217 Camp Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Tapas have been turning up everywhere lately, and one of the major new specialists in New Orleans is Rambla. It was opened late last year by partners in the nearby restaurant Cuvee. Chef Bob Iacovone is also a partner, and he recently left his position as Cuvee's executive chef to focus more on Rambla.
This is a much more casual restaurant than Cuvee. It combines traditional Spanish dishes with a fair amount of French cooking served in tapas-style portions, and it's another in the growing number of local restaurants where sliced, cured meats are prominent menu features. Overall, the ideal way to eat here is to come with a few people (four to six, I'd say) and be prepared to share many small dishes together over the course of a laid-back but adventurous meal.
Rambla is in the International House hotel, in the space that had previously been chef Minh Bui's Vietnamese fusion restaurant Lemongrass. The space has changed quite drastically since then, and after passing through the calculated hipness of the International House lobby and bar Rambla looks a bit Bohemian. The ceiling is an ugly tangle of exposed vents and plumbing, though an array of mismatched light fixtures brings the focus down closer to the massive wooden and marble-top tables. These are high, huge, communal tables where solo diners can pull up a chair for a meal or where several groups may be represented at different corners. More conventional tables are arrayed around the edges of the room, and there's a separate bar too. Tapas are supposed to be informal eats, and while no one would confuse this place with a Spanish barroom the layout does encourage a less rigid approach than the appetizer-entrée-dessert format.
Service was generally prompt and responsive, though when you start stacking up tapas orders be sure to specify if you want your dishes in a particular order or at a certain pace.
In the tapas style, most of Rambla's menu choices can be considered appetizers and the best way to go about a meal here is to order a few different selections. Still, some seem much more like preludes than others, like the Medjool dates, wrapped in crisp bacon and filled with Marcona almonds, or the unique empanadas stuffed with pulled brisket and braised greens. I always have to have the patatas bravas, which are cubed potatoes, fried for crisp shells over fluffy interiors and dressed with smoky, slightly spicy Hungarian paprika and a creamy drizzle of allioli. Though Spanish is the culinary theme, the wide-ranging menu has room for other influences, like the steak tartare, with salty bursts of capers and pungent mustard, or the Rambla shrimp, which are essentially New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. There are sliced meat and cheese plates, though I prefer the latter as the finale to meals here.
Sharing courses is the way to go at Rambla, but a few of the dishes qualify as entrees in their own right, like the hearty duck cassoulet with white beans and the New York strip steak with grilled chicory and crisp lardons. The flatbreads (think elongated pizzas) are a good anchor for a meal, adding some bready heft and interesting toppings. My favorite combines Serrano ham, blue cheese and figs.
I like the mellow flavors of the dark chocolate mousse with candied orange, and the flan was the standard presentation. My favorite way to end a meal here though is with a cheese board, which mixes Spanish and French cheeses and adds some interesting nut and fruit accoutrements.
There is a full bar and, naturally, the wine list is heavily-weighted toward Spanish labels.
Prices have come down a bit since Rambla first opened in 2008. Most tapas are between $7 and $9, which is still a bit high for tapas, but the surprise comes with the more substantial dishes, like the steak, cochon de lait and lamb ribs, all at $16 or less. The shared, multi-course tapas format allows two people to build a meal from an interesting range of dishes for about $70.
Open for about 14 months, Rambla has already changed its format. Some of the more exotic notes of the early menu have been toned down lately, and there are fewer entrée-sized portions now. Prices have also come down, making Rambla more of a mid-range option than before. There is a lot of interesting food here, and the tapas approach provides an enticing way to sample it. This is a great place for a small group to spend some time together eating and socializing, or a casual but interesting pick for a date.