Taste the Tapas
Five years ago, during those halcyon days when converting dollars to Euros wasn’t a cripplingly intimidating prospect, I rented a tiny car and drove around Spain with my old friend Andrea. Without much of a plan, we wended our way from Barcelona down the coast to a sun-bleached, wind-battered beach outpost called Tarifa, through the soft hillsides of sherry country and the cork forests of ham country and back to the Mediterreanean coast.
We may not have behaved like ladies the whole time, but we ate like queens. From cobblestone-paved village squares to Barcelona bistros, we dined on basic tapas, the traditional small plates served throughout Spain. Tapas are typically fairly inexpensive and no-frills; they are serious eating but meant to be shared casually, like the best bar snacks you’ve ever had. Traditionally, they’re not shrunken-down versions of main dishes; they typically showcase one element, such as garlic-sautéed shrimp, fried potatoes, briny green olives or seared squid with chili flakes.
Rambla, the new Spanish tapas restaurant at the International House Hotel, serves gracefully updated versions of authentic tapas in a lovely space that encourages both noisiness (there are large communal tables running down the center of the room) and intimacy (dark décor, tasteful lighting). It is an exciting new development for the New Orleans dining scene: a welcome break from
the haute-Creole routine and a very competent hand in the kitchen, Chef Fernando Echeverri.
I was accompanied to Rambla by my husband Gray and a couple of our most voraciously food-loving friends. Although Rambla serves several main dishes,
we stuck with tapas, ordering four at a time so the plates arrived in waves. I recommend this way of ordering because it prolongs the meal and allows you to improvise your way through dinner.
If you believe that simplicity is the mark of the master, then you’ll be duly impressed with Echeverri’s Patatas Bravas, or spicy fried potatoes, which are to Spanish tapas what red beans and rice are to New Orleans cuisine: an icon. Rambla’s patatas are served crisp without a hint of greasiness, and
brilliantly seasoned with smoked paprika and aioli.
Another standout was the Grilled Octopus with Lemon Oil. Octopus is tricky – one wrong move and you’ve got yourself a doggie chew-toy. But Rambla’s octopus is exquisitely charred on the grill, tender and subtle with olives and red onion to provide a bracing textural counterpoint.
The trio of chilled soups had us tripping over our words trying to find
the right descriptors. The White Gazpacho, made with rice, almonds and garlic, is a creamy whisper until, a few seconds after the spoon has left your lips, the toasty almond flavor emerges – it’s unorthodox to compare the flavors of a soup to the complexity of a wine, but oops, I just did. The other two soups were equally stellar: a Yam, Carrot and Blood Orange Puree that tasted like sunshine, and a Watermelon and Piquillo Pepper Soup that looked deceptively like traditional gazpacho.
For dessert we tried the churros, strips of fried dough that are nearly ubiquitous guilty-pleasure food in Spain. The chef replaced the traditional thick hot chocolate dipping sauce with a Bananas Foster-style sauce that was pitch-perfect.
We ordered 16 tapas, and only one was deemed underwhelming: a special of Pork Meatballs served with wilted fennel. They were too dense and a bit bland, but I can’t hold it against Rambla, which was otherwise utterly impressive. The servers were all delightfully knowledgeable about the menu and the pacing was spot-on.
Rambla’s wine list is wide-ranging and affordable. We tried a grassy, interestingly off-center 2005 Rioja from Ostatu, as well as a 2002 Crianza from Bodegas Tilenus that was smooth and easy to drink (imagine that!).
The small plates and tapas trend in dining isn’t particularly new to New Orleans; the first tapas restaurant in the area, Vega Tapas Cafe opened in 1996 on Metairie Road and continues to serve reliably excellent, non-traditional small plates with an pan-Mediterranean influence. Mimi’s in the Marigny, down on the corner of Franklin and Royal streets, serves excellent and relatively inexpensive tapas from their second-story kitchen (you can even order them in the sweaty midst of DJ Soul Sister’s weekly Saturday night dance party). Devotees will urge you to order the Mushroom Manchego Toast (succulent herbed mushrooms with melted manchego atop crisp toast points) and anything they do with pork is a safe bet.
Baru Latin Caribbean Bistro and Tapas has a more upscale take on small plates; they’re more expensive than average but they’re worth it. The ceviche is among the city’s best, right up there with Rio Mar’s. The beef empanadas are just like what you’ll find in Colombia, the home country of Chef Edgar Caro. Crispy on the outside and served with a very authentic tangy, cilantro-laced salsa called aji, they’re world-class nibbles.