Tapas are the garage band of the food world. At their best they are tight and inspire you to have raucous fun. Bad, they are neither here nor there, feeling like a small waste of time. By their nature, like covers of great rock, perfect tapas are someone taking a standard and riffing on it; if their interpretation is both solid and unique in some way they have succeeded. What I needed was Jane’s Addiction doing Ripple.
After a full day (11 hours) of listening to some of Spain’s greatest chefs discussing their methods, philosophy, and cuisine at Spain-10, watching cooking demos live and on video with little offered in the way of acceptable sustenance, I was hungry and I was hungry for Spanish food. While all of the food I had been listening about was modern cuisine utilizing newer techniques, it was one thing above all – Spanish. So although part of my hunger was pointed toward the contrasts and interplays of the modern philosophy, I realized what was actually going to satisfy it was not a long contemplative meal but rather a smattering of many flavors that were the underpinning of all this modernization.
During a break between Spanish-centric seminars I was introduced by a mutual friend and chef of a Spanish restaurant to Seamus Mullen, the chef of the kind of new-ish Spanish spot in lower Chelsea called Boqueria. This forced me to admit to not having been to a place I had heard good things about, a situation I seldom find myself in.
Somewhere between the hunger started early in the morning by Arzak’s lecture about the four fundamental sauces (green, white, black, and red) in the Basque country, and being assured by a person whose American renditions of traditional Spanish fare I enjoy that Seamus was doing a good job, I decided to and then did grab Wife and wander into Boqueria unannounced around 8:30 on a Saturday night.
The space is shaped like a traditional Bordeaux bottle with a couple of tables and a tapas bar/bar in the neck, with the front door playing the cork. The deeper you move through this bottleneck which seems to prefer a state of congestion, the looser the crowd gets until you pass the shoulder of the bottle shape to find a tight lively space abuzz. There are high tables holding groups of three and up running down the walls, with a long communal table running the center. We asked for two anywhere and, advised of an expected twenty minute wait, decided to grab spots at the inside, less congested end of the bar where two people who were just now being led into the back had been standing.
Sitting at the service end of the bar waiting for a server to pick it up was a plate of Pan Amb Tomaquet wafting garlic, tomato and olive oil scents at us and pretty much deciding that we would be ordering one of those and a cheap glass of Cava to go with it. After I got the Cava, but before the tomato drenched bread showed up, a spot became ready so Wife and I were sat side by side in the middle of the communal table, closely followed by our bread.
Before everybody started trying to make all wine taste like all other wine, regions had distinct wine and that wine went with their food. As a cocktail, this cheap lousy little Cava would have been boring, tasting of cheap yeast, cellar and metal. However paired with Pan Amb Tomaquet (this one grilled in a panini press, with screaming garlic that just walks the edge of being way too hot and overpowering but is kept in line by the sweet acids of tomato pulp and unctuous Spanish olive oil), simple, rough Cava like this is the perfect perceptibly sweet counterpoint.
The menu offers four options: thirteen Tapas priced between four and six dollars, eight Media Raciones (average rations) for eleven dollars, four Raciones (rations) for nineteen dollars and three Para Compartir (to Share) ranging from fifteen to forty dollars per person if split by two. Grooving nicely on the simple pleasure of the Pan Amb Tomaquet, Grilled Bread rubbed with tomato, garlic and olive oil: we decided it best to stay in the groove and just run the tapas section.
Pintxos Morunos Grilled lamb, marinated in lemon and cumin: skewered tender rounds of lamb grilled hard and fast so they have a nice carmelization while staying to the rarer side, served on toast topped with a rough, chopped herb salsa verde.
Pintxos De Jamon y Melon Serrano ham and melon: three small balls of honeydew melon on a skewer with folded thin slices of Serrano ham in between. A mint leaf on each added a light touch, drawing out the contrast between light, sweet and crisp, and light, salty and savory even more.
Pintxos de Guindilla, Aceituna y Anchoa Pickled pepper, olive and white anchovy: as simple as that, the olive with a slice of piquillo pepper and a white anchovy filet around it held in place on a skewer. Got a friend that wants to like anchovies but doesn’t? This may be the best inroad; the good parts of the anchovy are drawn out by the spicy notes of the pepper and the earth-born green flavors of the olive, while the vinegar of the pepper and the richness of the olive temper any fish flavor leaning toward strong. It tastes like fish in the good way so it won’t change someone’s whole point of view, but if they are on the fence it may knock them our way.
Tres Croquetas Cremosas: Jamón, Pollo y Setas Three creamy croquettes: Serrano ham, chicken and mushrooms: the chicken had an aroma of fennel seeds, almost like Italian sweet sausage, the mushroom was the flavor of a good duxelle, and the ham was more about the creaminess of whipped potato, each on a complimentary sauce. They were creamy and hot as blazes inside, while crunchy and light on the outside.
Cojonudo fried quail egg and chorizo on toast: when our waiter served it he told us a story of Seamus first trying the dish in Spain in his youth and asking what it was, only to have Cojunudo repeated over and over later learning that “cojundo” basically translates to “really eff-ing good.” This is a crisped piece of chorizo an a toasted round of a baguette with a sunnyside-up quail’s egg on it, and it is indeed “really…”
Datiles con Beicon y Almendras Dates stuffed with almonds and cabrales, wrapped in bacon: I love cabrales. At its best it is serious cheese, so serious I live a little afraid of it. On a cheese plate I eat it last and only with a glass of Pedro Ximenez or some other really sweet sherry; it is that piquant. As an ingredient in this dish it balances and drops to the back, leaving this a date dish with a couple of complimentary flavors, rather than a bleu cheese dish as I expected.
Pimientos de Padrón Blistered Padrón peppers with coarse sea salt: The first one each Wife and I tried were hot, the piquant burn-your-throat-after-you-swallow kind of hot. After about three more I remarked that the ensuing three had not been hot, so I suggested she try another. As we discussed how strange it was that if only two were hot they happened to be the first two we tried, our waiter stopped by and hearing our chat explained two things. First, that these were grown in California being the closest facsimile to the Spanish version available here, and that were we in Spain this dish would always be served accompanied by a sentence that translates to “some are hot, most are not.” So as far as that goes they nailed it. Each one tastes different and it becomes fun to keep eating them just to see what the next will bring. I gave up many of the dishes I was served at this meal half finished in the interest of not getting overfull before I could taste each thing, however every time someone tried to clear the peppers they were rebuked.
About two thirds of the way through our tapas exploration, Chef Mullen wandered from the kitchen to greet some friends of his, the nature of the room causing him to pass us as he did. I took the opportunity to introduce Wife, reintroduce myself and compliment the seven or so dishes we had been served to that point. Soon after his disappearing back into the kitchen two dishes showed up with his compliments. These strayed greatly from my simple plan to explore the place by way of simple fare, but other than that small hiccup, seldom are gifts from the kitchen as welcome as these.
The first of the two was a torchon of foie gras rolled in dehydrated rose petals and crushed candied hazelnuts, with fig preserves on brioche toast; the second was seared diver scallop on black trumpet mushrooms with a green apple purée and crunchy little nuts. Both classic fine ingredients made unique by interpretation: the foie a traditional pairing of unctuous with sweet, distinctly Spanish sweet by choice of product, with a layer of perfume from the rose and the nut’s crunch contrasting the foie’s smoothness; the scallop doing the decidedly Spanish thing of linking sea and land, sweet plump diver scallop with the earthiest of mushrooms sweetened by the green apple. These two dishes offered a bit of satisfaction to the part of me that was craving finer, more contemplative food, and also made me eager to return to try the more composed dishes offered next time.
It is also worth remarking that we had a fantastic waiter. I do most of my eating as a repeat guest of places and have a group of waiters and wine geeks I have a definite rapport with that has in some cases taken weeks and sometimes years to develop, yet seldom do I find a server on a maiden voyage to a place who has both the competence and personality to settle right in and greatly add to the dining experience. Long before he realized that the chef was familiar with us, he was comfortable enough to tell us anecdotes about our food and discuss wines and dishes as related to their regional origin. I would tell you his name but I am afraid someone will go and steal him and I want to know where he is when I finally open Augieland (the all pork, foie, and offal restaurant) and go poach him myself.
These are tight tapas. Sure, if it was my band I would have sprinkled a little more salt on the Pan Amb Tomquet, or drizzled a raw, peppery olive oil or paprika on the brandade to offer a counterpoint to its homogenous nature, but I would just be doing a cover of Seamus’ work.
Of all of Spain’s destinations I like Barcelona the least. I like cities that could take or leave me as a tourist (Madrid hits this one squarely on the head). Barcelona definitely prides itself excessively on its status as a tourist destination. That being said, two of the things that make the city of Barcelona great are the Boqueria market that this restaurant is named for and the little bars down quiet side streets that behind unassuming doors are raging with people eating and drinking and reveling into the wee hours of any given night. On this visit Boqueria has done a good job of replicating that energy. When I stroll into this place with a couple of friends late on a Tuesday and order too many bottles of cheap wine and get swept up in the buzz that this room had that night, it may mean I can skip Barcelona, leaving much more time for San Sebastian, Madrid, Rosas and places as yet undiscovered.