Flamenco Finger Food
3005 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 823-2661
Hours: daily, noon-1:00 a.m. Live music Wednesday-Saturday (and some Sundays); flamenco dancing Friday and Saturday, 8:00 p.m.-11ish
No, not topless. Tapas. Tapas. No, I didn't say topless. I didn't. I did not. You know, Spanish food, lots of little dishes to share? Tapas, a tapas bar. I don't know why you thought I said topless. I didn't. You just have a dirty mind, I guess...
Planning to speak to your friends and relatives? Here are some useful phrases: We went to that new Spanish restaurant. We're going to that new Lyn-Lake place for dinner. Let's meet at La Bodega, the new restaurant on Lyndale, south of Lake Street. Phrases to avoid? Tapas restaurant. Tapas place. Above all, tapas bar. Use these and you risk frowns, family interventions, and neighbors gossiping behind your back--that's what comes from living in a world where it's effortless to find lap dancing with your burgers, and rare to find flamenco dancing with your squid. I can't even imagine the problems La Bodega's flamenco dancers must have: "I dance at the tapas bar"? Forget about it.
But once you get your phrasing in hand, by all means head over to La Bodega, a you-know-what bar where the rough-hewn tables and chairs are sturdy as stumps, the sunny yellow, art-bedecked room is as cheerful and elegant as a Prada piñata, and the food and wine are beguiling. True, I didn't have anything breathtaking to eat at La Bodega, which opened two months ago in rapidly upscaling Lyn-Lake. But nearly everything I had was very good, and I quickly decided that the place is an invaluable addition to the local scene. Where else can you have a late lunch of meatballs and beer while stretched out over a newspaper, a festive dinner party with flowing pitchers of sangria, or a fancy date over a bottle of barbera while serenaded by strolling guitarists?
Those meatballs, or albondigas ($5.75), were one of my favorite things at La Bodega. A tender blend of parsleyed meat served in a robust red tomato sauce, they came three to an order. The other was the grilled prawns, or langostinos a la plancha ($7.50). About half the size of a deck of cards, they're served split down the back and grilled in their shells with a little hat of garlic-tomato dressing, sweet as biscuits. I wished I could have a dozen of the little critters--but since they come two to an order, that would be prohibitively costly.
I also loved the green beans sautéed in olive oil and garlic with whole black peppercorns ($4.75). And no table would be complete without a bowl of mixed olives ($4.25), which includes teensy-weensy Arbequinas, enormous green Lucques, and a variety of black, herbed, or spiced olives. Mussels ($6.75) served hot in a fresh tomato sauce were excellent. The calamari ($6.50) was a generous portion of airy, greaseless fried squid rings, served with fresh lemon wedges. A plate of mixed grilled vegetables ($5.25) included discs of fresh eggplant, strips of zucchini, and bright slabs of red pepper.
Be sure to put some fresh vegetables on the table, especially if you order the potent chilled octopus salad ($7.50). A tender mix of chopped octopus and potatoes, this stuff was so powerfully laden with garlic it could have come in a dish with tailpipes shooting flames. Nevertheless everyone at the table loved it; many counted it second in their hearts only to the dreamy tiramisu ($6), made with still-crisp ladyfingers and a mocha-mascarpone cream that tasted like a very nightclubby cloud. Yes, I know, tiramisu isn't very Spanish, but get it anyway, because the flan ($6) wasn't particularly memorable.
Certainly not as memorable as the couple of stinkers I had, like the bitter red-wine-stewed squid ($7.50), which tasted like hot wine dregs. Skip, too, the squid stuffed with raisins, breadcrumbs, and pine nuts ($5.25), which was so dry and chewy we called it squid jerky. I also wouldn't order the pork tenderloin (lomito, $6.75), or the smelt (boquerones, $5.75) again: The scant medallions of warm pork and reheated potatoes seemed too much like leftovers, and the five itty-bitty smelt fillets (that's two and a half smelt!) seemed way too expensive for what you got.
Now that I'm confessing to counting smelts, I may as well admit I can't quite figure out how expensive La Bodega is. I've heard quite a few people griping about how overpriced the place is, and when I think of individual dishes I, too, thought they were exceedingly dear--I paid nearly $2 a meatball! On the other hand, I always ordered way, way too much food and got out for around $20 a person for food alone. More judicious ordering, of, say, two and a half dishes per person, would have easily brought the tab to $15 a head. Take that into account, figure in the destination atmosphere, live entertainment, and attractive décor, and La Bodega begins to look like a bargain.
Tips for eating your fill? Be sure to order one of the dishes that comes in a pool of garlicky sauce so you can sop it up with bread--the green beans, octopus salad, or mussels are all good choices. Actually, my one real problem with the restaurant is the bread. When I first started going to La Bodega, it had tough, crusty rolls served cold. Later they moved to soft, gummy rolls served cold. With the number of great bakeries in town these days, there's no reason not to come up with better bread. It could also tip the scales toward making customers feel like we are getting good value for our money.
Value seekers should also keep in mind that the more expensive segments of La Bodega's menus tend to hold the best bargains. At $9 the cheese plate is the most expensive thing offered, but I'd invariably get it in the future, for it held three good-size chunks of rather expensive imported Spanish cheese, including an excellent Cabrales--the creamy blue cheese made from a mixture of cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk--aged Manchego drizzled with honey, and once even a piece of nutty, aged, smoked Parmigiano-like ahumado de Aliva. Meanwhile, the cheapest dish, $3.75 for a cold slice of potato omelet--or rather, Spanish, olive-oil-glazed tortilla--produced a sigh of "is that all there is?"
The same principle holds true for the Italian-heavy, surprisingly Spanish-light, wine list, where the cheap drinks are pricier than the expensive ones: For example, the popular Spanish red wine Sangre de Toro, from the Torres winery, usually retails for less than $10, so it's no bargain here at $28 a bottle. Conversely, the strong, dark Brunello di Montalcino by Argiano, at $49, is a good value, considering it's been hard to find a Brunello di Montalcino for less than $40 ever since the wines from this small, prestigious region in Tuscany had their recent run of highly regarded vintages. One of the lures to ordering a bottle of wine is the fact that bottles come with true wine glasses--wines by the glass come in stumpy tumblers.
But if you stick to the house-made sangria, a fruity blend of three wines served with cubes of green apple, and you won't mind the stemless glasses. At $5 a glass or $25 for a large ceramic pitcher, it's so juicy, thirst-slaking, slurpable, and otherwise possessed of all the attractive aspects of Kool-Aid (without the leering spokes-pitcher) that it's utterly impossible to let the stuff warm in your hands. Gulp this down as the summer humidity beads on the outside of the glass and the flamenco guitarist stirs up the room, and you've got one of the newest joys of Minneapolis summertime: All hail and salud for this summer of footless glasses in a tapas bar.
CUTE CHEF ALERT SPARKS STORMS: My comments a couple of weeks ago that the California Cafe and Napa Valley Grille were off their game caused something of a firestorm on Steve Vranian's phone: "It was ringing off the hook--everyone was saying, 'Did you see it? Did you see it? How could she say that?' And I was like, 'Yeah, you got in a couple of good shots--but they were true.'" It turns out that Vranian, current Midwest regional chef for the California Cafes and Napa Valley Grilles (and former chef for the Mall of America California Cafe), is in the middle of a campaign to fix what ails these enormous restaurants: "We settled into a safe niche here and got too cautious. The food was turning into more of an assembly-line concept than what it's supposed to be: handmade art. We got bought a few weeks ago [by Constellation Concepts], and the new president came in and the first thing he said was: Where's the energy? Where's the innovation? We've got to bring back that sparkle--otherwise we're doomed."
Vranian, who knows sparkle, having hung out or worked with the most brightly shining stars of the California cuisine revolution--including Mark Miller, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, M.F.K. Fisher, and Jeremiah Tower--says that the plan to rehabilitate the restaurants is threefold. First they're bringing in new talent, e.g., Tim Anderson, the chef who opened Goodfellow's, is heading the NVG, and Chuck Venables, late of Manny's, is the new general manager for the Cafe. (Anderson's menus should debut at the end of this month.) Next, this summer will see physical renovations of both restaurants. Then, by the time fall rolls around--and that's when these restaurants hit their busiest season, with the mall's holiday traffic--they hope to have the restaurants up to the old standards: Wine-friendly, highly polished seasonal wine-country cuisine at the NVG; energetic, globally influenced, seasonal food at the Cafe. "The restaurants are teenagers now, in restaurant years, and we've got to change to match our growth, so we're changing physically in the front of the house, and emotionally and spiritually in the back. Then we take the new energy, and get the standards back up."
Emotional and spiritual change in a restaurant--by golly, isn't that awfully Californian? Yup, agrees Vranian. "That's the challenge, You've got to walk the walk, talk the talk, be fresh, be local, be innovative, satisfy the guy who wants a cup of coffee and a well-done steak, satisfy the other guy who wants rare ahi tuna and a $200 bottle of wine, and then you've got to put out 500 [meals] a day in the mall while the kids on the roller coaster scream." I hope that was a clause in Anderson's contract.
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