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. ◆
Pan con tomate
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