Spanish food may be getting ready to have its moment — again.
It was the cuisine to eat in the early 2000s. Where I lived in Portland, tapas restaurants seemed to open up every week. We all learned about patatas bravas, chorizo and Rioja. Diners got a taste of small plates and hedonistic, hours-long meals at late hours. And then something happened.
“Tapas” became fusion-ized. New restaurant “concepts” claimed to serve “Japanese tapas” or “Scandinavian tapas.” Small plates became the trend du jour; its roots became stuffy and forgotten.
But here we are at the tail end of 2015 and tapas are suddenly relevant again. Duende in Uptown has been going strong for three years. Shakewell in the Lakeshore neighborhood proved popular as soon as it opened last year. Barcelona’s Teleféric is getting ready to open its first U.S. location in Walnut Creek. And West Berkeley is now getting in on that action.
Earlier this month, the owners of the mobile catering outfit Ñora Spanish Cuisine opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, La Marcha. The small dining room at the corner of San Pablo and University avenues is a love letter to Spain, a celebration of the casual, exuberant cuisine that we fell for a decade ago.
As with any brand-new restaurant, La Marcha is a work in progress. Our long, wine-fueled dinner last week had its highs and lows. Thankfully, those highs were not only technically well-executed, but also peppered with thoughtful touches — chef-owners Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Emilio Monleón clearly know what they’re doing.
Take, for example, the Brussels sprouts. Each halved round is charred and crisped until the leaves peel back and fray to frizzled perfection. Olive oil and a not-too-sweet balsamic reduction give the vegetables backbone, but it is the grapes tossed in between that are the standout. The fruit pops while the sprouts crunch, giving the dish textural contrast and an unforgettable sweet and bitter balance. Do not, under any circumstances, miss this dish while it appears on the menu.
Even better are the wild boar albóndigas, ethereally light meatballs perched atop a creamy, cheesy tomato sauce. A scoop of the sauce alone evokes the nostalgia of Campbell’s tomato soup with the flavor dialed up to 11. Pickled guindilla peppers flex their tangy spice, balancing the rich sauce and lightly gamey meatballs. The toasted bread served alongside is appropriately drenched in olive oil, but I wanted more of it for dredging up every last bit of that sauce.
Skimpy servings of bread turned out to be a trend. La Marcha’s cheese and charcuterie plates cry out for a generous stack of toast instead of the spare slices we received. I ended up eating my last bites of sobrasada, a spicy spreadable chorizo reminiscent of Calabrian ‘njuda, on its own with a fork. The sobrasada, by the way, was a fine piece of charcuterie, but it needed to be served at room temperature so it could melt into the bread.
Similarly, La Marcha’s intriguing pulpo y garbanzos was served a few touches too cold. The octopus itself was served buttery and tender with sweet roasted piquillo peppers and garbanzo beans, both puréed and expertly fried. But the plate was refrigerator-cold, dulling the already subtle flavor of the octopus.
And otherwise tasty orange-marinated olives would have been better served warm in olive oil.
Gambas al ajillo, head-on shrimp served in a buttery, lemon-y sauce, are typically one of my favorite tapas — not much can beat the carnal pleasure of ripping into the grilled shellfish and slurping up all of the funky juice from the head — but La Marcha’s were, sadly, overcooked.
I was, however, able to forgive these missteps after a bite of the croquetas de bacalao. The shatteringly crisp exterior of the fritters gives way to a custard-creamy purée of salt cod and potatoes. A sliver of white anchovy laid on top echoes the brine-y funk of the cod. Underneath the croquetas is a scoop of hazelnut-pistachio romesco sauce, a decent accompaniment that could have used a little more oomph — a touch more salt, acid and olive oil would all do wonders.
Morcilla blood sausage, served atop lima bean “cassoulet,” is also a strong dish. Despite appearing charred beyond recognition, the sausage itself is moist and minerally in the best way. The beans below were warm and comforting, and the chopped radishes tied the whole plate together with bright crunch. (I will, however, take issue with the terminology — stewed lima beans are absolutely not the same thing as a cassoulet.)
We took a pass on the paella on this visit in an attempt to try as many small plates as possible. However, the sizzling platters of rice, vegetables and artfully placed proteins were a popular item in the dining room, and are on my to-eat list for next time.
It should be mentioned that the best way to eat all of this food is with plenty of wine. La Marcha offers an affordable mix of local wines — Urban Legend has three on tap — and Spanish offerings, plus a few beers. We made our way through Urban Legend’s somewhat sweet rose, a bottle of 2014 La Maldición “Tinto para beber” (a Tempranillo and Malvar blend), and a couple of dessert wines.
The alcohol will help temper any impatience at the slow, spotty service. All of the front of house staff was friendly and helpful, but the meal dragged much more than it should have. One plate — the octopus — was forgotten and had to be re-ordered. Dishes came out from the kitchen at what seemed like a completely random pace.
These bumbles were not, however, enough to detract from the conviviality of the meal and the promise of more good food from the kitchen. La Marcha may not be perfect, but I’m willing to keep eating there while it continues getting stronger.
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