Restaurant >LITTLE EARTHQUAKES
When restaurants specializing in tapas, or small-plate appetizers, sprout across a city, it’s an indicator of culinary maturation and refinement. Diners must be willing to accept smaller portions, while shifting their approach by exhibiting a readiness to share. And though Orlando is only slowly succumbing to the trend, there may be a time in the not-too-distant future when tapas bars will be as popular as sushi bars are today.
Thankfully, we’re at a stage where the tasting plates offered up here, and at places like Olé Olé and Costa del Sol, are of the sort enjoyed by bar-hoppers all over the Iberian Peninsula, and not the sort of bastardized, overly trendy, fusion frou-frou found in larger cities in this country.
El Bodegon serves time-honored, and strongly flavored, tapas fare — cured serrano ham, chorizo and honeycomb tripe, to name a few — and garlic is expectedly ubiquitous in many of chef Francisco Figueiras’ dishes. The gambas al ajillo ($9), plump curls of subtly sweet shrimp in a shallow bowl of bubbling sherry wine sauce, is absolutely sublime. Flecks of cilantro, chili pepper and diced bulbs of the stinking rose give the dish its aromatic and full-flavored essence, and if it weren’t for fear of filling up too early, and seeming too greedy, I would’ve downed every single one of those succulent shellfish … so much for sharing.
Empanadas de bacalao ($6), a pair of perfectly crisp pastries stuffed with seasoned cod, halved, then artfully plated along with an olive salad, was another can’t-get-enough-of-this dish. By the time the tortilla Española ($6) — arguably the most popular tapas item in Spain — arrived, a couple of bites were all I could muster. The thick wedges of caramelized onion-and-potato omelet cried for a splash of hot sauce, which disappointingly came in the form of a miniature bottle of Tabasco. A basic salsa picante would’ve been a better accompaniment to the somewhat insipid omelet.
A few swigs of sangria ($14.50 for a half-pitcher) provided the necessary respite before the main courses arrived. Yes, those in search of a more substantial meal can get their fill from a host of seafood, meat and poultry entrees. Traditional paella Valenciana ($21) made me feel like it was Sunday in Seville, not a Friday in Orlando. And though the green peas were a tad shriveled, the saffron-flavored rice (glistening with olive oil) gave the dish a superb moistness, and every paprika-spiked mouthful of succulent chicken, shellfish and red pepper was intensely exotic.
Two tenderloin slabs sitting atop pineapple circles characterized the medallones de solomillo primavera ($28). The steaks were cooked medium-well instead of the requested medium, but the flavor medley of the dish — the sweetness of pineapple, the rich and creamy cognac demiglace, fresh-roasted vegetables and Spanish rice — more than compensated.
The atmosphere is boisterous and festive, though when things quiet down toward closing time, you’re better able to appreciate the trompe l’oeil on the arched columns, the brick walls and Spanish tile. Servers are amiable, eager to please and never hurried, so you won’t feel pressured to race through your dishes, though when one asks about dessert, you may want to feign indecisiveness. A horribly salty flavor infused the peras al vino ($8), almond-specked pear halves cooked in Spanish wine and cinnamon. The crema catalana ($6) had a restrained citrus zest in the custard, but the top layer could’ve been caramelized a bit more. Your best bet is to head next door to Rocco’s Italian Grille and order their tiramisu.
But like its Latin neighbor, El Bodegon is destined to become a popular gathering ground for foodies, and an anchor on the Winter Park dining scene.