My friend lets out a weary sigh as we belly up to the bar at the modest little tapas joint called Cata that opened several months ago on a restaurant-infested stretch of the Bowery, a couple of doors down from the New Museum. In more than a decade of dining together, we’d seen tapas joints come and go, and this one looks distressingly like all the others. In place of bar stools, there are metal chairs painted firehouse red, and on this evening, most of them are empty. The ceilings are hung with a snaggle of lamps and filament bulbs, which look like they were heisted from a local garage, and instead of sit-down tables, the assembled tapeadors are perched tenuously at dining counters, like patrons in a train-station lounge on the outskirts of Barcelona.
My restaurant-savvy friend happens to be a gin-and-tonic fanatic, and his mood lifts considerably when the cocktail list arrives. Spain has been in the grips of a feverish gin-and-tonic craze for years now, and at Cata you can order over twenty varieties of this elegant Victorian drink. They’re mixed in frosty glass tumblers, with artisanal gins from around the globe, and many of them come with exotic garnishes like Thai basil, star anise, and plumes of mint. We enjoyed a refreshing concoction called Kumquat Clove (Dorothy Parker gin, fresh kumquats, a clove, a dash of Schweppes), followed by two cocktails built, inventively, around the pleasures of Kaffir lime (one with the lime, the other with the lime leaves). My guest took a sip of one of these strong, summery drinks and then the other. “I think we should order some dinner,” he said.
Cata’s chef, Larry Baldwin, worked with the great Andy Nusser at Casa Mono, and like Nusser, he has a knack for infusing his classic recipes with a combination of old-fashioned elegance and modern heft. Our first wave of tapas included deviled eggs topped with crispy fried oysters, fried quail eggs Benedict arranged over button-size servings of chorizo and hash browns, and silvery anchovies laid out on squares of pumpernickel toast. The “Vegetables” and “Sea” sections of the menu are filled with all sorts of bounty (try the crispy prawns with chile oil, the salty nuggets of sea-bass tempura, and the stiff little planks of grilled Tuscan kale drizzled with buttermilk dressing), and if you’re in the mood for something heavier, call for the deliciously charred strips of LaFrieda skirt steak, which are arranged in a little tower, with a bed of crackly bomba rice flavored with kimchee, and a wobbly fried egg.
My least favorite dishes at Cata, surprisingly, were the soft, slightly droopy paellas, one of which was topped with a strange circular arrangement of chorizo, dried-out shrimp, and chicken wings. If you’re looking for a carbohydrate fix, focus instead on the classic croquetas, or the patatas bravas, which we complemented during the course of our gin-soaked feast with platters of smoked lamb ribs (from the “Land” section of the menu), piquillo peppers stuffed with smoked tuna and crème fraîche, and fresh razor clams sizzled in their shells with butter and lemons. Desserts are rarely a tapas specialty, but there are six of them to choose from, and if you wish to end your meal in classic tapeador style, get the citrusy, cream-soaked torrija bread pudding, which my woozy friend finished off in two bites.
There are many drinks at the full bar besides gin-and-tonics, along with an excellent mid-range list of Spanish and European wines.Recommended Dishes
Crispy prawns with chile oil, grilled Tuscan kale, deviled eggs with oysters or quail eggs Benedict, lamb ribs or skirt steak, torrija bread pudding, gin-and-tonic.