There was a time, not long ago, when boys in khaki swarmed Coral Gables. They sauntered down avenues while gossiping about the latest venture capitalist to move to New York. Ageless women, hair blow-dried and legs strangled by skin-tight white pants, muttered words like "supposebly." There were gold necklaces, Mediterranean lawns, and University of Miami bumper stickers. Coral Gables meant suburbia ten minutes southwest of high-rise-clustered downtown.
But now the neighborhood embraces Eating House, Bread & Butter, Swine Southern Table & Bar, and Bulla — a wave of new restaurants that eschew leather-bound menu books and candlelight. So forget the duck terrine, raspberry coulis, and grand wine lists. This batch teems with the muddled mint aroma of cocktails and change. Old-school refinement no longer defines Miracle Mile. Coral Gables is booze, craft beers, and stylish grub.
Bulla, a Spanish gastrobar on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, best exemplifies the revival. Carlos Centurión was formerly the proprietor of Por Fin, a white-tablecloth restaurant located in this same space. But formalities tired him. After four years, he closed it, and a year later, Bulla (pronounced boo-yah) was born. His new spot, furnished with walnut wood floors, hanging light bulbs, and equine-inspired décor, is younger, cooler, and better than before.
After the transformation, Luis Quant stayed on as executive chef. Popular dishes such as huevos "Por Fin" evolved into huevos "Bulla." Both feature crisp potato chips chaperoned by thick potato foam, jamón serrano, a fried egg, and pungent truffle oil. The egg, now upgraded to organic, is the only change.
At Bulla's freestanding marble bar, under the mahogany marquee, it's always time for a drink. Cocktails here are delicious and fussy, infused with citrus marmalades, lemongrass syrups, and homemade passionfruit tonics. The sangria de cerveza, a drink more coastal Marbella than citified Madrid, mixes Ommegang Witte, a Belgian-style wheat ale, with triple sec, pear purée, and a squirt of lemon juice. Don't be surprised if guests order more than one. This suds-inspired sangria, crisp and refreshing, is just $8.
Venture to the dining room, where chalkboards list Spanish dishes on blond wooden walls, to sample Quant's small-plates cuisine. The tortilla española layers thick slices of onions and potatoes fried in olive oil. Bulla's version, cut in a slender slab, is almost traditional. But a swooshed dollop of chorizo purée pushes it past convention. (Spicy pork sausage is always attention-grabbing.) Doused in fried tomato paste, the albóndigas — veal and pork meatballs — swim in milky stracciatella. Croquetas de jamón, golden bits of pinguid beauty, gleam beneath a thin fig jam glaze. Quant's cookery borders on ordinary, but it triumphs with the teeniest of novelties.
Bullas' gambas al ajillo combines rock shrimp, sliced garlic, guindilla pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. The dish exudes classic Spanish cooking — but Quant's shrimp need no innovation. What they do require is more bread. Ask waiters in matching polo shirts for additional pan, ideal for plunging into sizzling shrimp juices.
Want cheese? Choose from Cabrales, manchego, Idiazábal, Leonora, Mahón, tetilla, and Catalonian Garrotxa. Prefer ham? Select from serrano, fuet, salchichón, butifarra, chorizo Cantimpalo, and sobrasada cured meats. The artfully arranged platters carry ribboned charcuterie and cheeses crowned with dried fruit and grilled toast. Instagram beckons! At Bulla, catch neighbors snapping photos, writing Yelp reviews, and asking staff for the restaurant's Twitter handle. Let everyone know: You're in the Gables. You're at Bulla.
Order, too, the arroz a banda, a dish from Alicante ideal for sharing. The rice, slow-cooked in fish stock and baked until reaching a brittle crust, rests beneath grouper, mussels, shrimp, and calamari. Suck in the aromas of steaming crustaceans. Slap away hands holding camera phones. Bulla's arroz a banda is finest when hot, far from the scrutiny of iPhone flashes.
Quant almost plays it safe with his cremoso de chocolate. A quenelle of cool chocolate cream sprinkled with Maldon sea salt crests a triangular brownie — warm, rich, and soft. Slivered toast rests like a fancy hat atop the delectable chocolate duo. Pick the cremoso over Bulla's flan. The custard, topped with tiny meringues and candied citrus, lacks the silken consistency of a proper crème caramel.
Or better yet: Opt for both the churros and the cremoso, along with some scarlet sangria, which mingles red wine, brandy, triple sec, Sprite, and slivered oranges; it is just as good when made with beer or white wine. Ask for another. Escort your drink from table to bar. Seek the boys in khaki. Find the women in white. Are they there? Watch as a novel crowd — spry and young — trickles in. Know this: The new Coral Gables is enjoyed best with a drink in one hand and pan con tomate in the other.