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When it all goes wrong

<p>Photo by Todd Lussier</p>

Photo by Todd Lussier

Over my years writing about food, I’ve seen places that were good, bad and downright ugly. I may have to invent a new category, however, for Marbella Tapas & Bar — one of the most troubled restaurants I’ve ever seen.

Marbella opened its doors with a lot of fanfare late last October. When I tried to visit in early December, however, I found it closed, with a message on the answering machine saying it wouldn’t re-open to the public until Jan. 4. The new year came and went, and the doors remained locked. So I was surprised to receive an email on May 22 announcing it would re-open the following day.

I visited a few weeks later and was served some of the worst food I’ve ever tasted. My wife and I tried five dishes. Two were bad. Two were extraordinarily bad. The fifth was completely inedible.

Marbella is located on West Flamingo Road just west of The Palms, in a space that once housed a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. It’s a nice piece of real estate that still boasts a beautiful bar and dining area. The menu consists primarily of tapas, divided into the categories of small ($6), medium ($9) and large ($16) plates. The majority are traditional Spanish dishes, with a handful of exceptions such as smoke tuna sashimi with yuzu vinaigrette, and pollo con tequila. They also offer two styles of paella in two sizes ($11 and $20). Our friendly waitress was completely unfamiliar with any of the items listed, but explained it was her first day on the job.

The first real disappointment of my night came from a small plate of huevos estrellados. When done well, this is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods: an order of French fries topped with chorizo and a fried egg. Unfortunately, the egg in my order was overcooked. The chorizo was even worse: disgustingly salty and made from horrifyingly poor quality meat.

Equally disastrous was a small plate of boquerones, or Spanish white anchovies. The menu described the dish as “hard egg tartare, grill paquillo peppers, Spanish white anchovies, in extra virgin olive oil on toasted sourdough baguette,” so I naturally expected the anchovies would be large, fleshy, and either un-cured or just lightly cured, as they’re traditionally served in Spain. What I found piled on top of the sloppy tarare (the components of which still baffle me), were the same thin, salt-packed, oil-soaked filets you get on pizza. Much like the huevos estrellados, we couldn’t take more than a few bites.

A medium plate of gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) was a bit better. The preparation was simple but fine. Unfortunately the chef used shrimp that were barely larger than the tiny ones you find in cheap shrimp salads, and left the tails on.

I was similarly disappointed with the cheese and chorizo empanadas, which consisted of a mediocre crust and completely flavorless filling, topped with an unimpressive pepper aioli.

The evening’s true disaster, however, was the paella. To start, it took well over 50 minutes to arrive at our table. I understand paella can take a while. Good restaurants will usually warn you to expect to a 30 or 40 minute wait. The fact Marbella was almost completely empty, however, made a delay of nearly an hour, without any warning in advance, completely unacceptable. And when it did arrive, it was completely inedible. It’s honestly hard to explain how bad it was. I have a fairly developed palate, but just cannot pinpoint the foul, almost chemical taste that permeated the dish.

If there’s not an obvious mistake in preparation, I generally don’t complain to my server about food I simply don’t like. I don’t want it to appear that I’m looking for a comp, and I assume the chef will eventually read about my displeasure. This time, however, when my waitress asked me how I liked my paella, I couldn’t refrain from telling her how awful it was. To management’s credit, it removed the paella from my bill. But that gesture definitely wasn’t enough to salvage such a horrible meal. If Marbella can’t put out better food than this, I have no idea why it bothered reopening.

Marbella Tapas & Bar 4561 West Flamingo Road, 405-0003. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog,