“The clear favorite,” chef Stark muses today, “Spain. More specifically, Barcelona.”
So when the opportunity came to take over the former Ravenous space in downtown Healdsburg, he decided that a tapas lounge was just the thing, complete with a ham and cheese bar, and a lounge serving specialty gin and tonics and Spanish sherries.
Good choice. Since Bravas opened three weeks ago, the petite eatery has been packed with diners enjoying arrays of small plates like tostadas of escalivada (fire-pit vegetables) and anchovies drizzled in PX syrup ($6), or lavender-scented quail decorated in sherried grapes and Basque honey ($12).
“Walking through the Boqueria market was an amazing and jaw-dropping experience,” Stark recalls today. “There were more stalls solely dedicated to salt cod than an entire produce section at Safeway. Live eels slithering, mountains of snails and periwinkles, and more Jamón Ibérico than one could imagine. But the most impressive thing was the hordes of Spanish locals gathering the night’s meal. This is really how they eat.”
After securing a table amid the orange-painted walls (reservations are strongly recommended, though on Friday and Saturday, they’re taken only for parties of eight or more), you’ll study a lengthy menu of more than three dozen tapas choices. The idea is to mix-and-match, share and sip, and linger through an evening, lunch or brunch chatting with friends in the crowded dining room, lounge and bar.
“My favorite right now is the octopus a la plancha with smoked paprika vinaigrette,” said Stark. “I really didn’t think it would be such a hit. I just felt it should be on the menu, much as you would find in Spain. I think we are currently selling about 60 pounds a week.”
The dish brings a thick, sturdy tentacle that’s actually one of the larger plate offerings. It’s been grilled, paired with slabs of roasted potato and tomato and decorated with olives ($12).
Servers recommend ordering two to four dishes per person, and that’s a good way to go, given such generally rich flavors. The hand-carved Fermín Jamón Ibérico ($15) is a luxurious starter, though a bocadillo lined in Serrano ham, manchego and truffle paste is fun, crunchy nibble, too ($8). Local sardines in black olive ink ($10) and good and tart, while a saucer of roasted red beets, cinnamon, walnuts, and manchego ($8) is a fresh taste of autumn.
My companion and I zeroed in on two favorite plates: silky tuna belly tossed with green olives, boiled egg and shaved celery over black olive puree ($19), and crispy patates bravas (potato chunks) dipped in spicy tomato sauce and aioli ($7). The dishes are light, and pleasingly bar snacky while still holding style.
A fried duck egg sprinkled in spicy chorizo cracklings and mopped up with crostini ($7) is pleasing if messy, and duck meatballs moistened in tomato sofrito and green olive puree ($8) are perfect pop-in-the-mouth nibbles.
I don’t need to try fried pig ear ($9) again, though. The paper-lined glass tucked with squiggly strips tasted mostly like salty chew, in a rubbery texture. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, yet I’m happier with the long cooked pork cheeks doused in bright salsa verde ($8).
Preferences aside, the only real misstep occurred at dessert, with a cup of olive oil ice cream. We were thinking we would get ice cream made with olive oil; instead, we got vanilla soft serve drowned in olive oil and sprinkled in sea salt ($7), in such large quantities that all we could taste was the heavy oil and seasoning.
Putting out such an ambitious menu is no easy feat, Stark admitted. “If I had to pick one thing that really challenged us in the renovation, it certainly was the size of the kitchen,” Stark said. “No bigger than a closet, it took some head scratching to piece together something that could serve 150 seats. We put a jamón and cheese station at the bar opposite the kitchen and hired petite cooks for the kitchen. Last Saturday, we had six cooks in that closet pumping out tapas.”
And there’s no doubt that the cocktails are a hit. Part of the renovation of the old property included a new patio out back, anchored by a wood-encased, open-front bar. Imbibers can select from a large variety of Spanish sherries ($9-$14) craft beers ($4-$19), or cocktails like the Levante cocktail of Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, orange, saffron and cardamom ($10).
On the bar wall, there glows a “Jamon In!” neon sign. It’s advice well taken.
Details: Bravas Bar de Tapas, 420 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-433-7700, barbravas.com. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.