Dodging one of those quick-hitting thunderstorms so common this time of year, my wife and I duck into a Spanish tapas restaurant that’s crackling with energy like the chatty bolts of lightning dancing overhead.
It’s an otherwise typical Wednesday evening in Winter Park – a swanky, old-money suburb just north of Orlando – but there’s nothing typical about the electric vibe spilling out of this up-tempo gathering spot.
From the modern-style dining area … to the front-and-center bar … to the wraparound patio overlooking Morse Boulevard – whose eponymous museum happens to house the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany – there’s so much buzz you’d think it was graduation weekend at nearby Rollins College.
But it’s a Wednesday. A dreary, overcast Wednesday.
What’s the name of this place again?
“Bulla Gastrobar,” my wife says. “Like Stuart Scott from ESPN. BOO-Ya!”
One of the regulars tells us the word means “boisterous conversation.” And that’s appropriate because, from what I can tell, Bulla is literally and figuratively built around the novel concept of people actually talking to each other over drinks and a meal.
To that end, the bar has no TVs. Layered acoustic tiles keep the noise at a quiet roar. Some communal seating is available, but not ad nauseam. Cozy two- and four-top tables offer the right mix of personal space and neighborly interaction. The entire restaurant seems like an extension of the bar and open kitchen, and a calming array of earth tones evoke images of soaring above Madrid’s countryside.
Bulla’s goal, our waiter explains, is to make every day feel like Friday night. Mission accomplished. Now for the real test: How’s the food? And how is this stylish new upstart – which also has locations in Coral Gables and Doral, with many more to come throughout the country – different than the other Spanish offerings that dot Florida’s culinary landscape?
One look at the menu and it’s obvious: Cured meats from Salamanca and the Pyrenes. Goat and sheep cheese from the Canary Islands and Basque country. Authentic, Valencian-inspired paella with a crispy, “socorrat” crust. The fare is Spanish in the truest sense of the word, as in the mother country on the Iberian Peninsula.
Bulla’s dishes are more Mediterranean meets continental European, with all bread, cheese and meat imported from Spain. Even the succulent octopus, which I soon discover is beyond excellent, never spread its tasty tentacles west of the Strait of Gibraltar. One woman, apparently, drives from Daytona Beach every week – an hour each way – just to eat the grilled octopus salad. I can’t blame her.
In pure tapas style, my wife and I order a bit of everything, starting with the Salchichón Embutidos (thinly sliced sausage cured with garlic and herbs), Leonora (soft goat’s milk from León with a medium strong flavor) and Maxorata (a smoky, semi-hard goat’s milk with pimentón rind). Top it off with a little Pan de Cristal con Tomate (fresh tomato pulp on toasted, ethereal bread), and we’re swept away on a wonderfully eclectic journey.
Keeping us company are a Moscow Mule and Lemongrass Collins, which, like all Bulla cocktails, are infused with a house blend of simple syrup, herbs and fresh-squeezed juices. They’re soon replaced by Spanish reds and whites – the bold Alta Pavina pinot noir and a crisp Lagar de Cervera Albarińo, respectively.
Up next is the aforementioned Grilled Octopus Salad and some Huevos Bulla, a rich concoction of freshly cracked eggs, homemade chips, razor-thin Serrano ham, truffle oil and light potato foam that has the consistency of whipped cream. You want different? There you go. By the way, it’s sinfully delicious.
No trip to Bulla is complete without the signature Paella. Served in a piping hot cast-iron skillet, it’s easily enough for three or four people. Short-grain bomba rice, picada seasoning, clams, shrimp, grouper and calamari, combine with a seafood fumet and sofrito paste consisting of red peppers, onions and garlic. Put this on your bucket list.
As a special treat, the executive chef wraps up our evening with a Spanish crème brúlée he created – and won a competition with – in Spain. It’s only on the market menu from time to time, which is a shame because it’s the best dessert I’ve ever tasted. Ask for it regardless. With a little persuasion, maybe you can pull some strings. If you’re a two-dessert kind of person, order this and the Churros con Chocolate. The latter is freshly fried dough with warm chocolate sauce and the most luscious dulce de leche.
Alas, all good things must come to an end – even when the armada of food springs forth eternal. Stepping outside, the sound of distant thunder is a stark reminder that, once again, we must brave the elements and return home. Thankfully, ours is only a half-hour drive.