Category Archives: Cooking

Happy Anniversary Pata Negra, the little Jamon bar that could…

On February 8th 2017, Pata Negra turns nine Years old.

Due to the ever changing Real Estate Market of New York City, specifically the East Village, I have been reflecting over the last near decade of restaurant landscape volatility.

If I were to throw a dart in the air, I would guess that over 100 businesses have come and gone since 2008, the year I opened Pata Negra. I assure you this is an under estimation. There are still over 50 closed storefronts with “for rent” signs and I am only referring to a ten block radius around 12th street and 1st avenue.

The question is why?

Here are some thoughts.

The obvious culprit is the escalating cost of rent. As ten year leases come to term, and the cost of operating a business has increased, small businesses cannot afford to renew, and are forced to close, even successful ones. One could argue that if a business must close, it is not successful. I disagree, but more on that later.

Real estate taxes is the silent but deadly revenue killer. Our former Mayor Bloomberg instituted two 25% annual increases to generate revenue for the city. The normal increase is roughly 2%. Most commercial leases require tenants to pay a portion if not all of these taxes. For example, I went from paying $12,000.00 per year in 2008, to $36,000.00 for 2016-2017. When you have a bad month in sales and the margin of profit is $3,000.00, and that just gets forked over to the city, do the math.

 Who has the ability to pay these exorbitant taxes? You guessed it, corporate big business chains. That is Duane Reade, Rite-Aid, Walgreen’s, Banks, ATMs, Subway, Starbucks etc. There is a reason why on every block all you see are national chains or large restaurant groups who can withstand risk.

In the early 1980’s and 90’s, the East village was considered a dangerous area, ripe with homeless, drug addiction and grit, cohabiting with lifetime residents born and raised there. Artists, musicians and families made up the fabric of the East Village.

Many Residents clamored for a clean up of the streets and for viable businesses to come. This change in landscape brought an increase in property value, and actually forced many residents out. NYU is going the Columbia University route, buying up buildings and charging exorbitant rents to parents willing to pay $2,500.00 for a studio for their children while attending NYU. Management companies are snapping up buildings as well, inflating market value. As these prices continue to rise, long time residents are forced to leave, real estate property value continues to rise, and real estate taxes accordingly. The trickle down hits the small business owner.

This is significant because building a loyal returning customer base starts from within the neighborhood. When the neighborhood changes because residents leave, it is like starting all over. My customers from 2008-2014 are long gone, and even the new loyal ones who have moved in are already gone or are planning their exit.

This is the era of the millennial, and I am not going to proffer a position of neutrality. There are many facets of the millennial psyche I don’t understand, and it starts with the social media attention span. The NYC dining climate has become a combination of YELP, Eater, Grubstreet, Thrillist, Gothamist, Zagat (and NYTimes of course) recommendations. And whichever intel is shiniest and most current (as in 5 seconds ago), is where millenials eat out.  What the millennial diner is looking for is elusive to me. Keeping up with twitter, instagram, facebook, Foursquare, and Snapchat is all consuming and proven to be futile.

 In this town there is very little loyalty. It is all about what is hot and what is next hot. Too much competition and too many choices. I do believe millennials are all about value, but that is difficult to offer when operating costs are at an apogee in Manhattan. Just ask world class chefs like Wiley Dufresne, Bill Telepan and Anita Lo (to name 3 recent), chefs who have real pedigree, and continual press. Not every restaurant can be a David Chang Clone, nor should they be.

Operating a small business is like making a pie. Everyone gets to eat a slice before you do, and if you know how to operate you can keep a slice or two for yourself. If not, you don’t eat, regardless of how much effort you put into making the pie. Heck, you might even owe a couple of slices from the pie you haven’t even begun to make yet.

Survival is the new success. I came from teaching special education in the south Bronx and East Harlem to middle schoolers for 13 years to ten plus years in the restaurant industry. I have seen several businesses come and go in that span. This year I have been busy making pie, but having no slices.

I signed my lease in July of 2007. Due to permits and licenses the earliest I was allowed to open was February 2008, and so I have just a few months left on my current lease. The building has been bought and sold twice since my tenure, both times by investors from some faraway state managed by companies who have hundreds of properties in their stable to run. A rent increase is untenable. I would have to open up a casino in the basement to keep pace.

I measure my time at Pata Negra by all the relationships I have made in my travels, and the 90% of those customers who have walked through that door, some of whom have even become great friends. I even thank the 10% who I was at odds with, because they just didn’t get my business or get me or perhaps I was having a bad day and they got an earful of me. Yes I am even grateful for them. I learned something about people and myself. I thank every one of my staff who worked hard and gave of themselves, without whom Pata Negra would be without its full charm and character. My mission, to bring a little bit of Spanish culture to New York City via some jamon, cheese, and wine, was an outlandish idea back in 2008, when I was still smuggling in jamon in my suitcase. It was crazy and not profitable to open at the height of the recession. It was foolish to open a non-market driven business, not catered to the NYU clientele, like Smac or Motorino, and now the millenial populist Duck’s Eatery. My hats off to their continued success. I would have probably been better off selling fried chicken, or oysters or both (good idea). But I am satisfied with what I created. Customer by customer, each person was exposed to jamon, wine, sherry, and a taste of Spain. Not croquetas and patatas bravas and paella, rather Barcelona style recipes with personal, informative service and appreciation. I am grateful for my time here and proud of the little jamon bar that could.

 It would be nice to stick around until July, but given the current climate (January was the worst month of business since 2008), I will see how it goes month by month. 2016 was a topsy turvy year for me. So many personal challenges turned into triumphs and celebration, but Pata Negra lost steam. Blame it on the uncertainty of the times or blame me for not keeping up with times. Certainly the reasons I mentioned had something to do with it too.

 To commemorate the ninth year I have instituted rollback prices to 2008. I will be at the helm most of the time, with my familiar apron on. Come on down to raise a glass with me in celebration of a wonderful life, a little jamon, vino, a farewell hug and a smile.

Chef Mateo

 Off the top of my head here is a partial list of spots I used to frequent (primarily restos) which have closed in the East Village since 2008.  Just add to the list.

Rose’s Pizza                             10th Street Pierogi

Yaffa                                             Neptune

South Brooklyn Pizza       Northern Spy

Roberta’s Pasticceria        Leon

Terroir                                        Pearl & Ash

Alder                                          Lanza’s

Box Kite                                    Ninth Ward

12th St. Osteria                     Tinto Fino

Cafecito                                     Nonna’s Pizza

Winebar                                    Mercadito

Back Forty                               Dieci

Porchetta                                 Redhead

Blackhound                             Evelyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The $1,000. Steak

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New York is renowned as a premier destination for a classic steakhouse. Whenever foreign winemakers come to visit the Big Apple on wine business, I usually field requests for the best beef restaurants. While it is true that the home cook now has access to a variety of top pedigree beef, ranging from naturally grass fed to dry aged, the options at restaurants are much more problematic. Aside from the exorbitant costs, especially comparing what you can get for the home kitchen versus what you are actually paying for at a steakhouse, there are other pitfalls to consider as well.

Wine lists are generally unimaginative and rocket juice oriented. If there are gems on the list, they are too far and few between, creating a dilemma of agony over the correct wine pairings and strategy. Stylistically there is little imagination or variation, often a who’s who of cult cabernets or expensive super Tuscans, Burgundy or Bordeaux wines that are nowhere near ready to drink.

Continue reading The $1,000. Steak

Las Terrenas – Playa Portillo

In the restaurant business, January is generally the worst month of the year sales wise, and I often take advantage of the slow down by traveling to reset and think about strategy for the new year.  The bitter cold has not helped any, except for prompting me to head south rather than to another cold weather city.

I looked at many an island for deals, until a tip from a friend steered me toward the Dominican Republic.  My father hails from La Patria and still resides there, raising roosters for cock fights, the subject better left for a therapist than blog exploration.

I spent many summers, semana santas (holy weeks), carnivals, and Christmas vacations there, but admittedly have fallen out of love with DR since the rapid modernization and North American influences.  I prefer the third world pace, the lack of technology, no internet feeds, no fast food franchises, and especially am distressed over the amount of mopeds, traffic, tourists and the resortification of the land’s most pristine beaches.

The last time I stepped into Dominican waters was for the turn of the century, spending part time in a resort area and time at my father’s farm home near Palenque, the beach I spent so much time on as a boy.  Our family would sleep on the beach over night for several days, eating locally caught snapper and pressed fried plantains, drinking Presidente beer by day and Ron Brugal  rum by night, sleeping under a blanket of stars and moonshine.

Jetblue has direct flights to Samana, in the north, leaving just a taxi ride (albeit expensive) away from some of the island’s best beaches.  I was hooked up to a beach house rental at Residencia Portillo in Bahia Portillo, near the French and Italian habitated town of Las Terrenas, just modern enough to get to the outside world, and remote enough to be secluded and relatively untouched from it all.

The beaches are relatively private, untraveled save for the curious beachwalkers from the nearby resort, the only one in Portillo, leaving long tracts of untouched white sand and calm waters patrolled only by the adopted stray dogs who beachcomb and make friends as if out of a Disney film.

On my first day on the lounge chair a black dog came to me and gave me his paw for a shake, while his two furry friends burrowed behind my lounge seat back for the refuge of cool shade. 

The house I rented belongs to a sports agent, ranch style comfort with mosquito screens for windows, complete with pool, bbq pit and doorway to a two minute jaunt to the beach, making the decision of pool vs. beach the daily chore.  There is a wrap around porch with various sitting and lounging stations, including my favorite the mesadora (rocking chair), and an open kitchen.

What made the trip, as if all of these other factors and the 80 degree weather weren’t enough, is the availability of a Dominican cook and her sidekick who takes care of the house and any needs.  Belkis made Dominican dishes for a week straight, and the food was so delicious, it brought me back to all those meals my mother and our live in cook used to prepare for us when I was young.  The simplicity of criolla cuisine, the marriage of Spanish and European techniques with the bounty of island ingredients, cooked with love and care, is what no resort can ever produce.

The woman with great touch is named Belkis, a local who has been cooking for people at their homes for years.  I studied her techniques, how she should would add a chinola to this recipe, why she would not flour her fish, etc. and learned a great deal.

I went out with Margarito (house caretaker and our guide) on the second day to do all the shopping for the week. We hit the Euro supermarket for butter, olive oil, jamon, queso and water.  Also some rose and white wines (not a great selection) and rhums, what DR is known for.  Of to the fruit market, and for 20 bucks, I was able to but a lot of fruits and vegetables, pineapples, grapefruits, chinolsa, zapote, lechosa etc.  All made breakfast so complete and balanced.  Eggs, mangu, and onions, longaniza, coco bread, and pastries from the French Boulangerie rounded out the morning 10 am desayunos.

For lunch we made fruit shakes, from pina coladas (fresh coco and pina) to mamey and papaya shakes, and noshed on cheese and jamon.

Then 7 pm would roll around. and Belkis would arrive in her moped, in order to prepare one of many outstanding home cooked Dominican meals.

Belkis made sancocho, a kitchen sink soup, that lasted for days and seemed like a bottomless pot.  One night she cooked fresh caught lobsters, with a garlic, ginger butter sauce.  The next night snappers, fried with green plantains and rice.  One night pigeon peas, the next red beans, the next black beans. No tiring of beans and rice and plantains.  One night Margarito manned the bbq pit with entrecote, and marinated adobo chocken, and longaniza sauasgaes.  Shrimp criolla sautéed and stuffed into plantains shaped like baskets, a stew of different parts of pork products mixed with rice.  Seven days, 14 oustanding Dominican dishes.

We went out on the Friday night before our flight, and the only thing the restos had over the house was that they were situated on the beach.  We visited a wine bar called Cave across from La Bodega(Town Discotech) in la Plaza, and had some good wine listening to French driven tunes the likes you might hear out of the old Pere Pinard on Ludlow St.  Some bachata and merengue at Mosquito bar, where watching the locals get picked up by the retired cougars and tigers respectively made for some great entertainment, enough to drum up some appetite for pica pollo and chimchurri, late nite Dominican street vendor fast food to knock the edge of the rum.

There was just enough left over sancocho to get rid of any resaca (hangover), and to fortify us for the breathtaking ride into the airport gazing at mountain and ocean vistas of La Patria, panaromic snapshots that endured the delayed entry into JFK, the snowstorm, and the complete transportation disaster that awaitd us back in chilly, homey, New York City.

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Live, but can’t eat or drink – Perils of living on the UWS.

The other night I was pinned down and decided to try to have a decent dining experience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my neighborhood for most of my life.  Fresh off the information from a top ten list from critic Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice, I gave Cotta, an Italian trattoria/wine bar, a try.  I should have walked out the door as soon as the noise level registered inaudible, but stuck it out for what amounted to some very mediocre food.  I ordered a bottle of valpolicella.  The server did not present the bottle and tried to pass another bottle off.  When I asked about it, she informed that they were out (of it) and so she brought one that was available.

Fail.

The correct bottle couldn’t have saved the meal from brussel sprouts overwrought with cloying sauce, and the star vongole being watery and lacking punch (Sietsema’s rec).  The Italian disco-tech vibe became more unbearable at every bite, and only ordering dessert would have put the icing on the cake of a disastrous evening that one simply cannot recover from.

I am not trying to bash Cotta, or its kin, of which the Upper West Side landscape is plagued by, but getting a decent meal in my hood is next too impossible.

The big question is why, and here are ten arguable reasons:

1.  Upper West Siders have little to no palate.

A major reason why some of these restaurants stay in business is because people support them.  Unlike downtown, where bridge and tunnel clientele support restos because of the scene and atmosphere, the residents up north are interested in value, and the two shall never intertwine.  Fill in some old time diners (drab), and the kosher restaurants (flavorless), and what’s left is a wasteland.  Upper West Siders demand value and large portions, part of the family mentality, since a large section of diners just want to be out to brunch with their SUV size strollers and gangs of children.  Most cook at home, picnic in the two parks, or just order take-out from the legions of subpar Asian flecked restaurants that happen to have chicken with broccoli on the menu. UWSiders are used to this mediocre food, and their palates follow suit.

2.  Landlords Rule.

There has been a mallification of the Upper West Side going on for twenty years.  Mom and pop places have been kicked to the curb.  Our mayor has raised real estate taxes to astronomical heights, and so the only businesses that can afford the rents are big ones.  Duane Reade, Rite Aid, Starbucks, 7-11, and banks.  It might as well as be Cleveland over here. Despite the efforts of Gail Brewer to keep the megastores out, the damage has been done. Long gone are the Rosita’s, and you fill in your fav place that has been replaced by corporate America.  This isn’t exclusive to the UWS, but every week I take a walk and notice the turnover.  Just look at your ten block radius and note the changes yourself

3.   Bland Rules.

There is little to no authenticity to most of the restos on the UWS, but people fill the seats due to proximity, if the price is right, and the appearance of being ethnic.  Take Pio Pio for a perfect example.  The roast chicken is cheap, the sides are inedible, and the wine list is undrinkable, yet the place is packed.  Peruvian grandmothers are rolling in their graves.  Ever roast a proper chicken at home?

Take Screme, a kosher gelato kiosk.  Has any one ever been to Italy?  What Screme is passing off as gelato is a travesty.  Yet the kids yuck it up.  And what about the staples? A decent burger?  Don’t give me Big Nick’s.  Pizzeria? Dean’s?  Seriously?  Not even the Malecon can deliver on the roast chicken (it is tough and underseasoned).  The red sauce joints are everywhere, and I have a simple rule of thumb.  If I can make it better, I will not purchase an inferior product.  These pastas are lifeless, poorly executed bowls of $14.95. down the drain.

4.  Bars Suck.

Unless you are straight out of college, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues are strips of wasteland for packs of young people fresh out of college trying to extend their adolescence and behavior.  From Brother Jimmy’s down to Bourbon Street, you couldn’t get a decently mixed drink one time out of a thousand.  And I am not even talking about a simple cocktail.  That simply cannot be found.  Prohibition? Please.  Simply Oliver?  Have you ever tasted a proper cocktail downtown

5.  Wine Bars Suck Too.

The lists on the wine bars on the UWS are wrought with poor selections, overpriced jammy bottles that have nothing to do with the food offered on the menu.  The servers are generally undereducated about the product, and the food is generally underwhelming and overpriced.  One may have a favorite, like Wine and Roses, Bin 71, Vai, or the Tangled Vine (to name a few), but that is only because of proximity.  Not one can stand in the same room with a wine bar like Ten Bells or even Terroir for that matter.  All I am saying is that we have to settle for mediocrity and like it.  There is no great cheese program like at Caselulla or Murray’s, no great Champagne list and deals like at Corkbuzz, and no ethnically correct representation of a regionally themed wine bar.  Please don’t tell me Buceo 95 is Spanish or that Barcebo is Italian.  That’s like saying the Red Rooster sells soul food.

6.  NO Coffee to be Found Anywhere.

Starbucks is to blame for the poor quality in coffee, and UWS residents simply do not care to fork over the five bucks for over roasted, poorly sourced coffee beans.  What’s worse is that more sub-par chains like Coffee, Tea and Leaves, The Bean, and World Coffee have edged their way in too.  Joe’s Coffee is and Birch are not bad, but once again it is no Café Grumpy, Stumptown, or even a Blue Bottle.  Proximity acceptance skews the actual value of what we are consuming.

7.  Proximity Acceptance. –  You would rather be dining somewhere else.

Sometimes I am having a nice meal, and I can’t help but compare it to a similar place downtown.  Once that wheel starts turning, I would rather be someplace else.  Be it the clientele, ambience, or quality of the wine/food and the service, comparisons kill it for me.  For example, take Café du Soleil, a Provencal themed restaurant that I have tried a few times.  The wine selection is poor to terrible, simply no imagination.  The food is Provencal in name only (Go to Provence, and tell me that the food is the same).  Wouldn’t you rather be at Calliope in the EV?  Or Rouge Tomate?  Or even Balthazar?  Get my drift.  Proximity acceptance.

8.  Brunch is King.

Take two eggs and make them my way.  Slap some bacon or sausages on the side.  Oh and some French toast or pancakes with fruit.  Queue up a massive line, and offer me a watered down mimosa fashioned out of cheap Prosecco, or a bloody Mary that is pre-mixed.  Deal with massive crowds of crying children and a tetris of strollers.  Oh thanks and fork over eighty bucks please.  From Sarabeth’s, Isabella’s, Good Enough to Eat, to those awful, dreadful diners with processed food and junk for ingredients.  Check.  Give me that.  What a great experience.  People who put themselves through that and like it deserve what they get.  Just plan, get up, and make it yourself.  It will definitely taste better, and save lots of loot.

9.  The Proof is not in the Yogurt.

If I see another yogurt or dessert place take over an empty storefront, I am going to scream.  Tasty Delite is flavorless, and the dessert options are a joke.  Café Lalo is a necessary evil for the landscape, but the overpriced sweets cannot be the top choice.  What I would give for just one good Parisian bakery.  Just one.  With real bread and real pastries.  You’re gonna say Silver Moon, and once again proximity acceptance.  Pick any bakery from Paris that you want.  Compare.  Case Closed.

10.  Top Chefs are Afraid.

Upper West Siders are notorious complainers, and want every meal tailored after very specific needs.  Just listen to a brunch order next time.  “I want a two egg white omelette with spinach and goat cheese, no home fries, with one piece of multigrain toast, turkey sausage and a side of fat-free butter.  No wait make it three egg whites.  Oh yeah and the bread cannot have gluten in it.  Is the o.j. freshly squeezed?  Oh, and I have a nut allergy.  Are there any nuts in my eggs?”  Get the picture, and that’s just for a brunch order.  A talented chef wants to bring a certain a creativity which is killed by the countless requests for modification.  Not to mention paying the rent.  UWSiders are notoriously cheap.  Only if a chef dumbs down the food like in KEFI, can a resto survive.  Yes, I said Kefi, cafeteria Greek food that’s been slightly elevated to accommodate the palate of the UWS.

Recently, I tried to eat Westside again. After closing a Tribeca mainstay, Chef Aaron Sanchez has moved digs to Columbia on 112th St.  I was very excited, but should have known better.  No cooking going on here, just placating to the unsophisticated college palate.  What a disappointment.

I live on the UWS for many reasons: right apartment deal, family, friends, dojo, parks etc., but the major sacrifice is food and drink.

There you have it.  I am sure there are other reasons I have missed or didn’t make the cut.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots, but those are few and far between.  Also, I don’t consider fine establishments near Lincoln Center such as Telepan or The Boulud restaurants as part of the UWS.    Here is a list of places that I recommend and a brief commentary.

 

Barney Greengrass – old school lox and bagel joint, don’t miss nova egg scramble.

Cafe Storico – good Italian spot for simple fare in a great setting near CPW

Cesca – run by a native who cares, good wine list and great cheeses

Saioguette – newcomer to take out with decent spring rolls and nice ribs and pho

Legend – finally good Szechuan fare

La Mirabelle – old school French with killer martinis

Sal & Carmine’s – best slice on UWS, now limited delivery

Jacques Torres – good chocolate

Pain d’Epice – proper pastires, don’t miss napoleon

Gastronomie 491 – properly run cheese dept., if not a tad expensive

Silver Moon Bakery – go for the different breads

Joe’s Coffee/Birch – good cup of joe

Nice Matin – decent French fare, nice wine list

Gazala Place – Druize fare, quite authentic

Taqueria y Fonda – take-out Veracuz cuisine, bang for the buck

Gennaro – a simple Italian meal is possible here, specials usually good

 

 

Paella, anyone?

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and the normal anxiety of what to do for my dear mother is intensified because she always wants to go out for a simple, delicious paella.  She doesn’t want me to make one at home, rather she wants to be taken out be her two sons to a Spanish restaurant reminiscent of her trip to Spain many years ago.

New York City is home to many successful genres of ethnic cuisine.  Every one loves a great pasta joint, taco truck, or French brasserie.  Inexpensive Asian food has made a very successful transition to high-end gourmet preparation, and it seems that tapas can be found on many menus, Spanish theme not a requirement.

When I think about the available Spanish food in New York, I am usually underwhelmed. Why am I so disappointed?  Isn’t Spain the culinary center of the universe?  All those Michelin star restaurants like Arzak and Mugarritz, El Bulli and its modernist legacy, and El Celler de Can Roca, the #1 resto in the world.

I don’t long for linguine vongole from Rome, or steak tartare from Paris because I can find veritable versions here.  Perhaps authentic tacos are harder to find too, but Tex-Mex reigns in this town, and real tacos are slowly arriving.

Over the past five years, several Spanish restaurants have opened, and I have been excited every time, only to come home scratching my head, especially at what could have been.  With so many Spanish ingredients readily available to us in the U.S., and so many Spanish chefs wishing to make it here, what gives?

Recently I dined at Manzanilla, a sprawling restaurant managed by the people who brought us Boqueria and a known chef from Marbella.  Spanish menu.  Check.  Décor. Demi Check.  Wine list with sherry. Still improving. Spanish Chef in the kitchen.  Check.  So why on all the green grass on the Great Lawn does the food fail to impress? Where is the spirit I left in San Sebastian? Or Madrid for that matter?

When I planned to open Pata Negra in 2008, the most important part of the business model was sourcing quality product.  In 1990 I visited a tiny sliver of a bar in Barcelona whose name I have long forgotten.  I was impressed by its simplicity.  Good wine, cheese and the best jamon.  A cozy place that didn’t scream Spanish but evoked that vibe that was most discernibly La Patria.  Not only did the feeling stick with me for 18 years, but the quality of the product, and then of course the style of service, casual, friendly, yet professional, relaxed, and neighborly, well informed, and informative, learning through consuming, magical and simple all in one.

In 2008 the ban was lifted, thanks to Chef Jose Andres and successful lobbying, and true jamon iberico de bellota became legal to import. The cheese and wine had already been improving drastically compared to 1990.  No more waxy manchego, table Rioja, and jamon serrano.  Welcome pata negra, torta del casar, and mencia.

As for décor, garlic on the walls? Bulls? Flags?  No, the vibrations dictate the décor and mood.  Let the product and service do the talking.

Which brings me to the first point on why these restaurants have failed to hit the mark.  Product.  If you have ever been to Spain, the first thing that should have made an everlasting impression is the market.  The freshness and simplicity of the best sourced ingredients.  You walk into La Boqueria in Barcelona, or  the markets from Valencia to Madrid or Cadiz, and the product jumps out at you.  Proud vendors selling their wares as their reputation, forming relationships with their customers.  Oh, and the proof is in the arroz con leche.  You can have a bite in the market at the various kiosks in the market place, just to make sure those langoustines are up to snuff.

This is one reason why Essex Street market trumps Eataly.  Whether I stop at Anne Saxelby’s CheeseMonger shop, or Heritage Foods, I am dealing with small business owners who take pride in their work and foster relationships.  At Eataly, there is no relationship with the owners.  It is just a hyper supermarket sans soul.  Compare Eataly to the Mercat de San Anton in Chueca, Madrid, for example.  Compare rooftops.  No contest. A European market place extraordinaire is what it should have been modeled after.

I was fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli before it closed, and what jumped off the plate was not only the technique of the master chef, but the quality of the ingredients.  Upon further research (and reading from A Day at El Bulli), a major reason why El Bulli was so successful, had much to do with the product, which Chef Adria and his staff spent a painstaking amount of time acquiring for each and every service.  It is the same in any good Spanish restaurant, as well as any great tapas bar such as Cal Pep in Barcelona worthy of its name on the door.

What I find in Spanish restaurants in the New York City of today, is the classic restaurant dilemma.  How can we serve the masses and maintain quality by sourcing the best ingredients?  When tapas or Spanish dishes miss the mark, look to the pantry, and having worked with many Spanish chefs in New York City, corners are cut way too often.

The second problem facing a successful Spanish restaurant is technique.  It is obvious that modern cooking fathered in Spain and spearheaded by the master chef is inventive, intriguing and often delicious.  I feel Chef Adria tried to surprise the diner, create a playful relationship with food.  Some dishes were fun and forgetful, and others have lingered with me to this day.  So many chefs are applying modernist techniques in such a way as to forget about traditional good old-fashioned home cooking, taking the soul out of the food, and falling short of authenticity and ultimately pleasure.  This is partly why Romera closed, and why Chef Dani Garcia at Manzanilla has not hit his stride yet.  A play on pulpo a la gallega arrived to the table smoked in a box, very appealing until you bite into a tepidly temperatured octopus, potato and foam. The novelty of the technique failed to elevate the dish as memorable in a good way.  Back at home in Galicia, the ingredient would pop, so that a little love and attention produces great food, especially in the hands of such a talented chef as Dani has proven to be in Marbella.

I don’t mean to single out Manzanilla.  I could fill in the names of so many Spanish restaurants over the past ten years. It’s just that it is new and being reviewed by many critics now. Despite the corporate décor, which I tried to block out, I enjoyed several dishes there, but ultimately did not feel any closer to Spanish shores than Long Island.  Down on the Bowery at Cata, the people behind Alta have spent a pretty penny on making the place look old world Spanish, then throw a monkey wrench into the whole program with the most out of place, uncomfortable, red metal, cut off your circulation stools.  You can’t help but want to stand or leave.  An aggressive menu with several grilled items selected from a tapas case at the bar feels authentic, just short of a marisqueria.  I almost wish the marisqueria business model was singled out and followed through more thoroughly.  Cata is simply trying to cover all bases and do too much.  The concept is unfocused, the dishes are many, and Spain is lost in translation.

Part of this has to do with target audience.  I can’t count how many people pass through the door telling me their stories of their time in Spain, either studying or vacationing.  I get the feeling that the only thing they ate was croquetas, patatas bravas and paella.  After gently explaining to them that Spanish cuisine is much more than that, they look at me with perplexed visages if the veracity of their authentic Spanish experiences has been compromised.  And in a way it has, because pulpo should be eaten in Galicia, just as paella in Valencia, and not on the streets of Madrid.  A real pulpo a la gallega should only be made with Galician waters, which a real cook would carry across the Spanish terrain, if necessary, to ensure the right balance and flavor.

If Spanish restaurant owners and chefs want to showcase Spanish flavors, then they should do just that.  Not try to make money, be gimmicky, or trendy, or aim to receive three stars from the New York Times. One does not have to be a critic to know when a restaurant is trying to hard to be something it is not.   Too many people have been to Spain and have experienced Spanish flavors.  They can spot a place that looks cool but misses on flavor a mile away.  But in this town, often, if the restaurant gets the right press and is a place that a patron wants to be seen in, then the food is secondary and survives.  Who cares if you can’t get a proper tortilla in this town?  Well, I do, and I suspect others do too.

As for the old school New York establishments that serve watered down sangria, whose paella come out of pots without a smidgen of arroz bomba, smothering seafood in sauces and greasy fries dressed in ketchup/mayo, they are just as guilty as all those peddlers on the Gran Via trying to shovel the worst of what Spanish cuisine has to offer, their version of fast food.  Instead, isn’t it just easier to shop for the right stuff, cook the stuff with care, and be gracious throughout the whole process?