly and asked me to specify what kind of dessert she preferred. At the end, they remembered (I admit, I had forgotten). They brought out a delicious chocolate mousse dessert and two of them sang the song. Overall, a wonderful night at Vinitus.

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