Bulla Gastrobar, the fifth location for the Florida-based chain by Centurion Restaurant Group, opened Sept. 28 in the densely competitive South Howard corridor. Inspired by the famous gastrobars of Spain, the casual 172-seat tapas bar offers indoor and outdoor seating, and Luna Lounge, a rooftop bar, one of the area’s few, will open at the end of the year.
It has a lot going for it, its interior the top draw, with an attractive long bar, great use of sleek woods and wrought-iron screens, and an open-to-the-street feel that will be lovely as the season continues to cool. They’ve assembled an eclectic staff, some young and some less so, some service veterans and some less so, but the service flow in general works remarkably well for such a young restaurant.
My biggest question about this newcomer is location. There are Bulla Gastrobars in downtown Coral Gables, the Shops at Downtown Doral, Winter Park, midtown Atlanta. But I wonder if any of those were launched so close to another restaurant with a strikingly similar menu. Ceviche, a huge and long-standing Spanish tapas spot, is just four blocks away. Not that there isn’t room for two places proffering albondigas, patatas bravas and paella, but as is often the case in a restaurant climate that is getting perilously close to overbuilt, it will come down to quality and perceived value.
Having eaten several meals at Bulla (pronounced "boo-ya," by the way), brunch seems to be the best deal and the biggest draw (South Tampa is about as brunch-crazy as I’ve seen — just look at that Daily Eats line). It’s partly because the quality of light in the dining room is glorious on a Sunday morning, and also because of the bottomless mimosas and sangria. But they do a great job with a lineup of egg-centric Spanish-inflected dishes, a big handful of the small plates available at other meals, and then some kooky decadence that Spaniards might be perplexed by: hazelnut waffles with house-made hazelnut spread, chocolate shavings and a gilding-the-lily white chocolate chantilly cream, a deal at $9.
I flew solo one Sunday with the intention of a leisurely read of the paper. I found myself distracted from the A section by a truly excellent hamburger topped with piquillo peppers with a little zing, sweet cipollini onions, molten tetilla cheese and a drizzle of honey thyme glaze, served on a glossy brioche bun and accompanied by what they call truffle fries but are really crunchy potato nuggets tossed in a bit of truffle oil. It wasn’t cheap at $15, but it showed real attention to detail, the patty expertly cooked. I was nearly as smitten one night by cumin-marinated pork skewers with mojo verde and a cooling bit of Greek yogurt ($9), a great shared dish. We paired that with a smattering of cheese and charcuterie (almost all $6.50 except for the Iberico ham, which is $15), all straight-down-the-middle Spanish, nothing really knocking my socks off (I’d say too many of the cheeses have the same consistency).
There’s something I’ve been gaga for in Barcelona: pan con tomate, a rusk of toasted crusty bread that you wipe a sliced garlic clove against, then squish a ripe tomato on, then drizzle with olive oil, a few cranks of salt and pepper and you call it breakfast. Bulla’s version is too soft, the puree of tomatoes immediately sogging the bread so you end up gripping something gooey at the center ($5). This version is more like a bruschetta’s slatternly cousin, but the house olives, with lots of garlic and orange peel, are quite nice ($4).
Bulla’s wine list hews strictly to Spain, with lots of options in the $60s and $70s, very little by the bottle under $40 (glasses hover around $11). With a full bar, they’ve opted to offer a broader palette, with a great gin and tonic ($11) with a little bottle of Fever Tree tonic water, and a solid Moscow Mule ($11), again with quite good Fever Tree ginger beer.
My biggest disappointment was the most expensive dish on the menu, the seafood paella at $39, which arrived looking lovely with its king prawns sitting up jauntily, but the rice proved much too crunchy and those king prawns were translucent-raw at the center. This is not the first rodeo for chef-partner Keith Williamson — I’ve followed his career at a number of other Tampa Bay restaurants. So my hunch is dishes like the paella will be tweaked until they are reliable.
"Booyah" is one of those expressions that has snuck into our lexicon, an exuberant bleet of triumph. Bulla is certainly attractive, with a marquee spot at the bottom of SoHo’s new Morrison apartment building and a growing number of apartment and condo residents all around. So maybe nearby Ceviche will pose no threat, with South Tampa adopting a "the more the merrier" stance with its tastes for tapas.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.