The understandable tendency for restaurateurs, especially in smaller markets, is to play it safe when developing a new concept. Seen in that light, Bodega’s slogan — “Tapas. Wine. Rum.” — is nothing short of a bold manifesto.
Not that any one of these three, taken on its own, is earth-shattering. Tapas is a concept so firmly established that it’s safe to consider it a restaurant category in its own right. Same goes for wine bars, and restaurants with extensive cellars are as old as fine dining. Rum bars are a comparatively new trend, something you might expect to see in downtown Durham or Raleigh’s Warehouse District. But they’re a bona fide trend nonetheless.
Bodega dares to combine all three of these concepts under one roof — in downtown Wake Forest. What’s more, Nunzio Scordo, a veteran chef and restaurateur who opened Bodega in February (and also owns Driftwood Southern Kitchen in Lafayette Village), has gone all in on his new triple-threat concept.
Scordo lured chef Doug Seeley from California’s Napa Valley, where he had worked for 15 years, to put the tapas part of his concept on the plate.
Small plate, that is. Unlike many restaurants that tout their tapas concept but hedge their bets with an ample selection of “large plates” (read: entrees), Bodega offers only one large plate option. And even that one — a 32-ounce cowboy steak, aka bone-in rib-eye — is meant to be shared.
If you must have an entree, you could share the steak (which arrives precisely grilled to order, cut from the bone and topped with chimichurri) with a dining companion. For the potatoes component of your meat-and-potatoes meal, an order of roasted fingerlings with crispy chorizo from the tapas menu would do nicely. Or go Continental with gnocchi Parisienne in a rich porcini cream sauce.
But the pro move would be to round up a party of four or more to share the steak. That would be more in keeping with the spirit of the concept, and would allow you to sample more widely from Bodega’s eclectic, Spanish-accented selection of two dozen tapas.
Start with a couple of lighter dishes, then gradually nibble your way into progressively heartier fare. Feel free to order just a couple of items at a time, or order everything at once. Either way, the food will be served as it’s ready, with dishes spaced out over the course of the meal.
Crab-stuffed peppers are a must. The crab, from NC waters, is mostly lump, and it’s folded into a light lemon mayo, then stuffed into sweet, ruby red pouches of piquillo pepper.
A salad of shaved Brussels sprouts, apples, raisins, almonds and manchego cheese in a date vinaigrette is a first-rate palate primer. But I can’t recommend the “jumbo” green and white asparagus, neither of which was jumbo when I ordered the dish, and both of which needed an inch or so more of their woody stem ends trimmed.
A warm goat cheese dip with oyster mushrooms is a prime companion for one of Bodega’s rum cocktails — or, for that matter, any of the bar’s two dozen or so aged rums. And a truffled beef tartare, garnished with a Stonehenge ring of crostini, just cries out for a glass of wine from Bodega’s global selection of some 100 labels, nearly half of them available by the glass (3-ounce or 6-ounce pour).
Grilled octopus, bespattered with a vibrant chimichurri rojo and served over a garbanzo salad punctuated with green olives, is a solid next move. Better still is a seafood stew that serves up flawless clams, mussels and striped bass in a savory coconut broth.
Come ashore for an empanada whose rich Cuban picadillo filling is subtly sweetened with plantain and sultana raisins. Stay there for coffee-and-spice-rubbed lamb ribs so good you’ll want them even if you’ve also ordered the cowboy steak.
Rounding up a party of four also comes in handy when it comes time for dessert. That way you can order them all: white chocolate bread pudding with local strawberries (as long as they’re in season); a wickedly rich, dark spiced chocolate tart; and a silk-smooth panna cotta topped with berry sauce and served with pistachio shortbread cookies. If you can only get one dessert, though, make it the panna cotta.
Polished hardwood floors, vintage posters advertising Italian wines, and ornate gilt-framed mirrors hung on brick walls painted the color of espresso give Bodega’s L-shaped dining room and bar a casually sophisticated look. But all those hard surfaces make for a noisy setting when the dining room is full — which it frequently is, especially on weekend nights. Nunzio Scordo says is aware of the problem and has ordered sound-dampening panels and curtains to reduce the decibel level.
In the meantime, it’s abundantly clear that Wake Forest was ready — no, make that eagerly awaiting — Bodega’s bold concept.
110 S. White St., Wake Forest
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casually sophisticated
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: welcoming and generally attentive, with occasional lapses, especially when very busy
Recommended: crab-stuffed peppers, gnocchi, seafood stew, empanada, lamb ribs, cowboy steak, panna cotta
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking on street and in city-owned lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.