tres experiencias espanolas

For a city with a lot of Spanish blood in its veins, it’s a bit surprising that Spanish cuisine in New Orleans restaurants has remained somewhat underrepresented. When untangling the influences that have come together to create our unique regional fare, French influence is typically cited as predominate, with Cajun fast on its heels. The Spanish contribution is often attributed toward the back of the melting pot pack, despite the fact that the city was under Spanish control for decades. But the Spanish contribution is an indispensible element, and the heightened role of hot peppers, rice and beans stems from this. Laurentino’s, one of the restaurants I wanted to visit, was in the process of relocating at press time, so be sure to consider this one if seeking Spanish food, as its old location used to offer some of the best paella in town. Also, keep in mind Lola’s on Esplanade Avenue.

Located along a residential stretch of post-reconstruction Harrison Avenue, Madrid Restaurant’s out-of-the way location was nevertheless gracious and welcoming. The staff was friendly, and chef Juan Hernandez was a busy presence in the quasi-open kitchen, visible from the front dining room. Tapas are served here, but I get the feeling that the nomenclature is more desultory than descriptive. Call them appetizers, really, as this is a place that’s more attuned to three-course dining than trendy small plates.

My favorite dish of the night was a simple and well executed one: Garlic Shrimp. The shrimp were huge, plump and deveined, then seasoned with sherry and pepper and lifted up by big garlic flavor. At other Spanish restaurants this dish often comes swimming in a pot of oil or butter – fun for sopping up with bread but one that also translates into a greasy mess. At Madrid, this dish was notable for its control over these components: the shrimp were front and center, not the sauce. My next favorite was the Calamari in Ink Sauce – a visually striking display of glossy obsidian-hued sauce pooled around a mound of white rice. The squid were fork-tender and delicious, and the briny sauce was subtly redolent of the sea. While there was not a whole lot of complexity to its seasoning, the striking presentation and the silky sauce made this dish memorable.

I ate at three restaurants for this piece and I had the little meatballs – albondigas – at each. Madrid’s version was the most unusual, made from lamb and served in a crunchy, textured sauce of chopped almond, sherry and mint. The Castilian soup – reminding me a little bit of egg drop, but garlicky – made for a savory intermediary. The one (and only) dish I had that disappointed was the Combination Paella. While the rice was cooked properly, what came to the table was rather bland. I wouldn’t recommend this dish here, though there are many others that I would.

At press time, there was no liquor license for this new location (Madrid had recently relocated) so a BYOB policy was in place with no corkage fee. The license had been applied for so it may now be in place – call ahead to be sure.

Rambla in the Internation-al House was one of the first to recently attempt a reboot of the Spanish tradition, bringing a contemporary interpretation of Spanish – and some French – small plate fare to New Orleans in a sleek setting that compliments its location in the environs of the boutique International House hotel.

There are a few dishes that serve as a baseline for casual Spanish cuisine. One is patatas bravas, potato wedges seasoned with paprika and served with garlicky aioli. The version here represents well, though menu-wise it’s outflanked by the better (and French) pommes frites, served with coarse salt and homemade ketchup. My favorite among the tapas were the albondigas, tender little meatballs served in a tangy tomato sauce perked up with pepper and plump raisins. The last component added sweetness and made the dish interesting. Another offering of Medjool dates was overdone to my taste; the bacon and almond, along with the dates, had too many elements and kept the dish from resolving. But Rambla’s Brandade, salt cod fritters, were delicious – the ultimate snack food. The fried oysters with aioli were addictive as well.

Café Granada is located on Carrollton Avenue near Jeanette Street, nested in what has become an impressive pocket of diverse restaurants. Their albondigas came served with garbanzo beans in a light tomato sauce. A small plate of duck confit offered a bit more complexity; a quick sear turned the skin into duck cracklin’, and sherry vinaigrette on the accompanying greens contributed key acidity. For an anchovy special, the fish’s natural assertiveness was tempered by frying, and the brawny flavored fish came served over a bed of couscous.

Notable at Café Granada is the large selection of vegetarian dishes. The Tortilla Española, a traditional egg dish akin to an omelet, was served with garlicky aioli. patatas bravas, another staple, were seasoned with paprika and served in a tomato broth. Also on the menu that night were Bacalaitos, tender spheres of fried, salted cod that got some punch from aioli. The service at Granada was friendly and attentive. Outdoor dining is available, though it may be too al fresco for some as it’s right on the sidewalk of Carrollton Avenue. The wide array of vegetarian items, along with lots of specials, makes each trip there a different experience.

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