January 14, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Manhattan Tapas Crawl Times Two

 Casa Mono chef Andy Nusser surrounds us with items hot off the plancha.  Photo: Steven Richter
 Casa Mono's Andy Nusser surrounds us with items hot off the plancha. Photo: Steven Richter

     “Want to come on a tapas crawl?” It’s wine merchant Gerry Dawes, journalist, consultant, promoter, monomaniacally crazed champion of everything Spanish. 

      No way I can resist. Memories of zig-zag routes taken in Sevilla, Madrid and Barcelona bring back the excitement of hiking the urban tapas circuit – where certain bars might have just one specialty, skewered pinchos, tortillas, layered crostini. I remember palaces of hanging hams and citadels of crisp fried sea creatures, sometimes unrecognizable, unknowable, delicious. With New York City currently breaking out in tapas, many new and Spanish, authentic or tweaked by Spain-infused Americans, a night of itinerant tapas tasting could be a lark.

     Dawes maps the route, navigates by car, exhibits uncanny parking karma and hoists a heavy satchel of his own boutique wines which he pours for us, bar tenders, chefs and owners wherever we go. Clearly he cheated by calling ahead to the Batali-Bastianach pocketsize Casa Mono, because we stumble inside at its most urgent hour to find four seats free in front of chef-partner Andy Nusser’s smoking plancha. We don’t have to stuff ourselves into Bar Jamon around the corner as mere humans do waiting for a spot to clear.

      I love this place. And I love it ever more tonight with Nusser slinging one dish after another – not necessarily Spanish and not without flaws. Yes the cuttlefish is tough, both the ham and the big pile of garlicky razor clams are too salty. But I love the bacalao croquetas with orange aioli, the seared foie gras on a melt of five onions, the small fried balls of pumpkin and goat cheese, and a big fat oozing duck egg sitting on grilled fingerling potatoes fenced in with shards of dried tuna cured in sea salt. As we make a move to go, luscious little lamb chops suddenly appear.

     “Is this a crawl or a marathon?” I ask Dawes.

 Tia Pol fans crowd the bar and don't mind waiting for teeny tables. Photo: Steven Richter.

      In a way it is fortuitous that Boqueria is a scene by Bosch with no table for us. Dawes looks bummed, best laid plans gone astray. But just the to and fro from his car is exercise enough to ignite fresh appetite for sensational anchovies and satiny slices of salt cod paired with pink grapefruit at El Quinto Pino, a mostly standup bar that’s the new rather charming limbo where we’re waiting for a call to claim our spot in the immensely popular cubbyhole that is Tia Pol. I could live without Quinto’s goat cheese dumplings, but salty bacon nuggets that arrive in a small grocery bag to blot the grease are addictive.

     “This is a great item for the first night of Chanukah,” mutters Dawes.

      I’m excited to finally infiltrate the much-loved Tia Pol. I’ve never been willing to stand around trying to look jolly while waiting half an hour for a seat in this narrow no-reservation sardine can. But everyone knows Gerry. And it’s not long before we’re summoned around the block, wine bottle re-corked for the voyage. We’ve moved on from Dawes’ lucent 2005 San Clodio Ribeiro white from Galicia to a Torroxal Rosal Tinto 2004, a little-known red from a white wine region just north of the Minho River. And he’s offering tastes to the waiter, customers en route to the loo, a Sri Lankan beauty at the next perch, and chef Alex Raij who gets the message we’re only tasting a few dishes, including anchovies in a green parsley puree, artichoke and navarra cheese wrapped in Serrano ham, and surpringly blobby blood sausage with rice and chickpeas in cabbage. The day’s special mushroom carpaccio with chopped nuts strikes me as flat and boring. But chorizo with melted chocolate on chewy bread is oddly pleasant. There’s smoke coming from the kitchen and I suspect the chef wants to go home. She drops a plate of heavenly cheese on our postage stamp of a table as she exits.

      What might have consumed an hour or possibly two in Barcelona, grabbing a nibble or a bite, tossing used napkins to the floor as etiquette requires, culminating in an omakase tapas feast at a table, has ballooned into an extended Manhattan trek, an excess of tastes, yes even for me but once I recover I’m sure I’ll recommend it to gluttons and the adventurous.


 Serious (and seriously good) tapas pour out of Boqueria's besieged kitchen.                          Photo: Steven Richter

      A few weeks later Dawes challenges me to another round. What kind of professional mouth would ignore Mercat, Solera, Euzkadi? he asks. He’s forgiven Boqueria. We must go there. Good timing. Suddenly the city has won a reprieve from winter. We have a taste of spring in January, ideal for a crawl, wheels or not.

      Grazers claim most of the tall tables opposite the bar as we arrive at Pamplona where the kitchen is slow delivering bacaloa fritters with a not so spicy spicy aioli. Still it’s worth waiting just for the bocadillo of conejo – a sensational pressed sandwich of rabbit, cheese and pickle.

 Boqueria's grilled baby squid, razor clams with apple and perfect brussel sprouts.               Photo: Steven Richter

      We give up on the long lost patatas bravas and run, for the car, hitting Boqueria at its most feverish 7:30 rush. (By nine it will start to become less intense.) Even chef Seamus Mullen knows we’re coming and we settle on stools at one end of the communal table with non-existent aisles and inevitable bumping. I pretend not to hear the intimate confessions of our neighbors, though I’m fascinated. (Always looking for a plot for my next novel.) Dawes pours a glass of his Viña Aliaga Rosado de Lagrima (Garnacha) for them. “Now you know rosé isn’t just a pretty wine,” he tells the two young women.

      What do I like here? Everything. Three kinds of creamy croquettes and a ham croquette with a slash of raisin sauce, whole baby squid a la plancha with hazelnuts and cocoa nibs (not as ridiculous as it sounds), nicely firm brussel sprouts with chorizo, the day’s fabulous roasted cippolini onions with blue cheese and pine nuts, and razor clams with double smoked bacon, apple and piementon oil. A pinch of the same blue cheese at the heart of bacon-wrapped dates cuts the sweetness. And just when I imagine I cannot manage another bite, cubes of rare lamb on skewers arrive. And I manage two bites.

 Picholine’s tapas flight stars raw tuna on tapioca crackers and spicy bay scallops.                Photo: Steven Richter.

      But there’s more: Picholine, on our way uptown, where Terrance Brennan’s passion for Spain and Spanish ingredients gilds flights of elegant tapas – three to a dark wooden tray – a prologue to his long-planned Spanish restaurant. “All I need is the space,” he says.


 Truffled tapas. Photo: Steven Richter.

Clearly I’m less impressed by what’s authentic than what’s delicious because I’m wild about raw tuna on tapioca crackers with olive oil ice cream, tempura’d shisho peppers, the mushroom panna cotta with parmesan, a truffled game trifle with game jelly and truffled toast –“Dig down with your spoon to get all the layers,” the waiter instructs. Popcorn shrimp comes with popcorn, sprinkled with the smoked paprika I keep hearing about. Serrano ham chips are to scoop up the sherry sorbet. Not everything is worth repeating. But I hope Brennan will never retire the paella spring rolls with luscious Romesco sauce on the bottom and fried calamari antennae on top.

      No way am I leaving without a tasting of Spanish cheese presented by the white gloved cheese sommelier. He insists we include Serra, a sheep’s milk cheese from Portugal “that’s about to explode.” Exactly what you want in a cheese.

      I’m not sure everyone at the bar sees cookies, tarts, and bon-bons unless they order a flight or two. I grab a smoky caramel just before Steven drags me away. I don’t usually drink four flavors of wine at dinner. But we’ll be back. I agree with my colleague Adam Platt -- Picholine’s bar is a great spot for supper after Lincoln Center.

   As for the tapas crawl, Manhattan is not Barcelona. But then Barcelona is not Manhattan. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And it’s a plus not having to pay in euros.

Bar Jamon 125 East 17th Street, just east of Irving Place. 212 253 2773
Boqueria 15 West 19th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 212 255 4160
Casa Mono 52 Irving Place at 17th Street. 212 253 2773
El Quinto Pino 401 West 24th Street near 9th Avenue. 212 206 6900
Pamplona 37 East 28th Street between Madison and Park Avenue South. 212 213 2328
Picholine 35 West 64th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. 212 724 8585.
Tia Pol 205 Tenth Avenue between 22nd and 23 Streets. 212 675 8805