Photos Cody Swanson
268 Clinton St, Cobble Hill
5 out of 5 L's
Don’t be fooled by the cookie-cutter looks of this little spot, tucked into a Cobble Hill side street. From the outside, it doesn’t appear different from the New American joint that previously occupied its space, but once you grab a table—or better yet, a seat at the bar—and start sipping sherry, listening to the litany of specials and reading through the multi-sectioned menu, you’ll be quickly transported across the Atlantic. Wife-and-husband proprietors Alex Raij and Eder Montero own two of Manhattan’s finest Spanish spots, and while La Vara doesn’t look as homey as the wallpapered and chalkboarded El Quinto Pino, or as rustic and romantic as Txikito, the food is ready for its close-up.
From the pica-pica (that is, small bites) section of La Vara’s menu, the oil-cured sardine ($7) is as thick as a roll of quarters, its silvery skin glinting like a coin. The hot pink stems of pickled ramps cut through the sardine’s richness, and thick strips of charred country bread sop up the golden olive oil drizzled beneath the pickles and fish. The fritos section, designated for fried snacks, includes impossibly light batter-fried artichokes ($9), doused in a creamy and salty anchovy aioli. The molletes ($8), filed under panes, or breads, is a messy and delicious little sandwich: Sevillian pita bread barely encloses a big, smoky scoop of “bacon paprika stew,” chewy pieces of pork dripping with a russet-colored, spicy-sweet liquid. The frios y ensaladas portion of the menu offers stuffed rabbit loin, house-cured salt cod, and imported tuna, but the most assertive and delectable greens are served beside the pincho de ceuta ($13), or grilled chicken hearts. A pile of shredded herbs and arugula in a sweet-tart date-lime vinaigrette pairs perfectly with the skewered hearts, which are tender and deeply flavorful—a must-try for fans of dark meat. We passed over the many mouth-watering options on the calientes menu—cumin-roasted lamb, handmade Murcian pasta with goat butter, Valencian-style noodle paella—in favor of the cochinillo special ($30), slow-roasted suckling pig. Its skin crackled like a sheet of hard candy and tasted like bacon-flavored butterscotch. The juicy, big-enough-to-share hunk of meat slid off the bone and into a plate pooled with delicate quince-rose petal sauce on one side and bright green chimichurri on the other. Much of La Vara’s menu inspiration comes from Spain’s pork-averse Jewish and Muslim communities, but this pig—which breaks both religions’ rules—is simply divine.
The final sign of serious Spanish cuisine is the dessert menu, which promises a walnut-date tart scented with orange blossoms, house-made olive oil ice cream with sea salt, a traditional plate of nougat confections and almond cookies ($8 per dessert)—no dumbed-down chocolate tarts here. La Vara’s decor may develop with time, but we recommend sampling Raij’s impeccable cooking now, before this undercover spot gets swamped.