240 Ninth Ave (24th St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 242-4730
Hours: LUNCH Tuesday—Friday Noon—3pm DINNER Tuesday—Thursday 5pm—Midnight (kitchen closes at 11pm) Friday—Saturday 5pm—1am (kitchen closes at midnight) Sunday 5pm—11pm
Site: Visit the restaurant site
2nd Cuisine: Tapas/Small Plates
I don’t know if they do Bar Mitzvahs in Basque country, but if they do, and the smorgasbord is anything like the marvelous pintxos and share plates served at the newly opened Txikito, I think I’d have a full-time occupation as a Bar Mitzvah Crasher. Ditto weddings, come to think of it. My culinary dance card would be full. Txikito (say Chee kee toe), which means “little” in the Basque language of Euskera, opened a few months ago in a row of rather bland non-descript shops that resembles a strip mall in New Jersey (Jim Lahey’s pizza parlor from heaven, Co., occupies the anchor corner store). The restaurant serves the native cuisine of one of its chefs, Eder Montero, who was born in Basque country. Eder, along with his wife, chef Alex Raij, wowed many of us at Tia Pol and then El Quinto Pino, and they’re continuing their reign of truly inspired Spanish cooking at Txikito.
Their first solo venture smacks of Basque authenticity, with its cozy U-shaped bar where cider, Txocoli (the fizzy brisk white wine from the Basque), Zurracapote (a wine based cocktail), and Zuritos (mini beers indigenous to the region) are poured. The tight space around the bar offers a slender ledge to lean on and wait (hooks for coats and purses make things orderly) while drinking and noshing. It may take awhile as the weathered pine dining room only seats 34, but you’ll probably meet a few new friends at the bar who’ll volunteer their list of must-have plates from a menu that includes well over two dozen items divided between Pintxoak (Basque canapés), Hotzak (cold plates) and Beroak (hot plates).
Your dinner should traverse all of these categories, and might even come to resemble a Bar Mitzvah buffet, though one of a family not terribly concerned with notions of being Kosher. If you love pigs in a blanket, the guilty pleasure hors d’oeurve of the buffet (I see them as the edible equivalent of Reality TV), you’ll be advised to start with Alex and Eder’s txikxiki: tight little baguette torpedoes piped with spicy chorizo hash and deep fried so that you crunch through the bread to meet a soft spicy tapenade of chorizo. No mustard needed. The Basque Bar Mitzvah of my dreams would also include their brilliant take on artichoke and spinach dip. For a snack called “tutera,” ($7) spinach is replaced with (what else?) jamon, and instead of a bowl of steamy cheesy dip with chunks of bread or tortilla chips, your warm artichoke and jamon dip is generously spooned over slices of toasted baguette and then gratined under the broiler turning the top piping hot and golden. The only issue was that Craig and I were having dinner with our friends Debbie and Liz, and the order of tutera only comes with two toasts. We had to double up. While sharing is possible, it’s not likely. Ditto the kroketas ($5)—two crispy tater tot-shaped croquettes enclosing a warm pool of thick and creamy béchamel. Double (or triple) up on your order as needed. The marinated mussels with piquillo pepper puree ($8) are also excellent—piquant and bright, and perfect appetite stimulant.
There are some great ribs served in this town—my mind immediately goes to the salty peppery ones Ryan Skeen serves at Irving Mill, but his ribs will have to share the spotlight with the spicy cross-cut pork spare ribs ($11) bathed in stew of tangy, sweet and spicy piquillo peppers. These nuggets of slow cooked pork, skewered with a rib bone, fall apart into the piquillo pepper ragout like a luscious ten-hour braise. The restaurant doesn’t serve bread with the meal, but they’ve got it if you want it, and I’d ask for some to mop up all that good sauce.
You’ll also want the bread around to sop up the yolk of the soft-poached egg that’s secreted under a pile of beautiful arugula, topped with crispy tempura-fried silver fish ($12). These slim little fish resemble potato sticks more than they do any sort of true fish, and they add just the right amount of salt and texture to this salad, turning it from something that could be forgettable into something truly revelatory and memorable.
After such a spectacular buffet of little Basque snacks, I was ready to lift someone up on a chair or for the round of the Hora. And I was also expecting, as is usually the case at catered affairs, that the larger plates might be dull or uninspired in comparison to the snacks. But everything continued to wow us, save maybe for the tender garlicky green beans that might have been cooked a few minutes past tender. But other than that, the blaze of flavors on the plate continued to burn steadily throughout the evening. Lamb breast—a special that night ($15)—was a cut I was not familiar with, but was remarkably juicy and tender. Quite honestly, it tasted like boneless lamb chops, but perhaps a bit more fatty. The lamb is served with a rustic fireside stew of potatoes, piquillos and chorizo, which is a fantastic trifecta of flavor and texture that’s seems like it might be the mirepoix of Basque cooking.
The signature whole turbot (M/P) is simply prepared with olive oil and looks as though it’s just been pulled from the water with its slick grey skin and mouth agape. It resembles a skate in size and shape and somewhat in taste as well. It has sweet meaty flesh has a bit of that corduroy texture, and it slips off the backbone with just a nudge of a spoon. We picked at it until the bone was glisteningly clean. Another dish that’s quickly becoming a fan favorite is the txipiron enceboallado ($16)—amazingly silky, super thin ribbons of squid a la plancha that taste like homemade pasta set up with earthy, creamy puree of pine nuts and sweet onions. And don’t even think of leaving without their crispy fried potatoes (Basque French fries), served with a spicy cod roe mayo ($8).
While the food was consistently good on both visits and the kitchen keeps the food coming at a good clip, when the dining room gets to full capacity the service can get neglectful. Our waitress was lovely and she gave us a very thorough explanation of a few of the dishes that we weren’t sure of, but as the night grew later, she grew less visible. At one point I think she was just an apparition. She did reappear eventually.
I’m not sure whether Alex and Eder have considered a catering business in the Basque country (or this one for that matter) but they should. And in any case, there’s no need to wait for that business model to take off. If you’re up for a great buffet of snacks, without the commitment (or cash gift) required of a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, take yourself to dinner at Txikito. No crashing needed.
Review By: Andrea Strong