Winter Park’s Bite of Barcelona

By Rona Gindin

Photographs by Rafael Tongol

Both Managing Partner Jose Santiago and Sales Manager Elba Ortega-Cruz spent many years working for local steakhouses before beginning their Bulla (pronounced BOO-ya) adventure.

Winter Park has a handful of restaurants that might be described as “buzzy.” These eateries exude a cool, casually sophisticated and energetic aura.

Bulla Gastrobar fits the definition. Not only is Bulla buzzy; Bulla was designed to be buzzy. “One guest told me, ‘It feels like Friday night every night of the week,’ and to me that’s right,” says Elba Ortega-Cruz, the restaurant’s infectiously upbeat sales manager.

The bar is the central focus of the space, and the close-set tables facilitate conversations between guests. The kitchen is open, the hospitality is warm and the music is unobtrusive. Bulla (pronounced BOO-ya) is, in fact, a Spanish word that means something like “boisterous” in English. That’s a bit strong, although “bustling” would be about right (although admittedly not a very catchy name for a restaurant).

Whatever the nuances of Spanish-to-English translation, Manhattan interior designer Vincent Celano kept conviviality top-of-mind when designing the local Bulla and its two predecessors, one in Coral Gables, the other in Doral. All are modeled on tapas bars from in and around Barcelona.

All the Bullas are owned by Carlos Centurion, whose Centurion Restaurant Group, now comprised of smart-casual Florida restaurants, began with Por Fin, a renowned (but now shuttered) fine-dining Spanish restaurant in Coral Gables. The first Bulla now occupies that space.

Bulla’s urban exterior (top) beckons Orlando Avenue passersby to Lakeside Crossing, along the commercial strip where redevelopment is occurring at a rapid pace. A lengthy bar (above) is key to Bulla’s convivial ambiance.

You can show up at Bulla wearing shorts and a T-shirt. But you can also break out your edgier wardrobe, since looking chic is part of the fun.

Although warm woods abound, Bulla is as bright as it is cozy. There are windows on three sides, doors that open onto the outside (weather allowing), a patio that fronts Orlando Avenue, and fashionable clumps of teardrop-shaped lights that hang from the ceiling.

“When you think of a typical Spanish restaurant in the U.S., you think of a place that’s a little dark, more like an Irish pub,” says Managing Partner Jose Santiago. “We have an open, fresh appeal.”

The music tends toward Spanish rock from the ’80s and ’90s as well as some more contemporary sounds. “When we play flamenco guitar music, it’s more modern flamenco guitar music,” adds Santiago.

Cocktails — handcrafted ones — contribute to the “gastrobar” moniker. To Santiago, creative mixed drinks define the Bulla way, whether they’re ordered at the bar or at a table. The Heartbreaker, for example, combines Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva rum, Aperol (an Italian apéritif made of bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona), Lustau East India Solera sherry and a housemade strawberry-rosemary syrup.

All wines, beers and cocktails are 50 percent off during happy hour — happy two hours, actually — which is daily from 5-7 p.m.

The menu in Winter Park is in the capable hands of Executive Chef Felix Plasencia, a Cuban native with a golden Spanish-cuisine pedigree. Plasencia worked for five years at the Michelin-rated Taberna del Alabardero in Seville, Spain, before joining Por Fin and, later, helping to open Bulla.

Twice annually, Plasencia travels to Spain with top chefs from Bulla’s other restaurants on reconnaissance missions. Those visits help him keep the Winter Park Bulla’s offerings current.

Santiago sums up the menu best: “We’re using traditional Spanish cooking techniques, but injecting them with modern techniques and additional ingredients that will enhance a dish.” The Bulla menu is large and it changes regularly — so start with the signature dishes before moving on.

While deciding what you’ll have, nibble on an order of pan de cristal con tomate. This is the simplest food ever, but it’s also habit-forming. It’s thin slices of a toasted Spanish bread that’s 90 percent water and 10 percent flour.

After being browned in a coal-burning oven, the toast is topped with grated fresh tomatoes, olive oil and Maldon salt. It takes eight or nine tomatoes to make one order, as the cooks grate the produce by hand, then drain out the liquid.

You may want a simple meal of salami and cheeses. Six of each are on the menu — all imported from Spain — and can be made into a platter. But do try the house specialties.

That means huevos Bulla. You’ll hesitate after reading the description, so I ask you to take a leap of faith and order this dish anyway. This tapa — or small plate — is a contemporary take on huevos revueltos, which means “broken eggs.”

Here, the eggs are fried and served in a cast-iron bowl with homemade potato chips and thin slices of Serrano ham, which is enhanced by truffle oil and potato foam made with a whipped cream-making gizmo.

I’d skip the meatballs — they weren’t as special as some other dishes — and have the grilled octopus salad. For this tapa, the chefs simmer an entire octopus in water with celery, carrots and bay leaves. The tentacles, after being dipped in a blend of lemon juice, olive oil and salt, are charred in the restaurant’s charcoal-burning oven.

If you’re open to octopus, this is one of the best preparations you’ll find anywhere in the region.

The lemony octopus tapa is a top seller. The tentacles, after being dipped in a blend of lemon juice, olive oil and salt, are charred in the restaurant’s charcoal-burning oven.

My Bulla dining experiences were heavy on the small plates, so I’ll also recommend the potato tortilla, a traditional omelet with sliced potato; the patatas bravas, cubed potatoes with spicy sauce; and the grilled pork skewers.

This top-selling tapa is marinated with cumin and paprika, then skewered and charcoal-roasted. The pork is placed on bread, and topped with a Greek yogurt sauce and a mojo verde of garlic, cilantro and green peppercorn.

The paella is especially good, too. The chefs use bomba rice and cook it with a smoky-flavored sofrito and saffron plus calamari, prawns, clams, shrimp and grouper.

Bulla’s signature paella is made with imported bomba rice, which is cooked with a smoky-flavored sofrito and saffron and served with calamari, prawns, clams, shrimp and grouper.

At lunch, go light with the seafood salpicón. It’s an oregano-flecked salad with grilled octopus, jumbo lump crab meat and shrimp. It’s tossed with lettuce, green and red bell pepper bits, and sweet potato chips.

If you show up on the right evening, you can even help plan the next menu. In addition to the main listing of small and large plates, which is served in all three Bulla Gastrobars — the croquetas and codfish fritters are especially popular with Miami’s guests of Cuban descent — each restaurant has five or six specials, which change every two weeks.

Staff chefs compete to have their creations chosen. Before making a decision, management sends samples to guests and seeks feedback via comment cards. A chef may visit participating tables to solicit more thoughts.

El Bulla Gastrobar is worth a visit. No bull.

Bulla Gastrobar
Lakeside Crossing
110 Orlando Ave., Suite 7, Winter Park

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