Spanish flair at Kika
Kendall Square restaurant serves small plates amid a lively atmosphere
No matter how much the Kendall Square neighborhood arrives, no matter how dense its population of cafes, restaurants, and hipsters, one thing won’t change: It will always be one of the windiest neighborhoods in the Boston area. Pushing against the howls of air that barrel down industrial streets - collar up, eyes tearing - you just want to get there already, wherever there may be.
So it is good when there is Kika Tapas, a restaurant that looks both modern and romantic, filled with warming jolts of red, bold patterns, and a bright, freewheeling mural that pays homage to Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. (The restaurant is named for one of his films.) It’s festive on the eyes, though the ears could use some work: The soundtrack matters in a place like this, and it veers wildly, landing too often on something not-quite-right like the Steve Miller Band. Quiero volar como un aguila. . . .
The place screams “date night,’’ and also “tie one on with your co-workers,’’ judging from the people clustered at its tables. Much thought has been given to the decor, from the groovy logo to the sculptural ceiling element that resembles a giant white movie reel.
But it’s not all atmosphere. The small plates are solid, often better than good enough. Kika is run by Carlos Reverendo and Fernando Leon, the team behind tapas restaurants Tapeo in Back Bay and Solea in Waltham. They know how this is done. Chef Michael Brunson serves standards such as tortilla espanola and garlicky shrimp. He has also broadened the repertoire, and these expanded takes on Spanish small plates seem to be where his heart is. They are the restaurant’s best offerings.
Tortilla espanola - that simple, classic omelet of egg layered with potato - can add up to more than the sum of its parts, if each part is done just right. Kika Tapas’s version is serviceable, its flavors wan and watered down.
Gambas al ajillo, a dish that would ordinarily kill your chances of making out with Edward Cullen, takes it too easy on the garlic. Tender little shrimp dance in a pool of hot oil, but when the sizzle settles, that is all the dish tastes like: shrimp and oil.
But a dish that straddles the two is much more interesting. It takes delicate sauteed shrimp, combines them with pieces of asparagus and bread cubes, and threads fluffy wisps of scrambled eggs throughout, a la Chinese fried rice.
Humble butifarras, pork sausages, become something decadent when served with foie gras and poached apple in a sauce of Port and figs. Short rib, on the other hand, shines without adornment, braised in beer until the meat nearly melts, warm spices running in a scale up and down the tongue. Sauteed artichokes are piping hot, touched with thyme, tender-hearted with crisp edges. That they are too oily can be forgiven in the face of their merits.
Eggplant is a nightshade as versatile as it is treacherous. It can astound, blackened to the point of collapse, the flesh smoky and silky. It can appall, undercooked, stringy and bitter with hard, inescapable seeds. Kika’s version falls somewhere in the middle, rolled around goat cheese, perfectly pleasant. The orange-red sauce on the plate is something better, complex and round with the flavor of roasted red pepper.
Lomito al cabrales features thin-sliced pork, lightly caramelized at the edges, with meaty pieces of mushroom. But the star is the blue cheese sauce it’s swimming in - lightly funky, outrageously rich.
If only all the tapas were as good. Truffle cream sauce can’t hide the gristle in lamb meatballs. Chicken croquettes are forgettably bland; empanadas are filled with tasteless mystery meat. Grilled salmon is dry and overpowered by the flavor of the vanilla butter with which it’s served.
In addition to small plates, Kika offers charcuterie and several main dishes, including paella and fideua, a cousin of the traditional saffron rice dish that is made with thin noodles. A version brimming with chorizo, shrimp, squid, and shellfish looks impressive; it’s quietly tasty, the ingredients fresh and nicely cooked, the flavors mild.
Churros are better than usual here, hot, sugared crullers with dark chocolate ganache on the side. But tres leches cake is a thick brick of sweetness, too heavy for its own good, or yours.
Kika Tapas serves a streamlined sangria, not too heavily spiced or sweetened. Many of the other cocktails are too sugary. The wine list looks more toward value than exposing Americans to regional delights; it features bottles from Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Portugal. The small beer selection includes Barcelona-brewed Estrella Damm.
Kika’s menu encompasses more than 50 dishes, and the servers seem familiar with them all - they provide helpful recommendations and friendly banter. A hostess offers a warm and unaffected welcome. For those who blow into the neighborhood, Kika Tapas is a pleasant berth.