Built on the site of a legendary lounge, Bulla Gastrobar dazzles with a tasty lineup of Spanish tapas, entrees and libations.
In the not-too-distant past, an oasis of late-night leisure gave hipsters and the sport coat and sequin set alike a place to drink, hear music and perhaps dance. It was called the Red Fox Lounge, nestled like a dimly lit time machine within the 66-year-old Mount Vernon Inn. It reverberated with the tinkling of cocktail glasses and the curious nostalgia of lounge act Mark and Lorna, who tickled the ivories for more than 20 years and sang songs so old school that many of the adoring fans had never heard them before. It was old fashioned in both drink and atmosphere, and there are those who still mourn its passing in 2014.
Judging by the crowds at Bulla Gastrobar, the new occupant of the space, when the building was demolished the lounge’s attractive force stayed behind.
Anchoring the Lakeside Crossing shopping center across from Trader Joe’s, the burgeoning chain (three locations with more to come) brings Spanish tapas to a Winter Park dining scene formerly exclusive to El Bodegon up the road. Bulla (pronounced “booYAH,” meaning a noisy disturbance), makes use of a small plates, entrees and cocktails menu crafted by chefs Felix Plasencia and Miguel Rebolledo. Rebolledo has worked with famed culinary alchemist Ferran Adrià, and while there aren’t any influences of Adrià’s almost supernatural dishes, the experience has shaped the taste level at Bulla.
Of note is the meat and cheese selections, an assortment of pork delights from Iberia, Salamanca and Andalucía that match with dairy such as a soft Alpine goat cheese called Leonora, and the firm, nutty Maxorata cheese from the Canary Islands.
Tapas, starters, pintxos—whatever the term, small plates are my weakness. Beautifully mild codfish fritter buñuelos de bacalao ($9); chili and garlic infused gambas al ajillo shrimp ($14); the earthy flavors of huevos ‘Bulla’ ($10), a fried egg on crisp potatoes, draped in Serano ham and potato foam. A tableful makes for a varied and fulfilling meal.
And there are also large plates. Arroz Marinero ($28) a dish of “seafood rice” like a paella lite, built on an ancient, short grain Spanish rice called Bomba. Clams, shrimp, chunks of hake fish, colored with bright green sofrito verde are seasoned with plankton, tiny lab-raised microorganisms that lend a briny ocean flavor and freshness to the seafood.
Speaking of paella… a genuine paella is cooked to order, with a layer of soccarat, the browned, crusted rice touching the pan, developed over long cooking time to savory perfection. Battles have been fought over paella ingredients—nothing raises the ire of a Valenciano quite like adding chorizo, onions or peas. Bulla’s is a paella de marisco ($39), made with seafood, and the warning “This will take 30 minutes” is a good sign. Calamari, king prawn, clams, shrimp and hearty fish, seasoned with red sofrito and fragrant saffron, the much-treasured soccarat very much in evidence—this is proper paella and worth the wait.
The bright, wood-lined dining room has its very popular bar front and center, with two levels of tables close to the open and very boisterous (shall we say bulla-ish?) kitchen. Service is quick and plentiful to the point of being slightly obtrusive—I’d rather have fewer water-fillers and more server education—but on the whole a pleasant evening.
Dine like a true Spaniard: Make a late evening reservation, order a glass or three of sherry, and enjoy Bulla with the crowd. Hum a little “Extraños en la noche” if the mood strikes.
The Perfect Pair
The popularization of tapas has left the best part of the experience aside: the drink. A glass of sherry was the whole reason for ordering small plates, and fortunately, Bulla lets you complete the pairing. Order East India Solera with salty treats, Pedro Ximénez with cheese and Moscatel Dorado with dessert.