La Vara in NYC: Small Plates, Bold Flavors

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

La Vara

268 Clinton Street, Brooklyn NY 11201 (map); 718-422-0065
Service: Helpful and solicitous, with a few hiccups
Setting: Airy-feeling, pleasant
Must-Haves: Chickpeas, eggplant, beef tongue
Cost: Small plates up to $16, larger plates up to $19
Grade: B+

We'll say this about La Vara, the new Brooklyn restaurant from husband-and-wife chef duo Alex Raij and Eder Montero of Txikito and El Quinto Pino: they know how to write a menu. Read down the 30-odd list of dishes and, if you're anything like us, you'll be prompted to read aloud—Cumin roasted lamb breast? Ooooh, fried chickpeas. Murcian pasta with goat butter?!

It's the sort of lineup that gets you drooling before you've had a single bite. And for the most part, each dish lives up to its promise.

La Vara took over its space from Breuckelen, on quiet brownstone-lined Clinton Street in Cobble Hill. They've outfitted it in white and light wood, making a reasonably tight restaurant feel spacious and generous. A long bar dominates the front, and we can easily imagine stopping in for wine and a few snacks—their fried chickpeas are contenders for our under-$5 nibble of the year. (But we'll get to that later.)

If you're looking to eat something more substantial, La Vara isn't all small plates—larger dishes range from pasta to a half-chicken, all of them under $20. And the already-lengthy menu is filled out with specials; on our visit, at least eight, enough that they should've been written down, as we got lost in enticing-sounding chorizo-soaked bread and white gazpacho and raw scallops, to an extent that we'd rather see them laid out for us. But it's hard to complain, as those specials were some of the best plates of the night.

A Marcona almond-based white gazpacho, with no tomato, is the base on which towers a scallop tartare, a clean dice of fresh, sweet scallops just barely perked up by the gazpacho's garlic and light, nutty base—caviar to crown. And the special Migas were perhaps our favorite dish of the night, and a beautiful illustration of what makes this sort of dish so compelling: strong, simple ingredients brought together skillfully. Shredded, crisped chorizo tops bread that's crunchily soaked in olive oil and pimenton, nearly as crispy-smoky-fatty as the chorizo itself, with halved grapes to cut all that savory richness.

That meat-on-bread event fared better than the Molletes ($8); love bacon though we do, this dish wasn't out favorite. A stew of smoked and unsmoked bacon, sweet onions, and pimentón turned out a bit dry and one-note; it seemed to us more a pile of (admittedly tasty) bacon bits than a composed dish we'd order again.

But we loved the two starring elements of the Pincho De Ceutas ($13). We've had Chef Raij's chicken hearts before; in this version, they're simply seasoned with spices including caraway and cumin before they're grilled, emerging slightly charred and tender throughout. They're paired with a light salad (mint, parsley, arugula) in a lime-date vinaigrette, which if anything, we found just as exciting, thanks to the intense citrus hit of the vinaigrette, crunchy cashews, and bright herbs.

Garbanzos Fritos

If you don't know how to make sense of La Vara's menu, just get something fried—the fried dishes were outstanding. A $3 dish of Garbanzos Fritos were a bar snack we'd return for again and again. We've had other fried chickpeas that are solidly crunchy all the way through, but these shielded soft, steamy innards under a pimentón-cumin crisp. (A waiter kept trying to clear them; we kept swatting his hand away.)

Also fried, and also excellent: the Berenjena Con Miel ($8), square chunks of eggplant flash-fried and presented on a bed of warm, melty tetilla (creamy cow's milk cheese) with honey and nigella seed. "This almost reminds me of a banana dessert," said one of our party—with creamy-middled innards and a creamy, honey-laced sauce to dip through. But the effect isn't overly sweet at all.

One could easily make a meal of small plates—and we were tempted—but then we wouldn't have tried the Fideúa ($16). It's one of the better versions of this Valencian noodle dish we've had in the city, the pan-fried noodles tossed with clams, calamari, and noodles and cooked in shrimp broth. As with all great seafood-carb pairings, the noodles soak in the rich broth, tasting of the sea themselves; all the tender seafood tastes even better with a swipe through the garlicky alioli.

We'd come back for that, or the Lengua Llucmaçanes ($18): braised beef tongue with a salty, tangy tomato-caper sauce, peas, and carrots. The meat is downright fork-tender and aggressively beefy, making you wonder why you don't eat tongue more often. A somewhat pedestrian-sounding Pollo Asado ($18) is worth an order, too. The brined half Murray's chicken is rubbed with coriander, caraway seeds, and cumin, then roasted with berbere-spiced onions. While our white meat was a touch dry, the juicy dark meat, rich spice rub, and sweetly spiced (and appealingly meaty) onions more than made up for it.

And it's worth noting that both those entreés are under $20; La Vara is an adult-feeling, comfortable restaurant, but by no means an expensive one.

Montbrú cheese

Dessert brings a whole new roster of specials, some of which, like Montbrú cheese on toasted bread with poached rhubarb, sounded too good to pass up. When it arrived, the only semi-melted cheese didn't really wow us.

But the Egipcio ($8) did. It didn't necessarily read as the most exciting on the menu, but the date walnut tart was easily the best dessert. A crumbly, sandy-butter crust crumbles at the touch of the fork, with a barely orange blossom–tinged filling and a bracingly tart lemon curd on top. We preferred it to the Helado De Aceite ($8), whose texture was a bit grainy rather than flawlessly smooth, with an olive oil flavor was milder than it could've been. That said, it's plenty tasty, and the layered wafer served with it is delicious.

Were there a few misses on La Vara's menu? Sure. But a comfortable neighborhood spot with reasonable prices, killer fried chickpeas, and plenty of knockout dishes—we're happy to recommend it heartily.