“Some things are better from a can.”
It was a cool, breezy evening, and four of us were having dinner in the garden of Marichu, a Basque restaurant near the United Nations. My friend P.’s remark was prompted by the special of the day, white asparagus, and he meant this remark to be flattering: The large white stalks in a vinaigrette dressing with marinated red peppers were tender and delicious. He had ordered it on the recommendation of Teresa Barrenechea, the chef and co-owner of the restaurant, who said that we probably would be shocked to hear that the Basques not only preferred their asparagus canned but were passionate about it-so much so that when they saw the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with its titanium skin, they nicknamed it “the asparagus can.”
“It’s much better than fresh,” said P., an Englishman who, like me, had grown up thinking sardines and spaghetti were created by spontaneous generation in a can. “Tomatoes, too,” he added, warming to his subject. “So are hearts of palm. Tiny French peas. Baked beans.…”
“Baked beans!” Here, Ms. Barrenechea, a pretty, dark-haired woman with an engaging smile who has a book on Basque cooking coming out in the fall, drew the line. “Absolutely not. Wait until you’ve tried my baked beans, which I make from my mother’s recipe.”
With the asparagus we drank a bottle of Txomin Etxaniz (the “x” is pronounced like “ch,” if that’s any help), a white wine from the Getaria region. Raynold von Samson, Ms. Barrenechea’s husband, who had put together the restaurant’s excellent all-Spanish wine list, came over to ask how we liked it. “This wine was served at the wedding of the Infanta,” he said, referring to a historic moment in the cementing of Catalan-Basque relations when Princess Cristina, daughter of King Juan Carlos, married a national hero: a Basque handball player. Holding up the bottle so I could look at the label, he added, “It’s unusual. Whether you like it depends on your mood.”
“We’re in a good mood.” said my husband.
The wine was light and refreshing and reminded me of vinho verde. I felt we should be sitting under an umbrella at the beach in bathing suits, drinking it with grilled lobster. Soon the discussion turned to Spanish wines in general and why Americans have never really taken to them in a big way, despite their being a good deal.
“I don’t think Americans really like Spain much,” said P. “The English, on the other hand, have always had a soft spot for that country.”
“The English like anywhere that’s cheap,” said my husband.
Marichu is a simple, moderately priced restaurant that serves delicious home-style Basque cooking. We had begun with a glass of manzanilla, a light chilled dry sherry, while tasting slices of jamón serrano (the only ham the Food and Drug Administration allows to be imported from Spain) and little croquettes filled with prosciutto and bacalao.
One of my favorite Spanish dishes is anguilas, baby eels that are served sizzling in a crock with garlic and olive oil. But there were none at Marichu. Nowadays, according to G., the little eels cost $350 a kilo on account of the Japanese, who will pay any price for them. My husband didn’t see the point. “It’s all the sauce,” he said. “You could cook snow tires in it and they’d taste the same.”
Instead, we had gambas, or large shrimp, cooked the same way. They were juicy and wonderfully garlicky. “I remember as a child coming off the Channel ferry from England in the morning,” said P., taking another shrimp. “When we docked, there’d be a swarm of men in blue coming to take the bags-and a wall of garlic. It was awful.”
“That’s a dreadful old fogy thing to say,” retorted G. “You’re like that Englishman who used to pack ham sandwiches whenever he went to France because he didn’t trust French food.”
Before the argument could go any further, Mr. von Samson reappeared, bearing the bottle of wine he had suggested with our main course: Remelluri, a ’95 Rioja. It was rather chewy and I didn’t like it much. With some reluctance we informed our waiter, and he went off to tell his boss.
“He says it’s fine,” the waiter said upon returning. “He tasted it twice. But he says if you don’t like it, he will be happy to give you another bottle.”
Perhaps because I’d been watching reruns of Fawlty Towers recently with my son, I had a sudden uncomfortable vision of Mr. von Samson, who is tall and thin like John Cleese, returning to our table with a second bottle and hitting us over the head with it. So just to make sure, we tasted the wine again. In that short amount of time, it had breathed in the glass and become smooth and velvety. It went beautifully with the very fresh (and garlicky) snapper I had ordered and with P.’s pimentos, which were stuffed with a creamy filling of bacalao.
“How are the chipirones en su tinta?” I asked my husband, who was making his way through a plateful of baby squid.
“Great,” he replied. His teeth were black, and his mouth looked as if he had dipped into a bowl of tar.
G. had ordered filet mignon, which sounded more Midwestern than Basque, but Ms. Barrenechea had insisted it was the best meat dish on the menu. And it was excellent-with far more flavor than this cut of beef usually has-grilled rare and served, like most dishes, with pimentos ( de rigueur in a Basque restaurant) and scalloped potatoes. She also makes a first-rate paella with the proper short-grain rice, and perfectly cooked, too.
The Basque desserts included a rich ice cream made with cream cheese. (“Normally queso de Burgos,” said Mr. von Samson, “but in this case queso de Philadelphia.”) The tarta de arrese, a warm, rather dense custard pie, and the leche frita, “fried milk” with caramel sauce, were desserts which you perhaps had to have grown up with to appreciate fully. But P. (who, after all, was raised on rice pudding) had no trouble polishing off his arroz con leche, which was certainly better than anything I ever had in England. Perhaps my boarding school should have served it with a nice glass of chilled muscatello.
1 1/2 Stars
342 East 46th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Interesting Spanish wines at very reasonable prices
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch main courses $12 to $18, dinner $14 to $22
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11 P.M.
* *-Very good
* * *-Excellent
* * * *-Outstanding