Want a closer behind the scenes look at Batanga? Check out our slideshow.
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.