El Quinto Pino
401 West 24th Street (9th Ave)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 206-6900
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Alex Raij
Cuisine: Tapas/Small Plates
2nd Cuisine: Spanish
If you are an avid foodie (which I assume you are if you're reading The Strong Buzz), I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that you're just waiting to hear what I have to say about a certain sandwich served at El Quinto Pino. This sandwich, a sea urchin panini to be precise, has been on the lips of every foodie to dine at EQP since this tapas salon opened its doors a few months ago. Everyone's gone ga-ga for it, and there's been a frantic game of telephone (texting/emailing) from one foodie to another. "Did you have the sea urchin sandwich yet? Did you? Did you?" It's taken on legendary-if not mythical-status and it seems that one's "score" as a foodie is directly determined by whether or not you've tried it.
This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Take, for instance, the pici at Centro Vinoteca, or the sheep's milk ricotta gnudi at The Spotted Pig, the grilled kangaroo and coriander falafel at Public, the gravy meatball sliders at The Little Owl, and heck, everything at Momofuku. For better or worse these heralded signatures become the dish du jour, the must-have item that will define your status as a foodie.
But for all the gnudi, all the pici, and all the gravy meatball sliders and kangaroo falafel, no dish in recent memory has gained the reverence, awe, and notoriety that the Uni Panini ($15, hereinafter the "Unini") has garnered at El Quinto Pino, the second smash success from Mani Dawes, Heather Belz and Alex Raij, the lovely ladies behind Tia Pol. And I will also say that this slim little sandwich lives up to the hype.
The sandwich is fairly simple, but wildly clever-fresh custardy uni nectar pressed between two buttered halves of a thin, crisped ficelle from Tom Cat Bakery, with a kick from a drizzle of mustard oil that makes the sandwich warm up your mouth like a culinary space heater. The filling is buttery and soft, salty and creamy, varying in levels of brininess, leaving you sort of lightheaded from the pure pleasure of eating it. It's about as close a sandwich can get to really good, hot, sweaty sex that I can think of.
Alex explained that she came up with the idea of an uni sandwich not from sex but while at the Telluride Food & Wine Festival. Chef Michelle Bernstein was also at the festival, and she had two leftover flats of sea urchin. What to do with all that sea urchin the two chefs wondered? Why not spoon it onto bread and eat it. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And that's what they did, polishing off every last urchin until Alex's light bulb Unini moment occurred.
Alex's glorious Unini is accompanied by some other very worthy tapas, all prepared in a small kitchen, mostly on panini presses, hot plates, and deep fryers. (Alex cooked at The Tasting Room early in her career, so she's all about gas-free spaces.) They are listed on one blackboard in pretty chalk calligraphy (by Heather), along with a daily wine and cocktail list. The space is not much bigger than some Upper East Side walk-in closets, with a bell-shaped bar that swells out at the center, and about 20 stools total, including about a dozen that line the perimeter of the pretty, dressing room-styled mosaic tiled bar. Since the menu is only about twelve items long, it's quite possible and thoroughly enjoyable to get through the entire list in one night. To help you along your edible journey, enlist Emily, one the sweetest, funniest, and prettiest bartenders in the city, who has a great command of the food and the wines. That's what Julie and I did the other night while working our way through pretty much the entire menu. (I will confess that there are risks to this dining approach. After dinner, when Julie and I got into a cab crosstown, I heard a small ripping noise and, much to my chagrin, I had apparently split the inner thigh area of my jeans wide open. So yes folks, I am now a human sausage. I need to get a new job; perhaps reviewing water.)
So, now, back to my dinner that caused me to split my pants. We started with some Cava with our Unini, and then moved onto a Rioja from Sierra Cantabria ($11) with the garbanzo stew, a rustic rather soupy stew swimming with warmly spiced chickpeas and ribbons of spinach ($6) that's nice spooned over crusty bread. The boquerones-marinated pink anchovies-are served with slices of baguette, they get treated to the pulpy flesh of raw tomatoes, and a pour of green and vibrant olive oil. They were terrific-brazenly unctuous, as if announcing their flavors-"Yes I am an oily, salty, meaty fish!!! Come here and love me!!!" Well, maybe not quite, but you get the idea. These fish are not shy.
There are two other sandwiches on the menu other than the Unini. The pringa ($7), a hefty mixed meat sandwich, is served on a Sullivan Street bread made special for EQP called Stecca that's sort of a cross between a ciabatta and a baguette. It's got a hearty ropa vieja-styled filling that includes pulled pork, morcia and sautéed onions that Alex explained is a riff on the classic pringa of pulled leftover meats from the Cocido-Spain's national dish, an all-day stew of beef, chicken, and pork and chickpeas. The third is a Serranito, or a Serrano Ham sandwich. I thought hey, a Serrano ham sandwich is a Serrano ham sandwich, I'll try it but I ain't expecting that much. But after eating it, I realized that this is JUST a Serrano ham sandwich in the same way that say Manolos are just sandals, or Tom Brady is just a guy who throws a football. This is a SANDWICH-the secret being the nutty Serrano ham fat that's melted down and turned into its own very special Serrano butter. Forget lardo folks. This is the best.
Alex also does a few fine tricks with fried foods. The soldaditos de pavio, or fried salt cod ($7.50), is a model for Chip Shops all over the city, if not in London proper. Hunks of moist cod are snuggled into a robe of almost (but not) doughy batter and fried up golden and crispy and just salty enough. There's no sauce, no malt vinegar, and you don't need it. Sometimes naked food is quite right.
Now, while the Unini has gotten the lion's share of press, I'm surprised that more hasn't been said about the Berenjena con Miel (eggplant with honey), a dish from Malaga, or Catalunia depending on whether you ask Mani (Malaga) or Alex (Catalunia). The eggplant is sliced into little round chunks that resemble mini-marshmallows, then deep-fried and drizzled with honey and topped with a fluff of bonito flakes ($7.50). The eggplant gets this crisp almost eggshell-like outer wrapper from being soaked in salt water and deep-fried; inside the crust you'll find a molten creamy honeyed center. Topped with the smoky bonito flakes, it's a spectacular experience that definitely rivals the Unini in terms of revelatory pleasures.
I should mention there are two desserts that must be consumed at EQP. The first is actually a cocktail that may be used as a dessert. It's a frozen drink that's not exactly ideal for this weather, but somehow it warms you up anyway. It's a horchata ($9)-a thick and frosty chufa nut (think almond) frozen drink that's topped off with a healthy dose of Spanish brandy. It's that brandy that acts like a little furnace inside you. The second is a collection of three little fried honey and walnut cakes called casadielles. These are little huts of flaky, buttery nutty pastry-delicate and perfect. As the night wore on, the relative calm Julie and I had experienced from about 7-8 pm was replaced by a buzzing energy as crowds descended and empty stools quickly become occupied. With the up-tick in attendance the kitchen kicked into high gear and a flurry of uninis tucked into wax paper envelopes began to fly around the room like leaves blowing in the wind. The word is out on those uninis. So my thinking is this: If you happen to let one of your foodie friends know that you had dinner at El Quinto Pino, and you get the inevitable question-Did you have it? Did you have the Sea Urchin Panini?-You can smile and say. "Yes, I had it. But did you have the Berenjena con Miel?"
Review By: Andrea Strong