New Spanish-style tapas operation in German Village transports diners overseas
El Lugar Tapas Bar & Restaurant, a charming little operation that recently opened in German Village, offers a chalkboard menu of bold snacks, many of which are garlicky and splashed with good olive oil. Additionally, it offers a small paper menu that stars canned seafood from Spain meant to be enjoyed with Salsa Espinaler.
El Lugar also offers an all-Spanish wine list, cinnamon-and-orange-scented Sangria that goes down easily ($10 per glass), plus refreshing cocktails such as a citrusy Moscow Mule (Blood Orange Mule, $12) and the pleasantly bitter Village Vibes ($9), made with Campari and Estrella Damm Spanish beer.
In a nutshell, El Lugar might be the most true-to-form Spanish-style tapas eatery to ever set up shop in Columbus.
Translating to “the place,” El Lugar is attached to (and shares owners with) an upscale German restaurant called Alpine. Because the establishments are vastly different — and Alpine deserves its own review — this article deals solely with El Lugar.
Seating about 30 on stools at potentially problematic small tables and a preferable bar, El Lugar makes an impactful early impression with hand-penciled murals on white walls that depict Spanish seaports. A low, black ceiling, plenty of windows and woodwork, plus a soundtrack that often plays Spanish guitar music help set an appropriate mood.
So does your first taste of the food, which is usually an amuse bouche of garlicky crostini with tomato pulp, basil chiffonade and olive oil. If that sounds commonplace, the punchy flavors and textures definitely grabbed my attention.
Ditto for the shareable, terrific Steak and Wine Flight ($26) — three expertly grilled beef varieties presented in juicy four-bite piles, each distinctly and deliciously seasoned, and each paired with a mini pour of wine. My steakhouse-worthy sampler: flank steak, chimichurri and tempranillo; filet mignon, wine-butter sauce and garnacha; ribeye, Southwest spices and pinot noir. Note: Because this relatively substantial dish is pricey and apparently always available, it's somewhat of a chalkboard anomaly here.
Some other chalkboard-posted dishes, such as the sizable and dynamic Pork Confit with Corn Relish and Chimichurri, the OK Seafood Paella with chorizo-spiked saffron rice, plus one clam, one mussel and one huge head-on shrimp, and the super-comforting Creamy Polenta with three shisito peppers but none of the advertised romesco sauce, cost $12 apiece.
As of my last visit, though, most of the chalkboard offerings had been arranged into coherent groups of $3, $5 and $10 plates. A majority of these dishes come with toasted bread that in my experience was warm and crispy on most occasions, but not all.
Among $3 items, the Albondigas — crowd-pleasing springy meatballs in long-cooked tomato sauce — is a better option than the so-so beet and prosciutto crostini. Some $5 plates worth seeking: the spot-on Spanish Tortilla — a delightful, if rather thin, wedge of potato-and-cheese frittata; the Jamon Bikini — a teeny but nifty grilled cheese sandwich with Serrano ham; and the good-tasting, good-deal of Fish en Papillote — a tender block of cod steamed in parchment paper with tomatoes, green peppers and onions.
Fish from a can might sound like an odd order in a restaurant — unless you're in Spain, where it's popular. One esteemed Spanish brand — Espinaler — is showcased at El Lugar.
The same company makes Salsa Espinaler, a vinegary mild red-pepper sauce beloved in Spain and available on every table here. When presented with, say, the firm canned Pepus Mussels ($7), place some of the shellfish on the provided toast, squeeze on lemon, dot with Salsa Espinaler, and dig in.
If this isn't your thing — I like it — maybe free booze is. That's what you'll get when a friendly server in this fun restaurant pours you a complimentary, meal-ending glass of Spanish vermouth.