A piece of toasted bread, spread with chopped tomatoes, topped with a slice of Manchego cheese and a generous piece of Spanish ham. Its simpleness is deceptive. There is more to it than those ingredients: It’s about the way the tomatoes soften the bread just enough; it’s about the interplay of acid and sweetness (tomatoes) with saltiness (Manchego) and richness (ham). But in its simpleness lies its allure: The elements speak for themselves, and they barely have to try. This place bills itself as an “homage” to Spanish tapas bars. Which is strange because with faithful dishes like the jamon serrano, it actually becomes one.
Dutiful is a useful word for discussing Black Bull, the latest project from the owners of Barn & Company. Bob Zrenner (ex–Branch 27 and Graze) is the chef of the three spots, all of which marry his “chef-driven” menus with group drinking and bar hours. The difference between Black Bull and the two others is that here, Zrenner and his chef de cuisine, Matt Wilde, pretty much nail it. Before handing them too much credit, there are some key differences between Black Bull and its brethren: This is the smallest of the bunch (though it has one too many TVs to be considered intimate). There was a (very short) wait even on a Tuesday night, so the place is definitely “happening,” but it’s not oppressively scene-y. (Then again, the volume and slickness of have a way of making any other tapas joint in the city seem low-key.) Thus, perhaps by virtue of the small, narrow space, or perhaps as a result of the casual, snack-like tapas menu, Black Bull feels much more like a bar than a restaurant. This is a major advantage.and
A bowl of beautiful marinated olives is set down as soon as you’re seated. Follow it up with an order of the jamon toasts, then the mejillones en escabeche: The mussels are purportedly pickled, though they have none of the piquancy you’d expect from the description. Instead, they’re plump and mild-flavored, set on top of a rustic potato puree in one of those tins you usually see filled with imported tuna. Patatas bravas have the crunch of triple-fried french fries and are drizzled with ketchup and mayo: How could that be bad? The grilled, paprika-dusted octopus is as tender as they come; the combination of grilled figs, pickled cherries (again, sans noticeable pickling), toasted almonds and heady Cabrales blue cheese is sophisticated while never trying to approach complicated.
The flavors aren’t new, and they’re not especially bold. But they’re nothing if not satisfying. There are, of course, exceptions: Lamb meatballs are too finely ground and pasty, garlic prawns lack flavor, and salt cod-stuffed piquillo peppers (though delicious) taste much more like starch and cheese than fish. Desserts are your standard we-don’t-care-about-dessert pan con chocolate and rice pudding, and some of the bread tasted chewy to the point of almost stale. It’s possible to find a good beer or glass of wine on the drink list, but the bar program overall is uninspired: Why bother with beautiful green-glass pitchers when the sangria served in them doesn’t even attempt to improve the beverage’s sorry reputation?
So, sure, look and you will find plenty of things to gripe about here. But bring a group of friends, have plenty to drink and enjoy as the attentive servers group your tapas order into “courses” set on handsome wooden boards. There’ll be no plates constantly hitting the table, interrupting conversation; instead, there’ll be grabbing and sharing—and practically no fussing. Black Bull’s not trailblazing a new future for restaurants. But it does make you forget everything annoying that has happened to small, shareable plates in the past.