WHERE: 217 Camp St., 587-7720
WHEN: Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily
HOW: Credit cards
Rambla is a restaurant that spurs a generous impulse to share, but sometimes people want to share too much.
I'm fine with sharing a table with strangers, for instance, which often happens when seated at the monolithic communal tables that dominate Rambla's dining room. I also like sharing a conversation with random tablemates, and since the initial topics in these situations usually concern the novelty of the table arrangement or buzz over the food to come, the going is easy enough.
But when the patatas bravas arrive, or the steaming crock of duck cassoulet, or the empanadas filled with mustard greens and brisket, well, things get a little more territorial around my corner of the table. I'll let my neighbor know the sticky-sweet dates stuffed with almonds and trussed in dark, rigid bacon taste as good as they look, but no, he cannot have one of mine.
Intruding forks and the boardinghouse reach really aren't such menacing prospects at Rambla, however. This new restaurant in the International House Hotel has a quite purposefully hip environment, and the urbane setting and fine-dining trappings attract a well-behaved CBD crowd at lunch and dinner. And there are plenty of more conventional tables around the room if these central communal slabs aren't to your liking.
The energy in the room is alluring. The lighting is dim without being dark, and large, rustic jars and metalwork set off the décor. A deli slicer adjacent to the bar is kept humming, issuing translucent shavings of cured Spanish hams and hard sausages. The kitchen blends influences of Spain and France and in many cases adds a modern spin. Most of it is done in contemporary tapas style, with the great majority of dishes served in small portions costing between $6 and $12.
Rambla was opened two months ago by co-owners Kenny LaCour and Kim Kringlie, partners in Cuvée around the corner and the Dakota in Covington, and Cuvée chef Bob Iacovone, a third partner. The professional polish of Cuvée and the Dakota is evident at the restaurant, even though Rambla is a much more casual place than either and serves a thoroughly different menu.
At its best, the food swings between simple but enormously satisfying fare and the absorbingly exotic. In the first category falls the patatas, a tapas-bar staple that here has the addicting flavors of smoked paprika and mellow, creamy allioli over fluffy cubes of potato with crisp edges and soft flanks. This is comfort food no matter where you grew up.
The calamari is in the exotic category. Were this preparation any more different from the typical fried squid rings and tentacles, it would have to find another name. Rambla serves long, narrow tubes of squid body, chewy with a marine tang, served cold and filled with a mixture of andouille sausage and pecans. Its roughly chopped tomato and olive sauce was somewhere between gravy and salsa.
Rambla is off to a great start, but bad things do happen, like a Spanish tortilla that amounted to a tight pile of scalloped potatoes with no evident seasoning. Ceviche tasted almost entirely of citrus and was stuffed into a pair of shiny red piquillo peppers, an artful presentation that also ensured a tiny portion for the $12 price tag. A "salmon stack" proved to be a leaning tower of thick-cut, smoked fish, herbed cream cheese and pumpernickel gone hard enough to scrape your enamel.
There's fun to be had in experimenting, and the menu provides ample opportunity to do so without a terribly high price for the occasional disappointment.
The kitchen produces so many specials most nights it can be difficult to focus as the server recites them, but the list is worth the concentrated effort. One night, practically everything we ordered was off the list of specials, which produced a parade of dishes that went from good to great: a grilled chicory salad with soft and slippery leaves to twirl around huge chunks of blue cheese and pecans; a potato soup, pleasingly thick and set off by bits of bacon and a lacing of spicy chili oil; a gratinée of oysters in rich, creamy stew swimming with garlic and capped tightly with browned bread crumbs; roasted shrimp with an electrifying pesto in which lemon, garlic and parsley all duked it out for dominance on the palate; and a socca, or chickpea crepe, as crisp as flatbread and layered with strands of moist, dark duck and the unlikely but smart addition of soft, fresh sunflower sprouts.
There is a short list of entrees, and my favorite is the paella. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is also the easiest of the entrees to divvy up around a group. The wine list is heavy on Spanish labels, and it is geared toward the under-$40 range. With a reasonably priced Rioja on the table and more tapas on the way, sharing is a pleasure at Rambla.