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La Vara Triumphs With Bacon Sandwiches, Jewish Tarts

La Vara Salt-Baked Sea Bream
La Vara's salt-baked sea bream. The fish has a gently smoky harissa paste. Photographer: Ryan Sutton/Bloomberg

Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- La Vara in Brooklyn serves bacon sandwiches. And not just any bacon sandwich, but a pile of pimenton-stewed pork belly on a roll for $8.

One could rationalize that the abundance of smoked paprika almost qualifies it as a vegetable -- though if you’re ordering pork belly on bread, you probably stopped making excuses a long time ago.

It’s supremely delicious. But you expected no less, because the chef is Alex Raij, the woman who served chorizo sandwiches and other fine Basque fare at Txikito, as well as those mind-blowing sea urchin panini at El Quinto Pino.

La Vara is Raij’s first Brooklyn venture. It’s a fatty, offal-filled exploration of Spanish food, with a strong hat tip given to the Moorish and Sephardic experience in Iberia.

Such a description might seem surprising given the amount of alcohol (haram!), shellfish (traif!) and pork (really?) served here. But there’s a reason for such apostasy. La Vara is less about adhering to dietary restrictions, and more about how Spain’s Islamic and Jewish populations influenced the peninsula’s culinary tradition.

Spicy Meatballs

North African flavors abound. Half a chicken is roasted over sweet onions and rubbed with cumin and coriander. If the Berbers decided to make mole, I suppose it would taste like this. Sephardic-style lamb meatballs ($12), infused with mint, aren’t the pillowy Italian variety; they’re dense, chewy and fragrant.

Roasted lamb breast ($18), looking like a fat chocolate brownie, shows off cumin in all its gorgeous puckerishness, while a squirt of espelette pepper paste does its best impression of Sriracha (the former is smokier and not as spicy).

Like escabeche? The Arabs brought the technique to Spain and La Vara does it right, poaching the kidneys, liver, legs and loin of rabbit in a saffron and vinegar sauce, somewhat taming the strong flavors ($18). Raij then tosses in some stewed fruit and olives to finish the salty-sweet masterpiece.

Small, Loud

All of these dishes might arrive within minutes of one another. La Vara is a small, loud restaurant where the food comes out fast. Reservations aren’t accepted for parties of three or less, sometimes resulting in long waits.

The upside is that, unlike many other Brooklyn joints, you can use your American Express card here.

La Vara’s best cocktail is rum and Coke ($10). Tastes like any other, nothing wrong with that. The mix of booze and carbonic acid cleanses the palate after the musky assault of grilled chicken livers, seared lamb liver or lamb kidneys.

But Sherry gets the job done too. Sip a nutty Amontillado ($8) with the acorn aromas of Iberico ham, or a pale, yeasty fino ($7) to accommodate a delicious broth. The latter dish mixes pork-skin noodles, squid noodles and wild Ecuadorian shrimp for a heretical, anti-chicken soup.

Clam Up

Coastal Spain comes into brilliant focus here, with Valencian noodle paella ($16) meant for dousing in garlickly aioli ($16), and gnocchi-like Murcian pasta sprinkled with ground goat ($15). Andalusian skate, pulled apart by its ropy strands, is a ringer for New England fried-clam strips, minus the rubbery texture. With this, you drink beer.

There are misses: Greasy packets of fried swiss chard and kale ($9) and salt-baked fish with too little white flesh. And even the most robust palates can tire from the kitchen’s use of smoked paprika over just about everything.

But all is well when you finish with a tart so almond-infused it could be marzipan, a redolent homage to the pastries beloved by Spanish Jewry.

La Vara, alongside Tertulia, Mercat, Aldea and Casa Mono, is proof that New York is entering a golden age of Iberian cuisine.

Rating: **1/2

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: Nearly every dish under $20.

Sound Level: Loud when full, often over 80.

Date Place: If Cobble Hill isn’t romantic, nothing is.

Special Feature: Excellent sherry selection.

Inside Tip: Skip the hard-to-peel quail eggs.

Back on My Own Dime: You bet.

La Vara is at 268 Clinton St, Brooklyn. Information: +1-718-422-0065 or http://www.lavarany.com.


What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor

Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include D.C. Scene and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

To contact the writer of this column: Ryan Sutton in New York at rsutton1@bloomberg.net or qualityrye on http://twitter.com/qualityrye

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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