The Fine Finger Food at Batanga Is Full of Surprises
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When I ordered tapas for lunch at the bar, I was expecting a few plates with overly conceptualized seafood and duck and a pile of spindly, desiccated "eggplant fries." To my surprise, everything I ordered appeared simultaneously and looked beautiful and quite balanced, but it was the rafts of battered eggplant stacked one on top of the other that immediately caught my eye.
It's almost architectural, this plate of juicy purple fruit enveloped by a golden brown crust seemingly made of crunchy funnel cakes topped with sweet, sticky honey, cumin, mint and queso fresco. It could be junk food or a modest state-fair creation, but the synthesis of flavors is so unique and fresh that it's elevated above the average fried offering to a fabulous side dish or a delectable small meal.
My meals at Batanga were full of surprises, from the elegant cocktail menu to unusual but mostly wonderful flavor combinations, like the eggplant fries whose heft and harmony were so delightfully unexpected. Who would have imagined that this fruit of the nightshade family and the artery-clogging carnival treat would create such flawless offspring? But there they are, stacked like Lincoln logs, a generous portion of eggplant fries beckoning me, batter gently hugging slices of succulent aubergine.
The eggplant fries are just one of the dozens of tapas dishes on the menu at Batanga, which lists a number of more gourmet offerings such as grilled hanger steak with truffle vinaigrette or shrimp and striped bass ceviche with charred citrus leche de tigre.
Though the word "tapas" is most often associated with small appetizers consumed in a bar setting in Barcelona, the term has come to include South American offerings as well. Batanga serves up both kinds of tapas, with dishes like paella connoting summer nights in Spain, while ceviche, yuca fries and fish tacos have more of a coastal Latin flair.
And while they may differ by country of origin, all the small plates show a great deal of thought and consideration, resulting in compact items bursting with flavor. Every now and then there's a bit too much going on in a single dish, but I can't fault Batanga for attempting — largely successfully — to modernize and elevate tapas for a rapidly growing downtown Houston scene.
Batanga is part of the ongoing downtown Market Square redevelopment, which has also welcomed OKRA's Charity Saloon, Goro & Gun, Barnaby's and Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar in the past year or so. The tapas bar opened this past April and is helmed by owners Hank Fastoff, his brother, Brian, and Maya Fastoff, with executive chef Ben McPherson, who helps bring some of Maya's Colombian family recipes to life. McPherson moved to Houston from Atlanta, where he worked in a few different tapas restaurants while perfecting his Southern cuisine as well.
Though they vary in terms of prominent flavors and execution, the familial aspects of Spanish dining and Southern soul food are similar. Diners share dishes and converse for hours over cocktails and multiple courses while reveling in each other's company. There's a link between Spanish, Latin and good ol' Texan hospitality that Batanga does really well.
The waiters are professional but conversational and, at times, downright goofy. Even when the restaurant is nearly full, the hostess will try to give you a number of different seating options. Want to sit in the lounge area with overstuffed loveseats and repurposed suitcases for coffee tables and cradle plates on your lap? That's an option. Or you could sit outside under bright red umbrellas the size of sails and bask in the glow of twinkling rope lights hung overhead. Diners are welcome to eat at the bar, where the friendly bartender will make you strong cocktails and chat with you about everything from the importance of freshly cut fruit to his favorite episode of Family Guy, and a few long tables in the back are just waiting to host your next dinner party.
From the moment you walk in, there's so little pretension at Batanga that it could come as a shock when you notice the sometimes high prices and complex combinations of ingredients. The menu, which differs slightly for brunch, lunch, dinner, happy hour and late night, is divided into sections based on the type of food most prevalent in the dishes: "Things that grow in the dirt" denotes vegetable plates, while "things that fly...or wished they could" heralds chicken, duck and quail dishes.
At dinner, the vegetarian tapas range in price from $4 to $7, but meat offerings can be as high as $12 for a tasty but meager five thin half-dollar-size slices of hanger steak. Fortunately, the menu offers "tastings" in which you can choose six to ten different tapas for a set price. The best course of action here? Order the six most expensive ones, which would usually cost $69, and pay only $46.
Because it's such a traditional Spanish offering (and the waitress said it's über-popular), my party and I tried the paella, which is $18 per person and available only for a minimum of two people. So really, the menu should read: "Paella (serves 2)...$36" instead of its current wording. The paella arrives in a hubcap-size cast-iron skillet, and though it's rather dark in the restaurant during dinner hours, I could immediately tell that the paella was...too dark.
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.
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.
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