Bodega Tapas, Wine, and Rum

Open Weds., Thurs.–4:30-9:00 p.m.; Fri., Sat.–4:30-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 4:30–8:00 p.m. 

110 S White St, Wake Forest

It’s no secret that tapas has fully interpolated itself into global dining culture. In many ways, this has been a delightful turn of events, as creative small plates have come to dominate the restaurant landscape. Concurrently, tapas—the Spanish custom of making a meal out of small, quickly prepared plates—has become ubiquitous in the past decade, certainly in the Triangle, where it’s often used to glamorize certain restaurant concepts.

It’s this buzzwordiness—“tapas fatigue,” maybe—that puts Bodega at a potential disadvantage. An unfair disadvantage, because there is perhaps no purer representation of the form available than what is currently on offer from this six-month-old Wake Forest eatery. Other local restaurants strive to innovate the small plate into daring avant-garde permutations, but eating at Bodega is more akin to barhopping in Madrid: A cavalcade of simple bites arrives almost instantly from a bustling kitchen, best enjoyed over good wine and loud conversation.

On a recent visit, the first dish to come through the happy din of Bodega’s shadowy dining room was a plate of piquillo peppers stuffed with N.C. crab. It’s perhaps the most Spanish dish on the menu, despite the provenance of the seafood. The peppers—lightly smoky and springily al dente—enfolded a generous scoop of crab salad, zippy and bright with lemon mayonnaise. There were a few remnants of crab shell in the mix, which only made eating it feel closer to the source.

We moved on to an empanada, stuffed with a beefy picadillo ingeniously sweetened by plantain. For some reason, I’m often prone to the world’s worst empanadas, but Bodega’s were nearly perfect; the spiced, meaty filling was comforting and hearty, the pastry so flaky and tender that it just barely started to soak up juices on the bottom.

Bodega’s menu is very meat-and-seafood focused. I admit I can be unsympathetic to the plight of vegetarians, but the lack of options here was striking even to me. If you err on the side of vegetarianism, be prepared to consume a lot of cheese and starch, and be sure to inquire about removing the sundry pieces of cured pork that sneak into many of those dishes. I’d skip the menu’s lone salad, an underwhelming scatter of raw baby kale that wowed me about as much as a store-bought plastic tub would.

More troubling—and baffling, considering our fecund landscape and the bountiful time of year—was the nearly total absence of local seasonal vegetables. Not a single dish was driven by a North Carolina summer. That meant no eggplant, peas, butter beans, okra, squash, zucchini, and—for god’s sake—no tomatoes.

To be fair, Bodega is a young restaurant, and chef de cuisine Doug Seeley is a transplant from Napa Valley. It takes time to establish relationships with local farmers, and it’s always a challenge to source the best. Given that Seeley hails from a produce-driven part of the country, I’d hope that his skills will eventually steer him toward the local harvests of the South.

For now, let’s take Bodega’s surf-and-turf menu at face value, because it yields some pretty spectacular results. Scallop ceviche sang with the tartness of passionfruit, tempered by the distinctive fruity smokiness of aji pepper. The accompanying “chips”—two delicately fried whole tortillas, dipped in lime-dressed chopped scallops—quietly blew my mind.

The fat from the cider-braised pork belly, cleverly dressed in rhubarb, cherry, and mustard, melted in my mouth, providing a welcome juxtaposition to its crisp, lean structure. The plump, sweet, and succulent shrimp were bathed in a garlicky vinaigrette and kissed with a little smoke and heat from the shavings of guajillo pepper—a deft preparation rooted in the simplicity of Spanish tradition.

The dish of the night was the coffee-rubbed lamb ribs. Their exterior crackled, almost lacquered by the rendering of their own fat. The meat fell from the bone in succulent ribbons, the cartilaginous ends caramelized to perfection. The coffee rub, sifted with a piquant blend of spices, added earth, depth, and subtle bitterness, offset by a light, minty sauce.

The tapestry of Bodega’s menu and concept is woven together by an extensive, ambitious wine list. There were no less than forty wines available by the glass in three- or-six-ounce pours—most of them from small, family-owned wineries. Opting for something Spanish, of course, I drank a cherry-ripe Alicante Bouschet to accompany the lamb ribs. My dining companion ordered a dry Lambrusco. But there’s also rum—lots and lots of rum.

Chef and owner Nunzio Scordo spent formative time among the many rum-focused establishments of Key West, and his vast knowledge is on sufficient display. A litany of creative cocktails draws from an impressive selection of the cane-based spirits, available by the dram. I went with both, starting my meal with the pineapple-chipotle head-trip of the Rum al Pastor and ending with a snifter of Brugal 1888, which was intense and savory, almost brandy-like. Both were muy excelente.

The dining room hummed noisily as we ordered a bruschetta of valdeón and figs for dessert, alongside yet another empanada. The service was consistently friendly and snappy, and, since I still had rum in my glass, we also ordered an actual dessert—a warm blueberry polenta cake topped with ice cream. By that point, we were eating with our brains rather than our stomachs, but we did so with gusto. Having made the forty-five-minute journey from Durham, we found a few reasons to linger that night.

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