Moveable Feast: Top Tapas in NYC

Posted on April 14, 2011

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Crispy farm egg at Bar Basque, NYC

Moveable Feast: Top Tapas in NYC
by AnneLise Sorensen

Just when you thought New York’s affair with tapas had fizzled, a fresh wave of chefs are featuring Spanish small plates on their menus. Of course, you wouldn’t find most of their creations in your average Madrid tapas bar. But then, New York usually does things its own way, with attitude to spare.

While the city’s chefs tend to put an haute spin on tapas – recently spotted: whipped avocado mousse and deconstructed lamb wraps – Spain’s small plates are in fact of humble origins. Bartenders in muggy Andalucia used to cover, or tapar, glasses of wine with a small plate to keep away fruit flies. Soon they began adding a slice of ham or a couple of olives, sometimes getting fancier with a dollop of aioli. These days, simple is still the way to go: Springy curls of squid; faintly translucent, fat-streaked slices of jamón Serrano; and the familiar tortilla de patatas, Spain’s ultimate comfort food, a round, thick potato-and-egg omelete cut like a pizza. You want deconstructed? Try a wedge of Manchego. Speared with a toothpick.

As for décor, whereas you’ll find white-leather banquettes and track lighting on this side of the Atlantic, your typical, no-frills tapas bar in Spain has a scarred wooden counter, a standing-only crowd, and a sawdust-covered floor littered with crumbled wax napkins.

At great personal hardship, I tasted tapas across New York to come up with my short list. Buen provecho!

Tia Pol, Chelsea
An infectious spirit pervades Tia Pol, a low-lit, leisurely tapas bar which more than holds its own among the aren’t-we-fabulous galleries of West Chelsea. Tia Pol’s chefs rarely veer too far off the well-trodden path, but consider yourself lucky when they do. The chorizo with bittersweet chocolate embodies the kitchen’s pluck, as do delightful treats like fried chickpeas and periwinkles “Chinatown-style.” In true tapas tradition, an evening here is as much a social occasion as a gastronomic one.

Pipa, Union Square
You might think that occupying a furniture store would put a damper on ambiance. Not so at Pipa, a dashing restaurant that has maximized its ground-floor location in ABC Home & Carpet to great effect: The massive dining room – where plenty of glass-clinking toasts take place over wooden communal tables – is sexily lit by chandeliers of all shapes and sizes, each with their own fluttering price tag. (Yours starting at $700.) The tapas easily rival the lighting: Try the Coca, an oblong Catalan flatbread, here topped with vinegary artichokes, tomatoes, and sobrasada, a paprika-kneaded Mallorcan sausage paste. Finish off with a trio of cheeses, including Tetilla, a creamy cheese with a lemony hint that, in its whole form, resembles (and feels like) a breast, hence the name.

Queso Tetilla

Las Ramblas, West Village
Like its namesake, Barcelona’s famous walking street, this small tapas bar is thronged with people day and night. (Unlike its namesake, pickpocketing isn’t rife.) Las Ramblas is hard to resist, especially once you’ve gotten a voyeuristic glimpse of it through the tall windows overlooking West 4th Street. Feast on smoky, bright-red pimientos del piquillo (peppers shaped like piquillos, or “little beaks”) stuffed with blood sausage and saffron rice, and creamy ham croquettes that dissolve on the tongue. The sangria’s fruity buzz creeps up you, something you might not realize until it’s time to go and your stool seems considerably higher than when you sat down.

Piquillo pepper

La Boqueria, Flatiron & SoHo
A dark-red haunch of jamón greets you at the entrance to La Boqueria. This and the sheep’s cheeses carried out on wooden platters are pretty much all that the sleek Flatiron bar shares with Barcelona’s fresh-food market, after which it’s named. (Footwear is more along the lines of Manolo Blahniks than manure-caked rubber boots for one.) But the tapas are the real deal, including blistered padrón peppers sprinkled with sea salt, juicy lamb cubes marinated in cumin, and Catalunya’s best-known staple, pa amb tomaquet, grilled bread rubbed with tomato and drizzled in olive oil.

Casa Mono & Bar Jamon, Gramercy
New York chef Mario Batali ­– he of the nearly perfect New York Times review for his seminal Italian restaurant Babbo, among others – takes diners on a culinary romp through the Spain at Casa Mono, serving up mussels steamed in sparkling Cava here, and pumpkin croquettes there. With a “wallpaper” of wine bottles, Moorish tile floor, hissing open grill, and pan cymbal crashes from the smoky kitchen – you’d think you were in Andalucía somewhere. Until you get the bill.

The only thing that Spaniards love more than wine is their ham. Or is it the other way around? Spain’s twin passions are celebrated at Bar Jamon, the social-butterfly sister to Casa Mono. Solo diners won’t be for long: The bar has dispensed with formalities like tables, and instead everyone vies for a spot at the two long wooden counters. The priorities are clear – ham, wine, and banter, though not necessarily in that order. After several slices of aged ham, a glass or three of Riojan red, and a charged conversation with the cute stranger perched on the stool next to you, are tables really necessary? (Or discretion, for that matter?)

Bar Basque

Bar Basque, Midtown West
Jeffrey Chodorow’s new Bar Basque reveals plenty of the celebrity restaurateur’s flashiness, from a sultry, red-walled lounge to a glass roof that showers light. It’s the kind of flamboyance that makes you wonder how good the food is. Happily, it’s superb. Tapas with a twist include gazpacho jelly and razor clams, along with tangy olives stuffed with anchovies.

El Faro, Meatpacking District
In this neighborhood of velvet ropes and $19 appletinis sits New York City’s oldest Spanish restaurant, a crusty holdover from a time when the only ones chilling out in the Meatpacking District were sides of beef in refrigerated meat lockers. Check your pretensions at the door, slip into a wooden booth surrounded by faded murals of flamenco dancers, and fill up on uncomplicated tapas like baby shrimp in garlic and hunks of Manchego. After enjoying the Spanish ritual of sangria, engage in another: A long siesta.

Sangria (Photo by Kitchn)

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