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Barraca: A cure for the Andalucian blues

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Just recently back in town after a leisurely sojourn in Andalucia and suffering bad withdrawal symptoms, we headed down to cozy old Barraca. It’s not the most creative Spanish restaurant in Tokyo, perhaps, nor the best-known. Nor does it operate at anything like those late, late Spanish hours. But for us it’s the place that most closely approximates the easy, sunny ambience and great range of foods you find at so many tabernas throughout the south of Spain.

It’s certainly not short on patina. The walls are covered with the graffiti of years past, and a curious amalgam of artifacts clutter the ceiling space: fossilized baguettes; plastic grapevines; ancient fishing nets; wizened corncobs; and plump hams suspended from their trotters, each with one of those upside-down paper umbrellas to catch the oozing drips.

Barraca’s owner-chef, the friendly Senor Shimizu, specializes in the cuisine of Levante, the area around Valencia that is the heartland for paella. He offers six different kinds, of which the most popular is the Paella Mariscos (2,700 yen), heaped with a good assortment of clams, giant prawns and other seafood. Other varieties include Negro (1,800 yen), with squid ink; Chorizo (1,850 yen); Setas (1,600 yen), with mushrooms; and the classic Valenciana (1,900 yen), combining chicken, ham and seafood. More interesting still, this is one of the few places that offers fideua (1,700 yen), a style of paella made with pasta rather than rice.

Start, as we did, with a few appetizers. To go with that first glass of sherry, Barraca has a supply of jamon serrano from Jabugo, considered the best in all of southern Spain and only recently available in Japan. This is an extravagance (2,500 yen), but they’re having a special promotion at the moment: a complimentary measure of Tio Pepe to accompany those slivers of rich, scarlet ham. It is an irresistible combination, every bit as marvelous as chutoro sashimi paired with a fine ginjoshu.

Shimizu has also been curing his own hams out in Yamanashi Prefecture for many years now. They are absolutely presentable, but in comparison with the true serrano they are as two-dimensional as ordinary cuts of maguro.

In Andalucia they drink fino sherry throughout the meal. This is not a realistic option when a full bottle of Tio Pepe is an incredible 6,500 yen. The rest of Barraca’s wine list is more reasonable, including the range of Marques de Caceres rioja, from a crianza (3,300 yen) up to a very smooth drinking 1990 Gran Reserva (6,300 yen).

There are plenty of other tapas, both hot and cold. We enjoyed our serving of pulpo a la galega — tender slices of octopus well seasoned with paprika in the Galician style. Even better were the excellent calamares fritos, the squid brilliantly fresh, the batter beautifully light and fragrant. The tortilla espanol is spot on, delicate but satisfying.

There is no better measure of Spanish home cooking than albondigas, meatballs in a rich gravy. Shimizu-san passes that test with flying colors. The minced beef fragrant is with herbs, and the rich, tomato-based sauce perfect for mopping up with bread.

The recommendations of the day (each around 1,500 yen) are written on a blackboard. All are compact enough to warrant sharing a couple between two people. So we also ordered the roast duck, which was cooked just right, pink but not bloody, crusted with plenty of thick grain mustard and a splendid, dark-brown gravy.

There are also three different set courses — named after Granada (4,400 yen), Valencia (5,500 yen) and Burgos (7,700 yen) — that provide the best overview of the menu. These are by far the preferred option for Shimizu-san’s customers, who include midlevel salarymen, dating couples and extended families celebrating a birthday or graduation. It is an indication of Barraca’s worth that everyone seems very much at home, and entirely happy with their dinner.