La Bodega (Minneapolis, MN)
It's pronounced "TAH-pas" -- please make the standard joke yourselves. Tapas are Spanish bar food: small plates of morsels meant for sharing. In Spain, no one eats dinner before ten, so tapas fill the gap in the day between siesta and supper; we're happy to while away the late afternoon with friends, a glass of wine, and snacks. Here in the United States, tapas are a dinner option. Of course, American tapas bars serve alcohol, but the tapas are the star.
La Bodega serves 51 different tapas. There's no easy way to tell which dishes are served hot and which cold, so putting together a good mix of tidbits is unreasonably risky. Clunkers arrive far too often to make the exercise as much fun as it ought to be. And for some reason, there are more Italian dishes on the menu than we expected.
La Bodega serves some really good tapas. We loved the sautéed green beans with olive oil, garlic, and black pepper. The beans were served fresh and hot, and the oil was fabulous to dip bread in. The fried cheese in tomato sauce was a perfect little snack. We liked the very flavorful marinated smelt, served cold with anchovies and caper. We also recommend the grilled garlic prawns and the langostinas a la plancha: both easy to eat and delicious.
Other dishes were forgettable. There was nothing actively wrong with the sautéed clams in olive oil, garlic, and white wine, but there was nothing to recommend it, either. Better the waiter should bring a pool of the sauce to dip bread in. The broiled quail was good, but its sophisticated gentle flavor was sucker-punched by the pickled onion garnish served with it.
And then there are the clunkers. The sautéed asparagus with Castellano cheese was served cold, tasted canned, and the flavors didn't work together at all. The meatballs arrived with parmesan cheese, parsley, and tomato sauce as advertised, but had less flavor than we imagined possible. Same with the sliced boiled egg with garlic and parsley; what arrived was what was promised, but nothing special. The smoked tuna carpaccio was similarly flavorless. And don't order the gazpacho. Just don't.
We had high hopes for the squid, stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and raisins. We stared at it, we poked at it, we tasted it. Finally, we understood: it was stuffed with crumbs like the ones we clean out of our toaster. And the cold white asparagus in olive oil vinaigrette tasted (again) canned, and was even worse than the hot version. And the breaded and fried fennel tasted like mealy onion rings.
Potato dishes were mixed. Near as we could tell, there's a single vat of mediocre chunked potatoes in the kitchen, waiting for whatever sauce the patrons order. However, when covered in garlic and mustard aïoli, they're quite good. Served with lomito -- the roast pork tenderloin -- they were less good; the whole dish tasted like leftovers. The cold octopus salad with potatoes and pimentos was okay, but nothing to come back for.
Four to six people is ideal for La Bodega, because you want to share dishes. Order them in waves, two or three at a time. But watch your wallets, because the portions are tiny and the prices don't reflect that. The meatballs cost $5.95 and come three to an order, whereas the grilled prawns come two to an order at $7.50. And those sautéed asparagus with cheese that we disliked so much: four pieces for $7.25.
It adds up quickly. On one visit, four of us ordered eighteen tapas at $43 per person. The moral here is not to let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. Order your tapas a few at a time, and stop ordering when you're full. Three or four dishes per person is more than enough for dinner, and you won't get stuck with an unreasonable and surprising bill.
The other trick is to visit La Bodega in the traditional way, for drinks and a snack. It's a bright and lively restaurant for that kind of thing. We liked the vivid yellows and blues, and thought the chairs were quite European. The wine list is interesting and inexpensive, and it's a great place to relax with friends for a bit. Service is friendly, and no one rushes you. In the summer, sit outside and take in the Lyn-Lake scene.
Years ago, when Bruce lived in Chicago, one of our favorite Chicago restaurants was Emilio's Tapas Bar. Their bacon wrapped dates are the stuff of dreams. Our ability to negotiate sharing a plate of five pieces is what gave us the confidence to move in together and get married. La Bodega isn't up to this level, but it can be a fun place to stop for a drink and a snack.