1506 S Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
The first generation of Spanish restaurants in New Orleans used the familiar ordering format of appetizer to entree to dessert. But the more recent wave plugged into the interest in tapas - those traditional, and increasingly not-so-traditional, small plates popular through much of Spain. Though originally intended to be snacks served at bars and taverns, places like Café Granada have transferred the trend to restaurants, where guests can build entire meals from a smattering of small plates.
This is a fairly small restaurant space that was once the home of Lebanon's until that Middle Eastern cafe moved to larger accommodations right next door. It's a little beat up here and there, but the warm, earthy colors give it the feel of a comfortable tavern. The tables outside under the oaks of South Carrollton Avenue are worth a shot when the weather is nice.
The staff here does an admirable job juggling the many courses and little plates of the tapas format, and they're generally able to explain Spanish specialties to newcomers. Even if your party orders quite a lot of tapas, the kitchen is usually able to turn them out pretty quickly. If you have a preference for the order in which you want your tapas to arrive, make sure you specify that itinerary to the waitress.
Deciding what style of meal you want is essential before ordering at Café Granada. Tapas are the main attraction and the kitchen's strongest suit, and my recommendation is to order enough of these to make a complete meal and leave it at that. Links of lamb chorizo arrive crisp from the grill with peppery flavor and a juicy bite, and they come with thin, crispy, very salty fries. The calamari is grilled rather than fried, so the small rings and tentacles stay tender while getting a nice edge of char. I didn't care much for the stuffed mushrooms, which were undercooked and underwhelming, and the fried croquettes are much less exciting than some of their peers on this tapas menu. But order the clams Catalan and you get a skillet of small clams steamed in the shell with a broth enriched by tomatoes, almonds and spinach, which makes an offbeat and roundly satisfying dish. Vegetarians have plenty to chew over, with more than a dozen meatless tapas.
The paella is the go-to entrée here, as it seems to be at practically every restaurant that serves this classic Spanish rice dish. Café Granada makes a respectable version with plenty of chicken and sausage, lots of mussels and a few large, head-on shrimp. It's a good idea to split a pan of this between two people and then fill out the meal with tapas. A more conventional entrée selection is the hearty pollo a la Basque, which is a chicken breast stuffed with manchego and served with a sharp mustard sauce. The lamb tagine, a classic Moroccan dish, is another good bet.
The flan and crème brulee are fine but the dessert I'd order twice is the chocolate "croquettes," or balls of mousse and chocolate dough rolled in sliced almonds.
There's a full bar. The wine list is small but serviceable and of course it is focused on Spanish wines. The sangria is practically the house red, and most tables seem to order it.
One of the special charms of this place is the unusually generous tapas portions. Prices for tapas average $6, and most are large enough for everyone at a table of four to try a few bites. Entrees shoot up in price, of course, and most are over $20.
The tapas trend remains in high gear, with many restaurants of different styles and ethnic orientations adopting the small plates formula to lure customers. Café Granada sticks with traditional Spanish tapas, and does them well. It's a casual, comfortable, reasonably affordable place to assemble an adventurous meal and explore.