Venue Review: Malabar
The Charlotte Observer
Somewhere between the Iberico ham and the Idiazabal cheese, the patatas bravas and the paella, Malabar won my heart.
Not just for the tapas, a lengthy and diverse list of Spanish classics. Not just for the smart addition of some entrees and a paella lineup (because, after all, even tapas lovers sometimes want to dig in), plus the manageable wine list.
Malabar wins because of the very ease of the place.
You could take your hot date here – or you could take your mom. You could bring your boss, or pack along your tiny kids if they're well-behaved – and all would find something appealing. And everything we had was of good quality.
The place is a little tight, and a bit dimly lit at night, but a high ceiling keeps you from feeling cramped, and servers keep things flowing admirably. Wood predominates, with richly colored walls and golden light from pendants and sconces enhancing the warmth.
One night, it began to rain outside and folks at the handful of outdoor tables (not sufficiently covered) scrambled for the dining room. Staff worked to get folks in, and everyone managed to be graceful about it. Uptown. On a busy night.
Pricing is pretty graceful, too: The small plates run $5 to $13 – not counting $22 for a copious amount of the pata negra, that Iberico ham – with entrees $14-$18. One bit of confusion: If you want paella, at least two of you must order it, and it will be $13-$17 per person. The menu says this as clearly as possible, and if you order it, your server will be sure you understand.
Do order it, but ask for lemon wedges on the side. The rich and enormous plates of tender rice with vegetables also come studded, if you like, with meat (the milder Spanish chorizo, chicken, pork and rabbit), seafood (shellfish, octopus and cod) or all of the above (called the Royal). If you have a table of four, order it for two of you, but plan on letting the others try it, too.
Other standouts: crunchy-outside/soft-within croquetas made with potato, manchego cheese and bits of Serrano ham; a clean-flavored and lovely mesclun salad featuring the terrific Valdeon blue cheese; patatas bravas (spicy chunks of potato); escalivadas (eggplant roasted into olive-oily lushness); and kabob-like pork pinchos, marinated with orange and cayenne. Each represented well the vibrant flavors one hopes for with this food.
Entrée-sized plates range from the grilled skirt steak called churrasco to the fish stew called zarzuela. The sole disappointment, but a bitter one, was stale, pale bread.
If you're on the aforementioned hot date, get something like croquetas and a cheese to start, then share fried yuca and the pinchos. You'll spend $37 and have a luxurious, finger-centric experience.
Desserts include a whipped-cream-topped version of tres leches cake and an exceedingly soft and delicate crema catalana, a version of crème brulee.
The menu explains, for the most part, dishes named in Spanish, though a few get short shrift: Empanadas, for example, are delicate stuffed pastries (and not to be missed), while sofrito (meaning "gently fried") is the universally acclaimed Spanish flavor base combining garlic, Roma tomatoes, onion, green pepper and olive oil.
Tapas haven't found firm footing in uptown Charlotte, for assorted reasons. Malabar – sited conveniently, at the Hearst Plaza, to just about everything – can change that.