In a year saturated with New American farm-to-table menus, La Dulce’s authentic Spanish tapas with their boldly flavored, often unfamiliar ingredients are a welcome and dramatic departure from the ordinary.
Also a departure from the ordinary is the restaurant’s almost indescribable decor: a highly stylized blend of European and Mediterranean motifs executed with a sense of Alice-in-Wonderland whimsy … a place that looks more like a living room than a restaurant and keeps surprising you with its oddly fascinating details.
Taken together, the food and setting make La Dulce one of metro Detroit’s most distinctive new dining destinations — one you really shouldn’t miss.
Owner Luis Negrete and his brother, executive chef Juan Carlos Negrete, set out to create the truest Spanish tapas dining experience possible, from the traditional recipes and many imported ingredients they use to the way food is served and shared by diners at low tables set between sofas and soft chairs.
Covered in white-patterned Ralph Lauren fabric and built like square boxes with arms as high as their backs, the seats aren’t made for easy lounging, but they do create intimate groupings around the tables where the dishes are served. The effect is supposed to be that of gathering in the living room of a home in Madrid, the owners say.
The seating arrangements aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps, but there’s a reason for them — a topic to which we’ll return later.
The more important issue is the food, and on that front, La Dulce wins me over with its surprisingly simple preparations, beautiful ingredients and intriguing flavors. Those who are looking for a different kind of dining experience and who enjoy trying new foods will be delighted to discover this place.
The menu features more than 30 soups, salads, classic tapas — such as mixed olives, cheeses, patatas bravas (spicy fried potatoes) and plates of wonderful charcuterie — and house specialties, somewhat more elaborate in preparation.
Most dishes are $4-$10, while platters of meats and cheeses are $15-$25. Dishes featuring specialty imported baby eels, cockles and clams are $30-$50.
There are also desserts including the house specialty: warm, made-to-order churros with three dipping sauces. They’re fun and tasty and everyone seems to get them, but do try some of the other desserts — especially the luscious flan with house-made cajeta caramel sauce — by pastry chef Kayla Pilato, formerly of Torino in Ferndale.
One of my favorite house specialties was the tender, meaty fried octopus with potatoes and bright green, mildly spicy shishito peppers. The octopus arrives in the kitchen whole, is boiled to tenderness and then is fried with the peppers when ordered, says general manager Ian Redmond.
Some dishes are as simple as small skewers of olives, anchovy, pickled peppers and cornichons. Some are bite-sized toasts, called montaditos, with toppings like salmorejo (a tomato-based puree) and shaved Spanish Iberico ham, or aged goat cheese and sautéed mushrooms. The latter — with deeply funky cheese and umami-rich mushroom flavors — tasted even more amazing with a glass of sherry.
There are croquetas (croquettes) of pork and potato — which would appeal to almost everyone — and of cuttle fish and squid ink, which definitely would not. And there are the sampler platters of sliced sausages and/or hams, including the prized Iberico hams from acorn-fed pigs. The charcuterie is a can’t-miss choice for sharing over drinks with friends.
And that’s what those low tables and sofa groupings are about, says Redmond.
Tapas dining isn’t supposed to be just about eating, he explains. It’s also about socializing around food.
“The point is almost forced sharing” of dishes, he says. “It’s more of a social experience. You’re talking and slowly enjoying your food. We want to keep the conversation flowing. You can order a bunch of things throughout the night … and sit back and enjoy.”
Rather than ordering a dish for yourself and eating from that bowl or plate — which causes you to lean over the table to eat — you order an item for the group and let everyone put some on their own plates — which they can hold if they wish, cocktail-party style, as they eat.
“The idea is to have your own side plate and keep adding things to it” from the shared dishes on the table, Redmond says. “It’s kind of awkward in our culture — you’re holding your plate up to your face, basically — but in European culture, that’s the idea. … You can even eat with your fingers if you want to.”
That’s purely optional, of course; silverware and lovely big napkins are provided. And, for the record, some conventional tables and chairs are also available.
La Dulce is now serving lunch, and added brunch last Sunday with a menu that includes two kinds of paella, a nice egg-potato-and-meat dish (try the braised oxtail) and locally raised roasted suckling pig, because Spain does love the pig, after all.
My table was served part of a leg, with crackly-crisp and chewy skin; sides of tender-crisp green beans, roasted peppers with potatoes, and chilled white bean salad; plus a small jar of precious, delicious pan drippings.
Joining executive chef Juan Carlos Negrete, 33, in the kitchen are two sous chefs — Hector Sanz, who has worked at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, ranked No. 1 on this year’s Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants; and Miami-born Moses Fishman, a Culinary Institute of America grad who has cooked at top restaurants in Peru, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Negrete worked at Casa Marcelo restaurant in Galicia before coming to metro Detroit to open La Dulce with his brother, Luis, a West Bloomfield resident who owns an auto-industry business. The brothers grew up in Mexico, where their family owned a restaurant and their mother was a chef.
La Dulce — pronounced DOOL-say, not DOLE-chay, as in Italian — is set in a former shoe store, which the owners gutted and rebuilt at something in the neighborhood of $1 million, Redmond says. The interior was created by Spanish designer Gaspar Sobrino; you should check out his fanciful work on Google images.
He did a mock-up of La Dulce in Spain and had the furnishings and decorative objects — many gleaned from antique shops and flea markets in France and Spain — shipped to the U.S.
Drinks are central to the tapas experience, and Redmond — formerly beverage director at Torino — has designed a beverage program here that is an attraction in its own right. Besides featuring excellent craft cocktails and a full range of other drinks, the bar specializes in Spanish sherry. Redmond offers more than two dozen of the fortified, cask-aged wines and is searching for more. They’re excellent complements for food of all kinds, he says, and their range of flavors and styles is far greater than most people imagine.
The most unusual design element is his use of thousands of thin white china cups, made into curving stacks to form chandeliers and frame oval portraits of the queens of Spain. The cups are used again on the restaurant’s facade, where they are placed edge-to-edge behind glass to create a wall of white circles. He also repeats dozens of identical blue-and-white greenery-filled pots on a grid of glass shelves in the front of the restaurant, and fills twin faux fireplaces with plants and art objects.
Guests will find it all rather strange at first, but after a few visits, I’ve come to admire its unabashed quirkiness.
Redmond says La Dulce’s menu for now is “very, very traditional and very much straight out of Spain,” with a few influences — notably the churros — from owner Negrete’s native Mexico. “As we move forward, the menu will become more Michigan-infused, with more creativity coming in,” he says.
I can’t wait to see how La Dulce evolves — and whether diners will learn to sit back and truly relax with sherry and tapas in a stylish living room in Madrid.
(Hours are 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, with dinner service beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a..m.-3 p.m. Located at 115 S. Main; 248-268-1719 and www.ladulce.com. Open Table reservations.)