”Talk me through the sherries,” I say, explaining that I like the dry and nutty stuff but have never successfully navigated the thicket of amontillados and olorosos. I flirt with a Manzanilla before detouring to a white wine made from a grape used to make sherry. Close enough. As manager Tayler Buffington pours a Celler del Roure from Valencia, he talks salinity and how to pronounce the place-names attached to Spanish wines.
“In Spanish, every letter is pronounced the same way regardless of context,” he says. “That makes everything easy.” What he doesn’t say, my wife, Blair, and I learn over four meals in three days at La Bodega by Cúrate in downtown Asheville: Under the spell of this new Spanish restaurant, the latest from Katie Button and Félix Meana, the wife-and-husband team behind the much-lauded Cúrate Bar de Tapas, everything seems to come easy.
Most restaurants focus on time or space travel. Time-travel restaurants depend on nostalgia, promising a moment when life was simpler and food and drink were somehow better. Space-travel restaurants promise to pick you up in one longitude and put you down in another. La Bodega works the latter angle, transporting diners from Appalachia to seafood restaurants on the Costa Brava in Catalonia and clamorous vermouth bars in Madrid or Barcelona.
One block off the main drag, tucked in a sort of urban gulch behind the couple’s first restaurant, La Bodega feels like a reward for the intrepid. In a heavily touristed city like Asheville, discoveries like this are gold. We enter through La Bodega’s streetside market and counter-service café, jammed with mementos from Spanish bars and restaurants, stocked with bottles of vermouth and jugs of gazpacho and tins of conserved fish. Upstairs, sunlight angles through the casement windows of a dining room dominated by an L-shaped bar. Tables hug rough-hewn walls. Scarred and gouged, they tell the story of renovating an old garage into a new and mod space.
Opposite a host stand fashioned from a tool chest, above a butterscotch-colored banquette trimmed in white piping, hangs an oil portrait of an earnest young Félix. His father, Eduardo, also painted the fishermen in dinghies, rowing out to sea. Arranged in a tight gallery, these eight paintings pay homage to the small Catalonian town of Roses, where Félix grew up, and to Spain, the country he and Katie now interpret.
We begin lunch with montado de atún, which translates as tuna cooked and preserved in oil, piled atop fried sourdough smeared with chili mayonnaise, and tossed with pickled green peppers. The tuna tastes luxe and creamy, but the finished dish looks and eats like peasant food. Many of the dishes here play across the palate like sermons on simplicity. Soft-fried anchovies, filleted open, heads still attached as if to prove freshness, arrive naked with a side of green peppercorn mayonnaise and a supreme of lemon. A sunshine-yellow open-faced tortilla comes studded with croutons and topped by rounds of squash. Royal Red shrimp, robed in a peekaboo crust, get tucked inside crusty bread cut into pointy wedges.
At dinner, bartenders mix gin and tonics in oversize brandy snifters floated with juniper berries. Stalks of thyme jut from the ice. Laid flat on crisp toast, topped with a squiggle of creamed blue cheese, a dish of piquillo peppers recalls a bas-relief corsage or a stylish brooch. Potato salad, pocked with hunks of confit tuna, gets blanketed with shaved bottarga and planted with knobs of bread. Lemon-pistachio vinaigrette binds a salad of Little Gem lettuce, tangled with shaved zucchini.
If you have to go big, order a burger. Conceived by chef de cuisine Matt Brown and charcuterie program leader Jonathan Pridgen, this burger reads like it was made by chefs who refused to serve a burger, got reminded that Americans love burgers, and built a pork and beef burger on their own terms. Bite into a toasted bun that looks and tastes like an everything bagel gone feral and a ribbon of Ibérico lardo spills out. Black and gnarly hunks of caramelized onion follow. Fries come with a bullet of aioli splashed with hot sauce. Cooked until they are impossibly creamy at their cores, they taste, well, normal. Check that: They taste perfect.
When Blair and I first ate at the first Cúrate in 2011, we fell hard for the pan con tomate, a Catalonian dish of grilled bread smeared with pulped tomatoes. Our server that day told us the restaurant shipped in bread from Spain. At La Bodega, authenticity requires in-house work. Downstairs, amid the takeaway products, the crew bakes the crisp baguettes on which those shrimp sandwiches depend, as well as empanadas stuffed with that confit tuna we came to love at lunch. Plus, tremendously delicious tortillas españolas—fat disks of potato and egg that, on the prod of a fork, release a rich stream of yolk.
As I walk out the door with one of those tortillas in hand and a baguette tucked under my left arm, Megan Watson, the server for our second lunch, tells Blair that three of her customers from the day before came back for breakfast. At least one, I’m sure, had the good sense to grab a to-go tortilla española for lunch.