Restaurants born of personal passions carry an exuberance that’s easy to spot. There’s no mistaking Zak Pelaccio’s love affair with Malaysia at his Fatty Crab outposts, or Andy Ricker’s fixation with Thailand at Pok Pok, or even Michael White’s devotion to the old country throughout his Italian food empire.
Alex Raij, a Jewish-American with Argentine roots, has made a similarly impassioned career of her Iberian obsession. She started out serving excellent old-fashioned tapas at Tia Pol, before moving on to terrific Catalonian bar snacks at El Quinto Pino and impressive Basque pintxos across the street at Txikito. At each spot, Raij and her husband, Eder Montero—a Spaniard and chef-partner at these restaurants—have succeeded in giving authentic flavors just a touch, not too much, of their own personality.
The food at La Vara, their new place in Brooklyn, departs from their travelogue style of cooking, featuring dishes that barely exist in their native locale anymore, along with brand-new hybrid creations. This is all in the service of an idea that makes sense on paper, but in execution can feel forced: The menu explores the ancient legacy of pre-Inquisition Jewish and Moorish cultures (circa 15th century) on Spanish cuisine.
Even in Andalusia, the southern province where these influences are most persistent, they’ve become pretty assimilated into the mainstream, the original recipes lost to history. As a result, Raij and Montero have had to work hard to fill out their roster of dishes, mixing ancient, modern and imagined fare. It doesn’t always fit neatly into the same conceptual framework.
The physical venue is a change of pace for the couple. They’ve traded in their usual rustic tavern decor for a more modern white box, featuring decorative gold cutouts on the walls, low-slung gray tables and chairs, drop lights from the ceiling that shine too brightly and acoustics that can turn even hushed conversations into a deafening roar.
A lot of the food, shareable plates in all sizes, has more of a studious feel than at their previous restaurants. Sometimes the results are delicious, as in a vivacious salad of mixed citrus segments tossed with silky slivers of house-cured salt cod, toasted pistachios, fresh mint and olives, with pomegranate seeds showered on top. The dish achieves a nice cross-cultural balance. Another sweet-savory pairing of crispy fried eggplant batons, sharp melted cheese, toasted nigella seeds and drizzled honey works equally well.
But just as often, the Moorish and Sephardic accents fall pretty flat, as if watered down by the long passage of time. Cold boiled quail eggs with herbed tahini for dipping are a low-key bar snack, tasty enough but not terribly exciting. Chewy cumin-scented chicken hearts on tiny skewers could be Jerusalem street food if they had much more zip. Even a complex combo of flavors from across the Strait of Gibraltar—semolina pasta with goat butter, sumac, cilantro and ground goat stew—has none of the punch you’d expect after reading that list of ingredients, the strangely bland meat sauce spooned around pasta nubs mushy like overcooked gnocchi.
There’s much more gusto in the imports from the pair’s Manhattan repertoire, chosen not for the story they tell but because they simply taste good. Seafood fideua—the super-savory vermicelli paella often featured at El Quinto Pino—may be La Vara’s real standout dish, studded with plump shrimp, clams and baby squid, with a great garlicky slick of aioli on top. A version of the flatbread sandwiches they’ve occasionally served in Manhattan, stuffed here with pimentón-spiced hunks of fatty braised bacon, is also packed with flavor.
Desserts, meanwhile, are just exotic enough to be interesting. A crumbly cake stuffed with dates and walnuts comes with a tangy dollop of lemon curd. Slippery rice pudding has a touch of rose water and cinnamon on top.
This place seems like it could be Raij and Montero’s most deeply personal project—reflecting their backgrounds more distinctly than the others. But when a restaurant requires a treatise to be fully understood, the experience suffers.
If their cooking returns to its less cerebral roots, La Vara as a cross-cultural concept might actually work.
Eat this: Citrus and salt-cod salad, fried eggplant with cheese and honey, bacon sandwich, seafood fideua
Drink this: The cocktail list highlights straight-up Spanish favorites (each $10), including top-notch gin and tonics, a classic Cuba libre with five-year-old Plantation rum, and a potent Morada (a complex mix of brandy, sherry and rum served over a single giant ice cube). The all-Spanish wine list includes a super-refreshing, melony Botani Moscatel from Málaga that’s a good match for so much of the food here ($10/glass).
Sit here: The big window table in front is the best seat in the house, with plush banquettes and plenty of room
to spread out. The full menu is also available at the small bar. In good weather there are a dozen seats or so in the restaurant’s tiny backyard, a great refuge, if you can snag a spot, from the very loud dining room.
Conversation piece: Alex Raij, who grew up in Minneapolis, had her Spanish-food awakening after culinary school. She met her husband working at now-shuttered Meigas, a Spanish restaurant in Tribeca. Together they traveled across Spain collecting ideas and recipes before joining forces at Tia Pol, their first spot together. (They are no longer involved in that restaurant.)
By Jay Cheshes