- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
The first thing to know about Bulla Gastrobar is that it is not pronounced “bull-ah.” The correct pronunciation is “boo-yah.”
As owner Carlos Centurion told an interviewer at the original location of this Spanish-styled tapas restaurant in the Coral Gables neighborhood of Miami, bulla “literally means ‘noise’ but basically has connotations of fun, excitement, commotion, liveliness.” Aside from, of course, a table of gin and tonics and serrano ham and pintxos, that is, one assumes, exactly what he hopes you might find at the Atlanta location of Bulla Gastrobar, the latest outpost of a chain rapidly expanding out of its Florida origins.
If you’re befuddled by pronunciations from the Spanish, don’t despair. From the elaborate website where you make your reservations (you’ll probably need one) to the branded to-go bags designed with a word cloud of Spanish culinary jargon (kalimotxo, montadito, mazuelo, etc.), you’ll have no shortage of reminders of Bulla’s proper pronunciation. It’s a good word to remember, mostly because it is key to ordering the best plate of food you can find at Bulla Gastrobar.
That would be huevos Bulla, a clever concoction of house-made potato chips, fried egg, potato foam and serrano ham. Each element is layered over one another, so that when it arrives, all of the other ingredients will be obscured by the thin sheet of salty, fat-veined ham on top. That view is fleeting. The server who delivers the dish will quickly whip out a pair of utensils to mix, tear and toss the ingredients until they are a rich, salty slurry of runny egg and threads of ham punctuated by crunchy bits of chips. The potato foam binding it all together is thrillingly light, like mashed potatoes served from a Reddi-wip can.
Fun, creative dishes like that, which marry the familiar and unfamiliar into easily shareable bar snacks, are a big part of the reason that Spanish-styled tapas caught on as one of the trendiest American dining styles of the 1990s. It would not be an overstatement to say that tapas had a big hand in remaking the dominant style of American restaurants. Decades later, long after the influence of Spanish ingredients had faded away, chefs are still stuffing their menus with shareable, small plates that often showcase their most creative efforts. Part of the equation is that the average American diner won’t order too unusual of an entree, but is happy to try out something “risky” like potato chips tossed in potato foam as a snack.
Bulla is a decidedly more traditional return to tapas style. The menu is dominated by classic offerings. The selection of cured meats that range from Ibérico de bellota, a treasured breed of Iberian hog that fattens up on acorns, to salchichón, a smoked summer sausage flavored with garlic. The spread of cheeses includes a familiar, nutty manchego as well as Murcia al vino, a goat cheese aged in red wine. It is hard to imagine ordering a glass of Rioja along with a selection of these simple, unadulterated Spanish pleasures and not enjoying the evening.
For my money, the best place to do that is at the rectangular bar, a more social corner of the restaurant where you’ll have a fine view of the bartender as he studs his glasses of gin and tonic with juniper berries, and the open kitchen, which is a tidy, well-dressed affair. Midtown’s young professionals have apparently already taken note of this. You’ll likely be rubbing shoulders in the lively, casual style that the Bulla is meant to invoke. The tables in the dining room, bookended with a long white leather bench, are more comfortable and spacious, though a little less fun. Upstairs, you’ll find an expansive room for private dining events, and, when you need them, the restrooms.
As for the 20 or so other small plates that comprise most of the menu, I’ve found them to be evenly split between hit or miss. A no-brainer bowl of shishito peppers, simply seared until tender and seasoned with flaky salt, was exactly the light, satisfying snack I wanted it to be. On the other hand, patatas bravas, a classic combination of crunchy potatoes and spicy aioli, wasn’t an easy home run when it should have been. Simply put, the potatoes just weren’t crunchy. Saddled under a thick layer of orange-white goop, they came out downright mushy.
The house rendition of tuna tartare felt like a trip to retro-’90s style. The minced ahi tuna is dressed in that familiar touch of soy sauce and sesame oil before being molded into a perfect cube, served with a handful of miniature hard taco shells, and left to be assembled at the diner’s discretion. The only trouble is that the shells are too sturdy, hard to the point of verging on unpleasant. A lighter touch would have gone a long way.
I much preferred the short montaditos, slices of baguette piled with rich, tender short rib, melted tetilla cheese, a sweet dab of tomato jam, and a pickled, punchy guindilla pepper. The effect is a sweet, spicy, fatty, balanced and satisfying bite.
I wish I could say the same for the biggest ticket on the menu, the deeply disappointing paella. Not that it isn’t something to look at. When the wide pan arrives at your table, no doubt you’ll notice the pretty arrangement of large, tangled head-on prawns and alternating selection of clams and small, shelled shrimp that ring the edge. But it is a letdown. Though the rice is deeply colored with a thick, red sofrito, the flavors are indistinct and muddled, oily and salty. I longed to be hit with a clear shot of smoky pimentón. The head-on prawns are rich and perfectly cooked, but that has the unfortunate effect of highlighting how overcooked and underseasoned the other shrimp are. Worst of all is the complete absence of socarrat, the crusty, crunchy edge of rice at the bottom of a paella pan where the flavors should be most concentrated. Oh well.
In any case, a big pan like that doesn’t belong on the bar at Bulla, which is where you want to be, anyway. Stick to the small plates and slivers of ham, the glasses of Rioja and gin and tonics, and remember to say “boo-yah” when you order another plate of potato foam and potato chips. It’ll be just the noisy, lively dish you’re looking for.