June 19, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Amada: When Pigs Fly

 Amada’s $68 rabbit paella is Instagram-ready, but, alas, flavorless and lacks socarrat.
Amada’s $68 rabbit paella is Instagram-ready, but, alas, flavorless and lacks socarrat.

          When the butcher paper finally came down on the windows of restaurateur Jose Garces’ Amada on Vesey Street, scouts in my gourmand crowd were waiting. One of us works across the street and had been watching the struggle to open. It is not even half full (and not yet finished, our server confides), the evening our foursome settles in with cocktails and a glass or two of red to tackle the tapas list.

 
There are powder blue grills wrapped in rope and carpets rolled up as if for sale.

          I wouldn’t call the AvroKO design industrial. But with its rope-wrapped screens and rolled rug displays, it could be a factory showroom for tourists. It wouldn’t be difficult to hide some soundproofing on the dark ceiling, but I suspect someone thinks exaggerated noise draws young crowds.

 
Early as always, I wait in the welcoming bar till our table is ready.

          It’s not as if tapas are new and waiting to be discovered. I’ve been tasting tapas and the larger sized raciónes in Barcelona, in San Sebastián, in the West Village for decades. My guy and I spent two nights in 2008 doing a tapas crawl with a champion of everything Spanish.

 
A $14 tapa joins squid and celery salad with blood sausage and potato.

          Maybe it’s the menu at Amada -- this ridiculously, I assume deliberately, noisy room-- that makes tapas seem new or newsworthy or, perhaps, newly authentic. Maybe it’s the graphics. The red titles in Spanish. The layout, “TRADICIONAL,” “VERDURAS,” “A LA PLANXA.”

 
The evening special is pea soup, and I can’t resist spring peas. It really is soup. Spoons fly.

          Nothing seems especially new or original. We each choose a duo of offerings and then a few more. With so many items priced at $9 or $10, why not? What is remarkable, I notice half way through the waves hitting our bare table, is that almost everything I taste is good or very good.

 
Octopus a la Gallega is deliciously stewed in a $14 tapa with potato chip banners.

          Squid and celery salad with blood sausage and potato. Spanish octopus in small chunks with crisp potato chips standing up like banners. A shower of almond thins adding their nuttiness to small red peppers filled with crab. The essence of spring in the intense pea green soup in a ceramic bowl. It really is a soup, not so easily shared. We can just dip spoons and dip again.

          I’m responsible for choosing the Spanish flatbread. “Beef short ribs, horseradish, Parmesan and bacon.” Short ribs and bacon: two words I’m not likely to resist.

 
Everyone at our table votes for chewy razor clams—delicious, swathed in herbed oil.

          Not everyone likes razor clams. These look especially threatening when they arrive, like embryos of prehistoric monsters pressed close together, side by side, with splotches of oily green (which has gotten on my camera lens). We’re razor clam people. We’re smitten.

 
It seems a stingy, little portion when we cut each crab-stuffed pepper in two for our foursome to share.

          And our favorite, a sensuous mince of lamb tartare with green romesco, is wildly rich. It comes with what look like dreaded shrimp chips, but on tasting, are surprisingly delicious crisps made with Idiazábal cheese. We debate ordering seconds. But then a second arrives. Is the table wired for sound? Did the kitchen lose count? Quickly, it disappears.

          The lamb frites “á la Planxa” are more than a tapa, though only the $28 price indicates that. A duo of plump chops, “rare” as ordered. Two bites of meaty pleasure for each of us are piled on top of frites, salty and soggy, in a gravy studded with cubes of feta.

 
We ask the server to let the paella sit so crusty socarrat forms, but there is scarcely a spoonful stuck on.

          The $68 rabbit and chorizo paella Valenciana -- a stunning still life with cockles, stippled aioli, and tattooed toasts -- is the big disappointment. We share the miniature rabbit chops. But a bite or two of rice is enough. No crispy socarrat and not much flavor.  

 
Michael Laiskonis gets the blame for this deconstructed chocolate tarta with caramel and cocoa crumbs.  

          And it’s not just because we’ve eaten too much. There’s enough spirit to try the chocolate tarta. And we’ve already agreed we’ll return soon for suckling pig – cochinillo asado.  “Please order in advance,” the menu instructs.

 
Instead of bread, these garlic crisps arrive with a tuna-caper aioli, alongside.

          The $250 half pig with its four sides, will serve 4 to 7, we are told. The five of us warm up with cocktails, white wine, social catch-up and the house garlic crisps that come with a tuna-caper aioli alongside.

 
We ask for two more toasts so each of our four can spoon on artichoke-Parmesan.

          I suggest we share artichokes “á la Parmesana,” chopped artichoke heart in a Parmesan sauce, and the ham ensalada while we wait for the pig to arrive.  The ham is dazzling to see. Not unlike a movie star dressed by Anna Wintour for our own private gala. It arrives in a dazzling bouffant scroll, stuffed with sliced fig, Cabrales cheese and dressed greens. Sadly, the ham is tougher than expected and dry.

 
This furl of Serrano ham with figs, Cabrales cheese and tendrils of green is a work of art.

          But now, our server is covering the table with large terra cotta platters: the sides that come with the pig. One salver holds garlicky white beans with bits of bacon. Chickpea stew with a dark sprinkling of fried garbanzos fills a second. A third is layered with roasted fingerlings and whole pearl onions.

 
This large terra cotta casserole of garbanzos is just one of four sides that come with suckling pig.

          A fourth go-with is a bowl of string beans, blanched but raw, atop bulgur and chopped tomatoes in a sherry vinaigrette with almonds. We are debating whether string beans can be served raw or need to be cooked as the pig rolls up, its head guarding its glazed body, and the chef-deliverer dons black gloves to carve it.

 
A chef-carver rolls the suckling pig into the dining room and parks next to our table.

          Does it take five minutes? Or is it 15 minutes? Another debate. The carver might have presented the first full salver to us rather than waiting till she had completed two. She is really struggling because I asked for the cheeks and the ears and the head is so small.  

 
The carver strips meat from both sides, carves crackling skin into ribbons and wrestles with the ears. 

          But my plate is already full of savory beans and chickpeas. I don’t really need five or six fingerling halves and two or three onions, but they’re luscious too, and they are there. Too many. We could easily have been eight or ten for this dinner.

 
Luscious white beans with bacon -- enough for ten -- comes with the $250 half suckling pig dinner. 

          I’ve had baby pig that was dry and stringy with skin that was chewy and fatty. But this small creature from upstate New York has emerged from the oven juicy, tender, and not stringy at all. The skin cut into strips reminds me of Peking duck – I can easily strip clinging bits of fat away. The salting is perfection in my book.

 
I seem to be the only one still eating roasted fingerlings and pearl onions. Sorry, too good to stop. 

          The carver offers a spill of olive oil on top of the pig now on our plates. That seems like overkill to me. She leaves the oil and a dish of salt on our table and trundles away. I see one of my companions using both. I’m loathe to approve contrary taste in others. I suppose that may seem rude. Order your own pig. Be glad you don’t have to debate with me.  

 
Singles from the corporate buildings nearby find refuge for dinner at the kitchen counter.

          My friend Lauren decides she’ll take the bones home to make ramen. There is enough meat left over for tomorrow’s dinner for all. Shopping bags line up on the banquette. It’s not a night for churros or fried bread with pineapple. But a few spoons of lemon sorbetto might have been welcome.

250 Vesey Street between North End and West Street. 212 542 8947. Monday to Sunday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Sunday to Wednesday 5 to 10 pm. Thursday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm.

 ***

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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