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The scene's the thing

At the new Cobras & Matadors, a festive atmosphere, an affordable tapas menu and 40 wines by the glass entice a bohemian Eastside crowd.

August 25, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Weekends, the bar at the new Cobras & Matadors in Los Feliz is six deep. And outside, groups of friends queue up under the scrawl of red neon that spells out the name, or crowd the podium at the front in hopes of a table. You don't need to know the address to realize the Spanish tapas bar is on the east side of L.A. Look at the crowd.

Not a recognizable designer label in evidence. The women don't carry trophy Vuitton or Hermes bags. Should you spy the telltale logo, for sure it's vintage. Instead of entwined double "C" earrings, here it's studs and a delicate tracery of tattoos. If there's a defining style, it's cutting edge eclectic, a combination of thrift store finds and edgy young designer wear put together with an inventive eye. The crowd is a mix of all ages and ethnicities -- bohemians and lawyers, scholars and gender benders, friends and lovers. It's loud. It's raucous. It's fun.

Owner Steven Arroyo is a master at conjuring up the right atmosphere for his audience. He isn't into trendy. His is a hipper, grittier aesthetic, with an almost pitch-perfect sense of scene. Allergic to glitz, he evokes the urban and noir in his interiors, usually with a theme that's barely sketched in, merely suggested. He did it at the first Cobras & Matadors on Beverly Boulevard. He's done it at the bar Cobra Lily and at the "Mexican dive" Malo.

When he occasionally miscalculates, as he did with his first restaurant, Boxer, he just comes back and takes another crack at it. He retooled Boxer into the first Cobras. And Hillmont, Arroyo's budget steakhouse that never quite took off, was reborn as this second Cobras. He closed briefly, built some banquettes and partitions, installed a bar, some dangling red lamps to warm up the room and -- presto chango! -- the space goes from moribund steakhouse to wildly successful tapas restaurant.

At tables covered with butcher paper, dishes are set in the middle, passed and shared. Toasts are made. Pitchers of sangria are filled and emptied. The food is earthy and direct, the flavors of Spain filtered through a California sensibility. Tortillas (Spanish omelets) laced with potatoes and chorizo. Steamed mussels or littleneck clams with a garlicky kick. And wonderful little lake smelt, fried to a pale gold. Some dishes cost as little as $5, others edge above $10, but not even the steaks are more than $20.

Early on, the food was much better than I ever remember it being at the original Cobras restaurant. That perfect little fry of lake smelt, for example, but also the classic albondigas, fluffy meatballs in a smooth spicy red pepper sauce and grilled octopus in a piquant salsa verde. Even with more than 30 items on the menu, the kitchen was turning the food out astonishingly fast, almost as fast as a tapas bar in Spain.

But in Spain, the cold tapas are already prepared, sitting out on the bar, and the few hot dishes are cooked on a couple of burners right behind the counter. Cobras' menu is much more extensive and encompasses many more cooking techniques. Almost every dish has to be prepared to order. Unfortunately, on a couple of recent visits the kitchen was having trouble keeping up. The cooking was uneven, not nearly as crisp and well-defined, some dishes salty or too sweet, enough to make me wonder if someone else is in the kitchen on weekdays.

The idea is to order in flights. A nice way to start is with an order of lomo, dry-cured pork loin, and goat cheese, and some pa amb tomaquet, Catalan's grilled or toasted bread, rubbed with a ripe tomato, and drizzled with fruity Spanish olive oil. Sprinkled with salt, "bread with tomato" is sometimes served plain, or, as it is here, topped with a ruddy slice of jamon Serrano, the raw-cured ham that is to Spain what prosciutto is to Italy, and manchego cheese.

Other dishes the kitchen does particularly well include tiny green lentils sauteed with slivers of that same ham until both are a little crunchy, the ham adding a salty note. These, and the patatas fritas, big soft chunks of potato fried to a warm golden brown and served with aioli and a sort of romesco sauce, are holdovers from the highly successful original Cobras menu. The rest of the menu runs from a gazpacho laced with tomato and melon to more substantial meat dishes one person could happily eat for dinner, or share tapas-style with everyone else at the table.

I like that the shrimp in Cobras' version of one of my Spanish favorites, prawns mojo de ajo, come in the shell, sizzling in oil and garlic, just like they do in Spain. It's messy eating, but worth it. Sugar chile prawns temper their red chile heat with sweetness. And for something more unusual, there's grilled octopus in a garlicky salsa verde, or green sauce.

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