"Looks like a frustrated Dracula." "Nah, it's a dolphin molesting a basketball." "Hope those aren't metaphors." And so began our foray into Bulla Gastrobar. Our comments were in reference to the gaudy fountain sculpture outside the restaurant that seems to draw a fair bit of reaction from passers-by and stoppers-in. It stands, alit and a-gurgle, in stark contrast to the restaurant's Moorish exterior motif and woodsy interior, an interior that's refreshingly less prepossessing (though arguably louder) than most new restaurants of the same caliber.
The raucous and lively atmo is intentional – this is a tapas joint, after all – but patrons are dazzled and wowed by the mighty fine Spanish cuisine served out of this gastrobar's cocina. At the helm is Felix Plasencia, former executive sous-chef of Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables. Plasencia works closely with Bulla Coral Gables executive chef Miguel Rebolledo, who spent some time working under Ferran Adrià at the legendary elBulli in Roses, Spain, as well as with José Andrés at Bazaar Meat.
Dishes here don't reach for the rarefied heights of those two restaurants – the fare is quite traditional, and it's also quite good. In our four visits since Bulla opened in late September, the favorable weather has forced us onto the outdoor patio all but once and, under starry nights, we've marveled at the filling of jamón-specked bechamel in the croquetas ($10) and reveled in every bite of the grilled octopus salad ($19) in between sips of sherry and Rioja. We've shared pintxos of charcoal-fired cumin-marinated pork ($9) dressed in mojo verde and Greek yogurt, and fork-shared patatas bravas ($7) and garlic shrimp ($14) laced with guindilla peppers between friends. Only "huevos Bulla" ($10) – a fragrant mess of eggs, homemade potato chips, Serrano ham, potato foam and truffle oil – proved polarizing, truffle oil being a matter of strong opinion.
Of course, if grander plates are in the offing, you can do away with all that tapas business and settle for a board of jamón ibérico de bellota ($28) – the famous Spanish ham perfumed with subtle notes of Fuck That's Good! – and two rounds of Leonora cheese ($9), before digging into gratifying entrees like seafood paella ($39) or red snapper ($27) fired in the charcoal oven. Arroz marinero ($28) takes a cue from Spanish chef Angel Leon by incorporating plankton into the deceptively filling bomba rice dish, along with clams, shrimp, Spanish hake and sofrito verde. Superb.
Torrijas ($8), Spanish-style French toast drizzled with honey and served with almondy turrón ice cream, is my dessert of choice, though I can't knock the churros ($8) nor the coconut flan with passion fruit sorbet ($8). Can't knock the service either. On this last visit, the bar ran out of the two Rioja reds offered by the glass, but in their stead, they offered us a glass from any of the bottle-only options of our choosing – we chose a lovely Bodega Eduardo Garrido, 2010 – compliments of the house. Booyah!