Merguez in Midtown
As my dining companion and I approached Majorca Bistro & Tapas on foot one night, we saw an unusual sight among the chairs and tables on the patio: a runway had been constructed, with lights and a DJ booth set up on the broad patio that fronts West Gray in Midtown. It was Houston Fashion Week — not that I'd realized it until this moment — and Majorca was putting on a show.
I turned to my friend, unsure if we'd picked the right night to dine here. It would be crowded, hectic, a burden on both the kitchen and the waitstaff, and not a very fair judgment of their skills as such. "Do you still want to eat here?" I asked, gesturing warily toward the stage. "It's gonna be loud, too." We gazed silently for a moment at the giant metal bull sculptures mounted on Majorca's patio, flames pouring gaudily from their hammered nostrils. Something about the fashion show and all the manufactured glitz and glamor seemed to fit all of a sudden. This is Midtown, after all; is a restaurant along West Gray ever really quiet?
We decided to give Majorca a shot that night, and were rewarded for it in spades. The food here isn't by any means the tapas that I've been looking for in Houston, but it's good on its own merits. The North African influence suggested by the name — the island of Majorca in the warm waters of the Mediterranean has been alternately ruled by Moors and Spaniards over the centuries — is used to nice effect in some dishes, like the surprising house salad.
House salads are rarely worth pointing out, or even mentioning. Not here. Beets and red onions are tossed with torn greens and topped with a toasted almond dressing and cinnamon-dusted orange slices, bringing just a hint of those balmy North African flavors into what might otherwise be a very boring affair. Ditto the oil-coated olives, marinated in garlic and a variety of Moroccan spices.
The menu is more straightforwardly Spanish, with its spicy patatas bravas, lemony grilled sardines, flaky empanadillas stuffed with creamy oxtail meat and a nutmeg-and-allspice-warmed sangria that's too good to order by the glass. You're going to want a pitcher of this stuff, especially as fall weather descends and the patio becomes even more attractive.
We chose to sit inside that night, however, wanting to enjoy the restaurant itself instead of the fashion show. In an admirable show of effort, neither the food nor the service suffered at all in the face of the influx of leggy, bedazzled women and Audigier-outfitted men that eventually flooded the place. That's not Majorca's usual crowd, though, from what I can tell. And I shouldn't have been surprised that the restaurant ran so smoothly: After all, owner Hicham Nafaa is affiliated with the Bella Restaurant Group empire of Houston restaurants — run by his cousin Youssef Nafaa — that originally opened the popular and similarly Moroccan-influenced Mi Luna in Rice Village many years ago.
Hicham Nafaa and his partner Ali Bendella still keep things in the family — they're cousins. The two previously ran other restaurants within the Bella group before expanding into a restaurant of their very own in Midtown. Nafaa, who's from Morocco originally, always knew he wanted to have a place that blended North African and Spanish cuisines together, and opened Majorca with Bendella after launching a successful venture across the street first: CoCo's Crepes & Coffee.
When Majorca first opened, I recall a friend of mine remarking: "They're still opening restaurants in Midtown?" They sure are — and the "they" are Nafaa and Bendella, whose restaurants seem stubbornly determined to keep Midtown relevant. It's working, too.
While the obnoxiously clubby vibe in the area is on the decline, Midtown-goers are rewarded these days with a surfeit of bars, restaurants and even dessert places all within easy walking distance. And for a city that desperately wants to be more walkable, it seems a shame to snobbishly rebuff an area that's accomplished such a feat. Your walkable evening can start with drinks at Double Cross Lounge, move on to dinner at Majorca, dessert crepes at CoCo's and then a nightcap of shisha and hookahs at Cafe Layal: It's a multiethnic drinking, dining and desserting extravaganza that requires about five minutes of walking, total.
Majorca seems purpose-built for this sort of evening, too, inviting patrons to grab a drink from its own busy bar — the ginger-spiked, rum-based El Diablo is my current favorite — and move along into the night, or linger over a table of tapas until well past midnight. The dark, crimson-splashed interior with lots of trompe-l'il art on the walls is perhaps too silly to be sexy, but it's inviting nevertheless. It's even pleasant on weeknights, when it's a welcome refuge in which to have a quiet, cozy dinner with friends.
The extravagant plating matches the interior, unfortunately, which is to say that it's so baroque as to make the dishes look like relics of the mid-'90s. Gigantic sprigs of thyme are speared at random into dishes that don't even feature the herb. Fried plantains are gouged into piles of rice like rabbit ears on an old television. The kitchen must go through a pound of chopped parsley per plate. It's all far too much and does a great disservice to the often excellent food underneath. I hope that Nafaa will do away with all of this gilding of the lily, because it tricks the mind into believing that the food will be similarly garish. Unfortunate, really, as the flavors are usually precise and simple — the complete opposite.
Hoping for strictly Spanish food here is the other pitfall that diners must avoid if they're to enjoy Majorca. The underwhelming paella is nothing to write home about (and how could it be, if it takes only ten minutes to reach your table from the kitchen?), nor are the dried-out, puny slices of tortilla española.
On the other hand, the black mussels served in a simple white wine broth with plenty of butter and lemon are stunning. Nafaa must have a great mussels contact, because the things are monstrous brutes: fat and almost obscenely thick like Gulf oysters, with more butter flavor to them than brine. And the patatas bravas — while definitely not authentically Spanish — are still good, with crisped edges and a tangy tomato sauce that demands to be swiped up until gone.
It's at lunch, though, where Majorca surprises me the most. Lunch specials are served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day and there's no valet to contend with then. You can usually park directly in the small lot or on the street. And the prices on the menu are an extraordinary value: $8 for a hearty bowl of albóndigas — meatballs braised for hours in a creamy, butter-based tomato sauce — that's topped with a sunny fried egg, or $9 for a sandwich on great hunks of soft, crusty bread with pert links of merguez sausage, the lamb flavored with ideal amounts of hot harissa and soothing sumac.
Majorca may not be perfect, but at times like these it's difficult to care. No Spanish restaurant in Houston has gotten it right yet, from the promising Cafe España to the underwhelming Convivio. Instead, I find myself liking Majorca on its own merits, which are many.
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