If you’re a practiced tapas fiend (called a tapeador, according to The Oxford Companion to Food), chances are you’re like my wife. You’re a light eater who enjoys hopping from dish to dish like a bumblebee, while sipping glasses of different wines and chattering with your friends (or, in many cases, complete strangers) about the vagaries of taste or fashion or the unpredictability of the blustery winter weather. Food isn’t the tapeador’s prime concern, after all. It’s a means to an end, an enhancement, a social lubricant, an excuse for having a good time. Which means those of us who regard their dinner in more grave, elevated terms sometimes have issues with tapas. Tapas is just finger food, really, the trendy, downtown equivalent of too many canapés or hors d’oeuvre. It’s facile, precious, and, in its New York City approximation, less of a gastronomic exercise than a social one. So why jostle around in a crowded bar, picking at waxy bits of imported ham or a few oily anchovies, when a proper sit-down meal will do?
Leave it to those accomplished restaurant maestros Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to solve this conundrum. Their newest restaurant, Casa Mono, which opened two months ago on Irving Place, along with a tiny, ancillary wine bar called Bar Jamón, is a tapas bar in wolf’s clothing. It’s a modest Spanish restaurant where the dishes are myriad and small, but the food is decidedly large. Batali’s favorite offal product, tripe, graces the menu at Casa Mono, as do rubbery coxcombs (braised, with green chilies), and sweetbreads fried like chicken in a crunchy, salty batter. These dishes can be ordered singly, with a glass of wine, in a great, tapas-like rush, or in the classic appetizer-entrée sequence. They’re served in a small, clamorous submariner’s room on thick, wooden tables or at the bar. The room’s walls are lined with bottles of fine sherries and wines, and tapeadors who choose to sit at the bar directly in front of the grill get to experience Spanish food cooked “à la plancha,” in all its smoky glory.
The spirit of Batali hangs over this sturdy little restaurant, but its captain is the executive chef (and part owner), Andy Nusser, who worked for many years at Babbo and Pò. Like Batali, Nusser has a fondness for robust, elemental flavors, which he shuffles together in deliciously inventive ways. In the first wave of dishes to hit our table, there were golden bacalao croquettes dabbed with orange-flavored aïoli; tiny, lemony chipirones (midget squid) folded into steamy white beans; and a plate of fresh cockles mingled with scrambled eggs and nuggets of salty Serrano ham. I could have pondered these delicacies for at least a few minutes, but they were devoured by the table in a tapeador lather, and quickly replaced by more croquettes, this time made with pumpkin and goat cheese; a delicious fried duck egg (piled over grilled fingerling potatoes and decked with smoked tuna and a mash of black truffles); and a tower of perfectly cooked quail, balanced on segments of quince and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
If this doesn’t sound like any tapas meal you’ve ever had, that’s because the food at Casa Mono isn’t really tapas at all. It’s a canny variation on the currently fashionable trend toward smaller, more eclectic portions (nothing on the menu costs more than $15), and if you order like you’re at a tapas bar, you’ll soon hit a caloric brick wall. At least, that’s what happened to us when the coxcombs arrived at our table. The rooster tops were cooked to a kind of bouncy consistency and felt so eccentric, like deboned chicken feet, that I pushed them aside after a bite or two. The sweetbreads were much more palatable (they’re round, like giant chicken poppers, with a cooling mound of fennel on the side), and so were the mashed oxtails (stuffed in dainty piquillo peppers) and the tripe, which was mostly devoid of tripey taste and simmered with soft chickpeas and little wheels of spicy Morcilla sausage.
My wife never made it to Casa Mono; don’t ask me why. Maybe she heard me enthusing about too many hearty, non-tapas items, like the salty, charred lamb chops, which are topped off with slices of frizzled Jerusalem artichoke, and the delicious sliced skirt steak, which Nusser arranges in a little block, with sweet onions on top and a pool of tangy, marmalade-like sausca bravas (a reduction of tomatoes, onions, and sherry) on the bottom. As befits any Batali establishment, there’s also duck and wild boar on the menu (both a little overcooked when I sampled them) and a healthful fillet of dorado supported by long sticks of salsify. You can bolster your meal with a nice selection of vegetarian side dishes like the crispy, compulsively edible patatas bravas, plates of artichokes or Brussels sprouts, and, best of all, the freshly charred green scallions, which are curled around a spoonful of nutty, tangy, vividly orange romesco sauce.
There are a few drawbacks to dining at Casa Mono. If you sit too long at the bar in front of the grill (and even if you don’t), you’ll end up smelling like an old, barely extinguished grease fire. Then there are the desserts, which, with the exception of a plum-ice-cream confection called a Mono Sundae (which is a pleasure to douse with sherry), are perfunctory. You can avoid these issues altogether by walking next door to Bar Jamón, where a nice selection of Spanish cheeses and hams and even a few legitimate tapas dishes are served from the matchbox-size bar. The room itself is matchbox-size, too, and consists of two communal tables where you can swig your wine and chatter fervently to complete strangers in time-honored tapas tradition. On weekend evenings, the patrons are crowded together like bats in a cave, and dishes are passed around over people’s heads since there’s no room for the wait staff to maneuver. If this kind of dining scrum is your idea of a good time, you’re welcome to it. But be sure to shout out an order for the tortilla Catalán, which is as dense and sweetly eggy as anything you’ll find in the great tapas halls of Barcelona.