Not Your Papa’s Tapas

BoqueriaPhoto: Jeremy Liebman for New York Magazine

T raditionally, New York restaurants peddle Spanish food at their peril. Tapas catches people’s attention for a while but rarely seems to hold it. Meanwhile, iconic Spanish dishes like paella have never gotten the same traction, in this fickle town, as a well-executed soufflé, or a good bowl of pasta, or even a warmed-over carton of General Tso’s chicken. But times may be changing. Some of the great cooks of our era happen to be Spanish, and in the past decade, young, food-obsessed Americans have been making pilgrimages to the kitchens of Barcelona and San Sebastián in the same way aspiring chefs once traveled to Paris and Lyon. No chef in recent memory has inspired more imitators—or spread more foam around town—than the famous avant-garde Spaniard Ferran Adrià (see “Chef on the Grill“). And with the arrival of excellent restaurants like Tía Pol, in Chelsea, and the Batali-Bastianich outpost Casa Mono, near Gramercy Park, elements of real Spanish cooking have been filtering into the city’s culinary subconscious and bubbling up all around town. As part of a recent grand New York tour, a procession of Spain’s great chefs, including Adrià himself, demonstrated their refined techniques before a rapt audience at the restaurant Guastavino’s. But if you want the latest taste of this mini–Spanish revolution at the ground level, the place to go is a cheery little establishment in the Flatiron district called Boqueria.

Boqueria’s proprietor isn’t Spanish (though he also runs the swank, Spanish-accented nightspot Suba), and neither is his chef-partner, Seamus Mullen (an Irishman by way of Vermont). And Boqueria (it’s named for the famous market in Barcelona) isn’t, strictly speaking, a tapas joint either. In fact, the main dishes and midsize plates are arguably better than the tapas. But the place is packaged like a tapas bar—a stylish, updated one, that is. There’s a bar up front, a narrow, communal table in the middle of a long room, and rows of clubby, bar-size tables lining the walls. The room (along with the uniforms of the competent, terminally perky wait staff) is carefully coordinated in tones of toffee, beige, and sandy brown, and the thing you notice, after a visit or two, is that it’s very loud, in a convivial tapas-like way, and it’s almost always packed.

Mullen spent two years rambling around the kitchens of Spain, and the tapas he produces are generally well-executed versions of the timeworn originals. There are ribbons of Serrano ham, cut from a leg prominently displayed in the window, a selection of creamy goat-cheese croquettes (the best of which are flavored with mushrooms), and a decent rendition of salt-cod brandade. I don’t know whether my platter of dates wrapped in bacon (Iberian Devils on Horseback with a hint of Cabrales cheese) are legitimate tapas, but they tasted quite fine. So did the tortilla española, with a deposit of sweet onions at its center, and a dish of little toast rounds elegantly decked with slices of chorizo and a single fried quail egg. That said, my discerning friend the cod nut declared the salt-cod fritters a disaster (they’re fried in an oily, tempuralike batter), and he was probably right.

Among the midsize plates, everyone at the table seemed pleased with the gambas al ajillo (shrimps and garlic sizzled in olive oil), which we supplemented with bowls of tangy chilled almond soup (ajo blanco) and a bowl of finely chopped vegetables—zucchini, peas, asparagus—mingled with a single poached egg (huevo y pisto). My portion of the Spanish bouillabaisse equivalent, called suquet, could have been more subtle, but contained plenty of nourishing seafood (monkfish, fresh clams), and if you’re a meat eater, you’ll want a taste of the boar terrine, which is cut in triangles and presented in a little tower, with sweet-onion relish and platoons of candied almonds. Best of all, however, was a dish called caballa, which consists of slices of gently poached Spanish mackerel served in a rich broth made with fish stock filled with navy beans and bits of frizzled artichoke.

As befits any serious scholar of Iberian cooking, Mullen is a specialist at the delicate art of roasting pork. Every week, the chef takes delivery of as many suckling pigs as he can get from his parents’ neighbor’s farm in Vermont, and cooks the young porkers until he runs out. In Mullen’s signature pork preparation (which appears as a special when available), the meat is braised to a nice softness, roasted until the skin is crackly, then glazed with figs to give it an elegant, slightly candied sweetness. You can also enjoy your pig with big steel salvers of paella, which Mullen prepares with proper Spanish Calasparra rice. The Calasparra absorbs more water than other varieties, so it’s less prone to gumminess, and you can get it not just with the pork but also blackened with cuttlefish ink and studded with chunks of rabbit, or served, in the Valencian style, with assorted seafood, chicken, and saffron. Among other sturdy dishes, the lamb shank is excellent (it’s braised and flavored with plums), and so is the beef, which you can order as a New York strip ($26) or, even better, as prime rib cut for two ($62), with patatas bravas and a side of blistered green Padrón peppers.

Boqueria doesn’t take reservations, and the bustling, somewhat cacophonous atmosphere will probably horrify sentimental devotees of L’Acajou, the much-loved Alsatian restaurant that previously occupied the space. But what the restaurant lacks in gravitas it makes up for with a healthy sense of fun. The room feels commodious, like a regular sit-down restaurant, but also intimate, like a bar. The sangria is generic and oversweet, but the selection of Spanish wines put together by Roger Kugler, who is the sommelier at Suba, is various and reasonably priced. The $7 desserts are reasonably priced, too, if not always memorable. The beignets (flavored with apricots) are indistinguishable from the thousand other beignet desserts currently available in this beignet-obsessed town. But the crema Catalana is plenty creamy, and tastes properly of burnt sugar, and if you need a real sugar fix, there’s a nice chocolate-and-coffee mousse mixed with hazelnut ice cream, plus a dusting of candied hazelnuts. For real simplicity, however, do what the real tapeadores do: Order the vanilla ice cream, with a splash of Pedro Ximénez sherry.

Address: 53 W. 19th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-255-4160
Hours: Daily, noon to midnight.
Prices: Tapas, $4 to $6; mid-size dishes, $11 to $26; entrées, $29 to $62.
Ideal Meal: Tortilla española; caballa; suckling-pig special, lamb shank, or paella Valenciana; hazelnut ice cream with chocolate-and-coffee mousse.
Note: The pork arrives from a Vermont farm in the middle of the week. Look for it on the specials board starting Thursdays.
Scratchpad: One star for culinary competence, and another for the stylish upgrading of the tired tapas genre.

Not Your Papa’s Tapas