Tag Archives: tapas

Santaella, San Juan, PR

Dining Room, Santaella

On our second trip to Puerto Rico, we stayed in San Juan, where you have not just the beautiful beaches of Isla Verde but also the sophisticated restaurants that are part and parcel of a life in a big city. San Juan, founded by the Spanish in 1521, is a rambling mash up of old and new. In the Santurce neighborhood surrounding La Placita, a crowd comes out to drink and dance salsa on a Friday night, spilling out of the Taburna Los Vazquez and onto the streets, where you can go buy a mojito or a greyhound made with freshly squeezed grapefruit and stroll through the plaza.  (more…)

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Estela

It’s hard to believe that Estela, the bright and airy new wine bar and seasonally-inspired tapas place on Houston Street, used to be the Knitting Factory, the alternative music space whose soundproofing consisted of sweaters stapled on the ceiling. All traces of grunge are gone, replaced with white marble countertops, globe lighting and brown leather banquettes more suited for a tête-à-tête than rocking out.  (more…)

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Txikito

Txikito is too old to be trendy, too democratic to be a tough reservation. It’s not as crowded and cramped as Tia Pol or as chichi as Boqueria. But it is one of the better tapas places in the city and one of the few reliable restaurants in far west Chelsea. So why hasn’t everyone been here yet?  (more…)

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Casa Mono

It only took 10 years to get a reservation at Casa Mono.

This little Spanish restaurant has been perpetually jammed since Mario Batali and Andy Nusser opened it on a pretty corner of Gramercy in 2003. Just mention the words “Mario Batali,” and suddenly a line of 20 people will form at the door of any restaurant. Though you can put your name in and wait for a table at Bar Jamon next door, numerous failed experiments to do so led D. and me to hold out for an Open Table reservation in that prime slot between 7 and 9pm, which mysteriously never appeared even weeks ahead of time. In the meantime, Casa Mono inspired a host of other tapas places in the city and a mini Spanish food revolution, as flavors like pimenton and the whole small-plates dining concept spread like a contagion.  (more…)

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Pearl & Ash

As restaurants go, Pearl & Ash has all the makings of a super trendy one. It opened in a one-block area of Chrystie and the Bowery where four other concept restaurants (the Bowery Diner, the General, Cata, Cocktail Bodega) and two cocktail bars (Bantam, Experimental Cocktail Club) have opened in the past year. It has the currently favored __ + __ name scheme, and chef Richard Kuo used to be one half of the popular pop-up restaurant Frej, which was – of course! – Scandinavian.  (more…)

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Amada at Revel, Atlantic City

When a Philadelphia-based Iron Chef opens a new restaurant in nearby Atlantic City, it’s time to tune in. Jose Garces is known for his inspired Latin fusion cooking, usually on display at the acclaimed tapas restaurant Amada in Philadelphia. This summer he spun off a new branch of Amada at the multi-million-dollar Revel Resort, the latest attraction in a gambling town that’s on the up and up.  (more…)

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Tertulia

New York tapas restaurants tend to serve as a reminder of what Spain is not. Imagine average New Yorkers drinking wine into the wee hours on a weeknight (I can’t – my job!), strolling into whatever decent restaurant happens to be nearby (Is it buzz-worthy?) and generally putting food second to the act of drinking up the wine, the atmosphere and the company.

We’re just too type A to be Spanish. So the amount of hype surrounding a new, hot tapas place by former Boqueria chef Seamus Mullen almost invalidates it as a Spanish restaurant. It’s supposed to be food without thinking – cuisine that’s tipico(more…)

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Salinas

While the rest of New York crams into Birreria, it’s time to explore alternatives a little off the beaten path. After all, no matter how strong the draw of a new place, outdoor dining should be about relaxation, not suffering through a crowd-induced panic attack.

One outdoor spot that opened recently with a sliver of the press attention Batali’s place has gotten is Salinas, an enchanting little tapas place in Chelsea. The main wow factor here is the decor, designed by hair and makeup artist Donald Mikula and his wife Mary Catherine. There are vintage-y Spanish touches like wire mesh fronted bar cabinets and exposed stone walls, hanging flowers and flattering lighting.  (more…)

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Pipa

Nominated for a James Beard award for best restauranteur, Phil Suarez has a knack for creating successful restaurants no matter what the economic climate of the day. Long before he started ABC Kitchen on the south side of ABC Home, Suarez’s Pipa was bringing in the crowds for small plates and sangria. Since warm weather calls out for Spanish-style dining, we revisited this 11-year-old tapas spot to see how it was faring.

Interior, Pipa

Some of the best things about Pipa have not changed, including the excellent, just-fruity-enough, brandy-spiked sangria served in elegant glassware. The moodily pretty space is still decked out with dozens of exquisite antique chandeliers, and you can still buy one from ABC if you’re happy to drop a couple grand. The interior is a good place to retreat during hot weather, and the sidewalk seating is a nice option for sprawling out on cool nights.  (more…)

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Tribeca Terroir

In theory, staying in New York City on a summer weekend when everyone else is away should mean you have access to plenty of restaurants, free concerts and barbecue real estate in the park while everyone else fights for a parking space in the Hamptons. In reality, the city is just as crowded as ever. Why? So many New Yorkers had the same idea.

Interior, Tribeca Terroir

So don’t head to Brooklyn on a summer weekend expecting to get a table at a popular place in Red Hook, Carroll Gardens or Williamsburg – they’ll be taken by locals. The best strategy on summer Saturdays is to target the areas where titans of industry live, where it would be horribly unfashionable to be seen in town, missing charity events galore in the Hamptons. In short, head to Tribeca. (more…)

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The Copycat Chef: Tia Pol’s Deviled Eggs with Smoked Paprika

Smoked Paprika (Pimenton)As mentioned, one of the best things at crazy-popular tapas spot Tia Pol is their deviled eggs sprinkled with smoked paprika, or pimenton. This secret ingredient of many Spanish dishes is made of peppers from the La Vera, Extremadura region of Spain. The peppers are slowly smoked over an oak fire, sometimes for weeks, then stone ground to a fine powder. Smoked paprika gives that signature rusty red color to chorizo and spicy paellas. It’s not a knock-you-in-the-face kind of hot pepper, though: it morphs from sweet to slow burn.

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Tia Pol

Tia Pol InteriorJust when you think the city may have tired of small plates or Spanish food, you go to a place like Tia Pol, established in 2004, and find it’s still mobbed. What is it about this formula that keeps bringing New Yorkers through the door? For one thing, Tia Pol is fun and lively, loud but not too loud, with good music and even better service. That plus well-executed food means it has a certain x-factor that makes it worth recommending.

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Mercat

It’s been around for years now, but the tapas trend is still going strong, since small plates mean big profits for restaurant investors. To explain the trend further, I followed the example of Jessica Hagy’s Indexed and drew up this Venn diagram for you.

Mercat is the latest player to enter the tapas game. Chef Jaime Reixach comes to us from Barcelona, and his American co-chefs bring Bouley, Jean-Georges, and Casa Mono experience to the kitchen. Expectations for Mercat are running high.

We walked through the unmarked entrance the other night and into the exposed-brick space for a drink at the open and airy bar. It’s worth coming here early and trying to get a seat if you can’t snag a rez at Mercat.

By some miracle, we had a reservation, and the women in our party were seated before the guys arrived from the bar. The waitress came up to us, took one look at me and my friend, who is quite pretty and was done to the nines that night, and must have decided we were High Maintenance.

“There aren’t any vegetables on the menu, but we can prepare the day’s special vegetables for you,” she blurted out.

Ah, anorexics and tapas. No wonder our waitress made the assumption we wouldn’t want anything caloric. Tapas places are a big draw for anorexics, because you can go through a whole meal of shared small plates without anyone noticing you haven’t eaten anything all night. Hooray!

Needless to say, I am not anorexic, and neither is my friend, but we appreciated the offer of fresh vegetables. The sugar snap peas were Green Market fresh and bathed in salty butter. It was the best preparation of sugar snap peas I’ve had since Grange Hall, where the style was equally fresh and simple. We also ordered the padrones, blistered Padron peppers, because we thought they might be like Nobu’s. They were, but Nobu’s are a little better than Mercat’s, which were slightly overcooked. But Mercat’s still had that great salty-sweet combination and the excitement factor: You never know when you’re going to bite into the rare spicy pepper.

The guys hoarded a plate of ham until I stuck my fork in that direction often enough for them to return it to the center of the table. Jamon is Mercat’s specialty; they have a whole ham-slicing station next to the bar. Traditional serrano ham, center, was slightly dry at the edges and as flavorful as an excellent prosciutto. The small, spicy fuet sausages at the edge of the plate were fiery and surprisingly complex.

High Maintenance ordered the carxofes, which she loves. As mentioned in the Morandi review, I don’t really “get” fried artichokes, millenia of Roman history aside. But Mercat’s were the best of both worlds for artichoke fans, because they are first fried, then quartered to reveal the tender inside, so that you still have a bit of artichoke to dip in the garlicky sauce.

We all inhaled the patatas bravas. Drizzled with chili-garlic mayonnaise, they were probably fried, not baked, but they were so delicious we didn’t care how many calories they contained. It bears noting, however, that carbs can be easily separated from meat here, which really appeals to people on Atkins and which also accounts for tapas’ popularity.

When we got to the main courses, the kitchen’s newness began to show. I’d heard the monkfish a la planxa in Romanesco sauce was good, but it was decidedly not so. The rule for buying fish is to avoid anything that smells fishy, unless you’re dealing with an oily one like bluefish, and that’s in its raw state. Something alarming is going on if monkfish smells fishy from across the table when cooked, as Mercat’s did. This may be a result of the wood absorbing the fish oils as it roasted, but it was still unappealing.

The grilled hanger steak was completely overwhelmed by a few clinging bits of garlic and parsley. How could this be? As steaks go, hanger has real swagger. It’s almost impossible to subdue its pleasantly gamey flavor, unless you marinate it for days in something really, really strong. The contrast of steak to garlic-parsley would have been preferable to one overpowering note.

Whenever a dish proved disappointing, the next one would be blessedly good, like the pa amb tomaquet, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil. And garlic, though wisely, the menu does not tell you just how much garlic you are eating at Mercat. We couldn’t stop eating these and ordered four plates total. This is where the attention to corporate profits comes in: $4 for 2 pieces bread x 4 orders = $16 for 8 slices bread. Meanwhile, Mercat probably paid about $2 at wholesale for the whole loaf of bread. That’s at least an 800 percent profit.

Some of the second courses, like the guinea
hen with wax beans, cranberries and thyme and the sauteed pea shoots with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts, sounded and looked a lot more exciting than they tasted. But this mellowness could also translate into a kind of Spanish comfort food, like the omelet with chorizo, caramelized onions, and potatoes.

High Maintenance was not going home without the churros con chocolata, so neither were we. No regrets, though: the churros tasted like apple-cider doughnuts, the chocolate like Mexican spice. They went nicely with our rioja.

Despite the kitchen’s inconsistency, which one hopes will be ironed out over time, Mercat is still a “buy.” The atmosphere is great and fun, if a little loud, and the open kitchen design makes everything a little more convivial and Top-Chef-like.

We have chef Ferran Adria to thank for the Spanish trend in New York. If he hadn’t made big profits selling it, would we have bought it? And if we weren’t prey to faddish diets, would we be so faddish about food? There’s a circular logic to the tapas trend, but no one’s complaining about the results.

Mercat
45 Bond Street, between Lafayette and the Bowery
212-529-8600

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Boqueria

A funny thing happened when I sat down to write a review of Boqueria: Frank Bruni decided to do the same thing. It’s never advisable to be behind the Times, especially when it comes to restaurant reviews. For one thing, I’ll probably never be able to get a table at Boqueria again. Frank Bruni’s review landed on the kitchen table on Wednesday morning, but I didn’t look at it until I wrote this. I didn’t want anything Count Frankula (of Bruni Digest fame) said to color my own memories of the place.

When my friend and I arrive at Boqueria, early, since they do not take reservations, we like the looks of the place. Beyond the lively bar area, the dining room manages to feel intimate and open at the same time, with a long, candlelit communal table running down the center, and banquettes with bar-height stools lining the sides. It’s great for people-watching, and the chic crowd is easy on the eyes. Boqueria is also well-lit, which is a relief. Is eating in near-darkness a Spanish custom? I think it may be, from my own dim memories of holding up candles to plates of tapas in Barcelona and New York. Not being able to distinguish between a plate of dates and a plate of pickled peppers adds an unwanted element of excitement to the meal. Fortunately, there is no such mystery at Boqueria.

In the Times review, I see later that Bruni describes the space as “happy, peppy” and praises Boqueria for having “the virtues of stylishness without vanity.” Agreed. He also mentions the bar-height seating, which “has a practical benefit, along with a theoretical one. It puts you at eye level with servers, making your interactions with them feel smoother and friendlier. And it means that if Manhattan somehow flooded, you could dine at Boqueria and keep your shoes dry.” Wha? Bruni’s flights of fancy can be vaguely terrifying. It’s like that moment during a taxi ride when, at seventy miles per hour, you realize your driver is certifiably insane. The high stools aren’t for floods. They’re for checking out the “young, good-looking diners”! But the stool height does make it easier to talk to the servers – ours was quite knowledgeable and did not need to lean on a sommelier to recommend one of the great Spanish wines.

For the tapas, my friend gravitates towards the cojonudo, fried quail egg and chorizo on toast, on the grounds that everything is better with quail eggs. I love the taste of these, because I love anything that’s bacon and eggs. “You don’t need the toast,” she says, chewing contemplatively. It’s true: the dry toast detracts from the dish, sucking up all the flavor and not really contributing anything. But the chorizo-egg layer, which we pick up and eat on its own, is wonderfully smoky, spicy and creamy.

Bruni calls these “my kind of finger food.” Bacon and eggs must be a sure crowd pleaser.

The pa de fetge, a boar terrine, has been recommended for anyone who likes country pate. It’s very good, more pungent and flavorful than a plain pork terrine, and the caramelized onions served alongside are a great accompaniment. With the datiles con beacon y almendras, dates stuffed with almonds and cabrales and wrapped in bacon, each bite hits several extremes on the taste scale: the aching sweet of the dates, saltiness of the bacon, and the mouth-numbing blue of the cheese. The chef has taken standard cocktail party fare and turned it up several notches. It is intriguing and delicious.

Bruni doesn’t mention the terrine, but he does recommend the salad with baby squid, the suckling pig, and the anchovies. Though he doesn’t talk about dates, he comments on chef Seamus Mullen’s “salty effects,” but says he “wisely leavens his salty impulses with sweet ones.” Agreed.

The lamb shank that comes as a main course is only OK, which is surprising because the prunes serves alongside are such a nice balance to the meaty flavor. “I wish some of this,” my friend says, pointing to the prunes with her fork, “were on this. You don’t even get the sense that they cooked it in wine.” My friend, who is also a trained chef, adds that it’s quite easy and surprisingly inexpensive to cook a lamb shank at home. I’ll have to remember that if I ever return to lamb, meat trend of the moment.

Bruni thinks the lamb shank is “beautifully braised.” Well, I suppose it’s not ugly, but ours is not that great, not a unified dish. Disagree.

The sardine special turns out to be an experiment on a plate: sardines cooked two different ways, wrapped up and fried, or left in one shining fillet and laid across a potato. The latter, less experimental method tastes the best. I just had to try this after my memories of the butterfish escabeche at the Tasting Room.

Perhaps on crack, Bruni thinks the sardine special is “terrific.” I do feel a twinge of envy, however, reading about his sardines. Where were the tons of olives and pine nuts in my fried sardine? Did they recognize Bruni and slip him some extra olives? Gyp.

The place is packed and noisy by now, and I’ve identified someone I know across the room – not surprising in this place. Still hungry, my friend and I continue plowing through the menu. She from a selection of cheeses – she is very knowledgeable on the matter, and so I space out as she orders and can’t remember the cheese choices now. At any rate, they were good. The pinxto de jamon y melon, serrano ham and melon, arrives in kebob form: melon balls interspersed with salty folds of ham on a skewer. It’s an unusual and pretty presentation that showcases the excellent quality of the ingredients. Brandada de hacalao, salt cod brandade, might be one of the oldest-school comfort foods there are, if you have read this book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. My friend used to make brandade in culinary school, and explains that the salt cod must be mixed very carefully with mashed potatoes to get just the right flavor and consistency, which Boqueria accomplishes nicely.

By now we have racked up quite a tab, as per usual. As most of us who’ve felt the blow to our wallets have guessed, tapas has been one of the big culinary trends in recent years because it’s a real money maker. There are even cooking school seminars that advocate chefs to cash in on the phenomenon. Despite this nagging sense of rip-off…

Here we reach the biggest difference between Bruni’s take and mine: an expense account, or lack thereof. He waxes poetic about “the tapas spirit” which “took root here long ago, spreading wide and far” and allows one to “build meals incrementally.” And check this Bruni humdinger: “The whole concept of grazing? It’s just the tapas spirit wrapped in a gerund with reassuring connotations of restr
aint.” Whoa, Nelly. I’ll leave the ghosts of tapas past to the Bruni Digest – what a feast. But even the Gray Lady herself hinted that this whole “incremental plates” thing might be a price-fixing scheme, unwittingly initiated by the king of small plates, Tom Colicchio.

…I still find myself looking longingly at the plate of Pimi Entos Del Padron, blistered padron peppers with coarse sea salt, that arrives at the table next to ours. They look a lot like Nobu’s excellent version. I’ll have to save it for next time, though, if I can ever get a table at Boqueria again.

Thanks, Frank.
Boqueria: two stars.

Boqueria
53 West 19th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
212-255-4160

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