Back in 2006, Spain was riding high in the gastronomic world. elBulli was at its peak and Spanish restaurants in Spain were the darlings of the culinary cognoscenti. It was a golden age for Spanish cuisine. The culmination of this recognition of Spanish hegemony occurred in Napa, California during the annual Culinary Institute of America Worlds of Flavor Program. That program, entitled “Spain and the World Table” was a watershed event that brought together top Spanish chefs (both traditional and Vanguardist), food and wine experts, media and aficionados from around the world, including my wife and I. The focus of the event was on how to translate the ingredients and flavors of Spain to the rest of the world. At the time, the number of serious, Spanish influenced restaurants (other than those just borrowing the techniques of Vanguardist cooking), were few in the United States, but growing. Spanish food was still very much a niche market, way behind the cuisines of other nationalities such as Italian, Chinese, French and Japanese in the minds and palates of Americans.
Fast forward to 2013 in New York City, a microcosm of the rest of the country. It seems that the growth of true Spanish themed restaurants in the City has grown in exponential fashion in the time since the World of Flavors conference with 2013 representing the apogee so far. The good news is that it hasn’t just been the number of Spanish restaurants that has taken off. With the help of greater access to premium Spanish products like Jamon Iberico de Bellota from not just one, but a number of top producers such as Cinco Jotas (5J) amongst others, the quality of the food available has also improved. Jose Andres with his Jaleo, Bazaar and minibar restaurants remains the king of Spanish restaurants nationally, but with chefs like Katie Button and her FOH-running husband, Felix Meana at the highly regarded Curaté in Asheville, NC, Andy Pforzheimer and his superb mini-chain of Barcelona Restaurants and Wine Bars and Michael Chiarello and his popular new Coqueta in San Francisco heavily involved, more attention is being paid to the category around the country. No city, however, is so heavily involved as New York City with restaurants from both American born chefs like Seamus Mullen, Kenny Oringer and Mario Batali amongst others, as well as Spanish imports like Dani Garcia and Marc Vidal.
With my son, L.J., now working for Seamus Mullen at both his Tertulia and brand new El Colmado restaurants, I have recently had the opportunity to explore both of these restaurants as well as a number of the other NYC Spanish restaurants that have sprung up over the boroughs. There has never been a better time to conduct a NYC tapas crawl.
Of the “new” crop of Spanish restaurants, the oldest and still one of the very best is Casa Mono, Mario Batali’s and chef/owner Andy Nusser’s paeon to Nusser’s native Spain. The place has the true look and feel of a restaurant in Spain and the food under Executive Chef Anthony Sasso and Sous Chef Diego Moya., who was in charge of the kitchen the night I was there, follows. From razor clams grilled on the plancha to crisp exterior and melting interior croquetas, to beautifully seared foie gras to seafood fideos to crisp-coated clouds of sweetbreads and much more, I felt that I could have been sitting at a very good restaurant in any number of Spanish cities or towns (see here for the Flick’r Photoset from Casa Mono).
Tertulia is but a brisk walk from Irving Place into Greenwich Village. It too offers the feel and taste of being in Spain with an open fire grill with grilling apparatus reminiscent of the complex system of Bitor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri. At Tertulia, the grilled items are all worthy, as are the Spanish embutidos and small plates. One of the most alluring aspects of Tertulia though, is the selection of Spanish sidras available. These are great food beverages that will wash anything on the menu down without any trouble at all (see here for the Flick’r Photoset from Tertulia).
El Colmado, Tertulia’s brand new baby brother located in the equally brand new Gotham West Market on 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen reminds me of Carles Abellan’s wonderful Barcelona tapas bar, Tapas 24, in both its vibe and the quality of the food. With a strong selection of sherries, Spanish wines and food including excellent tortillas, bocadillos and the not to be missed Iberico Secreto, amongst other fine dishes, top notch Spanish dining has been extended beyond its typical lower Manhattan locations (see here for the Flick’r Photoset from El Colmado).
Seamus Mullen was the original chef at the original Boqueria, in the Flatiron District. When he left, Chef Marc Vidal was brought in from Spain to run that restaurant, another in Soho and to create more in other parts of the eastern United States including Washington, D.C.. Vidal has managed to make each of them excellent ambassadors of the cuisine of his native country. I first experienced his cooking at the Soho Boqueria for a party in honor of Ferran Adria. It was excellent then as well as in subsequent visits both there and at the Boqueria in Washington, D.C. What Boqueria and most of the successful Spanish restaurants emphasize is traditional Spanish cooking. Vidal, who grew up in Catalunya amidst the Vanguardist onslaught that firmly put Spanish cooking back on the global map and who is well versed in the techniques, in a conversation held at the Soho branch, talked about how New Yorkers don’t have time to cook and many simply enjoy casual, comfort food. He said that 80% of the sales at the restaurants are based on Spanish “classics” that come from around the country – dishes like albondigas, bravas, datiles, cojonudos, croquetas, menudos, etc. -while 20% are in the realm of Spanish creativity. He emphasized that the key both for his as well as the other successful restaurants is that they are serving quality, seasonal product as they do in Spain.
Dani Garcia is a chef who made his name in Spain cooking Vanguardist cuisine in his Andalusian restaurant, Calima, one of the leaders of the genre. At Manzanilla, the Spanish restaurant that he opened in NYC almost one year ago, he too relies on the classics, but blends his menu with a greater influence of Vanguardism than his peers. As a large restaurant, this approach makes sense. New York has never fully warmed to the Vanguardist approach to playing with food. Even Wylie Dufresne, arguably the most successful chef in NYC to have dived head first into the world of Modernism, never seemed to match his critical success with business success. WD-50 always seemed to do well enough to continue, but never seemed to be a money-maker. It has been a restaurant that seemed to be more popular with other chefs and culinary insiders than with the general public. Modernist Spanish chefs like Miguel Sanchez Romera came into the city with high hopes that his distinct style would win the city over, but for a variety of reasons, it failed miserably. Another recent Spanish import, Jesus Nuñez, came in making beautiful, imaginative food with good reviews, but so far hasn’t been able to find enough of an audience. Manzanilla has plenty of space on two levels with a private dining room in the basement. I would eventually love to see two restaurants there with Manzanilla as it is currently put together, occupying the greater space, and then a small intimate space for Dani Garcia to do his creative thing. (see here for the Flick’r Photoset from Manzanilla).
Continuing the crawl across Manhattan leads to Chelsea, where Alexandra Raij (2012 Eater NYC Chef of the Year) was some of the earliest of the contemporary Spanish chefs in New York City with Tia Pol. She and her then husband began urban homesteading on 9th Avenue between 24th and 25th before anyone else did at the diminutive El Quinto Pino, later expanding on the same street with Txikito, a Basque influenced restaurant that set the tone for many of those that followed. Her work has expanded also over into Brooklyn with the highly regarded La Vara, which emphasizes the Jewish influence on Spanish cuisine. Raij describes her cooking as based on tradition with each of her restaurants always “telling a story.” Indeed, Raij was probably the first to successfully bring Spanish style stand-up tapas bar to NYC. In Spain, most tapas bars specialize in one or at most a few dishes and patrons go from one to another for a full meal. When Raij started in NYC, there wasn’t a culture for that practice nor a sufficient number of close by restaurants to enable a super-specialization approach. As such her restaurants had to be good at a number of items. They are full menu tapas restaurants, where patrons can have a whole meal.
The latest entry in the sweepstakes of Spanish succulence was brought from Boston by the chefs Kenny Oringer and Jamie Bissonette with their beautifully designed, large MPD restaurant, Toro. It is also located almost as far to the west of lower Manhattan as it can be. Having originated in Boston in a much smaller space, the restaurant combines a Spanish approach to food with American sensibilities. With neither Oringer nor Bissonette from Spain, they are perhaps the least beholden to strict interpretations of the classics, though they respect them as well as their product whether from Spain or the United States. In one sense, given the Vanguardist propensity of bringing outside cultural influences from places like Japan, China and elsewhere, the inclusion of elements like fermented black beans and peanuts with sweetbreads or carrots with buttermilk, dill and harissa, would make this approach fit in very well within contemporary Spain. Add the fun of a porrón wall and sangria on tap and it spells a good time (see here for the Flick’r Photoset from Toro). They just recently received a very respectable two stars from the New York Times.
Heading back towards the center of lower Manhattan, one can also take a more Iberian approach and add some modern Portuguese into the mix with restaurants like George Mendes’ Aldea and David Santos’ Louro. Curiously, though the food in Portugal has been much more conservative than what has made waves by their neighbors, both of these restaurants are decidedly more modern in style.
While a true crawl like those for pintxos in San Sebastien or tapas down Calle Cava Baja in Madrid still can’t be fully replicated in NYC, it is now possible to do a crawl to many of these different restaurants, filling up on a variety of different items. The problem is that each is so enticing for so many different things that once ensconced, it can be difficult to drag oneself away.
The bottom line is that the food, here, as with the other restaurants discussed is delicious and while the best of them still don’t quite replace a trip to Spain, they more than manage to stand on their own as excellent ambassadors and bring more than a bit of Spanish culinary bravado and flavor to the City. Spanish food in the United States in the past was limited in availability, scope, and quality. Most people equated Spanish cuisine with paella and typically bad paella, at that. The good stuff was not available here, and in many cases such as with cheese, was only being rediscovered in Spain after decades of repression of regional culinary identities. The ascent of Spanish fine dining over the last 2-3 decades has allowed the cuisine to be rediscovered from top to bottom. Spanish product in Spain is second to none and now much of it is available here. What is not available from Spain now has excellent substitutions available secondary to advances in the markets of quality American grown and raised ingredients. Spanish cooking can now shine the way it was meant to. Thanks must also go to the teachers. It would seem that the seeds planted before the World of Flavors Conference and watered by that conference have taken hold and grown well. When asked, “Why now?” as to why he decided to open Toro in NYC, chef/owner Ken Oringer answered simply, “Why not? The time is right.” The time is right indeed. This is a golden age for Spanish cuisine in NYC.