You Start in Spain, but There’s Room to Roam Restaurant Review: El Quinto Pino in Chelsea
The New York Times, May 13, 2014. Read about EL QUINTO PINO. They use many of our products: sea anemone, tortilla de camarones, mini shrimp de Cadiz, mediterranean shrimp.
The name means “the fifth pine,” a Spanish idiom for the boondocks, which was probably a stretch even seven years ago when El Quinto Pino opened on West 24th Street, across from the canyon wall of London Terrace. The thumbnail curve of the sardine-can tapas bar is just the way it’s been since the beginning, packed, every seat there and on the opposite wall a few inches away taken almost any time you show up.
Turn right at the door, though, and you’ll find something new. Last fall, El Quinto Pino’s owners and chefs, Alex Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, took over the lease on the apartment next door and filled it with tables, making their sardine can a real restaurant. “It won’t make a bid for your entire night: You will snack at El Quinto Pino and almost inevitably eat more somewhere else,” Peter Meehan wrote in a “$25 and Under” column in 2007, its last review in The New York Times. With a reservation for that side room you won’t need to go anywhere else for dinner. You won’t want to, either, once the food starts zooming out of the kitchen.
Credit Michael Falco for The New York Times
Ms. Raij and Mr. Montero also own Txikito, across Ninth Avenue, which digs into Basque cuisine, and La Vara, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where the menu is a master’s thesis on Moorish and Jewish imprints upon Spanish cooking. A short “menú turístico” at El Quinto Pino investigates a different region of the country every few months, which gives regulars a reason to keep coming and gives the kitchen a launching pad for dishes that may hit the permanent roster. Other than that, the two chefs haven’t tied themselves down. Having laid down their Iberian credentials in their other restaurants, they’ve given El Quinto Pino a passport to roam around.
Among the bar sandwiches tightly wrapped in paper is a visitor from New Orleans, a po’boy with closely packed, terrifically crunchy fried squid legs at its core. Another is a fortified Cubano, in which the ham and crisp pickle have more oomph than usual, the cheese doesn’t taste processed, for once, and the braised pork is supplemented with a red wallop of blood sausage. The chefs do a takeoff on Catalonia’s version of the croque monsieur, the bikini, but they aim a double-barreled blast of Mexico at it, topping the melted cheese with roasted poblanos and huitlacoche, the flamboyantly weird, mushroom-tasting black fungus that grows on corn ears.
Geographic freedom between pieces of bread was written into El Quinto Pino’s charter from the start, when Ms. Raij brought out (all rise, please) the uni panino. A pressed ficelle filled with creamy sea urchin, melted butter and a lashing of mustard oil, it became one of the city’s essential sandwiches. It still is, even though one night mustard-oil supplies must have run low and the panino wasn’t the same without its throat-catching rumble.
The rest of the menu is made up of tapas-style plates, and the servers are careful not to overload the small tables, bringing just one or two at a time. The kitchen mostly presents these dishes as tangles that are easily shared, and resists the impulse toward multicomponent platings. With Raij-Montero portions, four people seems to be the breaking point at which you’re not so much eating as nibbling. I enjoyed El Quinto Pino more in a party of three, and best of all with just one accomplice.
Some of the seafood is so appealing and out of the ordinary that dividing it can test your ability to play well with others. I hated surrendering the last fried lump of sea anemone folded into soft scrambled eggs. Called ortiguillas, they tasted almost like fried oysters, but not quite, and I wanted to get to the bottom of that “not quite.” My curiosity and my appetite also wanted a few more runs at the Catalan salad xató, which mixed chicory and canned bonito with raw salt cod, soaked to pull out the salt and to reveal a flavor of quietly intensified fish. Dressed with both romesco and an uncooked tomato sauce, this salad seemed to get more lively with each bite.
Tender, apple-blossom-pink gambas al ajillo get a little fresh ginger along with the garlic, an addition that made me want to eat them twice as fast. (Mashed and sliced avocado don’t have the same effect on an oddly inert salpicon of shrimp.)
Smaller shrimp from Cadiz, the size of a paper clip and intensely flavorful in their shells, are pressed into a tortillita, a wonderful fritter that looks like a latke cooked under a brick. Fried on their own, these shrimp turn up again to bring a marine undertow to a jiggly poached egg with slivered snow peas.
The kitchen’s hand is so steady that it’s easy to pass over its occasional bobbles, unless you’re unlucky enough to be served two or three in a row. My disappointments were spread out: dully spiced lamb skewers; underseasoned bits of fried pork whose name, “bag of bacon,” raised undue expectations; seafood fideua, like paella made from noodles, that lacked the oceanic depth I loved when I had the same dish at La Vara.
And it’s unclear how the xocolata dessert is meant to be served. One night the salt-sprinkled ingot of chocolate ganache was filled with fruity green olive oil that spilled out at the touch of a fork; I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the pairing of the two ingredients more. On another, the oil was cold and congealed like Vaseline. Fortunately I had the excellent crema catalana, roused from its usual custardy slumber by cinnamon and lemon zest, to fall back on.
Everything I know about dating could be carved onto the head of a pin with a butter knife, but a younger man who lives down the block from El Quinto Pino assures me it’s a great date place. He didn’t mean the bar, with its was-that-your-foot? dimensions, but the new dining room. Separated from the drinkers by a galley kitchen, its 30 seats feel secluded and romantic, but not in an obvious way. The architect Silvia Zofio gave it a quietly domestic, midcentury look, with an earth-toned tapestry covering one wall and a chandelier that suggests the swoosh of a flamenco dancer’s skirt in mid-twirl. It’s a room for talking, and if it’s not exactly the boondocks, it’s easy enough to get lost there for an hour or two.
Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Pulpo at Toro
Welcome to The Hot Dish, a behind the scenes look at the making of the dishes of the moment.
Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette serve up a classic Galician style “pulpo” (octopus) at Toro that is deeply evocative of Spanish coastal cooking. The dish’s relatively simple appearance — a single serpentine tentacle sits on a plate dotted with coins of fingerling potatoes, garnished with an onion relish — belies its complex flavors and the long and deliberate process of bringing it to the table. The onion relish is made several days ahead of time by charring red onions, ramps, green garlic, and scallions on the plancha. This mixture is seasoned with harissa, lemon, and, oregano, and it’s blended with olives.
The octopus is cooked in its own juices for several hours creating a viscous stock spiked with garlic, bay leaves, and other aromatics. It is then allowed to cool and reabsorb much of the liquid, and then the remaining stock is used to poach the potatoes. Both the octopus and potatoes are held at temperature in an Alto-Shaam during service. They are then seared on the plancha until the Maillard reaction renders them crispy with a glorious bronze hue.
Sun Rice’s Superior Spanish Octopus of the Beach
Food is a national obsession in Spain, especially seafood. By most estimates, each and every Spaniard consumes almost 40 kilos of seafood annually. Walk into any tapas bar and the menu will likely include tapas featuring salt cod (bacalao), clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and octopus, or pulpo. And then, of course, there’s paella, Spain’s national dish, a wonderful medley of rice and seafood.or three generations.
So when tapas bars started mushrooming in the U.S. in the 1990s, Eduard LLanas, a native of Barcelona, saw an opportunity to export popular and unique Spanish foods to the U.S. In 1999 he founded New Jersey-based Sun Rice Corp. to import and distribute prepared seafood paella rice bases and a variety of other unique foods from Spain. But LLanas soon found that what the U.S. market really wanted was seafood, which before long was accounting for 90 percent of his sales.
And somewhat to his surprise the seafood most in demand was octopus. But not just any octopus. What LLanas was selling was ‘pulpo de playa,’ which literally means “octopus of the beach.”
The common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, is fished in waters around the world by a variety of methods including pots and trawls. The largest octopus fisheries in the world occur off the west coast of Africa, especially off Morocco and Mauritania, where they are fished by trawl in largely unregulated fisheries. In Spain the largest octopus resource is off the Galician coast in northwest Spain, but octopus are also widely fished along the country’s Mediterranean coast, where they are fished by small boats that use clay pots that octopus seek out as shelter from a variety of predators. This is the pulpo de playa that LLanas maintains is in high demand for its superior flavor and more tender tentacles.
“They live largely on a diet of shrimp and clams and that gives them a terrific flavor,” says LLanas. He adds that these octopus also live in open water, as opposed to rocks. “They have to run away from predators instead of hiding in rocks which gives them shorter and thicker legs that have a superior texture.” The octopus are bought at auction at small ports along the Mediterranean coast from Catalonia to southern Portugal and delivered to a processing plant in southern Spain. There they are cleaned and sold fresh or frozen.
To make selling octopus in the U.S. a bit easier, LLanas has developed an extensive and growing variety of value-added products aimed primarily at foodservice operators. These products include tentacles, both cooked and raw, including sliced, cooked tentacles. LLanas also recently added an 8-ounce cooked retail pack. He says his company’s sales, about half of which are octopus products, are growing 20 to 30 percent a year. Cooked octopus is his fastest growing category. “Octopus have to be cooked an hour to be tender and it’s tricky. A lot of chefs don’t have time to cook their own. You have to be on top of it,” he says.
At first, LLanas, who sells his seafood under his Mmmediterranean brand, focused on Spanish and Greek restaurants in the northeast, as they were familiar with octopus and knew how to cook and menu it. Then he branched out to Italian restaurants and now he is finding that traditional American and French restaurants are putting it on their menus. “We sell many well known American chefs who are looking for new items and putting octopus on their menus, mainly as an appetizer or on small plates,” LLanas says.
Octopus from Spain is the only significant octopus fishery that is rated as a “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. The clay pot fishery is considered the most sustainable because pots that are lost disintegrate and the fishery’s impact on the benthic environment is minimal. Octopus is a very fast-growing species that lives on average only about 18 months. As a result, the stocks quickly replenish themselves in a well-managed fishery.
While octopus account for the biggest portion of Sun Rice’s sales, LLanas says the company imports other products from Spain such as bacalao, squid, anchovies and a highly prized head-on deepwater red shrimp that he sells for more than $20 a pound. In addition to pulpo de playa, Sun Rice sells a variety of frozen-at-sea octopus products from Spain. “We focus on selling innovative products from sustainable fisheries. That’s our niche and it’s why our sales keep growing,” he says.
NEW FRIENDS, OLD FAVORITES RETURN TO MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM FOR 2014 COOKING FOR SOLUTIONS CULINARY CELEBRATION, MAY 16-18 Alton Brown, Carla Hall, Hugh Acheson among 25 featured chefs for sustainable gourmet events
Mmmediterranean is a proud sponsor of “Cooking for Solutions” an event where old friends and new faces will be part of a dazzling chef lineup at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for three days of exceptional culinary events from May 16-18, 2014 – all connecting our food choices with the health of the ocean.
Tickets for the 13th edition of Cooking for Solutions go on sale February 10, 2014. Aquarium members can purchase tickets starting January 27 – and some events are open only to aquarium members and their guests. Prices range from $50 to $235, with discounts for aquarium members.
The highlight is the Friday-night Gala that fills the aquarium galleries, with nearly 90 restaurants and 80 wineries, microbreweries and non-alcoholic beverages. Within the Gala, there will be a separate sushi lounge, The Hess Collection Wine Lounge and new for 2014, a Cooking LightLight Up the Night Lounge.
Saturday will feature the second year of the open-air Street Food Extravaganza, hosted by Carla Hall of ABC’s “The Chew”. Noted chefs, including Jeremy Bearman, Sam Choy, Sara Jenkins, Michael Leviton, Nico Romo, Jonathon Sawyer, Art Smith, Sam Talbot, James Waller and MasterChef Junior* winner Alexander Weiss will serve up their unique take on global street food favorites at stations beside Monterey Bay, at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.
New events for 2014 include The Party with Alton Brown, a rollicking Saturday-night affair in the aquarium’s exhibit galleries with sweet and savory treats from top chefs, signature cocktails, beer and other beverages, and dance music until midnight.
Over the weekend the aquarium will offer a series of daytime culinary salons with great chefs and culinary personalities, as well as a brand-new option: DIY Experiences where participants work side-by-side with top chefs to prepare – and sample – some tasty dishes.
A half-dozen Food & Wine Adventures will take small groups to locations in Monterey County for cooking demonstrations, tastings and lunch with our honored chefs.
In addition to the many ticketed events, daytime visitors can take part in the Sustainable Foods Celebration throughout the aquarium on Saturday and Sunday, with cooking demonstrations, cookbook signings and a variety of places to sample sustainable and organic foods, including the Whole Foods Marketplace and Kids Zone.
The Sustainable Foods Celebration is included with aquarium admission.
Cookbook author and culinary educator John Ash, a longtime supporter of the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, will be honored as Cooking for Solutions Educator of the Year for his leadership in promoting ocean-friendly seafood and sustainable cuisine.
The national roster of notable chefs at Cooking for Solutions 2014 includes television celebrities from the Food Network, Bravo, PBS and other popular cooking shows, as well as multiple winners of the prestigious James Beard Award and recognition for excellence from publications including Food & Wine and Gourmet magazine.
- Hugh Acheson (Five & Ten / The National / Empire State South, Athens & Atlanta, Georgia)
- John Ash (Cooking for Solutions 2014 Educator of the Year; cookbook author & culinary educator, Santa Rosa)
- Lindsay Autry (Chef, culinary consultant & television personality, West Palm Beach, Florida)
- Jeremy Bearman (Rouge Tomate, New York City)
- Richard Blais (Flip Burger Boutique / The Spence / Juniper & Ivy; Birmingham, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia & San Diego)
- Alton Brown (Be Square Productions, Atlanta, Georgia)
- Sam Choy (Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, Kailua, Kona, Hawaii)
- Jesse Ziff Cool (Jesse Cool Restaurants & Catering / Flea Street Café, Menlo Park)
- Jose Garces (Garces Group, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
- Carla Hall (ABC’s “The Chew” / Alchemy by Carla Hall, Washington, D.C.)
- Sara Jenkins (Porchetta / Porsena, New York City)
- Michael Leviton (Lumiere / Area Four / A4 Pizza, Newton & Boston, Massachusetts)
- Nathan Lyon (PBS television host / Veria / author, Los Angeles)
- Jamie Malone (Sea Change, Minneapolis, Minnesota)
- Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill / Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen / Cindy’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar / Cindy’s Waterfront, Napa Valley & Monterey)
- Charles Phan (The Slanted Door, San Francisco)
- Yigit Pura (Tout Sweet Patisserie, San Francisco)
- Jeff Rogers (Cindy’s Waterfront, Monterey)
- Nico Romo (Fish, Charleston, South Carolina)
- Jonathon Sawyer (The Greenhouse Tavern / Noodlecat, Cleveland, Ohio)
- Art Smith (Table Fifty-Two / Art & Soul / LYFE Kitchen / Southern Art & Bourbon Bar Chicago, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Palo Alto, California & Atlanta, Georgia)
- Sam Talbot (St. Balmain, Brooklyn, New York)
- Alexander Weiss (New York City)
- Brooke Williamson & Nick Roberts (Hudson House / The Tripel,Redondo Beach & Playa del Rey)
- Virginia Willis (Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Atlanta, Georgia)
Event details, prices and bios of participating chefs, as well as presenting chefs and celebrated local host chefs, are online at cookingforsolutions.org.
Proceeds from Cooking for Solutions support the non-profit Monterey Bay Aquarium and its Seafood Watch program, created in 1999 to shift the market for wild-caught and farmed seafood in ways that promote ocean health and vibrant fishing communities.
The aquarium celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2014. The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans.
I’m happy to announce that Mmmediterranean is now “Business Collaborator” of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® program. We work really hard to bring to market environmentally responsible seafood still keeping our oceans healthy as defined by this prestigious organization.
Seafood Watch® helps sustain wild, diverse and healthy ocean ecosystems that will exist long into the future. They do this by encouraging consumers and businesses to purchase seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that don’t harm the environment. When there is scientific uncertainty, they err on the side of conservation.
Nearly 85% of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity, or overfished. Our seafood choices have the power to make this situation worse, or improve it. Seafood Watch® recommendations don’t hinge on any single issue. Instead, they consider the fishery, habitat, species, management, and a host of other factors that affect each species offering a complete vision of sustainability.
Seafood Watch® scientists research government reports, journal articles and white papers. They also contact fishery and fish farm experts. After a thorough review, they apply their own sustainability criteria to develop an in-depth Seafood Watch® Report. All the reports are reviewed by a panel of experts from academia, government and the seafood industry and are available to the public. From those reports, Seafood Watch® creates their seafood recommendations.
Please contact us for a list of available seafood classified as either a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch®.
For more information:
Bringing the best sustainable seafood from the Mediterranean.
Take a look at this video from Veta la Palma, one of our sustainable fish providers from south of Spain.
If you were to visit Veta La Palma, you might think you had strayed into a nature reserve. But the 113 square kilometer estate which hosts 250 different species of bird is, in fact, a commercial fish farm - with a difference.
Learn more at http://www.vetalapalma.es/
IT seems an impossible dream, if not the one that the Man of La Mancha crooned onstage. But here it goes: Over the next decade, dozens of American cooks schooled in the authentic cooking of Spain and trained in Spanish restaurants will begin to populate the United States. In due time, hundreds, then thousands, will serve up a cuisine that is not Mexican, or Caribbean, or Latin American, but one faithful to Spain. Not only will they staff a national roster of credibly Spanish restaurants, but they will go on to create new ones. Ultimately, that will ramp up American demand for the wine and products of Spain.
To that end, the dreamer himself — not Don Quixote, but José Andrés, the best-known Spanish chef working in America — was cooking an egg in a culinary-school kitchen. He tipped a heated pan of olive oil and swirled the white as it coalesced around a gleaming yellow yolk. It echoed a classic Diego Velázquez painting from the early 17th century, “Old Woman Cooking Eggs.”
“It is Velázquez, it could not be more Spanish, and it is simple,” said Mr. Andrés, who has become the dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center in Manhattan. “Everyone thinks that Spanish technique is complicated, but it is really about simplicity, and that is exactly what we must teach.”
It was his passion for the cuisine of his homeland that led Mr. Andrés to suggest that the culinary center create a program that immerses future professionals in the cooking and language of Spain.
The course’s subagenda, to bring Spanish products more into the American mainstream, has never been more necessary. For even though Spain’s reputation for gastro chic continues to swell, thanks to the renown of Ferran Adrià and other chefs of the cocina de vanguardia, as the new Spanish cuisine is called, European austerity measures have brought on a culinary crisis in Spain. The unemployment rate there is 24 percent, the highest in Europe, and some 12,000 restaurants have gone out of business since 2008.
To Mr. Andrés, the new curriculum is nothing less than a show of faith in the future of Spanish cooking. “It may be thought of as fashionable now,” he said, “but it’s not some fad. It is here to stay.”
Mr. Andrés, who is 43 and owns 14 restaurants in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington (where he is based, and where he also owns a food truck named Pepe), has long wanted to foster a Spanish cooking school. He approached the culinary center’s founder and chief executive, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, whom he has known since the 1990s, during the James Beard Awards in May last year. “He told me, ‘We have to do a Spanish school,’ ” Ms. Hamilton recalled, adding that he said, “ ‘I’m sorry Italy got to you first.’ ” (Once known as the French Culinary Institute for its classical French kitchen instruction, the center added an Italian cooking program five years ago.)
To conceptualize with them, and to create the nuts and bolts of a Spanish curriculum, which was approved by the New York State Education Department in July after a two-month review, Mr. Andrés and Ms. Hamilton turned to Colman Andrews, a founder of Saveur magazine. Mr. Andrews was not only the biographer of Mr. Adrià, but also the author of the Spanish cooking canon “Catalan Cuisine,” published in 1988.
Much of the Spanish food in the United States has long been inauthentic, “a mélange of many cultures — Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Portuguese,” said Mr. Andrews, who is the editorial director of the food Web site The Daily Meal. “But this curriculum takes Spanish cuisine back to its roots.”
Mr. Andrews said that vast waves of French, Italian and Latin American immigrants over two centuries had given primary attention to their cuisines. Spanish food in the United States was so underrepresented, he said, that many Spanish people in the United States opened Italian restaurants, like Jean León, who in 1956 opened the famed hangout La Scala with the actor James Dean in Beverly Hills, Calif.
And so, in February, an initial class of 24 students will study for 10 weeks at the culinary center. The school expects the Spanish program to cost $5 million to open, including $1 million to develop the curriculum; tuition, as well as an intensive “kitchen Spanish” language program, will be $26,500. The first group will tour Spain for a week afterward with Mr. Andrés, sampling regional cuisine.
But Mr. Andrés envisions a six-month program for subsequent classes and is working to create it, so that students will spend a month in Spain experiencing the fare in different regions, then two months as interns in Spanish restaurants (planned tuition, as in the Italian program: some $43,000). As many as five groups could graduate each year, and the program could spread to Washington, Miami and Los Angeles if successful.
Mr. Andrés will swoop in as a guest lecturer, and so will Mr. Andrews, who may teach a separate course as well. The 28-year-old culinary center (whose graduates include Dan Barber, David Chang, Wylie Dufresne and Bobby Flay) has 1,000 annual professional students in its full-time six-month course and another 2,500 “recreational” course-takers.
For an afternoon recently, Mr. Andrés inhabited the fourth-floor school kitchen to hold forth on his aesthetic, and his technique, with Candy Argondizza, a culinary-center vice president who will oversee the course teachers. “Trying to capture José’s passion as a teacher — that will make our program work,” she said.
As an example of the radical simplicity of Spanish cooking, Mr. Andrés made the egg à la Velázquez, then mentioned that war horse, gazpacho, “which, if done correctly, is like no other soup in the world,” he said. “Hard-core gazpacho is, conceptually, a liquid salad.”
He hopes students will share his urgency to “nail down the basics of Spanish cooking before it gets too out of hand,” he said, bemoaning the growing vogue for fusion. “I love Mexican food and South American food, and I have those restaurants. But you don’t want Spanish cuisine to be bastardized.”
A Reunion of Flavors From Spain
By PETE WELLS
APPEARANCES count in food, but great cooking is sometimes hard to spot at first glance. When they arrive at the table, there is nothing prepossessing about the fried artichokes served at La Vara, a four-month-old Spanish restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I took one look and thought, O.K., fried artichokes. I know what these are all about.
So what was it that made me want to betray my friends by creating a diversion (Hey, out there on Clinton Street! Is that Martin Amis?) so I could polish them off all by myself? It clearly has something to do with the way all the luxuriously soft qualities of confited artichokes are wrapped inside those crunchy fried leaves and hearts, and just as much to do with that sauce, a creamy aioli with force-multiplying jabs of anchovy.
Nor did I swoon at the arrival of La Vara’s fideuà, thin noodles cooked paella fashion in a seafood broth. Brown, broken and floppy, the noodles look like a halfhearted attempt to disguise last night’s pasta. All leftovers should fare so well. Surrounded by tiny squid, clams and shrimp, cooked until done and not an instant longer, the fideuà tastes a little like toasted durum wheat and a lot like the dripping-wet haul from a Valencian fishing net.
La Vara is the newest vessel in the small and nimble Spanish armada commanded by Alex Raij and her husband and co-chef, Eder Montero. Txikito and El Quinto Pino in Manhattan, which make up the rest of their fleet, have done much to broaden the range of Spanish flavors in the city. With La Vara, Ms. Raij and Mr. Montero are exploring new territory, the vast legacy of the Jews and Muslims who shared the Iberian Peninsula with Christians for centuries.
This three-way marriage, known as la convivencia, had its tensions, and the breakup was ugly, but it did wonderful things for the country’s kitchens. Its imprint on Spain’s cuisine isn’t always evident. La Vara urges, and rewards, a closer inspection.
During their long rule of Spain, as Claudia Roden writes in “The Food of Spain,” the Muslims introduced ingredients that remain staples, like rice, artichokes, eggplants, bitter oranges, cumin and saffron. They brought skewers, noodles (fideuà comes from an Arabic word for pasta, al-fidawsh), the shatteringly crisp savory pastries known as bricks and chickpea-spinach stews.
All are on offer at La Vara. I’m not convinced that sweet-and-savory chopped greens with pine nuts and currants are the ideal stuffing for a brick. But grilled chicken hearts made plenty of sense on a skewer, and while they could have been more tender, their pepper, caraway and coriander seed seasoning was inviting, as was the herb salad alongside, vibrant with lime. Another gift from the Moors was deep-fried fish, a term that doesn’t suggest just how delicious the long ribbons of fried, marinated, pimentón-dusted skate called raya en adobo turn out to be.
But is La Vara good for the Jews? The history of Jewish cooking in Spain is fraught, to put it mildly, especially after 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella compelled the Jews to convert or leave the kingdom. Converts were often watched for suspiciously pork-free kitchens and smoke-free chimneys on the Sabbath. Forced into hiding, Spanish-Jewish cuisine virtually disappeared.
Traces remain, though, and Ms. Raij and Mr. Montero have excavated some of them. Those fried artichokes, for instance, may remind you of the carciofi alla giudea placed in the Roman repertory by Sephardic Jews.
One of La Vara’s two best desserts is an almond cake called Torta de Santiago. Thought to be Jewish in origin, it survived in, of all places, Catholic convents. Understandably, La Vara skips the cake’s traditional ornament, a cross outlined in sugar. (The other standout is the Egipcio, an improved Pop-Tart with date-and-walnut paste inside an exquisitely tender semolina shortbread.)
The restaurant doesn’t force-feed you any of this history, not in menu footnotes or in carefully memorized tableside lectures. What most people will notice is simply how inviting the place is behind its glass storefront, brick walls glowing under white light, and how it manages to feel intimate without feeling cramped. At any given table, the plates are scattered all over, because La Vara serves most things as small tapas-size dishes.
Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. If the bar isn’t crowded and time isn’t tight, you could certainly stop for a glass of fino sherry and crunch on a dish of excellent fried chickpeas, a marvelously crisp and creamy croqueta or a single oil-cured sardine under sliced radish pickles.
But the pleasures of eating tapas-style can get lost at a table for four, where you may find that just as you realize how much you’re enjoying a dish, the person next to you has managed to stab the last forkful. (See the Amis stratagem, above.) When will New York restaurants stop peddling the myth of “small plates meant for sharing”? Small plates are meant for hoarding. This might be why the most satisfying meal I had here was at a table for two. (If you have eaten out in the last decade, you can guess that while the prices at La Vara may seem low, the check won’t.)
In truth, I was content to let others finish a few items at La Vara, including the strange stewed bacon sandwiches, the thin and meek ajo blanco with strands of squid, and the braised beef tongue in a watery tomato-caper sauce. But such dishes were far outnumbered by the ones I competed avidly for. If the griddled red shrimp came 12 to an order instead of 2, I could have eaten them all, and sucked the bittersweet juice from the head of each one. And I need to return for a second run at the pasta called gurullos, if only to figure out how any pasta can be as fluffy as an Italian grandmother’s prizewinning gnocchi.
La Vara, by the way, was the name of a Jewish newspaper published in New York until it ceased in 1948. It was written in Ladino, a Castilian-Hebrew hybrid that was to Spain what Yiddish was to Eastern Europe. The language has all but vanished from the city, but it remains on the headstones of Sephardic graveyards in Queens and the Bronx, out in plain sight for those who know where to look.
268 Clinton Street (Verandah Place), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; (718) 422-0065.
ATMOSPHERE A clean, well-lighted place.
SERVICE Genial and attentive, though when things get hectic a few stitches may be dropped.
SOUND LEVEL Moderate considering how full the room gets.
RECOMMENDED Spiced chickpeas; fried artichokes; eggplant with honey and melted cheese; crispy marinated skate; tuna salad; cumin roasted lamb breast; gurullos; shrimp a la plancha; fideuà; Egipcio; torta de Santiago.
DRINKS AND WINE Simple, crisp cocktails; sherry, of course; and well-chosen Spanish wines, many under $50.
PRICES Plates vary in size and range from $3 to $18.
HOURS Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
RESERVATIONS Accepted for four or more.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS A ramp leads from street level to the dining room, and the restroom is accessible.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.
Source: The New York Times
We love it when people gives rave reviews to our octopus!
Yesterday, temperatures started creeping up for a weekend that promises to be a scorcher. We just didn’t feel like stuffing our face with anything that heavy. Located in Chelsea, small plates eatery Txikito was the perfect choice for dinner as the ample selection of light bites makes for excellent grazing (the reasonably priced list of Spanish wines also helps you cool down).
There were a lot of great dishes to choose from - the roast suckling pig was one of the tastiest we’ve had in recent memory - but our favorite warm-weather dish on the menu had to be the pulpo. This healthy portion of octopus carpaccio is doused with lemon oil and sprinkled with marjoram. The thin slices are served with a small plate of bread - it’s meant to be shared, and eaten leisurely. By the time you’re finished, hopefully the sun will have set and those temperatures will have cooled down.