La Dulce tapas bar tantalizes the senses 

Spanish import

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Scott Spellman

This past year has seen Detroit inundated with gastropubs, where the star of the show is some kind of burger paired with a craft cocktail. The region is undergoing a natural evolution and just starting to realize real change on the dining scene. But it is a process. Growth comes in baby steps. Which is why when something new pops on the landscape amid menus of New American, it's worth celebrating. Which brings us to La Dulce.

Walk into the new tapas restaurant in Royal Oak, traditionally the epicenter of gastropub everything, and you're transported to a stylized storybook home setting with inviting bright décor. It's the mise en scene for one of the more exciting dining experiences we've had in the area this year. The Spanish-inspired eatery excites the senses with every bite.

Accented in muted pastels, the space is awash in precious, yet subtly kitschy china plates and tea cups (a chandelier in the center of the dining room is made completely out of tea cups and saucers), vintage olive oil cans, and other curios. Spanish pop hums softly in the background.

Seating is a mix of small bistro-style round tables and chairs and upholstered sofas and lounge seats designed with sharp square lines. While some don't fancy this style of low-rise seating, it serves to reinforce the notion that you're here for a relaxed evening that commands you to casually take in small plates and tasteful drinks and gossip among close confidants. Reservations are strongly suggested so you can choose your preferred seating option.

Enough with the ambiance though, let's get to the food. The menu is vast and built with a variety of portion sizes, price points, and flavors to appeal to a range of diners. Take the Gilda ($3), for example, a simple dish of skewered olives with anchovy and pickled peppers, which finds itself on the same menu as the Galician eel or clams that run $50 a plate. It's all about nibbling and sharing here, whether that's a snack to accompany a drink or six or seven small plates over the course of an evening. Which also gives you the chance to be adventurous.

In fact, we urge you to go outside of your comfort zone, and La Dulce's menu, filled with seafood owing to the resto's Spanish theme, gives every opportunity to do that. Try the croquetas de choco, for instance, which are filled with cuttlefish and squid ink. You'll be treated to a rich, earthy ball of silky, jet-black filling wrapped inside a breadcrumb coating and served inside a dainty fryer basket, with an even daintier mason jar of béchamel. While the taste hints of sea salt, there's nothing overtly fishy.

You will find a variety of montadito, or rustic breads, topped with all sorts of treasures. We went for the sobrasada sausage with Brie and honey that harmonize perfectly. The sausage, blood red on the outside, is rich with fat marbling and a smooth, loose texture. With the Brie, there's a nice blend of spice, sweet, and creaminess where none seem to overpower the other. We also dug into the patatas bravas, another traditional Spanish tapa featuring potatoes and a spicy red sauce. Here, while the potatoes were fine, the spice was anything but spicy. In fact, it was hard to tell there was a sauce even present.

One of our favorites, and one of the focal points, is the Iberico ham, a prized cut of Iberean pork that comes from between the shoulder blade and the loin. What makes this pig special is the way in which it is raised: fed with acorns for the majority of its life, thus giving the seared meat a nutty quality. The salted skin ever so slightly crackles in your mouth, giving off a harmony of crunch and smooth. You can find it (jamon) on every menu in Spain (and some entire restaurants devoted to it), and prices escalate the longer the meat has been cured. Here, it's eminently affordable and offered in small plates and in an immense shareable.

The libations mostly tend on the shorter pours that aim to get you to embrace each sip not gulp, and La Dulce is taking care to make the cocktail program unique and outstanding. They make their own bitters in house, to start. The mole bitters themselves, which you can find in La Dulce's take on the Old Fashioned, contain more than three dozen ingredients.

We also tried a glass of palo cortado, which paired nicely with our pork, and it's just one of the menu's varieties of sherry. It came to us in not much more than a splash. Just enough to appreciate its sweet, full body but also enough to amplify every bite of Iberico ham. We also tried a shot of mezcal reposado, served in a tiny clay dish. It's to be sipped on, not downed, and is served with razor-thin slivers of range and a dash of salt and chile.

The restaurant, owned by Mexican-born Luis Negrete, specializes in traditional churros for dessert and those are served with a variety of sweet dipping sauces, which are an early hit with customers. We instead opted for the house-made beignets, which are the same idea, but are instead round and come with a delicious apple pie-style filling. We finished our meal with one more round of cocktails, known as amari or digestivos, which are meant to remedy any afflictions that result from overindulgence.

All this attention to detail reminds us that the act of dining out should aspire to tantalize all of our senses. It's not all about stuffing ourselves silly and getting out the door. No, we don't have to be squeezed into a tight booth, with the table just a little too high to see our dining partner above the menu, but close enough to our mouths to get to the business of eating. Our experience in a restaurant does not need to push us to tip the scales. As evidenced by this charming new addition in Royal Oak, it can rather be expertly crafted to nourish you, both body and soul.

More by Serena Maria Daniels

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