Tuesday, May 1, 2018

La Bodega By Salts: Compelling Uruguayan Cuisine in Watertown

Most restaurants have a soft opening for a week or two, giving themselves a little time to prepare for their official opening, testing out their food and service with actual customers. Last week, I dined at a restaurant during their soft opening, which has been going on for over four months. Why such a lengthy soft opening? I'll explain that in a moment but first let me tell you that I had an impressive experience and am eager to return.

La Bodega by Salts, located in Watertown is owned by Gabriel Bremer and Analia Verolo, the former owners of the famed Cambridge restaurant, Salts, which offered upscale French cuisine. Back in 2014, a serious flood within the restaurant led to its closure. Gabriel and Analia considered what to do next, eventually finding a potential location in Watertown. However, they didn't believe that a similar concept to Salts would fit their new location so they opted for Uruguayan cuisine, reflective of Analia's homeland. The main idea was to offer wood-fired, farm-to-table cuisine with a primary influence from Uruguay and other influences from Spain.

I was invited to visit the restaurant by Alexander Griffiths, the export manager for Bodega Garzón, an Uruguayan winery. We sampled numerous dishes while tasting wines from his portfolio. I'll be discussing those wines in another post in the near future.

The 90-seat restaurant is split into two sections, the first being a narrow greenhouse-like room (pictured above) with a lengthy bar on the left side. The second section is housed within a refurbished, train dining car from the 1950s. Overall, the restaurant presents as casual and homey, with a bit more intimacy in the dining car.

The lengthy bar has numerous shelves of wines and spirits, and I began my experience by sitting at the bar so that I could have a drink.

At the end of the bar, the area is for the preparation of the cold food dishes on their menu. What a beautiful leg of jamon!

I had the chance to meet both Gabriel and Analia, who were very personable, and I observed them being that way with many of their customers. I spoke more with Analia, clearly witnessing her passion for the restaurant and her home country of Uruguay. She explained to me the reasons for the length of the soft opening, the challenges they faced as they attempted to open their restaurant. At one point in the process, they were informed by the licensing board that they needed to open La Bodega within 15 days or risk losing their liquor license. Gabriel and Analia weren't expecting to have to open so soon, and there were plenty of obstacles facing them, but they chose to make the huge effort to comply.

Somehow they found a way to pull all of the pieces together, furnishing the restaurant, hiring staff, gathering all of the necessary licenses, and much more. They succeeded in opening within fifteen days and I'm sure many of other restaurant owners would have failed in a similar situation. With this rush, they couldn't put together everything in place as they wanted it to be. So, since their opening, they have been working on everything else, such as trying to garner sufficient staff, and creating the menus they desire. Currently, they are only open during the evening, Wednesday to Saturday. In the future, they want to open from Monday to Saturday, and be open for lunch as well.

I didn't witness any issues, in either service or the cuisine, during my visit. Whatever issues they still have weren't readily visible. My visit was on a Friday evening and the restaurant was packed, a good sign that the restaurant has already earned a good reputation. Based on my own experiences, I too would provide a hearty recommendation for La Bodega.

Their drinks program is intriguing and extensive, including spirits, cocktails, wine, beer, ciders, and more. The drinks list has 9 special cocktails ($10-$14) such as the Compartir Or Not, made with Yerba Mate, Lemon, Orange, & Brandy or the Sangria de la Casa, made with red wine, compressed pear, spice, & house citrus liquor. I opted for the Mangalitsa Old Fashioned ($13), made with Amarena Wild Cherries, Angostura, and Mangalitsa Jamon Infused Bourbon. It was delicious, very savory with a briny element to it. What a fine way to begin the evening.

You'll find an interesting list of beers as well as 4 ciders ($6-$9), including 2 from Spain, 1 from New York, and 1 from Boston. There are 8 wines available by the glass ($9-$16), with 3 from Uruguay, 3 from Spain, 1 from France, and 1 from California. Those wines are also broken down into 1 Sparkling Wine, 1 Rosé, 3 Whites, and 3 Reds. There are also 6 Vermouth by the glass ($9-$10), including 2 from Spain, 1 from Italy and 1 from France. The bottle list begins with a list of about 30 Uruguay wines, from five wineries including Bodegas Carrau, Bodegas Cerro Chapeu, Bodegas Bouza, Familias Deicas, and Bodegas Garzon. The rest of the wine list includes numerous wines from the cellar of Salts as well as others, with a diverse selection from all over the world.

We began our dinner with bread and Bodega Garzón olive oil, a blend of Arbequina and Coratina olives. The food menu contains about 25 dishes, mostly small plates with a couple larger dishes. Dishes are priced from $4-$27, with 10 dishes priced at $10 and under while only 2 dishes are priced over $20. Much of the menu are Uruguayan specialties while other dishes have a Spanish influence. There is plenty of variety and everyone should be able to find several dishes that appeal to them, whether they seek vegetable or meat dishes. Overall, each dish is large enough for two people, if not more, to share. I'm a big fan of small plates as I like to experience the diversity of the menu and don't mind sharing. Please note that the menu is subject to change.

The Cured Mangalitsa Ham with Pan Con Tomato ($15) includes paper thin slices of ham from Mangalitsa pigs which were raised in Hungary, eating acorns, and were then sent for finishing to Spain for three years. The silky ham had a nutty undertone, a mild saltiness and plenty of flavor.

The Uruguayan Style Empanadas ($10) change daily and Beef ones were available during my visit. A fine, flaky crust encased a tasty filling of finely chopped beef, veggies, spices and herbs. They brought to mind some of the empanadas I enjoyed when I visited Argentina.

The Grilled Provolone, Uruguayan style ($8) is a medium-sized pan of cheese, topped with some oregano. The dark spot atop the dish is just grilled cheese which provides a bit of a crunchy texture, complementing the spongy cheese beneath. With a mild sharpness to it, this melted cheese was delicious, a nice blend of textures, and was excellent atop the country bread. I'd probably order this every time I visited La Bodega.

The Wood Grilled Wild Spanish Octopus ($15), with heirloom fingerling potatoes and pimenton, had several very tender pieces of tentacle, with a pleasant smokiness. Octopus isn't the easiest to prepare well but they hit the mark. The potatoes were also cooked just right. A winner of a dish.

The Wood Roasted Mussels ($10), with toasted almond, spring green garlic, and garden herbs, presented a nice mound of plump and tender mussels with a tasty broth, perfect for dipping bread. There was a touch of smokiness to the mussels, enhanced by the garlic. Another winner of a dish.

The Heirloom Baby Carrots ($10), prepared A la plancha, are made with Romesco and almonds. The tender, grilled carrots were tasty, the almonds adding some nuttiness and texture to the dish.

The Wood Grilled Sweetbreads ($14) are topped by a Sauce Verde and roasted lemon.  I love sweetbreads and these were prepared well, with a great texture, some crispiness on the exterior, and a smoky element. The lemon gave the dish some acid to cut the richness of the sweetbreads.

The Albondigas de Cordero ($14) are spring lamb meatballs with English peas and green garlic. The tender meatballs were flavorful with the peas adding a slight sweetness to the dish. Nice comfort food.

Chivito, means literally means "small goat," is a popular sandwich in Uruguay, and generally is a steak sandwich with a variety of toppings. The Chivito al Pan ($17) is sliced beef tenderloin, country ham, bacon, and a fried egg. It is quite a large sandwich, and a bit messy to eat, but it was also quite tasty, with plenty of tender meats. The soft roll enhanced the sandwich, which is large enough to make its own meal. Again, this is an excellent comfort food and I understand its popularity in Uruguay.

The dessert menu has about 9 or so options, and we opted for these Dulce de Leche filled-cookies. Dulce de leche is a hugely popular item in Uruguay, and is served in a myriad of dishes. We also got to taste their Flan, which was sweet and smooth, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

We enjoyed every dish we ordered, which were all well-prepared and possessed of balanced flavors. Much of the menu could be considered comfort food, the type of food that just pleases the belly. The drinks list is compelling as well, and if I lived closer to Watertown, I might be a regular at the bar. This is a worthy successor to Salts, though the cuisine is very different. I love Analia's passion for her heritage, and Uruguayan cuisine certainly deserves a place in our culinary scene. I strongly recommend you check out La Bodega, and I'll report back again when I revisit the restaurant.


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Zia Joaquin said...

We went with my parents Friday night to La Bodega, the new restaurant in Watertown by the owners of Salts which was in Cambridge. La Bodega is Uruguayan influenced tapas and they are delicious!

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