Spain has been hailed as the new France in matters vinous and culinary, and with some reason. The country’s leading chefs, from disparate regions-Catalonia, the Basque country, Galicia, Andaluciá and Castilla-are pushing the envelope with striking deconstructions of classic dishes as well as with those daft foamy creations that come in such wild shapes and colors that they make nouvelle cuisine look like a potluck casserole.
Spanish wines are red hot as well, from the flowery dry Albarinos of Galicia to the luscious reds of Ribera del Duero. So, one might ask, why is New York still waiting for its first great Spanish restaurant? And why did it take a couple of Italian guys (with American partners) to get New Yorkers excited about tapas?
The first question I cannot answer. As for tapas, there are more tidbits on the table than ever, although many are merely American appetizers in toreador’s clothing.
Even so, it’s a welcome development. I developed an unquenchable passion for tapas bars two decades ago when I studied in the ancient Spanish university city of Salamanca, where I majored in tapas, with a minor in Rioja.
Salamanca, where the dinner hour commences at the time when most Americans are brushing their teeth for bed-roughly 10 to 11 p.m. With seven to eight hours between their sizable three-course lunch and the late cena , a hearty dinner, pre-prandial snacks are in order-thus the tapas.
Each bar boasted a specialty. It might be vinegary marinated mussels, earthy morcilla (blood sausage), salty grilled sardines, pulpo a la plancha (seared octopus with paprika), cumin-scented kebobs of pork or lamb (pinchos morunos).
One of my favorite spots back then, renowned for its dense, earthy morcilla and briny anchovies marinated in beer, was called Covechuela, just off the magnificent Plaza Mayor. The owner, an animated fellow with a rubbery and mischievous smile, possessed several sleight-of-hand stunts that he performed nightly to a well-lubricated assembly of scholars.
One was the coins-in-the-pocket trick. When a customer left a tip upon departing, he placed the coins on his round serving tray and then smacked the bottom, causing the coins to fly upwards to the ceiling. As they began their descent, he pulled open his shirt pocket, where all of the coins landed.
I didn’t see such histrionics in a recent tour of tapas bars, but some of the food was worth a visit.
Casa Mono, at 52 Irving Place, has received more press than a Valencian olive, and if you want to sample the food without getting bruised-even more packed is the vest-pocket annex, Bar Jamon-plan to visit at 6:30 p.m. It’s fun to sit at the wide dining bar facing the tiny open kitchen, which is overseen by Andy Nusser, a partner in the venture who previously was the chef at Babbo. (Both Mr. Nusser and his partner, Mario Batali, the ubiquitous television chef, lived in Spain for a time when growing up). It’s an attractive little space with colorful Spanish tile, straight-back wicker chairs and a wine-lined wall behind the bar. The selection of Spanish wines and sherries is exceptional.
The first-rate menu runs from the traditional, like pan con tomate (slices of garlic-rubbed toast slathered with tomatoes and olive oil) and sepia a la plancha (grilled cuttlefish with green sauce), to a couple of winsome inventions like a giant duck egg sunny side up and balanced atop a tall scaffolding of potato batons that have been cooked with truffle oil. (Do not expect this flourish in Madrid.) It is seasoned with flakes of mojama, shaved pressed tuna.
While I was in the neighborhood I stopped in at Pipa, on East 19th Street, a big brick cavern festooned with ornate chandeliers. The place can be annoying if you arrive at prime time-neglectful service, loud music and singles howling at the moon. But if you manage to snatch a bar seat and order a glass of good red wine, there are some treats to be had. Caldo Gallego, the Galician white bean soup with escarole, potatoes and ham; cleanly fried baby calamari spiked with a good smoked paprika aioli; steamed clams with a hint of dry sherry. Shrimp in garlic oil, however, suffered from burning the garlic. Twice.
Opened just eight months, Alta, in the West Village, is a handsome and serene place, with rough stone walls, tiled floors, a beamed ceiling and a handsome sky-lit back room done in a Spanish motif, complete with fireplace.
While most of the tapas are more suited to a contemporary American restaurant-baked blue point oysters; fried goat cheese with lavender honey-some are more to the point. Grilled Portuguese sardines with lemon preserve and sun-dried tomatoes is an excellent combination, and the grilled baby octopus is as good as it gets.
Twinkling lights, fishermen’s nets and hanging musical instruments contribute to the festive scene at Xunta, a Galician tapas bar in the East Village. It’s a scene most nights, with a lively bar. More than 50 tapas are available, most from this rain-soaked region that is known for its seafood and cheeses. Best offerings were the fabada (white bean stew bolstered with several kinds of sausages), grilled octopus, empanada de bacallau (salt cod fritters) and fat grilled sardines on the bone. Crema Catalana is richer than most, but that didn’t stop me from polishing off two. If tapas-bar verisimilitude is not a concern, you may be tempted by the lime-ginger tart. Don’t do it.