Monday, January 16, 2012

Forced to share at La Bodega

La Bodega on Urbanspoon
If you dine as as group at La Bodega, you're pretty much forced into the Spanish culture of communal eating and shared plates -- at least that was how it turned out Saturday night when the Internationals in Vancouver Social Meetup Group went there. Somebody dropped the ball big-time here. DON'T let it happen to you!

Our dining group was pretty big: About 30 people turned up out of about 40 RSVPs. Although 30 sounds like pretty big numbers for a restaurant with a small storefront (which you can see on Google maps), it's actually not too bad. Inside, the restaurant is actually quite spacious: There's an upper floor and fairy tight seating -- as much as 8 to one of their slightly rectangular tables, and chairs sometimes placed literally side by side with no room in between. We were one of two very large groups, and there was still seating for smaller groups of 4-6. Downstairs it looked like it was mostly a long bar.

La Bodega opened in 1971, and apparently since then things have been allowed to be old-fashioned in terms of billing. This, in turn, has led to some limitations on how things are run. The restaurant expects, and in fact cannot accommodate, an excessive number of individual bills. Definitely not 30. They expect that diners are here for a communal experience with a single bill for each table. That's apparently how the Spanish eat, and they serve Spanish food, so they expect people to eat that way. It's almost exclusively tapas for sharing, especially for larger groups. You have to specifically ask for their very small dinner menu if you want to choose entree-sized portions.
Somewhere along the way, someone didn't tell the dinner organizer about the mandatory group billing. The organizer therefore didn't relay the information to everyone, who really didn't know each other well enough to do group billing or sharing. Or maybe she didn't want to try coordinating that among 30 people spread over two tables. Besides, what if some had alcohol and some ate more than others? It would be a nightmare to get everyone billed fairly.
In the end the server agreed to do small-group billing and split our long tables into 6 groups -- although she couldn't disguise just how big a chore it was for her and the kitchen.

La Bodega also has a $20 fixed menu for large groups. It is served in three courses and includes 8 of their best-selling dishes. The menu was only for very large groups and everyone had to be in on it -- it's probably meant to help the kitchen mass-cook large portions. It's a busy place and a busy kitchen with just 8 grills.
We weren't told about that either and at that late hour (i.e., when the organizer showed up at the restaurant) it was really too late to poll for an agreement. Besides, there might have been vegetarians or pescetarians, and that wouldn't have worked out.

After those hurdles, it was on to dinner, finally!

One of my pet peeves with restaurants is the lack of staff when they know they will have a large group in. Tonight, there was basically just the one server for all 30 of us, and she may have worked half the floor in total, if not the entire floor. Later in the evening I saw two other servers bringing food from the kitchen. They may have been just bussers. Hard to say. In any case, service was intermittent. We were mostly left to ourselves, and we ended up asking for pitchers of water to serve ourselves. Which was okay, but not especially good.

The tapas menu has about 40 items and is basically $8-$12 per item. Depending on what you ordered, you might what looks like a very little portion, or a decent portion. For example, the Albondigas was about 6 small meatballs, each smaller than a ping pong ball. Lots of meat sauce and some cubes of potato thrown in, however. The Mejillones Frescos (fresh mussels in a wine peppery sauce) saw quite a few mussels and a lot of tasty broth, though the mussels were quite small.

Two plates of tapas might make a light meal if you had it all to yourself and you also one of the bread baskets to yourself. Bread was basic and cold. There was an excessive amount of butter (in those little round plastic cups with the pull-off lid) so no shortage there if you like your bread buttered. What I preferred to use the bread for, however, was to soak up the sauce/soup from the tapas, especially the spicy broth from the Mejillones Frescos and the meat sauce for the Albondigas.

Our group of five ordered four plates of tapas and two dinner portions of paella which came in a single one big pan.

  • The Albondigas (Spanish meatballs) portion looks very small in the metal dish. The meatballs were, however, very tender and tasty; and sitting in a meat sauce which would have been totally wasted without any bread to sop it up.
  • The Mejillones Frescos had fairly tasty soup with a bit of spicy bite to it, but not excessively so. Small mussels but a good number of them. The tasty broth isn't so easily shared without bread -- unless you're not averse to people double-dipping with soup spoons.
  • The Almejas Marinera (fresh clams in a savory white sauce) had a creamy tasting (but watery-looking) wine sauce and rather small clams. Again, the shellfish looked a bit on the small side.
  • The Conejo Riojana (fresh rabbit, tomato and wine sauce) was about the size of a small chicken drumstick-and-thigh. Tasted like chicken too. Quite a few small bones, so go slowly with this one. Bland tomato sauce. This was probably the worst order. Give this one a pass.
  • The two orders of Paella de la Casa (which we were told was Valencian style) added up to a rather sizable pan and what looks like a good stuff-to-rice ratio. Buried in the rice are small chicken drumsticks. Sticking out of it are mussels and pieces of chorizo. The rice was savory and on the salty side, so using the lemon wedges included may or may not help so much. Definitely the "best value" if you're looking for a filling dinner with rice.

The above, plus one beer and one glass of sangria, tax, and pre-included 15% tip, was $135. My portion -- the order of the mussels and rabbit -- somehow came out to just under $28.

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