There are few better ways to discover a country than through its dining habits. The Spaniards eat very late, for example. The dinner hour doesn’t really come alive until about 9 or10 at night, and restaurants and cafes are busy until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Dinner takes a form totally foreign to our habitual American two or three courses centered on one main dish. In Spain, dinner is most likely to be informal tapas dining, which involve eight, 10, 12, or more tiny little courses of a bite or two each, eaten over a stretch of a few hours. So common is tapas dining in Spain that it even has its own informal Spanish verb “tapear,” which basically means “Should we ‘tapas’ tonight?”
The Spanish are very social and love to spend time in conversation, often in large groups. A common sight at night is six or eight people gathered at an outdoor restaurant arguing politics or telling stories and laughing well into the early hours, accompanied by drinks and a constant stream of little plates of tapas coming from the kitchen.
In some restaurants, the used empty small plates are stacked in the middle of the table, and at the end of the evening the waiter counts them and the bill is totaled according to how many plates were ordered. Plus wine, of course.
Tapas began appearing on Detroit menus a few years ago, but are still relatively unfamiliar. They seem to be catching on, especially with younger people for whom grazing, lighter eating, and being on the move is an extension of how they live.
Our selection this month, La Dulce in Royal Oak, is an elegant, semi-formal restaurant that takes tapas up to new heights in an utterly whimsical atmosphere. It’s a blend of Alice in Wonderland and impressionist perspective, with hints of the eccentric lens of iconic Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, who lived at the turn of the century.
The restaurant is the product of brothers Luis and Juan Carlos Negrete. Interestingly, they’re from Toluca, Mexico, but lived and worked in Spain for a few years. Luis is the owner; Juan Carlos is the executive chef.
The interior design, which was done by Madrid-based interior decorator Gaspar Sobrino, is wonderfully bizarre—with flourishes and some modern interpretations of 19th century European salon culture of Madrid and Barcelona, blended with modern industrial cubic simplicity.
A large old ornate marble fireplace mantel visually anchors 10-foot-high modern metal shelving, which vault upward exhibiting a huge collection of porcelain plates, brought from Spain and elsewhere.
Over the fireplace hangs a flat white portrait of a woman in profile in a frame made entirely of white coffee cups. Sobrino has also added a large chandelier, also made of the coffee cups. It hangs bat-like upside down and looms over the sofas and chairs like some strange white armadillo from outer space.
Everything was imported from France or Spain, right down to the floor tiles, the overstuffed armchairs and couches with backs and arms so high that they are almost booths, and the fireplace mantel. These Gaudi-esque flourishes are reflective of Spanish design and humor in select spots, and make La Dulce work as a restaurant.
“It’s a great date spot where you can talk,” says General Manager Ian Redmond, formerly of Torino in Ferndale. “It’s about conversation and continually sharing of food, so it has a very tactile feel.”
Since launching in August, Redmond says, the restaurant “has been super successful. There’s a kind of group dynamic that happens here. We’ve also had bridal showers and other groups here. And a lot of traffic from our Latino population and Europeans.”
Wander a city street in Spain, and the choice of where to dine often comes down to which trays of tapas on display are most inviting. They vary from bite-sized morsels to combos of meats, bread, cheeses, vegetables, fish, and sweet preparations.
An evening at La Dulce is an immersion into a menu of traditional tapas, but also wanders into inventive examples by letting the kitchen have some fun making original combinations.
A meal starts, as is usual in Spain also, with a gleaming plate of oven-heated olives sprinkled with dried herbs, fresh marinated anchovies in olive oil, a little cheese, and a little bread.
The menu’s first item is a traditional soup, fabada Asturiana, made of Asturian fava beans, saffron, and chorizo, and two offerings that follow fly under the banner of salad: insalada de granos, which consists of grains and roasted vegetables, dressed in chopped mint, olive oil, and a touch of vinegar, or a plate of colecitas de Bruselas, a salad of Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and Pecorino cheese.
Then come the tapas themselves, beginning with two vegetable plates: Patatas bravas or potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and aioli for dipping, or a tortilla de patatas composed of eggs and potatoes with caramelized onions.
Traditional meat and fish preparations follow and include chipirones en su tinta, squid cooked in its ink with onion and brandy. There’s tabla de embutidos Ibéricos, a selection of charcuterie, chorizo, pate, and assorted sausages, then a plate of the famous Iberian ham. Croquetas de lomo are breaded and fried potato croquettes inside of which is shredded pork loin and a creamy béchamel sauce.
La Dulce’s menu then goes in a different direction with Negrete’s assortment of unique house variations on Spanish specialties, such as rustic farm bread with serrano ham and quail egg, or the rustic bread with wild mushroom and goat cheese. And for the more adventurous, there’s blood sausage with peanuts and bell pepper jam or an unusual combination of lobster cauliflower and saffron.
While octopus features prominently on its own or in many dishes, there are also such delights as roasts of marinated shoulder of boar and the unique flavors of acorn-fed pork.
In addition to dinner, the restaurant also serves a Saturday brunch that includes seafood paella, suckling pig, and gravlax, plus several more standard brunch items.
La Dulce has its own polish—charm and grace, a warm welcome, and, most important, very good food. Key to its success? Four veterans of Torino in Ferndale, one of the best restaurants to open around here in the last 20 years (but sadly, it closed last summer). In addition to Redmond, sous-chef Kayla Pilato, Jaz’min Weaver, who was a bartender at Torino, and Dan McCarthy, the lead server there but now is a manager and runs the bar at La Dulce.
The Negretes, with the Torino veterans, have opened a very different kind of restaurant that adds a terrific new piece of Spain to Detroit dining, giving us a peek into another world.
Making tapas part of life in Detroit is certainly another great plus to our already wide range of ethnic foods, and will hopefully continue on to become part of our traditions here.
115 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-268-1719. D Tue.-Sat. Br. Sat.-Sun.