Cobras & Matadors. Make an effort to remember the name, because the space that used to be Boxer has been transformed (by the same owner) into one of the best tapas restaurants I‘ve been to in Southern California.
Normally, one would say tapas bar, but the same difficulty that dogged Boxer -- no liquor license -- persists at Cobras & Matadors. To drink, you must bring your own wine or beer. A $5-per-bottle corkage fee is charged, and a small liquor store next door is stocked with just the right wines to accompany tapas.
Boxer’s original stark stylishness -- the white walls, boxing photographs and rusted boxy sconces -- has vanished. Walls are now warm, rich reds and golds, and hanging from a big hook on a beam is a whole, canvas-clothed jambon. The wood-fired oven still forms a welcoming, rustic hearth.
Tapas restaurants periodically surface in Los Angeles, but they are rarely very good. And so the Spanish tradition of making a meal out of what are essentially appetizers has never really caught on here. Southern California tapas bars frequently suffer from overly complicated dishes with underrealized flavor.
At Cobras & Matadors there are just 18 tapas listed on the menu, along with five “entradas,” or somewhat larger dishes. We ordered our dishes family-style. Other diners around us ordered individual assortments of dishes; you could conceivably have quite a conventional meal -- a green salad, say, then grilled skirt steak, and dessert. But I think it‘s more interesting, relaxing and fun to sample several dishes with friends.
We started with a complimentary dish of terrific herbed green and black olives and toasted almonds. Next came a plate of Spanish cheese and fruit: chunks of good blue cabrales; smooth, gouda-like tres leches; and garocha, a sharp, dry aged goat cheese, plus ripe berries, peach and pear slices, and the most wonderful little white wine grapes. Small fried cubes of potatoes, crusty on the outside, fluffy and moist within, come with two dipping sauces, a rich alioli (garlic mayonnaise) and mojo picon, a spicy green-chile sauce.
The beautifully simple pa amb tomaquet, toasted Catalan bread with excellent, salty Spanish ham and pungent manchego cheese, has to be one of the liveliest ham-and-cheese sandwiches ever.
Grilled octopus was nicely scorched, and its snow-white meat was tender yet pleasurably bouncy, and perfect with a salsa verde of ground herbs and garlic; still, the traditional presentation -- one plump, purple coiled tentacle -- put off some people. Not me.
Socca cakes, made from ground chickpeas, were nicely seasoned but mushy. A roasted-beet-and-cabrales salad could’ve used more beets, I thought. White anchovies weren‘t that special (or white!), but we loved the accompanying sweet, roasted piquillo peppers in fried garlic “vinegrata.”
The only miss among the tapas was the small fried fish, actually several tiny fillets in bland, oily breading; even the alioli that came with them couldn’t help.
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Of the entradas, wood-oven-roasted winter vegetables (beets, parsnips, carrots, onions) were deeply caramelized, smoky, wondrous. And baked black mussels with spicy Spanish chorizo turned out to be a classic and brilliant marriage -- too bad the dish isn‘t served with either bread or a spoon . . . the broth is so good.
Actually, I found myself looking around for bread every time I ate here. With so many different sauces to sop, and so many tempting little plates to clean, bread is highly desirable. Even worse, it never occurs to any of our servers to bring us bread or hand out clean plates when the sauces from our many dishes start to mingle. Indeed the young staff is neither plentiful nor attentive -- and in a restaurant with such a novel approach to dining and so many small details, more expert and vigilant help is sorely needed.
Still, Cobras & Matadors comes as close as any local place I’ve been in to providing both the flavor and the variety of a good Spanish tapas bar. And if you get dessert -- try the dense, crumbly almond cake in a lake of creme anglaise, the fig-and-plum crumble with fresh cream, or the none-too-sweet but silken crema caramela -- you‘ll leave with a good taste in your mouth.
7615 W. Beverly Blvd.; (323) 932-6178. Open for dinner seven nights; Sunday brunch. Tapas $3--$8, entradas $9--$13. No alcohol served. Valet parking.