The New Orleanian who visits a restaurant in another city to discover that the gumbo advertised on the menu is really chowder and the muffuletta has pickle relish instead of olive salad can perhaps understand the incredulous reaction of Xavier Laurentino to some of the wilder interpretations of tapas, the recently popular culinary export from his native Spain.
Shrinking a French entrŽe so that it fits on a bread plate does not a tapa make. But from the tiny kitchen in the farthest corner of an almost invisible Metairie strip mall, Laurentino cooks up versions of the nibble-sized tapas that he remembers eating in the bars of Barcelona and Madrid long before he imagined a future in the restaurant business.
Laurentino has recently revamped and expanded his menu to such an extent that the place is like a different restaurant, complete with a newly renovated dining room. Heaving, steaming pans of paella are still the heavyweights of the entrŽe selections, but now the tapas menu has more than trebled in size to 30 selections.
The tapas are simple in essence, some deceptively so. Earthy, warm-tasting roasted almonds might seem like an odd item to order at a restaurant, but they disappear quickly from the table in a rush of salty fingers. Roasted red peppers are soaked to a dark, tangy sweetness in balsamic vinegar. Roasted shallots are another straightforward choice, but take your time chewing them and the flavor transforms itself from the initial taste of sweet onions to something much deeper and smoother.
A tapa called eggplant casserole is a rib-sticking blend of roasted eggplant, peppers and onions that is better described as a ratatouille. Shrimp casserole is heartier still, with the big shrimp tails singing with garlic and the stewed flavors of the vegetables.
A small ceramic bowl of chistorra delivers slender links of chorizo that look a bit like Vienna sausage but are loaded with red pepper and cooked in sherry. One of the very best tapas at the restaurant has highly seasoned disks of pork loin layered with green peppers that are roasted and then pan-fried for a slightly bitter, smoky taste and then topped with tangy, melted gouda cheese.
Allioli, the Catalonian version of aioli, plays a starring role on many of the tapas, and wherever this house-made garlic and olive oil emulsion appears an addictive, vivid flavor follows. It's applied like dessert topping over a plate of asparagus. It transforms fried potatoes into the seriously delicious patatas bravas, spiced up with the addition of red pepper. It also acts as a savory adhesive holding thin slices of Serrano ham or manchego cheese to toast rounds. You will not want for butter with your bread or ketchup for your fries as long as allioli is around.
The crispy, matchstick-thin fries here are the side dish for the exceptional steak, a rib-eye seasoned simply but irresistibly with a variety of salts. The steak is part of the non-tapas, non-paella part of the menu that has also been greatly expanded of late to accommodate customers not sold on the concept of tapas. There may be a cultural learning curve at play here, since it's hard to imagine how a cuisine composed heavily of salty meats, shrimp, olives, cheese and garlic would not resonate with the local palate. Still, you can order any number of dishes that would seem at home at local Italian restaurants, like pesto shrimp pasta, crabmeat and crawfish pasta and veal Parmigiana, but that isn't what Laurentino's is all about.
Laurentino the chef is a gregarious presence in his dining room and is eager to explain his cuisine to newcomers. A passion for the food seems to be in his blood, but, in fact, it was an unlikely path that led him to the kitchen.
As a young man, he became a television actor in Barcelona and Madrid and also worked as a bodyguard for, as he explains it, "people with complicated lives." The competing demands of the two professions were beginning to make his own life a little complicated. So he says that when he was passed up for the role of a barbarian in a Conan film shot in Spain because he didn't speak English, he decided to move to America for a crash course in the language. He landed in New Orleans in 1986.
By 1995, he was enrolled in Loyola University and acting was still his focus when fate intervened. Laurentino's friend and fellow Catalonian Angel Miranda was severely injured in a car wreck after leaving his then-new Spanish restaurant Lola's for the night. Laurentino says he was determined to keep the place in business for the sake of his stricken friend. He had no restaurant experience but nonetheless took the reins, called in the waiters and started cooking Lola's traditional Spanish menu himself until Miranda could return.
Laurentino the actor quickly discovered something of a stage in Lola's small, open kitchen that appealed to his theatric side. He got hooked. He opened Laurentino's in 2000 in the corner of a small, elbow-shaped Metairie strip mall and has been working ever since to make sure that fact of geography is imperceptible once you are inside his dining room. It has become increasingly charming with each round of renovation, and the latest, begun since the flood that put a foot of water over his floors, has completed the transformation.
The small dining room is as cozy as can be, with dim lighting, richly finished woodwork framing the ceiling and arched alcoves with murals of Mediterranean scenes. With a table of friends, a belly of tapas and sangria and a dessert order of house-made almond nougat ice cream or whisper-soft flan on the way, the embrace of Catalonian comfort is total.