September 15, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Socarrat: The Well-Rested Paella

Paella is the drill but fideua with long or short noodles is a delicious option.  Photo: Steven Richter
Paella is the drill but fideua with longor short noodles is a delicious option.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Paellas and fideuas (baked rice and baked noodles of Spain for two) and simple tapas - toasted tomato bread, griddled squid, an unassuming brandade, chunks of fried artichoke with a squeeze of lemon. That’s what comes out of the kitchen here. But this could be the best paella I can remember. It is lushly rich in socarrat - the marvelously crusty rice I’m scraping from the pan, coached by owner Lolo Manso. He stops by, urging us to let the paella rest before eating. “It needs a rest to release the juices.” Slices of tenderest scallop, bits of fish and squid, ribbons of pepper and bright green lima beans are perfect. Not even slightly rubberized shrimp can spoil it. It’s quite rare to find a paella with just-cooked seafood and that irresistible baked-in crunch too. (At the short-lived Barça18, Eric Ripert sent out a perfection of sea critters on rice that didn’t even come close to prototype.) 

Lolo Manso is the engaging host and socarrat scraper. Photo: Steven Richter

        Manso, born in Segovia into a restaurant family, and most recently at Solera on East 53rd Street, did not want the high communal table for twenty that runs the length of this shockingly narrow space in this first spot of his own, but he had no choice. “Two different women told me I had to do one table,” he explains. “And I respect the intelligence of women.” Once the carpenters finished smart the white enameled wall of cupboards for coats and supplies and hung the iron gate, mirrors and whimsical parts of old oil paintings, there is just barely enough room for a waiter to slither by against the broken brick wall or for Manso to circulate soliciting respect for his paellas. 

        A short, stocky, chatty host, he is everywhere, engaging, challenging. “Do you want meat or do you want adventure?” he asks, suggesting the fideua negra of seafood - small macaroni baked with seafood and black with squid ink, a scary concept to the timid perhaps.  But yes, I want that too. “Next time you come, I will have a way to serve half and half, “ he promises. (“I will do that because American people want to please themselves,” he explains.  “In Spain no one would ask because we Spanish are more traditional.”)
        On a night before his wine license has come through, he even gets the quartet at the one table in the window to send me a glass of red. (And I swear he is just taking pity on a client near perishing from lack of grape juice. I am sure he doesn’t know me from Jennifer Lopez)

        Since Manso can’t afford to take reservations either, there are often clusters of young ever-hopefuls waiting on the sidewalk outside while he juggles to clear enough space. The first time we stopped by – four of us - we gave up. Being two gives better  odds.

        Later he returns to suggest a sweet finale. “I am still working on desserts,” he confides. Torrija, a Spanish version of French toast, on a reduction of red wine with ice cream is imminent, he says.  Meanwhile, the house baked plum flan tart a la mode is a fine start.

259 W.19th St. near 8th Av. 212 462 1000