History has hosted some classic rivalries: Mozart and Salieri, Edison and Tesla, Coke and Pepsi. Bar Ferdinand and Amada may not be rivals per se (at least nothing beyond your typical marketplace competition). But you almost can’t talk about Bar Ferdinand without comparing it to Amada. Both are Spanish tapas bars, one of the hot trends in Philly’s restaurant scene. Amada, considered by many to be the yardstick by which other tapas bars are to be measured, was at the forefront of this trend. Bar Ferdinand opened shortly thereafter. So, comparisons are inevitable. And much like the classic rivalries noted above, there are strong opinions on both sides of the aisle.
Despite all of the similarities between them, Bar Ferdinand and Amada are really two different scenes. Amada, with its sleek décor and high-profile Old City zip code, used the humble Spanish tradition of tapas to create a chic, upscale destination spot. Bar Ferdinand, a womb-like space situated in grittier Northern Liberties, delivers its unpretentious tapas with the same vibrant, frontier energy that drives the up-and-coming neighborhood in which it sits. It is possible to appreciate both restaurants for different reasons. But the more I visit Bar Ferdinand, the more drawn I am to its scene, its energy and its food. It is becoming my Spanish tapas bar of choice. Here’s why:
First, some of Bar Ferdinand’s offerings are more imaginative and exciting. Because tapas are small and are meant for sharing, you don’t order with same level of commitment you normally have when selecting an entrée. Instead, you’re naturally willing to explore more adventurous and experimental combinations, and chefs will often rise to the task. Bar Ferdinand gets this and, at the same time, it manages to keep its offerings accessible.
One dish that illustrates this is the Manchego Frito ($5.00). This dish inventively marries four core elements in the same bite—hot, cold, sweet and savory. First, the back of your tongue finds sweet walnut membrillo puree and the warmth of the fried Manchego cheese, while the front of your mouth feels the cool sweetness of the well-textured frozen apple foam. Next, bite down and the warm, savory cheese fills your mouth. And after its gone, the flavor of cool, sweet apple still lingers on your lips. It's an impressive morsel. The puree, however, may add a little too much sweetness, putting the dish slightly out of balance with its savory core. But overall the Manchego Frito is a compelling and addictively satisfying offering.
Another example of this is the Datiles Con Tocino—dates, bacon, cream cheese baked in puff pastry ($3.00). This dish combines sweet and savory elements in a well balanced bite. The outside is as sweet as a holiday. The bacon and cheese inside completes the experience, adding a rich, savory element that balances the dish nicely and always leaves me craving another.
Other dishes stand out as well. For example, the Albondigas—meatballs made of ground lamb, pork and beef in toasted Marcona almond and sherry sauce ($5.00)—display some nice layering. The dish starts off sweet, then the smokiness of the roasted almonds comes in on the finish. And the use of three different meats creates an interesting and tasty flavor.
There is room for improvement at Bar Ferdinand. For example, the Pato Confitado Con Sangria de Naranja ($7.00) is out of balance. The dish is shooting for a balance between the rich, savory duck confit and the bitterness of the orange toast. And it works—as long as the toast lasts. But there’s not enough toast to pair with the mound of rich duck, which can quickly become overwhelming.
And, of course, there’s the sangria ($4.00 per glass/$15 per pitcher). On my first visit to Bar Ferdinand, the sangria was disappointing—it was tart, thin and nowhere near potent enough. Since then, however, the sangria has vastly improved—it has been sweeter and more potent without losing its light, refreshing and natural character. Our server acknowledged that they had been fine-tuning the recipe, and it appears that they’ve found one that works.
The second reason Bar Ferdinand is becoming a comfortable haunt, of sorts, is price. Bar Ferdinand’s tapas are inexpensive, and that's the way it should be. Most tapas here are in the $3.00 to $6.00 range, giving you greater latitude to explore more of the menu. And if you try a dish you don’t like, no worries. It is only a few dollars, someone else at your table likely will enjoy it, and the menu has so many choices you’re sure to find something else that fits the bill.
Also worthy of note is Bar Ferdinand’s user-friendly wine list. Don’t know much about Spanish wine? Not a problem. For many of its wines, Bar Ferdinand identifies the American or French varietal that tastes similar to the wine you're eyeing. If you enjoy Bordeaux, for example, Bar Ferdinand will steer you toward the 2001 Raimat Cabernet Sauvignon – Costers del Segre, which has a deep flavors of dark fruit with notes of cedar and a long finish.
Bar Ferdinand is faithful to the tapas spirit, offering energetic, imaginative and accessible tapas at reasonable prices. And giving us another reason to visit Northern Liberties. So does this quell opinions as to which Spanish tapas bar is better, or stir them? That question, in many ways, misses the point. Coke and Pepsi co-exist on the same shelf. So can Amada and Bar Ferdinand.
1030 N.2nd Street