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Manchego con membrillow is served at Cafe Barcelona.

Last fall, I lamented the dearth of authentic Spanish tapas bars in Vancouver. Someone's ears must have been burning because, unbeknownst to me, there was already one in the works.

Café Barcelona, which opened in mid-December in the newly redesigned Granville Street Entertainment District, is as close to a Catalan snack bar as you'll find in this city.

Authenticity, mind you, should never be confused with greatness. Café Barcelona may have nailed the right vibe, but, with a few exceptions, the menu's nibble-sized tapas and toothpick-pierced pintxos run a correspondingly small gamut from mostly mediocre to merely okay.

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I'm not trying to be snobbish. This casual, stark, tightly packed room is perfectly apropos for what it is. In Spain, a tapeo is essentially a pre-dinner or late-night bar crawl during which patrons troll from one smoky establishment to another, joining up with friends for small glasses of wine, light chit-chat and a sampling of favourite dishes.

A good tapas bar need not be fancy - though I'll bet the bright overhead lighting at Café Barcelona gets a much more romantic glow on when the Flamenco guitarist plays on Wednesday nights.

And I'm actually quite amused, in a masochistic kind of way, by our waitress's complete lack of concern when we ask for serviettes. "You can use theirs," she shrugs, nodding toward the stainless-steel paper-napkin dispenser on the next table.

Yes, Ma'am!

I must confess, however, that my affection for Senora Disinterested quickly evaporates when I order a premium beer and she responds with a blank stare.

"Inedit," I repeat, feeling like an idiot. You know, the really expensive beer ($13.25 a bottle or $6.75 a glass) created by El Bulli's Ferran Adrià, the so-called best chef in the world?

"Oh, you mean Estrella," she says, referring to the brewery. "That's what most people call it."

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I'm almost willing to accept the attitude until she shoots me the exact same blank stare over a bottle of red wine from Jumilla - or "Hoo-MEEL-yah" - as I'm quite sure I'm pronouncing the region correctly.

Nonchalance aside, the drinks list is decent. The red wines are almost all Spanish, with remarkably low (less than 75 per cent) markups. On the white side, however, it would be nice to see more than just a couple of albarinos featured alongside a bunch of rather pedestrian B.C. products. Sangria ($8 a glass or $22 a pitcher) is rich with inky red wine, fruit and fizz. But where are all the sherries? I only see two.

In Spain, one wouldn't actually have to order from the menu. You'd just dig into the rosy curls of Iberico ham or spicy rolls of chorizo sausage piled on the counter, saving your toothpicks for the bartender to count as a bill at the end. Café Barcelona is a bit more formal, as it must be. Customers sit at tables (high tops on one side, benches on the other) and order, at their leisure, from a menu that ranges from $1.75 for a bite-sized croquette to $11 for a few links of sausage.

The food at Café Barcelona is priced right and tastes as good as you'd expect from small bites of canned anchovies, olives and tuna imported from Spain. But why would the owners call in Benat Ormaetxea, one of Spain's top chefs, to spend a full month in Vancouver setting up a bare-bones, rustic snack menu?

After winning Spain's Young Chef of the Year Award in 2001, Mr. Ormaetxea worked as the head chef at the Guggenheim Bilbao and at Restaurante Aretxondo in nearby Galdakao. Lauded for his innovative molecular creations and commitment to slow food, he recently opened his own restaurant, Jauregibarria Jatetxea.

He must have some connection to the owner, Beatriz Gil Garzon, a former honorary Spanish Consul General to British Columbia. But contrary to early online reports, Ms. Garzon's business partner, restaurant manager Roger Creixams, is not Mr. Ormaetxea's brother. He's just a friend.

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So why would a friend of such stature come all the way here to stack a menu with simple gildas (skewers of pickled peppers, olives and anchovies for $1.75) and mousse queso azul (creamed blue cheese piped onto spoons of crushed walnuts for $2 a pop)?

Cabra con piquillo ($2.75) is a nice enough open-faced sandwich spread with goat cheese, anchovies and pickled pepper. But the bread (served with almost every dish) is stale.

Patatas Bravas ($2.75) are fried cubes of potato ladled with a smoked paprika tomato sauce. And manchego con membrillo ($8.25) is an ordinary plate of cheese triangles topped with quince paste. The latter makes for a nice smoky-salty combination, but the waitress can't identify the quince.

"What's this?" a diner at the next table asks. "I don't know," she replies. "I just call it jam."

For about $50, I order almost every item on the menu. Nothing wows.

Many are missing basic ingredients. Croquetas ($1.75 each) are golden-brown, deep-fried cubes bursting with hot béchamel sauce, but barely any ham. Brocheta pulpo ($1.90) are tasty squares of octopus skewered with firm potato wedges but no red peppers. Sautéed mushrooms ($2.50) come with no caramelized onion and very little flavour.

Other items are mislabelled. The crab in the txaca ($2.25) is actually crab-flavoured pollock. The "homemade" txistorra ($3) is a sweet Basque-style sausage from Oyama Sausage Co. on Granville Island.

Some hot dishes such as tortilla patatas ($2.25), a thick potato and onion omelette, are served cold. Others, like sautéed prawns ($6.50), are sizzled in burnt garlic.

It's hard to complain when the prices are so low. And it may be authentic. But it all tastes kind of fishy - not in a good way - to me.

Café Barcelona: 1049 Granville St.; 604-909-2223.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

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