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The Fine Finger Food at Batanga Is Full of Surprises

Batanga offers up delicious tapas and other surprises, not the least of which is its eggplant fries.

Paella typically consists of a sofrito base (a Spanish tomato and onion sauce), proteins (seafood, land animals or a combination), bell peppers or other mixed vegetables, rice and lots of saffron. In fact, to me, it's the saffron that makes a paella a paella, but in Batanga's iteration the saffron was a little too mild and the delicate seafood flavors were masked by paprika or chile powder and way too much salt. The individual components were all there, and the rice was cooked perfectly — sometimes a difficult feat in a busy kitchen, as many a Top Chef contestant sent home due to improperly cooked rice can attest to — but it was lacking the rich seafood character and buttery saffron notes that I love so much in a true Spanish paella.

Like the paella, several items on the menu could benefit from a little simplification, such as the duck confit, a nearly magical combination of dark, earthy duck meat, bright sour-cherry mole and queso fresco. I say "nearly magical" because the beautiful little mound of meat and mole was served atop an arepa – a type of South American flatbread — that was the color and texture of a dry yellow kitchen sponge. I ate around the arepa, and then, while I waited for my dining companions to pick the last bits of meat off the delicate bones of a dainty but succulent grilled quail served on a nest of wispy fried sweet potatoes, I played with the arepa, bouncing it around my plate and cutting it into different shapes with my fork. Though this amused me for a while, I do not believe the arepa fulfilled its intended purpose.

The grilled octopus did seem to fulfill its purpose, though, if its purpose was to help me completely reimagine octopus as a mollusk that pairs well with potatoes and Spanish paprika. I tend to think of octopus as a seafood that, when prepared so as not to be tough or chewy, benefits from a little citrus or olive oil but should otherwise be left alone. Put it in a frutti di mare risotto, sure, or maybe even in a tomato and wine sauce, but paprika? Potatoes? Go figure; it works. If not for the puddle of spicy oil left on my plate when I finished fishing out the potato rounds and chunks of mollusk, this would be one of my favorites at Batanga. Of course, in hindsight, I realize I could have ordered a side of crusty bread to sop up all that spicy, earthy oil. I'm regretting I didn't think to do that at the time.

Tantalizing tapas, from left to right: duck confit arepas, grilled octopus, grilled quail and eggplant fries.
Troy Fields
Tantalizing tapas, from left to right: duck confit arepas, grilled octopus, grilled quail and eggplant fries.

Location Info

Map

Batanga

908 Congress Ave.
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > Latin

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Details

Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Mushrooms a la plancha: $7
Eggplant fries: $5
Marinated olives: $4
Batanga chopped salad: $8
Batanga burger: $11
Grilled hanger steak: $12
Crispy pig ears: $7
Duck confit arepas: $10
Grilled quail: $12
Local finfish and shrimp ceviche: $12
Tres leches: $7
Pan con chocolate: $7
Paella: (per person/min. two) $18



View More:

Slideshow: A Closer Look at Batanga
Blog: Great Things in Small(ish) Packages at Batanga


The best bets on the menu seem to be the vegetarian options, all of which are flavorful, balanced and original. Mushrooms are treated with the utmost respect when grilled a la plancha, and a simple chopped salad on the lunch menu is elevated with palm hearts, chickpeas, roasted corn and jewel-like slices of watermelon radish. Slightly charred grilled okra maintains a bit of the usual okra sliminess but still possesses the delightful crunch of a crispy fried veggie. And then, of course, there are the eggplant fries, which sent me into a tizzy of happiness that elicited an exhausted but still amusing one-liner from the waiter.

According to culinary mythology, the term tapas comes from the Spanish verb "tapar," which means "to cover," harking back to a time when slices of bread or meat were used to cover the tops of drinks in bars to keep out fruit flies or other disease-carrying insects. Eventually, bars started serving small plates of food to go along with the drinks, and modern tapas bars were born. After that, Batanga came along and shook things up even further with unexpected medleys and daring fusions.

On a menu as extensive as Batanga's, it would be difficult to make every single dish a winner, but I'm willing to award points for creativity where it counts. From the surprisingly tasty octopus that I ordered with low expectations to the surefire winner that is the duck confit, Batanga manages to surprise and delight with massive flavor in small packages.

I can hardly wait for the weather to cool down just a tad so I can sit out on Batanga's sprawling back patio, sip some sangria and bask in the gently warming fall sun. At a place like Batanga, it's entirely possible to pretend, if only for a moment, that siestas like these happen every day.

kaitlin.steinberg@houstonpress.com

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3 comments
MeaganT
MeaganT

I have always enjoyed the food, but the service has been so horrible every time I've gone that I will never go again. (last time, we sat on the patio for 20 minutes, watching servers go in and out, assisting other tables and completely ignoring us, before we decides to go ask the hostess if we should move. She assured us she would send the waiter right out, and we waited another solid 15 minutes before one came over.)

jak5717
jak5717

Cooler weather hits this weekend, 60s at night, high 80s low 90s in the day :)

 
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