Spanish Main

My Uncle Frank, the family gastronome, considers the world to be divided into two distinct, though uneven, groups: There are those who love to eat tripe, and then there is everybody else. M. F. K. Fisher, a respectful member of the latter group, described tripe as slippery, ivory-white rubber. The writer Waverley Root thought the honeycombed stomachs of calves and sheep had a boiling-laundry odor if not cooked long enough. But my Uncle Frank has weirdly vivid memories of tripe, which he regaled me with as we waited for our lunch at Meigas, the city’s newest temple to high Spanish cuisine. “Good tripe took days of simmering,” he said, “and was the test of a fine kitchen.” He’d had his first taste of the great dish in 1947, cooked by a Republican exile from the Spanish Civil War. He’d dined on tripe around the world, but still preferred the Spanish recipe, which called for a smothering of sweet paprika, and was served for Sunday lunch, as a hangover cure, like Texan chili.

Tripe is a lunchtime dish at Meigas, too, a tapas-style primero plato on a menu crowded with fanciful, traditionalist items like piquillo peppers stuffed with marinated tuna and braised oxtail croquettes rolled in a dusting of crushed pistachios. But my Uncle Frank more or less ignored these delicacies until his tripe arrived. He talked of Galicia (meigas means “sorceress” in Galician), the family seat of Francisco Franco and Fidel Castro. “Galicia produces great dictators,” he said. “The waiters can be dictatorial, too.” Our tripe was served by a grave-looking gentleman wearing a priestly goatee. He watched in silence as the aficionado sniffed the paprika bouquet and stirred the velvety stew with his spoon. Cubes of ham were mingled with the veal belly, which tasted sweet and gamy and evaporated in the mouth, like some strange smokehouse confection. Uncle Frank took one taste, then another. “Mercy,” he said, rolling his eyes to the heavens. “Mercy me.”

Serious eaters have rhapsodized over Meigas (pronounced MAY-eee-gus) ever since the restaurant opened its doors a year ago, on a windy corner of Hudson Street in west SoHo. The dining space looks boxy, like an airport lounge, and on weekday nights it feels a little bereft. The ceilings are too high to absorb echoes and the walls are painted in dry, sandy colors, like a bathhouse in Marbella. For art, there is a goofy mural of a Galician sea scene, complete with fishing boats and a trademark sorceress emerging from the clouds. “Zero hipness factor,” whispered my trend-conscious wife as she peered around the bar, searching for hordes of funky tapas folk. The oak bar is too austere to create a cozy downtown tapas sensation. But if you want lofty Spanish cuisine (wanting hipness, my wife finished her drink and left), served stylishly and without flourish, then relax, follow your somber waiter to a corner table, and let the wonders of chef Luis Bollo’s menu unfold.

Galicians specialize in trencherman food: suckling pig, grilled skate, pulpy octopus speckled with sea salt and paprika. Bollo is a Basque, and an acolyte of Ferran Adria, the mad-genius three-star chef at the restaurant El Bulli, on the Costa Brava. Adria is an alchemist with jellies and foams; he whips up evanescent garlic ice creams and creamy puffs of smoked cod, and even presents his diners shot glasses filled with wisps of fragrant smoke. Bollo brings this lightness to the table without tipping too far over the edge. My oxtail croquettes had a stewed, hearty taste but were crunchy and bite-size, like bonbons. The suckling pig, which took nearly half an hour to prepare, had the honied lightness of good Peking duck. Its skin smelled sweetly of rosemary and was the color of candied oranges. “This is not my fiesta pig,” exclaimed a delicate eater at my table who grew up feasting on the dish in Puerto Rico. “This is the filet mignon of pigs!”

Coaxed back on another evening, my wife gave a prim thumbs-up to chef Bollo’s seafood experiments. The room was half filled with elderly contessas and solitary, beef-eating gourmands, with napkins stuck in their collars. “It’s a blue-hair crowd,” she said, as I sampled a beautifully textured square of shredded veal ravioli (decorated with a candied fan of Serrano ham), then some fine veal cheeks, speckled with crisps of bacon, on a spongy bed of leeks and wilted spinach. The traditionalist in me sprung for a chaste bowl of baby squid, covered in sherry sauce and its own dark ink, although my wife averted her eyes when this unsightly (but delicious) dish appeared, to concentrate on Bollo’s extraordinary lobster gazpacho. The soup was laced with Cordoban olive oil and beaten into a frothy melon-colored foam. A rosette of chopped vegetables sat in the middle of the bowl, buried under a pedestal of fresh lobster, which collapsed back into the broth when you tweaked it with your spoon.

The wait staff at Meigas hovers sternly over similar Bulli-inspired delicacies, like salmon bathed in white almond gazpacho, and a roasted loin of rabbit, decorated with puffs of porcini-mushroom foam. Our goateed waiter turned out to be Portuguese, which didn’t keep him from taking us goose-stepping through the best list of Spanish wines in the city. The dainty pork expert enjoyed the sampling of Conde de Siruela he assigned to accompany her suckling pig. I dutifully swigged successive glasses of the Albariño with my codfish confit one night, and again with a thrombotic dish of grilled skate and veal sweetbreads the next. Uncle Frank fed himself a diet of spicy white Ribeiro before his tripe arrived, then said quiet hosannas as he studied the list of grand red reserves. He thought it compared favorably with one he’d seen at the Jockey in Madrid, although when Mr. Goatee was out of earshot, he whispered, “The reds are overpriced – have the Galician whites.”

Mr. Goatee offered many sophisticated sherries and portos, although even our most industrious boozers paused to linger over their desserts. Just five are listed on the menu (not counting mixed fruit, and an array of elaborate Iberian cheeses). Pastry chef Helena Bravo’s modern bread pudding has been widely hailed, although a haughty Englishwoman at our table pronounced the tart sheep’s-milk ice cream a bit too much. She preferred the foamy almond croquettes, served over a white napkin on matching silver spoons. I preferred a weightless construction of coffee and brandy crème, built on slim layers of chocolate, accompanied by an odd egg cup of vinyl-green parsley foam. You couldn’t catch all the tastes; they fluttered around like butterflies, then vanished on the tongue. Pass this confection around the table, and watch your audience look amazed, then mildly duped, like witnesses to a collective magic trick.

Meigas, 350 Hudson Street (212-627-5800). Lunch, Monday through Friday 12-3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $16.50; entrées, $16 to $28. All major credit cards

Spanish Main