The old Salts restaurant in Cambridge had a storied 10-year run as a much-loved romantic spot that featured elegant, French-inspired food from chef Gabriel Bremer, and memorably warm hospitality from his wife and co-owner Analia Verolo. Then in 2014, misfortune struck in the form of a burst pipe and a shifty landlord, and suddenly Salts was no more. It took four years and a Kickstarter campaign for the couple to open La Bodega, their new home in a charmingly quirky East Watertown building. In place of Salts’ pricey roast duck carved tableside, they now serve elemental tapas, mostly Spanish and French-Basque style, punched up with accents from Verolo’s native Uruguay.

The striking space consists of two long, narrow rooms: one a glass-roofed, seemingly endless bar of 25 seats with another 24 at tables and the other a 35-seat dining room remodeled from a midcentury railway dining car. Dark natural and painted wood surfaces evoke the feel of a rustic wine cellar. It’s an inviting, intimate setting for grazing, maybe starting with marinated olives ($4) scented with fennel and chili. Deviled farm eggs ($5) boast garnishes of paprika, pipparas and high-pedigree Mangalitsa ham. Another fancy porker, the acorn-fed ibérico de bellota, is the basis of a generous plate of salami-like salchichón ($12). Pan con tomate ($6) is one of those crazy-simple, crazy-good Spanish dishes featuring toasted bread topped with fresh tomato puree, a hint of raw garlic and salt. If you don’t recognize “grilled” provolone ($8), that’s because it’s Uruguayan: darkly skillet-crusted, chewy within, generously dusted with oregano and served in a cunning GraniteWare miniature paella pan.

A roasted beet salad ($9) dotted with fried almonds, sheep cheese, orange segments and mint is prettier than the plainish kale salad ($8) with cheese, hazelnuts and an eggy vinaigrette, but both are delectable. The superb white gazpacho ($8) makes a dreamy puree of almonds, breadcrumbs and olive oil, gently sweetened by grapes and prettily draped with radish slices and spring garlic tendrils. A white-on-white salad of hearts of palm and French white asparagus ($14) dressed with salsa golf (Argentinian for “mayo and ketchup”) seems wan and dull by comparison.

Uruguayan flavors get a better showcase in empanadas ($10) that are oily, crisp-edged, baked savory turnovers filled with chopped beef or duck. Heirloom baby carrots ($10) cooked a la plancha are fashionably multi-hued and underscored by a terrific, vivid romesco. The charcoal grill adds subtle smoke to dishes like grilled Maine oysters ($14), four big ’uns delicately accented with seaweed butter and ramp mignonette. Wild mushroom escabeche ($15) is another dish that wows with clever embellishments, including a few nuggets of baby artichoke and especially a tenderly poached farm egg in the middle to swirl about as a sauce. The richness of wood-grilled sweetbreads ($14) gains necessary contrast from a squeeze of roasted lemon and bright brininess from a smashing salsa verde of parsley, shallots and capers.

Albondigas de cordero ($14), lamb meatballs layered between beds of verdant English peas and garlic greens, reads generous but a trifle underseasoned. Solo diners might make a meal of chivito al pan ($17), a gorgeous, messy pile-up of a sandwich with sliced beef tenderloin, country ham, pancetta and a dripping, sunny fried egg on a great, chewy roll. It’s staggering and fantastic.

The winsome desserts include Martin Fierro ($10), a cleverly presented variant of manchego y membrillo, here striping quince paste with local cow cheese dusted with crushed almonds. A salt-flecked, tender-crusted dark chocolate tart ($12) gets sweet accompaniment from candied pignoli and bright-and-tangy uplift from fresh orange segments. Budin de pan ($12), a light-bodied bread pudding with caramelized bananas, boasts a fascinating side of mace ice cream.

The space and the food beg for accompanying drinks, which La Bodega obliges with a short list of specialty cocktails ($10-$14) that include Uruguayan fillips like honey grappa and yerba mate tea, though the bartenders throw classics like a Negroni ($13) with a giant ice cube perfectly well. Six vermouths by the glass ($9-$10) offer a lighter (and very traditionally Spanish) aperitivo option; we really liked sweet vermouths from Rosso Contrato ($10) and Lustau ($9), served in beautiful antique stemware. From a short list of beers and ciders ($5-$18; large-format, $25), a couple of Spaniards also stood out like the draft cider Riestra ($9), with its funky tartness and faint carbonation, and the sweeter, bubblier bottled Asturian pear cider Viuda de Angelón ($9).

Weeknight wine joy is found in eight by-the-glass options ($9-$16), notably by Uruguayan winemaker Bodegas Carrau, whose 2015 sauvignon blanc ($10) and 2014 tannat reserva ($12) are value-priced winners. The 150-strong bottle list, drawing mainly from France, Spain and Uruguay, is predominantly scaled to the menu’s modest prices (most whites under $60, most reds under $90), but the deep-pocketed can spend $150-$450 on 30 or so trophy bottles that must have survived the Salts deluge. Despite that echo of a much fancier restaurant at the end of a hard road, Bremer and Verolo have settled comfortably into their new, more affordable, less occasion-oriented format, one that ably suits its idiosyncratic neighborhood setting. One may not envy what it took to get there, but in 2018, La Bodega feels like a very sweet place for them—and for us—to be. ◆

MC’s Picks

Pan con tomate
“Grilled” provolone
Kale salad
White gazpacho
Duck empanadas
Grilled Maine oysters
Wild mushroom escabeche
Chivito al pan
Dark chocolate tart

La Bodega, 21 Nichols Ave., Watertown (617-876-8444) facebook.com/labodegabysalts; Liquor: Full; Hours: Wed.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 pm; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Metered street spaces

La Bodega

21 Nichols Ave., Watertown


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