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From New York:

Translating Tapas: From Madrid to NYC

by Bryan Miller

Xunta in New York

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.

Jamon at Museo del Jamón

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).

One 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.

One was the coins-in-the-pocket trick. When a customer left a tip upon departing, he placed the coins on his round serving tray and then smacked the bottom, causing the coins to fly upwards to the ceiling. As they began their descent he pulled
open his shirt pocket, where all of the coins landed.

We did not see such histrionics in a recent tour of tapas bars in New York, but some of the food was worth a visit:

Casa Mona, at 52 Irving Place, has received more press than a Valencian olive, and if you want to sample the food without getting bruised – even more packed is the vest pocket annex, Bar Jamon — plan to visit around 6:30pm. It’s fun to sit at the wide dining bar that faces the tiny open kitchen that is overseen by Andy Nusser, a partner in the venture who previously was the chef at Mario Batali’s Babbo. (Both Mr. Nusser and Mr. Batali lived in Spain for a time when growing up). It’s an attractive little space with colorful Spanish tile, straight-back wicker chairs and a wine-lined wall behind the bar. The selection of Spanish wines and sherries is exceptional.

The first-rate menu runs from the traditional, like pan con tomate (slices of garlic rubbed toast slathered with tomatoes and olive oil), and sepia a la plancha (grilled cuttlefish with green sauce) to a couple of winsome inventions like a giant duck egg sunny side up and balanced atop a tall scaffolding of potato batons that have been cooked with truffle oil (do not expect this flourish in Madrid). It is seasoned with flakes of mojama, shaved pressed tuna.

Tapas or Simply "Small Plate?"

While 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.

Eight-month-old Alta in the West Village is a handsome and serene place, with rough stone walls, tiled floors, beamed ceiling, and a handsome sky lit back room done in a Spanish motif, complete with fireplace.

While 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.

Twinkling lights, fishermen’s nets and hanging musical instruments contribute to the festive scene at Xunta, a Galician tapas bar in the East Village. It’s a scene most nights, with a lively bar. More than 50 tapas are available, most from this rain-soaked region that is known for its seafood and cheeses. Best offerings were the fabada (white bean stew bolstered with several kinds of sausages), grilled octopus, empanada de bacallau (salt cod fritters), and fat, grilled sardines on the bone. Crema Catalana is richer than most, but it did not stop me from polishing two; if tapas bar verisimilitude is not a concern, there is a nice lime-ginger tart. On second thought, don’t do it.

Tapas Bars in NYC

Alta
64 W. 10th St.
212-505-7777

Bar Jamon
125 E. 17th St.
212-253-2773

Casa Mono
52 Irving Place
212-253-2773

Pipa
38 E. 19th St.
212-677-7723

Xunta

174 First Ave.
212-614-0620

Tapas Bars in Madrid

Taberna de los Cien Vinos
Nuncio 17
91 365 47 04

Casa Rafa
Narváez 68
91 573 10 87

Cervecería Alemana
Plaza de Santa Ana 6
91 429 70 33

El Viajero

Plaza de la Cebada 11
91 366 90 64

Hevia
Serrano 118
91 562 30 75 

José Luis
Serrano 91

La Casa del Abuelo
Victoria 12
91 521 23 19

Museo del Jamón
Victoria 1 and other locations
www.museodeljamon.es

Former New York Times restaurant critic, food writer and cookbook author Bryan Miller (Cooking for Dummies, Desserts for Dummies), is a prominent authority in American gastronomic literature.

(Updated: 09/22/10 NW)

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