Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tertulia (New York, NY)

Tertulia's Tiny Open Kitchen 

Justin and I were pretty broken up when La Palapa Rockola closed its doors several months back. It wasn't that the food was particularly amazing, but we'd been going there since I was a starving graduate student, many years ago. It'd been an affordable neighborhood favorite, especially for the Sunday brunches (one strong margarita included), which were guaranteed to send you straight back to bed, and the sometimes exceptional micheladas. 

After our first visit, though, I'm happy to report that Tertulia, former Boqueria executive chef Seamus Mullen's new Spanish tapas restaurant, which opened up in La Palapa Rockola's stead, is quite a lot better for food, even if it's quite a lot less student budget friendly. 

Let there be no mistake: Tertulia is popular and trendy and you will almost certainly have to wait to get in. (Reservations are not available for parties of less than six.) We arrived at 5:30 on a weekend evening, when the doors are supposed to open, and already, there was a line at the front door, peering longingly in, while a smirking(?) hostess slowly polished the windows and peered back out at us. I hopped from foot to foot for eight minutes, until they finally began to allow customers in the door. Inside, there was another a wait to be seated, since the back room evidently wasn't yet ready. 

There are only two reasons why infamously impatient adult New Yorkers might tolerate such lollygagging: if the restaurant is extraordinarily trendy and/or extraordinarily delicious. (There isn't always overlap between these two categories.) In Tertulia's case, it is certainly the former and to a great extent the latter. 

The Wood-Fired Oven; A Prep Chef cuts Hamachi and Merluza

We ordered two tostas from the "embutidos, quesos y tostas" portion of the menu and four tapas from the "tapas y sartenes" section. The two tostas and the tortilla española tapa came very quickly, but there was nearly an hour's wait before the remainder of our dishes came. It's hard to hold this delay against the kitchen, since they were very clearly swamped and it must be overwhelming to have waves of hungry diners pouring in all at once. But crikey, we were hungry!

The first tosta, called the cojonudo... revisited / two bites of smoked pig cheek, quail egg and pepper, was just fantastic. ("Cojonudo" means, roughly, "f-ing great" in Spanish and the name is accurate in this case.) There was just the right amount of fatty, flavorful, salty pig cheek, sliced very thin, Spain's answer to guanciale. There were quail eggs fried sunny side down (whites fully cooked, egg yolks just beyond runny, but not fully cooked). These were layered on oily, toasted flatbread and then garnished with a few leaves of flat leaf parsley, a tiny touch that made all the difference in the world. The parsley brought into focus, and allowed one to appreciate, the richness of the other ingredients. Cojonudo. Seriously. 

Cojonudo... Revisited

Our next tosta was the tosta huevo roto y jamón ibérico / crushed egg, potato, Ibérico ham. We had an issue with the Iberico ham all evening. It was slightly rancid, though it would've been beautiful had it not been for that slight hint of rancidness. This was nevertheless a well conceived and delicious snack, with the ham layered over rosti-like shredded potatoes, soft boiled eggs and more of the toasted, oily flatbread. 

Tosta Huevo Roto y Jamón Ibérico

I order tortilla at every Spanish tapas place I walk into, since I love this dish and it's a good benchmark for comparing kitchens: EVERY tapas bar has it. The "nuestra tortilla española" was a solid, traditional version made with the usual egg, potato, onion and olive oil. It was served a little bit too cold, but was wholly serviceable. Tertulia's version is not as good as the much lesser known Caliu's, interestingly, where the kitchen is helmed by Franco Barrio, another Boqueria alumnus. But Barrio does cheat a little: his is warm, fluffy, and served with a lot of alioli to liven things up. 

Tortilla Española

By and by, our order of chipirones a la plancha / baby squid, mustard greens, pine nuts, grilled Poblano vinaigrette came to the table, sweeping away whatever grouchiness had begun to set in from lack of food. It was another stellar dish, a wonderful balance of excellent, fresh, tender greens; warm squid, the tentacles of which had been breaded and deep fried; and a very light sprinkling of pine nuts. Squid was remarkably flavorful through and through, even the rings, which hadn't been breaded and fried. I'd call these "cojonudo chipirones" if I were writing the menu. 

Chipirones a la Plancha

The merluza a la plancha / wild merluza a la plancha, smoked pig cheek, cranberry beans featured some of the most robustly flavorful, delicious cranberry beans I've ever had. They were thoroughly infused with smoked, meaty goodness. The merluza, though well cooked with a lovely, crisp skin, just wasn't to my taste, however. Merluza (a type of hake) is a bland fish, even less interesting than tilapia, and the dish relied on the liberal dose of smoked pig cheek for flavor.

Merluza a la Plancha

The arroz a la plancha / Calasparra rice, snails, wild mushrooms, celery, fennel, Ibérico ham was, however, dreamy if you ignored the slightly rancid Iberico ham. The rice was wonderful, cooked to a state more similar to risotto than to paella, lightly scented with cheese, shaped into a large, oval log and baked in the wood-burning stove. There were a few chewy-tender snails and some meaty bits of what tasted to me like shiitake mushrooms incorporated into the rice. Celery leaves and acidic, thin slices of fennel bulb topped the log. To me, the pickled fennel wasn't really necessary, since the brightness of the celery leaves did a fine job of cutting through the salt and fat by themselves, and the acidity of the fennel was a little jarring. 

Arroz a la Plancha

As delicious as much of the food was, we were hesitant to order more, given how long some of our dishes had taken to come. It's a legitimately good restaurant and I'd like to try more of the menu -- but perhaps we'll wait until after some of the insane hype has died down a bit to return. Justin's days of standing in line overnight for Rent and Phish tickets are over; I've always lacked the patience to stand in line for a show -- even a very delicious one. 

So... 'till we meet, again, Tertulia. 'Till we meet again. 

Bar to the Left of the Entryway

View of the Front Room From the Entryway

359 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY 10014
(646) 559-9909

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