Alex Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, built an empire of tapas and pintxos restaurants in Manhattan, but when they picked up a Brooklyn space in 2012, settling on a leafy, brownstone-lined Cobble Hill street, they decided to do something different. At La Vara they focus on the Moorish and Sephardic influences on the culture of northern Spain, made current with contemporary Middle Eastern touches that showcase dishes that Muslims and Jews brought to the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago. No one’s going to beat you about the head with the careful meditation and experimentation that has formed the list here, but you'll notice immediately that the tapas don’t look familiar. There's no tortilla Española, no bacalao, no pan con tomate (well, sort of — there’s pan amb tomaca, which adds nori and mojama, a salt-cured tuna, to tomato-rubbed bread). There are albóndigas, but these meatballs are made of lamb. And then there are fried chickpeas, deviled eggs with green tahini and smoked paprika, crisp artichokes with anchovy aioli, Gibraltar-style chicken hearts, and a Murcian pasta with goat butter, ground goat, and sumac. Don't miss the fideuà, a noodle paella that blends skinny strands of pan-fried pasta with seafood and aioli. Consider finishing with torta Santiago, a Galician almond Passover cake, or a little olive-oil ice cream. Intellectualism aside, La Vara is warm and inviting, dressed brightly with Moorish cutouts decorating an exposed-brick wall, and it offers a slew of easy-drinking and well-priced wines (Spanish, of course), along with a handful of sherries. It's an ideal place for a date or a friendly rendezvous, which is probably, more than anything, why it's so beloved by the people who live nearby.
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