When it comes to Jackson Ward's newest buzz-worthy eatery, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that chef Randy Doetzer is heading the kitchen in his usual creative and sure-handed way. The bad news? Adarra seats a paltry 30 eager mouths.
What was once the Rogue Gentleman has been given a European face-lift with warm terra cotta walls, the exposed brick expected of the neighborhood and a dark wood back bar that completely changes the look of the restaurant. You can still belly up to the bar, but its hand-painted top now calls to mind marble in soft, neutral colors. Gold-framed paintings of bucolic outdoor scenes by artist Ronnie Renmark line the walls and set a subdued tone.
My favorite perch is any seat that faces First Street, where a tableau of brilliant blue sky over the roofs of red and green townhouses makes for an exquisite city view. Setting the mood with music, Adarra scores by keeping it just loud enough not to intrude, and surely the only place in town where I get to hear the Dramatics' classic "Hot Pants in the Summertime" while nibbling on glossy slices of the dry-cured Spanish sausage chorizo Iberico picante with peppercorns.
With a name evoking the Spanish mountain that overlooks San Sebastian, it naturally follows that Doetzer's kitchen takes its inspiration from the region, leaning heavily on the bounty of the water. It's tapas territory here, with 16 of the 18 menu items small plates, although the chef's idea of small may not be yours.
After three visits, I have one piece of advice: Settle back in your seat, order everything that appeals and eat until you can't anymore. Doetzer puts out the kind of soul-satisfying food that could only be enhanced by being on Spanish soil. Just don't get too attached to any one dish because the menu changes with the seasons and the availability of what catches the chef's fancy.
I'm talking about the softest pillows of gnocchi with mushrooms and ricotta ($16), so deeply savory and earthy that we immediately hit repeat, ordering a second bowl with no shame. Or the perfection of skin-on roasted squash adorned simply with salsa verdé and goat cheese for piquancy. And there's no other way to describe a bowl of tuna conserva ($16) in lima bean ragout than comfort food of the highest order.
Essential to nearly every dish on Adarra's menu is a bowl of Idle Hands bread, chosen, according to our server, because Doetzer worked with the local bakery while getting Adarra up and running. Whether you're sopping up the garlic and anchovy goodness of shrimp in bagna cauda ($17) or the slightly spicy tomato broth of octopus stew with chickpeas and aioli ($17), bread is the means to enjoy every last drop.
It takes only one mouthful of marinated mussels with smoked paprika and citrus ($13) to have me wishing I were savoring them at a little waterside eatery on the northern coast of Spain, and don't miss the roasted skate with smoked butter and killer sauteed green onion greens ($16). Just be sure to leave room for the seasonal fish stew ($26), which, on our visit, was laden with monkfish, shrimp, mussels and calamari in a tomato-based broth best described as persuasive but not overbearing. And just when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, it's a member of the dandelion family that seduces when a dish of warm chicories with almonds and chilies ($10) arrives and takes our palates in a new, lighter direction.
Doetzer and his wife, Lyne, are level-two sommeliers, so you can expect a wine list with more than the usual suspects. Vintages from Slovenia, Croatia and the Czech Republic join stalwarts from Spain, Austria, France, Italy and Germany, with an emphasis on biodynamic wines. Carrying over from Rogue is bar manager Paul Blumer, with a curated cocktail list and the familiar dealer's choice option. Pick three descriptors from his list and you'll find yourself with a drink created just for you. Dealer's choice also applies to mocktails, and a request for a floral, earthy, boozeless drink resulted in a stellar sipper with complexity, thanks to a host of ingredients including ginger, lemon and pomegranate.
With food arriving from the kitchen as it's prepared, the meal feels like a family-style affair, although a bit more attention could be given to refilling table water bottles and checking on drink reorders and dessert. Still, that's a minor quibble.
As a Jackson Ward resident, I'd love to keep Adarra a neighborhood secret. But with food this good, it ain't gonna happen. Instead, I'll race you to one of the 30 seats.
Tuesdays – Sundays 4-11 p.m.
618 N. First St.