53 W 19th St (5th & 6th Aves)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 255-4160
Site: Visit the restaurant site
2nd Cuisine: Tapas/Small Plates
Area: Flatiron District
About two years ago now, I spent a few weeks in Barcelona. I was there for the wedding of my freshman roommate from college, Caroline, whom I call Vern. (Long story.) Anyway, Vern was the most exquisite bride and she was married in the most exquisite setting—a century’s old church carved out of the side of a mountain range. And last year, Vern and her husband Oscar had a baby Vern, a little dumpling named Olivia, who is the most exquisite child. In the days before her wedding, Vern and I spent time doing what most brides and their friends do—going to dress fittings, getting our nails done, talking late unto the evening, reminiscing, and, well, eating our way through the Boqueria. Yes, brides in Spain, well at least brides in Spain who I am friends with, go to the Boqueria—Barcelona’s famed food market that I think of as a football field of edible wonders —and fill up on tapas y mas—blistered pardon peppers, pungent sardines wrapped around olives and skewered with toothpicks, fat dates filled with blue cheese, coins of spicy chorizo cooked in cazuelas with sherry, and flats of toasted bread rubbed with fleshy tomatoes and cloves of raw garlic. As I sit and write this, I am staring at a photo of Vern standing at a stall in the Boqueria a few days before her wedding, eating white cured anchovies with her hands. Gotta love that girl. We spent an afternoon strolling around the Boqueria, and what I remember most was walking through aisles with one of my oldest friends, happy as a clam buried deep under the sand, my mouth dropped into a state of awe, just repeating “Oh my god,” over and over again as I passed the magnificent displays of produce alternating with jam-packed tapas bars. I left the Boqueria, and knew I would never be the same again. Apparently, Yann de Rochefort, a New York City restaurateur and owner of Suba, had a similar epiphany. The inspiration for his spirited regional Spanish restaurant is the Barcelona market and the tapas bars that he fell for while he and chef-partner Seamus Mullen were traveling through Spain. His New York version of Boqueria is meant to evoke the convivial spirit of Spanish tapas bars, and it succeeds. He has created, with the help of Meyer-Davis Design, a stunning Spanish eatery that is warm and lively, one that is filled with the energy of people celebrating something, even if it is just the simple pleasure of sitting down for dinner with a group of friends as I did last week, with six old friends and one special new one. Boqueria is somewhat larger than Tia Pol—the amazing 10th Avenue taperia—but it manages to still feel intimate, though it is decidedly different in vibe. While Tia is dark, sexy and rustic, Boqueria is sleek and cool—with glossy cream colored walls covered in oversized subway tiled walls, linen globe lanterns, and high top tables matched with tall retro-styled leather stools. To give you a daily after-work activity, there is a long marble bar displaying tapas up front to point and select, so you can hang around for a few happy hours and toss back some sangria and nibble on assorted bite sized tapas ($6)—wedges of delicious potato and egg tortilla, plump and creamy dates stuffed with almonds and cabrales and wrapped in hot heavenly bacon, and a most wonderful tapa called cojunudo—a slice of chorizo topped with a fried quail egg resting on a toast point. It’s like green eggs and ham on crack. Jamie and I enjoyed several of those on one of our first visits. Last week, I returned with a larger group to see what the rest of the menu was all about. I like what the rest of the menu is all about. In addition to tapas, it includes media raciones (small plates), raciones (entrée sized dishes) and plates for the table to share. Chef Mullen, who was raised on an organic farm in Vermont and lived and cooked in Spain at Mugaritz in the Basque and at Abac and Alkimia in Barcelona, is turning out some terrific regional Spanish dishes, with an eye to authenticity, seasonality, and to fresh contrasting flavors. We started with a bowl of padrons (my friend Vern introduced me to these in Barcelona)— thin, lean, salty, blistered green peppers, some that have a hidden kick, and followed them with a plate of cheeses and meats (wonderful chorizo, lomo, and Serrano) while deciding how to approach our order—a lot of little plates, a paella with chicken, shrimp and mussels ($28), and a big steak for the table to share with patatas bravas and romesco ($62). First up were the croquetas ($6 for 3)—small and crunchy on the outside and filled with piping hot béchamel and studded with Serrano ham. Salt cod fritters ($6 for 3) were also terrific—fat and firm and jumpin’ with cod. Unfortunately, while the pintxos morunos ($6)—grilled skewered chunks of lamb rubbed with cumin and lemon—were wonderfully seasoned, the meat itself was dry and slightly tough. The same cannot be said about a special of cuttlefish ($11). Fresh sepia is cut on a bias and cured in lemon juice then cooked on the plancha until it is tender, and served with firm fresh blanched peas sauced in fume sharpened with garlic, shallots, balsamic, apple, and mint, and garnished with pea tendrils and drizzled with Arbequina olive oil and lemon juice. Can you just taste the bright gorgeous flavors here? I hope so. If not, get thee to Boqueria now to get some! And while you’re at it, have some of Mullen’s special sardines—oversized butterflied beauties that are de-boned and rolled up and stuffed with black olives, pine nuts, preserved lemons and shallots, breaded and fried and served on top of a warm salad of heirloom tomatoes and buttery fingerling potatoes. Here too, I loved the unapologetic flavors, and the crunchy texture of the breading against the soft flesh of the little fishies. And you know what? The razor clams were even better. I’m even going to say spectacular. Yes. Spectacular. The clams are diced and cooked on the plancha then tossed with fresh corn and double smoked bacon and served in the long thin shell, which becomes like a little Pez dispenser for the goodies inside. The contrast of smoky bacon, sweet corn and clams was brilliant. Forget peanut butter and jelly. Corn and bacon? My new favorite combo. But one of the most simple dishes on the menu was also the most amazing. The Gambas al Ajillio ($11), often a dish that can be overcooked and result in shrimp that are closer related to erasers than seafood, was miraculous. The fat ivory shrimp are incredibly juicy, and filled with sweetness, sizzling in a spicy pond of guindilla pepper-infused olive oil and shaved slices of garlic. Court actually did a dance in his seat. I wish I had a video camera. He does a mean seat dance. As we passed plates, bargaining for last bites, our conversations began to overlap between the upcoming trip to Rome that Jamie, Adrienne and I are taking to visit Susie, the relaunch of the Strong Buzz, whether boxer briefs are more comfortable than boxers (Harvey and Craig were in a heated standoff on this issue), and the first photos of Baby Cruise. But all talk was quieted when our waiter presented the Chuleton de Buey ($62), a gorgeous slab of prime rib cooked on the bone. We waited as the chef sliced it for us and then we passed out the goods, and together experienced the joy of juicy, salty, meaty beef cooked perfectly—tender, but with some strength and substance—sort of like the perfect man. Sadly, the patatas bravas served with the steak were disappointing. Some were underdone and most were not as crispy as they should have been and they need more alioli please. Tia Pol still makes them best. The paella ($29) was stocked with chicken, shrimp and mussels and served in a very hot (careful) paella pan. But this is not your ordinary bowl of rice. This one, made from Calasparra rice, strains of short-grained rice grown in Spain that have a unique capacity to absorb broth while remaining firm, is soulful and rich with the deep flavors of the sea, brightened with lemon and rounded out with a warming dose of saffron. Mullen’s version is also much more dense than other paella I have had that tends to be fluffier, wetter, and loser. It’s different, and I think depends on how you like your rice, fluffy and lose, or more dense and creamy as Mullen makes it. He also adds an extra element that I love. He cooks the paella so that the rice, a nutty, nubby, chewy grain, gets crunchy on the bottom—the most coveted bits are those crispy ones. As can be the peril of paella, the fish and chicken tends to dry out but here the shrimp and chicken stayed moist and flavorful, though the mussels were a bit withered and sad. But no matter, soon the paella pan was scraped clean, and the steak was chewed to the bone and the table collectively breathed the sigh of full and happy plump bellies. Desserts ($7) added fuel to the happy bellies. We loved the glossy egg-yolk custard served on a buttery sable cookie and a refreshing garnish of melon granite. The custard was silky, creamy and sweet, and reminded me of Persian Halvah that my Bibi makes. We also liked the chocolate and coffee mousse that Craig and Kiri said reminded them of Hunt’s Snack Packs (this was meant as a compliment)—jiggly and wiggly and quite yummy. Apricot beignets with honey yogurt ice cream were great as well, but they are more accurately fried apricots, and were slightly disappointing only because I expected little donuts. Despite the slightly misleading apricots, I was quite happy with my dinner at Boqueria and I’ve already returned several more times. It is the perfect place for a big group to gather and have a fabulous, fun dinner in a vibrant New York-meets-Barcelona setting. It’s also ideal if you want a place to grab a small few bites with a friend and catch up in the front tapas lounge. And if you want to take a moment to reminisce about the first time you fell in love with Barcelona in the days before you watched one of your oldest friends get married, it also does the trick.
Review By: Andrea Strong