Top Shelf Tapas in Winter Park.
The likelihood of my living in a world where I use the word ‘boo-yah” has always been remote. Just not in the cards. Who knows; perhaps on a parallel plane with Sundays spent wistfully polishing high-school trophies and having deep, brewski-fueled carburetor discussions with my best bud Chad. So, you can imagine it’s come as no small surprise to find myself living in a Chad-free reality where ‘boo-yah’ not only flows freely from my lips, but also never while violently throwing elbows during what was supposed to be a low-key game of pickup basketball. It’s unexpected territory, I’m still working on my delivery, but I think everything’s gonna be A-OK.
Winter Park’s Bulla (pronounced boo-yah) has become a fixture in my everyday lexicon thanks to its top shelf Spanish eats and an amazing degree of steady improvement made even more amazing by the fact that it could likely ‘get by’ resting on its laurels. I’ve now eaten at Bulla about a dozen times; brunches, lunches, dinners, and drinks. For some yet-to-be-deciphered reason, I keep expecting each meal to disappoint and for what appear to be very good reasons they never do. Bulla is a well-run small chain with a talented kitchen that seems laser-focused on creating very good food.
Before diving in, an advance warning: As a result of living overseas for many years (and dirt-cheap EasyJet flights) I’ve spent a sizable portion of my life in Spain. This uniquely qualifies me to be that guy – the fucking obnoxious “when I was in Spain” guy. When I was in Spain, I was largely writing full time. This afforded me the opportunity to work where I found myself and I found myself meandering the streets of San Sebastian in search of prized pintxos, poking into bowls of caracoles in Sevillian dive bars, pondering the bizarreness of percebes in Galicia, and basically making an ass out of myself up and down the Costa Brava. Prior to moving to the City Beautiful, serious consideration was given to making Catalunya my permanent home before the inherent complications of doing so became fully apparent (taxes!). So, now you know: I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Spain, know the food quite well, and will tell you about it whether you like it or not.
When I first started visiting Orlando, many restaurants felt the need to muffle their cuisine with something more commercially proven. A Spanish restaurant? No, mam. That would be a Spanish-Mexican restaurant. Portuguese? Wrong again. Portuguese-Mexican. Greek-Italian. Thai-Sushi. God forbid Israeli, Lebanese, or Persian. It would be Middle Eastern and it wouldn’t be Middle Eastern, it would be (shudder) Mediterranean. It seemed like a city full of restaurants hedging their bets: Hiding behind a mask of fusion at best and devolving into muted culinary gumbo at worst. Don’t get me wrong: Fusion is the heartbeat of American cuisine. Bulgogi burritos are a damn fine thing. But what we were forced to endure for many years in Orlando was the kiddie-menu treatment for adults. If I was craving unfiltered Spanish eats, I’d have to hop a flight to NYC.
Thankfully, times have changed. More and more Orlando eateries are steering away from attempting to be all things to all diners, subscribing to the belief: Do what you do, do it well or don’t do it at all. Clap, clap. Bulla is proud to be a Spanish restaurant (or at least ‘inspired’ by Spanish restaurants), and it does a commendable job of it. However, by no means does this mean it is handcuffed by the stereotypical; it hasn’t caved to castanets. Bulla does manage to turn out a good number of well-executed Spanish classics (even breathing new life into them) but maintains the spirit of experimentation that drives modern-day Spanish cuisine. It feels a bit like a contemporary Barcelona tapas bar – albeit one slightly sterilized to suit American tastes and stuck in a strip mall desperate not to be one.
When I was in Spain, I found that although a familiar range of dishes and ingredients informs much of the food, there really is no such thing as a stock Spanish cuisine – especially in places like Catalunya. Across the country, there is a tremendous amount of creative culinary exploration fueled by an abundance of regional specialties. For example, salmorejo or berenjenas con miel (eggplant fried in honey) in Andalucia, kokotxa (cod or hake chin) in the Basque country, or cocido madrileño in Madrid may all find themselves reimagined on a plate in Barcelona. Basically, layer the creativity of a country of inventive chefs atop a varied regional smorgasbord and look out. Good things happen. Suffice it to say, going out for Spanish food is sort of like saying you’re going out for American food. It’s a thing and it isn’t a thing.
This being understood, there are certain staples that can be found across Spain and a portion of Bulla’s menu pays tribute to them. Ubiquitous tapas like ham croquetas, garlic shrimp, cod fritters, patatas bravas, padron peppers (in Bulla’s case, shishitos), and tortilla Española are all represented and done well. We’ve found them a consistently great way to whet one’s appetite or to serve as a grazing meal of their own. The tortilla in particular is outstanding; deeply flavorful, rich, and oozy with caramelized onion, it’s right up there with the better versions I’ve had.
Two easy barometers for Spanish food are tomato bread (pan con tomate) and gin and tonic (ordered as ‘gintonica’ when in Spain). If the bread comes out poorly, ask for the check and beat a path to the door. It still amazes me how many restos struggle to turn out something as simple and splendid. Not so here. The ‘Pan de Cristal con Tomate’ at Bulla is spot-on authentic, hitting all the right textural notes and achieving the correct balance of olive oil, salt, and fresh ‘maters.
Likewise, the Proper G&T at Bulla is divine. I lived in London for many years, and the G&T’s in Seville are better. Trust me. The Spanish know how to craft a ‘proper’ gin and tonic. Served in Copa de Balon glasses and often free poured at the table, they are the true definition of afternoon delight. Bulla’s version is also served in a large, stemmed balloon glass and tweaked up a notch with star anise and juniper berries. I “could” drink four of these in a single setting. Apart from its range of cocktails, Bulla also has a concise, respectable wine list that largely pays tribute to Spain. The Shaya Verdejo is a good, inexpensive option and far too easy-drinking. On our last visit, Bulla even featured a carajillo on the drinks menu; a simple combo of espresso and liquor seldom seen on stateside menus. Most of the versions I’ve enjoyed employed cognac or brandy (I’ve also had a wonderful version with anise served over ice), but at Bulla they opt for the uniquely flavored Licor 43 which adds lovely depth.
I’m a ham man. A big ham fan. I got a ham plan. Sorry. I love Spanish ham, and Bulla does offer a small selection of Spanish meats among its eats. Still rhyming. My fave cured piggy comes from Spain’s black-footed free roaming Iberian pigs – the acorn noshers. The choicest ham on the Bulla menu on our last visit, Paleta Iberica de Bellota by Fermin, is a front-leg cut (as opposed to pricier hind leg cuts) that is respectable but doesn’t quite carry the heavenly melt-in-your-mouth texture and perfumed, nutty fattiness of higher end cuts. I find the quality of the charcuterie at Bulla has definitely improved over the years, but still fails to achieve the level of wow that would draw you into the restaurant on its own. I hope they continue to commit to improving in this area, even if there aren’t many other places in town that currently outdo them. Sad face. For instance, I’ve yet to see anything akin to the ethereal Cinco Jotas (5J) Jamón 100% Ibérico de Bellota on a Central Florida menu. If it were to suddenly appear at Bulla, I would happily pay the steep price of admission and drive through Hurricane Diablo to do it.
Did I tell you I spent some time in Spain? While there, I learned from a drunken Valencian chef that paella does not exist without chicken and rabbit, and that paella with seafood is not paella at all: It’s seafood rice. As with ham and regional politics, Spain is rife with partisan paella debates, so I zipped my lips, bought him another caña and set about finishing my seafood paella. I indulge in this detour in order to mention that Bulla does serve paella, and although adequately tasty, it’s not the best reason to visit.
In addition to staples, Bulla also dabbles in traditional fare that’s lesser known in the States. In some cases, it does it better than most cafes and restaurants in Spain. For instance, Huevos Bulla, which you most often see as Huevos Rotos (broken eggs) on Spanish menus, is an excellent take on a dish that should be served as breakfast at my house every day. A combo of eggs, homemade potato chips, Serrano ham, potato foam, and truffle oil. Check, check, check, check, check, boo-yah.
Two octopus dishes can be up and down, but when they’re up they’re up. One version is grilled and served atop a corn puree with mojo verde, the other a salad with Roma tomatoes, cucumber, croutons, and lemon. I find the former a bit more reliable as the corn and mojo work very well in concert with the octopus. The salad, on the other hand, can suffer if the tomatoes aren’t in top form (on one occasion they managed to be simultaneously hard and mealy). If you want to ensure a bit of char on either, it also might be worth mentioning to your waiter in advance. We categorize these as ‘almost there’ dishes due to lack of consistency in regard to portioning, ingredients, and overall execution. Regardless, both are worth an order as they are more often good than not.
Among the range of nibbles, the Montaditos are a must. Brisket, tomato marmalade, guindilla, tetilla cheese. Just take a look at the picture here. It tells the story better than we can.
Both cumin marinated pork loin skewers with mojo verde and Greek yogurt and chicken skewers with Greek yogurt and salsa criolla are solid and more substantial than they read on paper. Both dishes were well prepared and succeed in their simplicity.
Did I mention that Bulla has green stuff? They do and it’s excellent. The Verde Salad combining kale, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, citrus, lemon maple dressing and Manchego seems to magically appear on our table on each of our visits, and I’m particularly fond of their riff on a Caesar; kale, serrano-caesar dressing, and Manchego.
Our lone bad experience came in the form of a stinking pile of shriveled mussels that I’m amazed made it through the kitchen window. However, this was an aberration. The manager was very apologetic and offered to replace it with anything else on the menu we liked, and, although it doesn’t excuse Bulla from serving them, at the time we felt it symptomatic of a larger Orlando sourcing issue. We’ve had similar experiences with mussels at other area restaurants with eerily similar looking (and smelling) mollusks. Regardless, we suggest you order at your own risk.
Worth repeating that the mussel debacle was handled very professionally by Bulla’s staff. Service on almost every occasion has been extremely friendly and efficient. We have little to critique in this department – in our experience, the place runs like a top and wait staff have been exceptionally pleasant to deal with.
Ah, brunch. Served Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-4pm, Bulla’s brunch includes bottomless mimosas ($16) and sangria plus a three-course prix fixe menu with oodles of options. We can confirm that the mimosas are indeed bottomless. I’ve wandered around the brunch menu across a couple of visits and found the steak and eggs one of the more solid options; tender sliced filet, fried eggs atop shoestring potatoes, with a bit of mojo verde and Sriracha aioli.
I can’t say I was impressed with their nod to Mexico in huevos rancheros (there are better options nearby) and, although a table fave, I find the revuelto ‘Lucio’ (scrambled eggs, oyster mushroom, sautéed shrimp, and scallions), a smidge bland.
A couple of final notes on Bulla’s food. They do serve a range of larger plates, many of which we’ve tried and enjoyed, but we’ll detail them in our next review. Also, their version of the good ole’ American ‘hamberder’ with tetilla cheese (The Bulla Burger) has won rave reviews from the 5-year olds and food phobic in our gang. Can’t vouch for it personally but it’s always looked like something I’d love to eat while watching ‘Letterkenny’ in my underwear.
In my experience, very few restaurants seem capable of meaningful, internally-driven improvement beyond the first six months or so of open. Bulla is an exception. It’s very good and seems to only be getting better. Let’s hope they stay on this trajectory and continue to refine and tinker around the edges. Consistency remains the only gripe, but on our last couple of visits this too seems to be working itself out. In sum, Bulla is likely the best Spanish restaurant in Orlando. It’s unfussy and far from special occasion dining, which makes it all the more accessible and authentic: Food wise, about as close as you can get to a Barcelona tapas bar without hopping a flight. Sure, some dishes are a tad dumbed down and the atmosphere, albeit very comfortable, can feel slightly contrived. However, the quality of the eats and overall experience is real deal. So, a hearty boo-yah to Bulla. Up top. Up top. Don’t leave me hanging bro.