La Vara: Thanks, Spanish Inquisition


There was a time in Spain when pork was the law. The Spanish Inquisition ramped up in the 1400s to brutally enforce a Christian culture. So while Spain’s Jewish and Muslim communities did not eat pork, they began cooking it as an angry gesture of assimilation, a fat middle finger to the Grand Inquisitor, who inspected even their kitchens for signs of deviance. With time, the gesture became a part of their culinary traditions.

That’s why you’ll find a shining quarter of a piglet, its thin skin shattering under your fork, its sweet, buttery meat sliding off the shank bone, at a new Sephardi-Moorish spot in Cobble Hill. Alexandra Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, run two Manhattan tapas bars, Txikito and El Quinto Pino. But La Vara, which opened in late March, plays with the older, irresistible flavors established by Spain’s forgotten cooks.

There is berenjena con miel ($8), bludgeons of fried eggplant with creamy centers, sprinkled with nigella seeds and honey, sunk in a shallow bowl of melted cheese. These are the disco fries of the Old World, medieval munchies made with great care. And there are anchoas en aceite ($11), slender, intensely flavored anchovies, their feathery bones dressed with a sheer crumble of sesame and hazelnuts, served with charred bread. The remojón ($14) is a brash salad of blood orange, house-cured salt cod, pistachios, olives, pomegranate, and chopped hard-boiled eggs. It’s the most oddball and excellent dish you’ll have had in ages—a wildly cluttered pile of textures, made brilliant by plenty of olive oil, confident seasoning, and straight-up swagger.

But you’ll get to that later. The restaurant is on one of those quaint, storybook streets in Brooklyn, a few blocks from the Bergen Street F stop, and next door to a quiet park where nannies and freelancers spend sunny days sipping iced coffee and skimming the newspaper as shrubs unfurl along the wrought-iron fence. La Vara is small and simply decorated. There is a handful of tables and enough room to eat comfortably at the bar. Right now, it’s a neighborhood joint, full of locals who can’t believe their luck: a new place that isn’t doing the old farm-to-table thing? But once word gets out about La Vara’s compelling cooking and reasonable prices, food lovers will be commuting here for dinner.

Begin by ordering the fried chickpeas ($3) and a glass of dry sherry, so you’ll have something to snack on while you study the long menu and listen to the never-ending specials; every relaxed, earnest waiter appears to have his own little stack of scraps on which he scribbles illegible notes about these. Keep in mind that the specials are true specials, which is to say that the ones you hear about tonight might not be around tomorrow or ever again, so you should be bold and take a chance on at least one. All of the dishes at La Vara are for sharing, and prices will indicate portion sizes to you quite reliably.

Brick de acelgas ($9) involves filling a gauzy pastry related to filo with Swiss chard, kale, currants, and pine nuts. The black-bottomed bundles aren’t much to look at but will carry you away with their graceful crunch and gentle sweetness. The cordero al ajo cabanil ($19) is a crisp terrine of braised lamb, which pulls apart to reveal sticky, lip-smacking meat, kissed with cumin. It’s served as a generous portion, cut with sharp spring onions and preserved lemon.

Raij and Montero take turns in the kitchen, and La Vara suggests that their system of running three restaurants together is working well. But dishes like the small cornmeal pies, thinly filled with razor clams and a kick of grit, might still be in development. And a bartender, perhaps not used to answering questions about the food, made the charming mistake of grabbing his own buttock to indicate which part of the animal was on my plate. So if you look for rehearsed perfection and solemnity with your dinner, La Vara, and maybe life in general, is not for you.

You’ll find the dessert menu also plays with Sephardic and Moorish traditions. Natillas de arroz con leche ($8) is a cold, smoky custard perfumed with cinnamon and rose water, garnished with a segment of grapefruit. But the standout is the egipcio ($8), an ancient, ugly Pop-Tart filled with dates and spritzed with orange-blossom water. It’s rich with the almost alcoholic sweetness of dried fruit, and the sandy pastry is lovely, draped on one side with sharp lemon curd and on the other with thick cream. Like with many of life’s sweet things, a taste of bitterness can make it more beautiful. For this, there is espresso.