Authentic. What is authentic?
Thoughts about authenticity entered my head as I ate my way through small plate after small plate at Buena Vida Tapas & Sol, which bills itself as a place for “authentic Spanish tapas and fare.” Open since December, Buena Vida makes its home in the North and Line development, just off North Avenue, across the street from Ponce City Market, and enviably sandwiched between the bustling Eastside Beltline and Old Fourth Ward Park.
It is here that Big Sky owners Adam Berlin and Juan Calle aim to re-create a hip, happening scene, like what they’ve done at their Buckhead restaurant, but this time, with Spanish flavors. Specifically, they seek to bring to Atlanta the type of night hangout one might encounter on the beaches of Ibiza and the coasts of southern Spain. That feel is captured in design elements that greet you when you enter the breezy, high-ceilinged room: a pastel-colored floral mural with the word “Vida” painted in capital letters; an artsy wall of lush, tropical flora with a cursive “Te Quiero Mucho” (I love you very much) neon sign fixed in the center. Welcome to the good life.
One night that I walked into Buena Vida, I was greeted by Spanish rock band Duncan Dhu’s “En Algun Lugar” playing on the speakers. The tune, recorded in the late ’80s, transported me to clubbing days in Spain. The playlist continued with familiar Spanish and Latin rock and salsa. It certainly incited me to want to sidle up to the long 30-seat bar and order a drink.
Don’t expect much from cocktails. From red and white batched sangrias to Gin and Tonics served in oversized goblets to a strangely viscous Madrid Manhattan, mixed drinks were one-dimensional, watery and hollow. The exception is the Mezcal-Me Maybe, a non-Spanish number that hums with mezcal, ginger beer and the juices of pomegranate, lemon and lime. It’s lovely to see Spanish vermouth on menus. It would have been lovelier had the Mata white vermouth been served as described “in the Spanish style on the rocks with a garnish” instead of straight, in a port glass and unadorned.
The food menu is divided into a selection of mix-and-match Spanish charcuterie and cheeses, more than a dozen veggie tapas (five of them vegan) and, on the B-side of the menu, seafood and meat plates, plus a few two-to-four-person protein-driven platters.
There’s a noticeable attempt to please meat-free palates here and with offerings that fit current food trends. If you’re a fan of plant-based ground meat, try the Beyóndigas, a vegan take on Spanish albóndigas (meatballs) served with a smooth tomato sauce. Mine were tightly packed, although they needed more cook time.
Papas arrugadas are a staple dish in the potato-growing Canary Islands. At Buena Vida, an order of Canary Island Wrinkly Potatoes brings a healthy portion of superbly salt-crusted baby potatoes with a fork-tender interior, served with two traditional sauces — orange-tinged mojo picón and an herbaceous mojo verde.
Among seafood delights: Torticas de Camarón. A trio of thin pancakes feature tiny shrimp-like krill, the texture barely noticeable, but the essence of shrimp everywhere.
The papas and torticas are both creations by executive sous chef Juan Guillermo Hormiga, a Spanish native who moved from Ibiza to Atlanta for the position.
Leading the kitchen is executive chef Landon Thompson. He spent eight years with the Castellucci Hospitality Group, working at the Iberian Pig, then at Basque-focused Cooks & Soldiers (earning him a 2015 James Beard nomination as a Rising Star Chef), before moving to Savannah, where he spent the last couple of years as a chef consultant.
Hormiga and Thompson have collaborated on plenty of Spanish noshes, although most read more provocatively on paper than what arrives on the plate.
A decent-sized wedge of tortilla española, an egg and potato omelet, was filling. Unfortunately, its heft did not come from potatoes, rather from an oversaturation of olive oil.
I hoped for more nuanced flavor from croquetas filled with Spanish ham. In combining minced Iberian and serrano for these fried rolls, the unique character of each of these celebrated dry-cured products was lost. Mushroom croquettes were a thoughtful vegan creation. But for all the labor in preparing mushroom confit and a mushroom gravy with rice milk, then rolling them into balls, breading and frying them, the earthy mix of shiitake, cremini and oyster mushrooms was overpowered by black truffle.
The nutty qualities of manchego cheese did little to enhance Manchego Mini-Burgers. I can only surmise that this Spanish aged sheep’s cheese was selected to make these average-tasting sliders eligible for the menu.
Octopus was tough and rubbery, and plated with undercooked Spanish butter beans. With but a single tentacle, the portion was skimpy for this $14 tapa.
Many tapa portions come as threes, even though we typically dine in parties of two and four. The stuffed piquillo peppers (ordered because they were out of the blistered padrónes, which are overworked on menus these days anyway), the shrimp pancakes, the Crispy Pimentón Chicken (a play on Nashville hot that won’t register as such): If you’re a party of four, get ready to draw straws, because this waitstaff won’t alert you to much, though they do deliver orders promptly.
Large portions didn’t fare much better. Every slice of a 32-ounce Georgia grass-fed rib-eye showed unevenly cooked cuts of meat, fatty strings included. Nicely roasted potatoes on the wooden board did not make up for this waste of $79.
Sweet endings could be sweeter, such as making sure that the piped pastry dough for churros is actually fried all the way through before showering it with cinnamon sugar.
There is plenty of room in Atlanta for Spanish concepts. But where Buena Vida sits on the Beltline, I wonder how much room there is for lapses in food, drink and service before diners find another buzzy spot to patronize.
BUENA VIDA TAPAS & SOL
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)
Food: Spanish tapas
Service: Speedy, more enthusiastic than informed
Setting: Buzzy Spanish beach-themed bar and restaurant next to Eastside Beltline in O4W
Best dishes: Canary Island Wrinkly Potatoes. Gambas al Ajillo. Manchego Mini-Burgers. Crispy Pimentón Chicken. Torticas de Camarón.
Vegetarian selections: A dozen vegetable tapas, including seven vegan offerings. Find classics like Tortilla Española con Verduras, Piquillo Peppers, Blistered Padrónes, Patatas Bravas and Canary Island Wrinkly Potatoes. Other items include Beyóndigas (vegan meatballs) and Confit’d Mushroom Croquetas. Also, numerous cheeses.
Alcohol: Full bar. Recommended cocktail: Mezcal-Me Maybe. White and red sangria and vermouth on tap. Serviceable wine list. Beers are nearly all Georgia craft brews.
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays
Children: Not recommended
Parking: Free, limited street parking, complimentary parking validation for up to two hours in the North and Line deck garage
MARTA station: North Avenue
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Average
Takeout: Not recommended
Address, phone: 385 N. Angier Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-500-5189
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