I’ve been compelled to check out Bar Celona ever since I found out that Josef Centeno (well-knowned years past for his spontaneous tasting menus at Opus) is consulting there, but my group of Old Town friends have never felt particuarly inclined to go, preferring the gianormous-if-mediocre portions offered by the various Pasadena chains over the small plates tapas-style dishes this place is known for. That tide quickly changed with they announced their latest event . . .

all-you-can-eat paellas

Being a sucker for this Valencian dish in general, I heartily accepted when their PR folks invited me to check out the celebration on the house. So my friend and I visited them on the first day of their anniversary event.

Having spent the better part of my Sunday in the sun, I was definitely in the mood for a light, refreshing cocktail when I arrived at 7 p.m. The Flamenco Kiss, made with vanilla vodka and fresh strawberry puree, does the task well — simple but tasty, like a liquid strawberry pie with lots of whipped cream.

Before the paella main show, we started off with sauteed cremini & oyster mushrooms with bay leaf & thyme cream ($7) and an aromatic seafood soup ($21), both heartier and more substantial than their tapas label suggest. The ‘shrooms, meaty and earthy and perfectly palatable on their own, was wonderfully enhanced by the herby cream sauce — though I might opt for it on the side next time since it was pretty heavy. We both we loved the seafood soup, comforting even on a summer night and packed full of firm and plump shellfish (shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams) swimming in a light, fragrant saffron-flavored broth.

Now for the main show — the paellas! Being indecisive about which one we wanted, the staff was gracious enough to bring us a small sampler of all four — from vegetarian, castellana (beef, pork sausage and chicken), marinaera (shellfish) and valenciana (surf & turf, looks like a combo of the previous two) ($18-24). Asides from the addition of assorted meats, the four paellas tasted nearly identical, aromatic with a bouquet of herbs, a little spicy and just savory enough w/o being oversalted. The rice had a great toothy (firm yet chewy) texture that I loved, though my friend would’ve preferred a creamier, softer risotto-esque preparation. And having had the two starter dishes beforehand, we alas threw in the towel after a single serving of paella — though being a carb-filled fare I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do more than two servings otherwise.

We also had a taste of their red wine sangria, which is complimentary with an AYCE paella order, whose portion was larger than we expected. Like the cocktail, it was not fussy and totally pleasant to drink – striking a nice balance between the wine and juices so it’s neither too tannic nor fruity-sweet.

Despite our collective fullness, a second stomach popped up when we were offered the sweets menu — so we opted to share a seasonal strawberry-apple crisp a la mode (even though I was seriously eye-ing the churros & chocolate or the crema catalana). Like everything else so far, it was incredibly satisfying and elegantly simple, a fine exhibit of the fruit crisp/pie dessert.

Also a bit surprising is how reasonably priced the meal was, when the bill came (the determine our tips) we found out the total was in the $70-80 range; considering we had 2 cocktails, 2 starters, 2 entrees and a dessert — that’s not bad at all. And since the paella is all-you-can-eat and comes with a sangria, couples can totally get away with ~$50-60 bill and a merrily full stomach.

If you can’t make it tonight or tomorrow for their celebration, don’t fret; I was informed they plan on bringing back for Sunday dinners. I for one can’t complain about starting off a week with soup, paella and sangrias (finished off with perhaps a churro or two…)

And FYI, their anniversary celebration culminates tomorrow night — when they have All-Night Happy Hour specials on drinks and tapas, along with dish demos & tastings, live music AND a mechanical bull at the bar, should you feel courageous enough (or had enough liquid courage.)