Difference is a matter of perception, but, in a relatively homo-genous society like Spain, it's pointed out all the time, usually not as a point of favour. Sameness is more comfortable, after all. Comfortable, if a little dull.
The tapas bars in the different category take the baby steps approach to introducing difference into the still relatively closed ranks of Spanish tapas. The plates are still small, the names play on the familiar, and even the ingredients are generally recognizable. The resulting tapas, however, are usually, and in varying degrees, different, introducing new cooking techniques, unusual combinations and a whisper of the international. Here are a handful of spots that manage to do all this more or less successfully, in no particular order:
Samsara (c/ Terol 6, Gracia, tel. 93 285 36 88, open Tuesday to Sunday) - The state of samsara in Hinduism and Buddhism is linked to the concept of reincarnation and refers to a purely corporeal existence in which one is as yet unaware of the true spiritual self and is mired in (or pleasured by, depending on your perspective) the physical world. The restaurant of Samsara, on the other hand, is a place that serves an eclectic mixture of small plates, with deep karmic bows to Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American cuisine, and tries to plug into a casual boho chic atmosphere. The former it does brilliantly with inexpensive stunners like pesto topped sweet potatoes (a variation on traditional patatas bravas) and light salads as well as more ambitious specials like tuna tartar and grilled Argentinian beef. The atmosphere, by contrast, falls a little short in terms of both appearance and comfort--I suppose as a reminder of our worldly suffering--and, whereas I don't mind the boho, the place could use a little more chic. Given it's tiny prices and generally delicious food, however, to take away points for looks is just plain mean. Our last small meal of three satisfying tapas and wine for two ran us about 20 euros. I recommend reserving a table in the evening, particularly Thursday through Saturday.
Sureny (Plaça Revolució De Setembre De 1868 17, Gracia, tel. 93 213 75 56, open Tuesday to Sunday) - Virtually around the corner from Samsara, and a good option if you are turned away from the former for lack of space, is Sureny. I've never seen Sureny full and, really, I'm not sure why that is. The tapas--a few traditional, others more exotic--are always of high quality and the prices are generally reasonable, if not outright cheap. Dinner for four with a bottle of wine, 8 or 9 tapas (including tuna sashimi marinated in soy and ginger, sesame crusted chicken satay, duck breast caneloni, and a sautee of shrimp and wild mushrooms), two desserts and coffees came to about 90 euros last time. Perhaps Sureny is not bursting at the seams with diners because there are better value spots in the immediate vicinity or perhaps because, between its bright lighting and uninspired decor, it's a little low on charm. Its terrace on the kid-friendly Plaça de la Revolución is a good option in the summer, however, and, if you go, I have no doubt you'll like the food.
Ginger (C/ Palma de Sant Just 1, Gotico, open Tuesday to Saturday) - There are good places left to eat and drink in the Gotico. They may be few and far between, but they do exist. Ginger is one of them. Primarily, Ginger, presided over by a sometimes surly Englishwoman who very well could be the eponymous Ginger (I haven't bothered to ask), is a somewhat smoky, extremely atmospheric, retro-chic, old school cocktail bar for young(ish) people. And, if you want to stop at cocktails, no one will think anything of it. However, you will have seriously missed out on Ginger's fantastic tapas. There are a few traditional favourites like pa amb tomaquet/pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato) and embotits/embutidos (cured meats), but the stars are the more elaborate plates, which include butifarra (sausage) flamed in orujo, seared foie gras and wild mushroom ravioli. Prices range from about 4 to 10 euros per tapa.
Santa Maria (C/ Comerç 17, Born, tel. 93 315 12 27, www.santamania.info) - I hesitate to mention Santa Maria in this post because it is the one of the few places in Barcelona in which I've spent a lot and left hungry. The atmosphere is a nice mix of fun and "dimly lit", but the tapas (with strong Asian, especially Japanese, influences), while expertly prepared and attractively plated, are tiny in size and, for that reason, priced a little too ambitiously. I must also admit that we struggled to order enough for a table of three; granted, one of the diners was not a shellfish/raw fish eater, which limited the choices, but still. I suppose the answer would have been to order multiple portions of each plate, but again, we come back to the price. It's not a bad option if you're careless with money, on a diet or stuck for a place to go; however, there are better value choices in the area.