From New York:
Translating Tapas: From Madrid to NYC
by Bryan Miller
Spain has been hailed as the new France in matters vinous and culinary, and with some reason. The country’s leading chefs, from such disparate regions as Catalonia, the Basque country, Galicia, Andalucia and Castile, are pushing the envelope with striking deconstructions of classic dishes as well as with those daft foamy creations, which come in such wild shapes and colors that they make nouvelle cuisine look like a pot luck casserole.
Spanish wines are red hot as well, from the flowery dry Albariños of Galicia to the luscious reds of Ribera del Duero. So, one might ask, why is New York still waiting for its first great Spanish restaurant? And why did it take a couple of Italian guys (with American partners) to get New Yorkers excited about tapas? It's first question we cannot answer. As for tapas, there are more tidbits on the table than ever, although some are merely American appetizers in toreador’s clothing.
Even so, it’s a welcome change. We developed an unquenchable passion for tapas bars two decades ago when we studied in the ancient Spanish university city of Salamanca, where we majored in tapas, with a minor in Rioja.
Salamanca is Old Castile, where the dinner hour commences at the time when most Americans are brushing their teeth for bed, roughly 10 p.m. -11 p.m. With seven to eight hours between their sizable three-course lunch, and the late “cena,” a hearty dinner, pre-prandial snacks are in order—thus the tapas.
Each bar boasts a specialty. It might be vinegary marinated mussels, earthy morcilla (blood sausage), salty grilled sardines, pulpo a la plancha (seared octopus with paprika), cumin-scented kebobs of pork or lamb (pinchos morunos), blood sausage (morcilla).
of our favorite spots back then, which was renowned for its dense,
earthy morcilla and briny anchovies marinated in beer, was called
Covechuelas, just off the magnificent Plaza Major. The owner, an
animated fellow with a rubbery and mischievous smile, possessed
several sleight-of-hand stunts that he performed nightly to a well-lubricated
assembly of scholars.
did not see such histrionics in a recent tour of tapas bars in New
York, but some of the food was worth a visit:
we were in the neighborhood we stopped in at Pipa,
on East 19th Street, a big brick cavern festooned with ornate chandeliers
that can be annoying if you arrive at prime time: neglectful service,
loud music, and singles howling at the moon. But if you manage to
snatch a bar seat and order a glass of good red wine there are some
treats to be had, such as Caldo Gallego, the Galician white bean
soup with escarole, potatoes and ham; cleanly fried baby calamari
spiked with a good smoked paprika aioli; and steamed clams with
a hint of dry Sherry. Shrimp in garlic oil, however, suffered from
burning the garlic. Twice.
most of the tapas are more suited to a contemporary American restaurant—baked
bluepoint oysters, fried goat cheese with lavender honey—some
are more to the point. Grilled Portuguese sardines with lemon preserve
and sun-dried tomatoes is an excellent combination; grilled baby
octopus, which is as good as it gets; and pork bellies, on skewers,
adorned with quail eggs and roasted peppers. We’d push aside
the eggs and use that space for another belly skewer.
(Updated: 09/22/10 NW)