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Making tapas is like playing the guitar. It’s easy to sound pretty good if you strum away on three basic chords, but significantly harder once you start delving into the infinite possibilities of the instrument to get your own style. At Bar del Pla, the tune is a traditional Catalan and Spanish one, but imaginative flourishes, international influences and wonderful ingredients breathe new life into the same old, often-hummed songs. (Yes, we’re still talking about tapas.)

You can’t really tell all of this from the outside, however. This long, cozy bar, located in a not very obvious spot between the Picasso Museum and the Santa Caterina market in El Born, looks like just another tapas joint, with its big wooden cask out front, hams suspended from the ceiling and colorful tiles on the floor.

Jaume Pla, Jordi Palomino and chef Jordi Peris opened Bar del Pla in 2008. Pla is also the owner of the wonderful Restaurant Pla, and he closed a second establishment, Repla, so that his team could create a different venue that would better weather the economic crisis. The partners, all seasoned professionals, wanted a place to hang out in, somewhere joyful, casual, easy to share with friends – a bar, but with a virtuosic kitchen, a well-stocked, wide-ranging cellar and accessible prices. At Bar del Pla, you can get a few tapas and a glass of caña (draft beer) for €14 or some tapas and a bottle of the best champagne for €300.

There are 100 wines available by the bottle, and the short list of by-the-glass offerings changes every two weeks. The house red is a good biodynamic Montsant that has spent a short time in the barrel, and the white and cava are organic wines from El Penedès.

The kitchen uses mostly local produce and works from a traditional foundation, relying less on the fryer and more on fresh preparations. The menu is familiar in content – bravas, anchovies, croquetas – but the dishes that arrive at the table have been reconceptualized, and there’s a clear Asian influence. The result is always exciting, like the typical calçots with the atypical tempura, or one of our favorites, the mushroom carpaccio with wasabi vinaigrette. This exquisite salad combines thinly sliced raw mushrooms with parmesan shavings, sweetly vibrant strawberries and crisp, astringent arugula, dressed with a little balsamic, pepper and a dazzling wasabi vinaigrette, which is added tableside. It’s the kind of dish we’d love to eat at home every night.

One of del Pla’s best-loved dishes is the squid ink croquettes. The crisp brown exterior gives way to an airy, murky interior. The kitchen also skillfully turns out great grilled octopus, and we love the coca (a traditional Catalan preparation that is not unlike a small pizza), which tops a thin piece of flatbread with tomato confit, mango, smoked sardines, black olive salad and pine nuts. The opening notes are of smoke, and the flavors then wind through salty, toasty highs and lows, ending with the uplifting mango. As good as that is, the star among the seafood offerings might very well be the wonderful tuna tartare with avocado. A whisper of garlic and shallot point up the fresh tuna’s quiet pleasures, and the olive oil-rubbed toasts serve not only as a conveyance for the tartare but also as a crunchy counterpoint to the silky fish and avocado.

If it’s more of a meat kind of night, we’ll get the “Secreto Ibérico,” a luscious, well-marbled cut of pork cooked sous vide for 24 hours and then grilled before serving, or the oxtail with foie gras, a modestly sized but incredibly potent dish that plays the meltingly soft braised beef against a shatteringly crisp phyllo wrapper. Seared foie is the almost-but-not-quite-gratuitous grace note.

The proper coda for the evening is torrija, a traditional Spanish version of French toast that imbues the custardy bread with the scent of cinnamon and is given the perfect accompaniment of crema Catalana gelato. After such an exhilarating performance, all we can say is “Encore!”

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Published on March 05, 2014

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