Casa Mono is probably my favorite Spanish spot in New York City. In my book, Andy Nusser, the chef and a partner, can do no wrong. The service is flawless, the food is always a thrill, and the place just works, really, really well. But Casa Mono is owned by veteran restaurateurs — including Nusser, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. They've been in the business for years. At this point, their efforts should border on perfection. And they do A few weeks ago, on a sleepy block of Tenth Avenue, across the street from the Empire Diner, a little Spanish gem opened its doors—the debut of two stunning young women—Heather Beltz and Mani Dawes—who are from New Orleans and spent time living in Madrid after college and falling in love with the city's myriad of cozy and lively tapas bars. They dreamed of opening a restaurant in New York City that would recreate the culinary magic they discovered living and eating in Madrid. Scraping their money together, they opened Tia Pol—named for a cat Mani had while she was living in Madrid. Tia Pol is a rustic slip of a restaurant—a slim and inviting rectangular room, with a cool, moody bar, exposed brick walls with hand-crafted woodwork accents, and high-top tables that offer a bird's eye view of the partially open kitchen. It has the sort of vibe that makes you know that you want to come back when you haven't even had your first glass of wine. The menu features regional Spanish cuisine, from Galicia to Andalucía and from the Basque Country to Cataluña. The wine list is small, all Spanish, and modestly priced. The menu is made up hot and cold tapas and raciones (larger plates) by executive chef Alex Raij, who has cooked at Meigas, the upscale Spanish spot on Hudson Street where Louis Bollo was the chef. Alex has an impressive palate drawn from her experience with Bollo and at restaurants like the Tasting Room, and Prune. We started with an authentic Spanish starter— pimientos estilo gernika ($7)—mild green pimento peppers that are blistered, and drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Pop one in your mouth. They don't make much of a first impression, actually. But like that quite sort of dorky, Clark Kent-type in your junior high class did, they blossom with time. The sweet salty flavors linger and expand filling your mouth. You pop in another. Soon they're gone. Next we had some Spanish chorizo (always yummy)—piles of quarter-shaped slices of spicy pork sausage in a terra cotta cazuela. Next up were the croquettes—essential eating for any Spanish restaurant—and these were terrific, fried to a crunchy crisp, and filled with creamy melting béchamel studded with salty nuggets of ham ($4/$8). Then we moved on to a wild dish called paquetitos de jamon con alcachofa—picture triangular envelopes made of jamon (Spanish ham), so they resemble ravioli, filled with mixture of manchego cheese and confited artichokes. This dish packs in some huge, shameless flavors, and I love that. If you are more a of a meek food person, don't bother. But if you like to eat big and bold, you'll love these. Ditto for the gambas ($7/14)—juicy, head-on shrimp that taste like the sweet sea. Be sure to suck on the heads because there's lots of great flavor in there. Don't be dainty! Don't waste it! If you are shy, take them with you to the ladies room and suck on them in there. From the larger plates we had a seared tuna ($13)—its ruby red center plumped up with marinated white anchovies. Here again, you have a fish like tuna that can stand up to bold flavors and you get them. The anchovy is not overpowering, but it is necessary—it wakes up your entire mouth. The salt cod carpaccio with romesco was also stunning—like a cod ice skating rink—just a pearly gloss coating the rectangular plate, with the rich romesco lining the edges. The silky fish is topped with a frisee salad tossed with anchovies, again giving the dish a solid jolt of life. There's more on the menu to feast on—classic tortilla, stuffed piquillo peppers, a Galician-styled octopus terrine, caracolillos barrio chino (these are periwinkles, little itty bitty snail like creatures you suck out of their shells. Yes, more sucking.), sautéed cockles and razor clams, and simple snacks like deviled eggs ($3/$6), pan con tomat (with three salsas $7.50), marcona almonds, and fried chickpeas, and of course a selection of Spanish cheeses. I was completely enchanted by Tia Pol. The service is warm, knowledgeable, friendly and so hospitable. The food is fun, terribly addictive, and delicious. And most of all, I love the fact that these two women, who are so amazingly lovely, created this place, building it from the ground up, all from a dream. Tia Pol is a tender little gem that makes you believe in possibility—in those dusty ideas we all have, tucked away somewhere far far away under the heading "That'll never happen so why bother?" Here's my thought on that: Bother.
Review By: Andrea Strong