Category Archives: Tapas

Tertulia

Tertulia’s PR reps knows what they’re doing because since it first opened, I can’t avoid reading or hearing about this place, touted as New York’s most popular Tapas restaurant of late. I avoided it for weeks for fear of having to wait for a table (and a fear of 6th Avenue in general), but after returning from Barcelona and reminiscing about tapas, I got a second wind to try it out. Last week was the perfect opportunity after abandoning my home for a straight week – I needed a real New York restaurant experience.

We ate a ton of food, and everything was mouth-watering from the sugar snap pea salad and heirloom tomatoes to the tiny bites of pig cheek with quail egg or crab salad on toast. And I can never get enough of pan con tomate, grilled bread rubbed with tomato. We also had a smoked trout with the skin fried separately – this along with the grilled calamari were two seafood dishes tomorrow. Finishing off with a dense chocolate tart, I was in serious heaven.

heirloom tomato salad

sugar snap pea salad

pig cheek and quali egg

pan con tomate

chocolate cake

Tapas are risky. You can often leave the restaurant still hungry, or feeling nauseated by the hoards of aioli on top of the fried foods. This was clean, beautifully executed, and hearty, and I will definitely be back again!

Grade: A
Location: 359 6th Avenue
Website
*photos from Yelp and Flickr

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Filed under Parents in Town, Spanish, Tapas

La Esquina

Restaurant in disguise

The success rate for reserving a table at La Esquina is about 1 in every 20 attempts. Up until last week, I’ve spoken to a live voice on the reservation line only twice, and each time I’ve heard the same old chorus: nothing available. I began to suspect La Esquina was a cult, similar to Waverly Inn, where you really didn’t stand a chance to enter unless you were or knew someone famous.

I just recently discovered the recipe for success: Monday nights at 6pm. Who else goes out at 6pm on Mondays but those desperately wanted to try a hot spot like this one? Fortunately, I and three of my colleagues had an excuse to celebrate, and we decided to seal the deal tonight.

Like many of the mysterious, highly acclaimed restaurants in downtown New York, La Esquina masks itself as a run down taco shop in the middle of an abandoned intersection in Soho. The restaurant below it is accessible via an entry way labeled as “Private: Employees Only” and guarded by the host – so grounds are completely invisible by the surrounding laymen lacking reservations. The trends are all too familiar: disguise and intrigue leads to intense curiosity, which transforms into great publicity, which generates seriously high demand for tables. The seductive, Speakeasy-style restaurants may not be worth the allure in actuality, but I can shamelessly admit that being an insider for a night feels damn right satisfying.

After being led downstairs and through the kitchen, we entered the underground dining area, so dimly lit that even the excessive stereotypical Mexican decor was difficult to see. Visibility had no affect on service, and our drink orders were taken immediately – I had the Diablo with cucumber puree and jalapeno tequila. Hankering for some noshes, I asked for chips and salsa but was saddened (though not surprised) by our waiter’s response, which she had obviously recited many times before: “La Esquina does not have guacamole or chips, or burritos for that matter.” What a great ploy to force the hungry to over-order!

Pepino Diablo

We started with the quesadilla de huitlacoche with mexican truffle, roasted corn, mushrooms, and queso oaxaca. You can never go wrong with a quesadilla, but I could hardly taste the truffle, and would have loved a fresher pico de gallo over the smokey salsa that was served on the side.

Mushroom Quesadilla

I expected the crab tostada to be one large fried corn tortilla; instead, it came out as three tapas on small round chips. The piled crab was awesomely fresh and light nonetheless, and easy to eat in one swoop.

Next came the salad mixta, which came with a slew of vegetables ranging from string beans to brussels sprouts, queso fresco, and large chunks of avocado. Fresh, crunchy, and flavorful, and relatively generous in portion, this was definitely a stand out of the appetizers.

ensalada mixta

For our main course, we ordered two “taquitos”: the char grilled steak and the grilled skewered fish, along with a side of rice, beans, and swiss chard. The taquitos were served on soft corn tortillas, and were therefore identical to what I consider a taco except served a la carte, and minuscule compared to the bountiful tacos I’ve grown to love at Mole. Still, they tasted fresh, and the steak was well seasoned and tender. One order per person is a must.

pescado taquitos

After finishing up our first round, we supplemented our order with another quesadilla and the chicken tostadas, which had a little more zing with crema and avocado. The smokiness of the chicken meshed well with the crispy corn tortilla, but the fresh crab still reigned as the winner.

Chicken taquito

It definitely took a series of dishes to satisfy our hunger, but fortunately I find joy in trying a little bit of a large variety. When I think Mexican food, I tend to envision large plates with many components. La Esquina is definitely not the norm in that respect – with a focus on a la carte (very) small plates, dim lighting, and strong drinks, it’s definitely New York’s swanked out twist on Mexican authenticity.

The light portion sizes at least serve a purpose to free up room for dessert, and I was thrilled to see a dense warm chocolate cake with cinnamon and creme fraiche ice cream on the list. I couldn’t taste a lick of cinnamon, but the cake was warm and consistently smooth. Per our server’s recommendation, we also tried the three-cheese cheesecake with caramelized walnuts and pomegranate seeds. A richer, creamier version of flan, this resembled the desserts I’m accustomed to seeing, and avoiding, at Mexican restaurants. Not my favorite, but would definitely be a crowd pleaser for the non-chocolate-dessert lovers (bless your hearts).

Mexican cheesecake

 

chocolate cake

I loved having the chance to make my dream of eating at La Esquina a reality, but taken out of context, the food was, simply put, fine. Not far ahead of Dos Caminos on the list of acceptable Mexican. A trip to La Esquina is not warranted, as one would expect, by food alone. You should come with high expectations of the overall experience – sharing tapas with friends, while feeling on top of the world in an underground scene. And shamelessly, it’s for this reason that I’ll attempt to return when I next have guests in town who are simply looking for stiff cocktails, some New York absurdity, and a good time.

Grade: B+

Location: 114 Kenmare @ Lafayette Street

Website: http://www.laesquinanyc.com

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Filed under Beans and Rice, Fun Group Dinner, Latin American, Lower East Side, Mexican, Sex & The City Swank, Soho, Tapas

Beauty & Essex

sign above pawn shop

I sit here, so full I can’t move, as a result of a supposed “tapas” restaurant that should be light enough for models and socialites alike. I guess the secret is to not overdo it, but Beauty & Essex offers way too many interesting, appealing small plates that it becomes impossible to commence the process of elimination.

Through pawn shop, past bar

The entrance of the restaurant is the most puzzling thing about it – the entryway, which on its own is probably a $3K+ rental, is a pawn shop branded with a movie-theater style billboard of the restaurant’s name exposed to the street. Through the backdoor of the store resides the mysterious three story space, which is significantly more lighted and spacious than its sister restaurant, Stanton Social. The ambience is similar to that of Buddakan – sleek and sophisticated design, house music humming in the background, high ceilings, and wall to wall tables. Despite the massive dining area, the waiters and 10-person bus-boy crew aren’t shy about over-zealously rushing the dining process to expedite table-turning. Within 5 minutes of ordering, our three appetizers were served, and mid way through finishing, our entrees slyly appeared on our table. The pump-up music did nothing to help calm our pace. After minutes, we resorted to verbal agression and repeatedly asked for our next course to be delayed (which I’ve also, incidentally, done at Stanton Social), which resulted in refusing our last dish, allowing it to rest under a heating lamp, and eating it warm when we were finally ready.

In spite of the service hiccups, I left the restaurant feeling totally impressed by the food. I’m a sucker for any place like Stanton Social – small plates don’t have to be restricted to Spanish food, and its execution of varied miniature multi-ethnic mains is spot on. Comically, these so-called “small plates” are actually substantial portion sizes for most people, but their nomenclature incentivizes over-ordering in order to justify the meal as an event. It’s a clever ploy for the restaurant, really, as we ended up 7 dishes-deep when we could have easily been full off of 4. If you want to limit yourself to a few options, but have more than 2-3 people, the restaurant will graciously accommodate and add an additional item (and additional charge) to equalize the servings.

Before ordering we were given a caesar salad bite, which literally tasted like every component of the classic, crouton included, in one fell swoop. I’ve had these at Stanton Social before, so was a little disappointed at the repetition, but they were tasty nonetheless.

Caesar salad bites

Considering the wide range of options, my friend Maggie and I fortunately had no qualms about our order, and we selected a crostini from the “Jewels on Toast” section to start – whipped ricotta with grilled pears, honey, basil and chili. The whipped ricotta was perfectly smooth and paired well with the sweet fruit, but the crostini’s crust had been cut off for what I’m guessing aesthetic reasons – a shame as the crust-eater in most of my relationships. We both agreed that the pears were too harsh in their artificial sweetness, and would have better complemented the delicate cheese if thinly sliced as opposed to finely diced. Regardless, as a whole it was a unique twist on the ricotta toast that has popped up on every restaurant menu (thanks to Locanda) and a great starter to share.

ricotta crostini

The surprising star of the night was the kale and apple salad with pecans, pancetta, and shaved goat cheese. The portion was hugely generous, and the crisp, fresh radicchio rounded out the sweetness of the candied pecans and nutty goat cheese.

apple kale salad

We soon dived into our hot mains with the oven braised chicken meatballs. The chicken meatballs were overwhelmed with filler and breading, but I was won over nonetheless by the unavoidable scent of truffle oil and the accompanying sheep’s milk ricotta. We even dared to ask for a side of bread to soak up the extra cheese – though it took two attempts, the additional bread and ricotta combo was definitely worth the effort.

Our next course, the beer battered lobster tacos with red cabbage and avocado crema, definitely emerged as our favorite. Served with a small wedge of lime and extra cream, it was a fresh, easy, two-bite tapa, and well rounded despite the diverse combination of flavors. And though definitely appetizer sized, the delicate lobster was satisfyingly the star of the show and generous by most standards.

lobster tacos

By the time our grilled salmon with sunchoke puree and cous cous came out,  we were ready for a break, but I made every effort to give it a fair try. It was cooked exactly right – seared on the outside, soft and slightly pink in the middle. The basil oil masked the flavor and dense texture of the cous cous, but all together, the dish was balanced and would have been a perfectly-sized main course after one of the appetizers on the first page.

salmon with cous cous

After making the journey to the bottom of the Lower East Side, I couldn’t say no to dessert. So much for day one of my company-wide cleanse! Disregarding my fullness, we ordered two to sample. When a dessert menu has more than one chocolate option, I’m bound to order at least one for the table to give a fair assessment of whether the restaurant has a solid chocolate awareness. They definitely proved themselves. The Devil’s Food Layered Cake came with a mascarpone filling and a dense chocolate ganache frosting that was out of this world. It was perfectly moist, and with a large scoop of milk ice cream, easily sharable among four. The butterscotch pot de creme, served in a glass sealable jam jar, came with a toasted coconut chantilly that added a sophisticated, smokey flavor to the sweet and creamy pudding, which was levered by a thin layer of dark chocolate. Sadly, the chocolate was hardly noticeable, but the pudding and toasted coconut provided a sufficiently satisfying, original dessert combination.

chocolate finale

If you’re unable to stop by Beauty and Essex for a meal, then come by for a drink at the bare minimum. Their cocktail list includes at least 3 vodka based options, which made my time perusing and choosing quite entertaining. I started with a delicious Masterly Touch with vodka, lemon-thyme nectar, and campari pearls, and was so content that I decided to explore further what the bartender had to offer. My next drink, entitled Earl the Pearl, resembled a subtler version of a long island iced tea with vodka, earl grey tea, lemon, and mint syrup. I would have been easily pleased with any of the cocktails on the menu, mainly because of their delicate sweetness and inventive ingredients, and I’m excited to go back when I have an opportunity to realize my full cocktail potential on a Saturday night.

I’m adding Beauty & Essex to my list of favorite group dinner spots. It’s perfect for the out of towners seeking what they believe to be a big apple restaurant because it screams New York scene – trendy, sophisticated and modern, inventive cuisine and cocktails, misleading storefront leading to disguised wondrous dining room, the city’s epicenter for bars and boutiques. Once it works out the kinks in service ebb and flow, it’s bound to battle Stanton Social on my list of weekend dinner prospects.

Grade: A- (dessert always helps win me over)

Location: 146 Essex Street btwn Stanton and Rivington

Website: http://www.beautyandessex.com

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Filed under Drinks & Apps, Erin's Favorites, Fun Group Dinner, Lower East Side, Sex & The City Swank, Tapas

Stanton Social wahooo

Two of my closest friends from grade school were in town last night, so my fellow New Yorker friend Sonia and I decided to take them to a well known, quintessentially Manhattan-trendy hot spot: Stanton Social. They absolutely loved it. With the overload of tapas style food options on the menu, an outstanding cocktail list, a vibrant (though quite loud), upbeat vibe, and surprisingly friendly service, the restaurant turned out to impress my friends just as I had hoped.

We of course started the night out with a selection off of the extensive and creative cocktail list. Per Sonia’s suggestion, I had the pink grapefruit mint martini with a hint of lemon simple syrup. Delicious, and quite dangerous, as I consumed it within minutes. I also tried the cucumber-vanilla cosmopolitan made with white cranberry juice. Though this was a little too sweet for my taste, my friends Gillian and Carolyn love it. My favorite of the night, however, was the blood orange-jalapeno margarita – perfect for those who like a little kick in their cocktail.
We were then told to order at least 6 menu items for three of us and an additional 3 for my gluten allergic friend who was thrilled to learn they had an entire gluten free menu (which was filled with options that I wanted to order as well!). After ordering our options, our friendly waitress brought out an amuse bouche of lobster goat cheese crostini. Very light and tasty, but nothing too special.
We then started with the hand pulled chicken arepas with jalapeno salsa. These were beautifully presented and quite a hit among the group. Not your typical sandwich-style arepa, these were more of a twist on the Venezuelan classic, but delicious nonetheless.
For our next round we tasted their famous French Onion Soup dumplings, interestingly served in an escargot dish. I often associate my loved ones with particular dishes I know they would amaze their taste buds. The instant I tasted this burst of french onion soup, an image of my father popped into my head – as a french onion soup connoisseur, he would obsess over these (as did Sonia). You’re supposed to pop the gruyere-encased dumpling in its entirety in your mouth; accompanied by a small crouton, it tastes exactly like a burst of the classic cheese laden soup we know and love. Wonderfully creative and flavorful.Next, we had another big hit – the Potato and Goat Cheese Pierogies. I’ve never tried a pierogie, so I’m not the best critic of these Russian classics, but I can safely say that the ones at Stanton Social are delicious. The best part about the dish, though, was the truffle creme fraiche served on the side – I could have eaten this by the spoonful!
Next we had an item off of the gluten free menu – Red Snapper Tacos. This was a light dish, perfect for summer. A great mix of flavors and textures, and I would definitely order this again.
At this point, we were full, but there was no turning back as we had already placed our order. Out came the Cider and BBQ Baby Back Ribs, the Gluten Free Chicken, the Butter Poached Lobster Pizzetta with truffled marscopone and bacon bits, and the Steamed Sea Bass with Mushrooms and Ginger. I’m not a rib fan, but my friends raved about these as the meat literally fell off the bone. The Gluten free chicken was perfectly crisp and atop a healthy portion of delicious garlicky sauteed spinach – this was my personal favorite. The lobster pizzetta and the fish, on the other hand, were two misses of the night – I couldn’t taste one ounce of lobster on the pizza, and the fish was overwhelmed by a sweet cinnamon spice not indicated on the menu description. I would definitely not order these two options again.
The disappointing main dishes were however soon forgotten after our Chocolate Tasting – a tray of house-made chocolate items, from a triple layered chocolate mousse to a chocolate dulce de leche ice cream. The house made chocolate hazelnut truffles were decadent, and I couldn’t stop taking spoonfuls of the light chocolate flan-like dish (on the left).
With all things considered, Stanton Social is a great place, especially for out of towners who are looking for an epitomizing NYC hot spot and would like to make dinner the event of the night. Great for pre-party bites. The atmosphere is energizing yet intrusive, so don’t come here expecting a romantic evening. Instead, know that you’ll leave the restaurant ready to hit the town and dance the night away (if you’re not too full).

Website: http://www.stantonsocial.com
Address: 99 Stanton Street between Orchard and Ludlow.
Food grade: B+
Overall grade: A

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Filed under Drinks & Apps, Fun Group Dinner, Lower East Side, New American, Sex & The City Swank, Tapas

Centro Vinoteca – go for the Italian tapas!


I live a block away from this place, have been dying to go, but it wasn’t until I was running around one night STARVING looking for Italian food that I decided to finally try it. Have to say, was a little disappointed with the spotty service, but the stand outs were the interesting, diverse menu, the comfy, cushiony booths and the hip yet unpretentious vibe. And, I saw Leah from Top Chef working the kitchen! I have been back again since my first visit, and my general view on the place is that it’s a fun place to go if you want an upbeat ambiance and salty, interesting food. A bons: unlike most italian restaurants, with small plates and a ton of light appetizers, Centro allows you to eat lightly if you’re in that sort of mood. 

Most dishes I tried were pretty salty, to be honest, but I would still go back again. I love the fact that it has small plates – I love italian food, but I am reluctant to go to Italian restaurants because I find you can’t leave without feeling bloated or stuffed. The small plates allow you to taste a variety of things and are on the lighter side. I ordered the special “piccolini” – fried trumpet mushroom croquettes that oozed when broken with a fork. They were perfect for topping on bread. The eggplant piccolini was not memorable – don’t order it. On both of my visits I also enjoyed the chanterelle, romanesco cauliflower & asparagus salad – it’s rare at an italian restaurant that you find salads composed with more than 1 or 2 ingredients. The chanterelles were a bit dry and salty, but it was a good hearty but healthy appetizer. The grilled spicy sausage and stracchino pizzetta, on the otherhand, was a disappointment. How do you screw up pizza?? The crust was too thick, and the whole thing was in need of some moisture or tomato sauce to balance out the dryness and saltiness. I’m not complaining about the size of it, but it’s far too large to eat as an appetizer without sharing. The seared scallops with lentils & bacon, on the otherhand, saved the night – the bed of lentils was rich, creamy, and flavorful and the perfect side for the simple yet well seasoned scallops.  The pastas were also a standout compared to the other dishes – the squid ink tagliatelle with cockles, rock shrimp and chilies (5) was delicious and light – don’t fear the squid ink, it just makes the pasta black. 
Ambiance is sometimes everything for me, and I really like the feel of this place. The windows, soft booths, good music, and attractive people put a twist on typical New York, homestyle italian restaurants. I wouldn’t go looking for the best food here, but if you lower your expectations appropriately, you’ll have a good time. Overall, I give Centro Vinoteca a 3+ in terms of food, but a 4 overall. 
Address: 74 Seventh Avenue South @ Bleecker

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Filed under Fun Group Dinner, Italian, Tapas, West Village