Verily La Vara
On a block of brownstones in Cobble Hill, there is a tiny Spanish restaurant called La Vara that is putting out both the usual suspects (which are quite good) and the unexpected (which are pretty fabulous). In fact on hearing the list of specials (there were many), I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself.
What's good about La Vara: the servers, which mostly ran along the lines of cute Brooklyn-ites in high-waisted jeans, short crop tops and boots; the wine–which they have on tap; and the menu, there's a lot to choose from. I've read complaints that the dishes are small, but hey, the dishes are small because they're rich.
What's bad about La Vara: mostly it's the wait for a table. The night I was there every table dawdled over their dishes. They drank plenty and made their way slowly through the ample selection. And, the servers (great as noted above) don't do anything to rush you or get you moving along. Both a blessing and a curse.
We started the meal with sardines in olive oil, which came along with charred bread. It was a simple dish to choose but one where you can clearly see and taste the ingredients. The sardines were oily and salty and when they hit your tongue they made you forget everything you had ever tasted. The charred bread added an undercurrent of smoke that helped temper the tangy fish. My friend commented that she wasn't sure it was a good idea starting with such a mouth explosion.
Our next dish was berenjena con miel, which translates to crispy eggplant with honey, melted ricotta cheese and nigella seed. On the heels of our salty opener, the eggplant was a subtle reminder that everything is better with cheese. Cooked long and slow the resulting eggplant, crispy on the outside, and melted goo on the inside was a perfect bite. It sat atop a grainy ricotta that had the sweetness of the honey and the tiny crunches of what looked like black sesame seeds. So, what is a nigella seed? It's known by a few names: fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, blackseed or black caraway. And, while it looks like sesame it is not. I don't know I picked up a flavor but it added another twist to the textures that I enjoyed.
Off the daily specials list we ordered a butternut squash dish that came with black-eyed peas. Baked for forever, perhaps, the layers of squash and peas were soft, buttery and smooth. Each bite a creamy bit of home cooking that you've never known. I vowed to try and make it at home.
One dish fell a little flat for me. It was a sea urchin po' boy with gazpacho dipping sauce. I don't know. It sounded so weird we both decided to order it, but in the end it felt like many distinct elements that weren't able to come together. Also, the po' boy was too small to share, there was too much rich and creamy gazpacho. It was just a strange dish. Maybe it was the first time out of the kitchen.
Thankfully, our last dish was the wow of the night. The ensalada de bacalao, a staple on menus in Spain, had all the basics to make it good but then even more elements that pushed the salad into great. Atop the salad was egg, salt cod, pistachios, grapefruit, orange segments, pomegranate seeds, mint and a healthy dose of olive oil (of course). Each bite was different, in a good way. Crunchy and soft, acidy and mellow. We didn't fight over the last bites, but had it been our first dish, fists surely would have come out.