San Diego Spotlight : The Decor Rates a Bravo, the Food Something Less

If you could eat the walls at La Jolla's Bravo Barcelona, it would be difficult to arrange a tastier, multi-course banquet. Unfortunately, the murals (mostly copies of works by Miro, with a few Dalis thrown in for leavening and levity) that line the staircase that leads to this second-floor restaurant are for your eyes only.

The feast would continue in the dining room, which by itself is a work of art, and painters even did their best to turn the restrooms into mini-museums. As it happens, the walls are sometimes tastier than the cuisine.

Bravo Barcelona opened in mid-1991, or just in time to catch the building wave of interest in the Spanish (Catalonian, to be precise) city for which it is named, the famous city of painters, food and wild architecture that will host the 1992 Olympics.

Catalonia has its own distinctive style of cooking that shares many typical Spanish flavors and ingredients but also borrows a bit from France and Italy; elaborate cannelloni, not offered at Bravo Barcelona, are in fact a specialty of the city of Barcelona.

The restaurant, although gorgeous in its way (some guests might find the profusion of art a little overwhelming), is also utterly informal, and only the aprons that the staff members tie over their jeans and T-shirts distinguish them from the crowds of young people that march along Prospect Street just below the terrace tables. These tables, shielded from the elements by plastic screening, are the choicest in the house, and are usually available; the restaurant was by no means crowded on a recent Friday, which may be taken as evidence in support of the restaurant maxim that diners do not like to leave street level.

The main menu of soups, salads, paellas and entrees is supplemented by a double-sided tapas list that may feature the bulk of the kitchen's better efforts; the principal dishes sampled at a recent meal were acceptable but not distinguished. Not all offerings are always in supply, and, as it happened, there was even a complete dearth of red wine, which is certainly a good companion to Spanish food and the absence of which was explained, somewhat unsatisfactorily as "merely temporary." In its place, the waiter suggested the house sangria, which many people like, but not all.

Flour tortillas, which are Mexican rather than Spanish, wrap the interesting-sounding tuna empanadas , unavailable at the time because, said the server, the kitchen was rolling out the dough. This is the sort of thing that ought to go on before the dinner hour. The pulpo pil-pil , a famous preparation of octopus sauteed with garlic and peppers, also was unavailable, but the trio of tapas finally settled upon were excellent. The sampling included albondigas Jerezadas , or deliciously spicy meatballs in sherried tomato sauce; patatas bravas , or thin but broad French fries served with a boat of hotly spiced sauce laden with tender bell pepper strips, and the berenjena capprichio , very lightly grilled eggplant topped with a flavorful mince of peppers and other pungent flavorings.

The many other tapa choices include such basics as Manchego cheese, marinated olives, chorizo sausage, savory Serrano-style cured ham, as well as such more elaborate preparations as clams in vinegar sauce, spicy marinated potatoes with sausage ( patatas a la Riojana ), roast chicken in garlic sauce and the light, attractive pan Tomaca , which soaks slices of bread in a mixture of tomatoes, cheese and seasonings.

Although the tapas seem the most attractive openers, there are substantial soups, especially the fabada , of dried beans simmered with ham and sausage, and the sopa de tomillo , a potato soup fragrant with thyme. Salads range from the pipirrena (chopped cucumber, parsley, tomato and goat cheese) to a seafood salad and the very Barcelona-style ensalada Catalana, which tops sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese with tomato sauce.

Paellas , the famous Spanish rice stews, are served for two and thus seem quite reasonably priced at $18.95 to $20. The choice includes the typical Valenciana , in which the rice is garnished with shrimp, chicken, clams and chorizo, and the marinera , which avoids meat in favor of mussels, clams and fish. One has to like gooey rice to like paella ; in any case, the paella parellada , dressed with chicken, pork, squid, shrimp, artichokes, green beans, capers and peppers, included most of these ingredients but lacked the advertised saffron flavor. The hunks of chicken were dry and tough, and the shrimp vastly overcooked.

The entree list divides evenly between seafood and meats, and opens with zarzuela , the seafood soup-stew that is the Spanish answer to French bouillabaisse. Other choices in this department include sea bass with green peppers and corn in a cream sauce flavored with Calvados (apple brandy); the interesting salmon Cataluna , grilled and finished with a sauce of beets, mint, cream and garlic, and the pimientos rellenos , or peppers stuffed with fish, spinach and cheese, with a brandy sauce poured over the top.

The roast lamb with rosemary, tomatoes, garlic and red wine sounds very typical, as does the pataci , or pork chops sauteed with white beans, zucchini, potatoes, bay leaves and Port. The pollo Catalana , roasted chicken served with raisins, prunes and almonds, sounds somewhat influenced by Moroccan cooking and is more interesting in the description than the eating. Although not bad, the serving seemed very mild, and the fruits and nuts, which should have added much, merely distant adjuncts to the meat.

There is flan for dessert, of course, and it is a good, solid flan, eggy and rich and much more liberally doused with caramelized sugar sauce than at the many restaurants that do not understand the importance of sufficient sauce with custard.

BRAVO BARCELONA 1295 Prospect St., La Jolla 456-1579 Dinner nightly Entrees cost $12.95 to $16.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $50 Credit cards accepted

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