Be careful what you wish for. As I sat waiting for some food, any food at all to materialize at my table at Barbounia, the rain fell from the sky with unexpected force, especially for late August. I was a refugee from that rain, and frankly, only sitting there because of it. Sure, I had walked past Barbounia dozens of times since it opened five years ago. The place is usually hopping and boisterously loud—but I had always imagined that the cocktails were the reason for going. The back of the lengthy bar butts up against 20th Street, and at night, the light from the restaurant floods through the bottle-lined windows, casting shadows on the pavement that looks like a mystical, celestial wine cellar.
The food is described as "Mediterranean," which is a term that is almost as generic as "Asian," and just as devalued. So I had overlooked the restaurant, seeing it as a destination for cocktailers and brunchers, more than gourmands and voluptuaries.
But there I was, sitting, waiting, having ordered a $24 prix fixe lunch and wondering if it came with bread. Boy, did it. A loaf that was obviously fresh baked was deposited at my table. It was longer than a good-sized steak knife.
I couldn't believe the size of the calamari order, either, a heaping portion set in a bright red bowl. Little pots of a tomato-pepper sauce and a garlic-infused aioli came along with it—the Mediterranean answer to cocktail and tartar sauce. It was easily enough for two people. And while one might not expect such quantity to yield quality, the rings of squid were crispy and crunchy on the outside and tender within—no hint of greasiness nor rubberiness anywhere.
Things didn't let up on the Souvlaki main course either: two massive skewers of hanger steak came with the order, again enough for two people. And again, quantity did not indicate poor quality—the hunks of beef had a nice external char and came close to the rare that I ordered. The beef was tender and flavorful, although the accompanying Italian eggplant was mushy and the lemon potatoes tasted more like meat juice than anything else.
The overly generous portion sizing carried through dessert as well, although here the quality/quantity balance act tipped in favor of the latter. The honey date, almond and rice crispy brittle was sugary and crunchy and right on. The shredded Halva that lay over the dish like a bird's nest was also good, but the "milk" ice cream was simply awful—watery, sticky, and overly sweet, it was no better than a budget supermarket's. I would have gladly settled for half the amount of a decent ice cream.
While the level of cooking might not be as high as most of the places I visit for this column, it was surprisingly competent, considering the portion sizes offered. The meal was enough for two people, making it a real value proposition.