Heading uptown to visit chef Xavier Laurentino’s latest contribution to the culinary scene. A couple small plates turns into a three hour meal/hangout, followed by the big sounds of a legendary New Orleans band. On my wing this evening, fellow Floridian Chris Romaguera…
Occupation: Writer, sometime bartender
You can find him: In the press box and/or locker room of the New Orleans Pelicans, behind the bar at the Spotted Cat or Three Muses, sleeping through his alarm like a good Miamian should.
Monday’s a big night in New Orleans. In a lot of towns, Monday is a night to close things down, count the money from the weekend, and gear up for the upcoming week. But most New Orleans institutions stay open. It’s a chance for all the service industry folks who busted their asses all weekend to unwind and go out (and earn a little scratch from the tourist overflow from the weekend). Mondays tend to be a nice combination of relaxed and busy, and as a result most restaurants and bars choose Tuesday as their one day a week to go dark.
Not that you can’t have a good time on Tuesday, too. But that’s another post.
For me, and for a lot people I know, Monday means a night with King James and the Special Men. This is a collection of top shelf jazz musicians and local blues players, led by the always dangerous “King” James Horn. The band features a wide range of legendary local sidemen and lead players, like John Rodli (guitar), Rob Snow (bass), Chris Davis (drums), Ben Polcer (piano) and Dominick Grillo (saxaphone). Every Monday night, this gang of reprobates gets together and busts out a couple hours of old school New Orleans soul and rock and roll. Every song is either an original or composed by a Louisiana artist. It’s local sound, but a local sound that a lot of people have overlooked for years.
Jimmy Horn, letting you know.
It’s loud. It’s raw. It frequently flies off the rails. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
But before the music comes the food. I picked my friend Chris Romaguera up at his house at 7:00 (actually, it was 7:20, because this is New Orleans) and headed to Barcelona Tapas, which he picked out on the recommendation of his “Spanish friend.”
“I mean, he’s from Spain, and he likes this place, so…”
The place is situated in the overlooked restaurant enclave where the St. Charles streetcar makes its turn onto Carrollton Avenue. The area next to this turn, particularly between Dublin Street and Carrollton, is a terrific place for gastronomes, with such overlooked gems as Hana Sushi and Taj of India sitting quietly, awaiting the adventurous. It’s here that chef Xavier Laurentino moved his restaurant Laurentino’s after the location of his old spot was bulldozed in the name of progress. He brought his staff over in early 2010, renamed the spot Barcelona Tapas, and has been going strong since.
Chris and I took a seat at the bar and told our server, Tessa, that we intended to stay awhile. Spain is one of my favorite countries in the world, and as much as I love the cuisine, I’m an even bigger fan of the pace of eating. Meals stretch out for hours, often visiting multiple locations. The food makes the meal possible, but a true “meal” involves far more than food. It’s the conversations, the recollections, the unexpected connections. It’s about having an experience.
We opened with garlic tomato bread with Serrano ham, and Tessa gave an explanation on how to rehydrate the bread for maximum flavor—by slowly rubbing in the garlic and olive oil, then laying tomato and ham over the top. We paired that with spicy garlic shrimp, then ordered ceviche (a taste of home for both of us). Next up, Manchego cheese (my favorite), followed by a Tortilla Espanola and patatas bravas, then closed with flan and coffee.
We were pretty much the only ones in the joint on this Monday night, and that’s a casualty of summer, when everything in New Orleans (including the flow of money) slows to a trickle. Chris and I would have talked for hours anyway (it’s what we do) on every subject from growing up in Florida to the trajectory of Cuban literature and how increased interaction with the USA might affect that. But the bonus for us was that the quiet night gave us a chance to talk extensively with Chef Xavier.
Chris, Tessa, and Chef Xavier explaining what’s what.
This is a seriously interesting man. A former actor and bodyguard in Barcelona, he came to the U.S. to learn English and ended up putting down roots. He’s worked as a contractor, run an auto repair shop, and worked for years at the mid city Spanish staple Lola’s, where he got his first taste of being a chef. He’s almost entirely self-taught, deeply passionate, and funny as hell. He’s built two restaurants with his own hands and makes a point of keeping his recipes as connected to old traditions as possible.
The flan, for example, isn’t cooked on high heat over an hour or so (making it porous), but is instead cooked at extremely low heat for several hours, resulting in a rich texture I’ve rarely seen imitated.
It was past closing by the time we kicked loose and started making our way down to the Seventh Ward for the Special Men. The band recently relocated their show from its longstanding home at BJ’s Lounge in the Bywater neighborhood and took up residence at Sidney’s Saloon, a large corner bar on St. Bernard Avenue that has undergone two renovations since Hurricane Katrina. Local trumpeter and bon vivant Kermit Ruffins spruced the place up after the storm and continued to operate it for years, featuring shows at least twice a week. A few months ago, he sold it to the current owners (Robert Clark and Tara Weberg), who did their own renovations. Last month, King James and the Special Men moved their act into the front room here, and are continuing their five year run of Monday night blowout shows.
We hit the venue just in time for the first song (right about 11 p.m., one hour after the “official” start time, because this is New Orleans). As someone who attended the shows at BJ’s semi-religiously for the past five years, it’s still disconcerting to be in a new space, though the added room on the dance floor is really nice. And the fact is, the show isn’t that different. The band still blows the doors off, the crowd still takes about five songs or so to figure out that they’re allowed to dance, there’s still plenty of street drinking between the sets, and everyone still stumbles out a hot sweaty mess by the end of the night. If you like to dance as much as I do, I recommend bringing an extra shirt to change into between sets.
I’ve built my Mondays around this show for years. You exit the bar, totally drenched from dancing your tail off, walk out into the diffused light outside, and you remember what makes this town so special. A normal Monday night here? It’s anything but normal. And it’s better than the best night of the month almost anywhere else.
Barcelona Tapas is located at 720 Dublin Street in the Carrollton/Riverbend area. They have a website here and are now open seven days a week, usually from 5:30 to 10.