In this age of locavore farmers and rusticated, do-it-yourself cooks, nothing inspires quite as much awe or admiration as that most elemental of kitchen contraptions, the wood-fired grill. Or so it occurred to me the other evening, as I sat in the back room of Tertulia, Seamus Mullen’s snug, beautifully realized new Spanish taverna in the West Village. The roaring, chimney-style oven at Mullen’s restaurant is a close replica of one in the town of Etxebarri, in the Basque Country, outside Bilbao. It’s set in front of the kitchen, like a peasant’s hearth, and fitted with a movable grill, which the cooks winch up and down with a wrought-iron hand crank to adjust the heat. As rashers of chorizo, whole fish, and great salvers of paella were roasted over glowing embers, the amateur cooks at my table sipped their glasses of sangria and watched the flames in a kind of silent reverie. “That,” one of them finally said, “is a badass oven.”
Mullen is originally from rural Vermont, but his polished little pub restaurant (loosely translated, the name means “an informal social gathering”) offers all sorts of pleasingly authentic Spanish touches. The small bar up front serves eight varieties of sherry, glasses of chilled bubbly Cava from Catalonia, and hard country cider poured from a weathered wooden barrel. The narrow railroad space (it’s on lower Sixth Avenue, just above West 4th Street) is divided by brick archways, like those in the wine cellar of an old farmhouse, and set with curving wooden banquettes and farm-style tables made with slabs of white oak. The daily specials (Basque cocktails mixed with sherry, sticky Ibérico pork ribs, crocks of stewed tripe tasting faintly of smoke) are scrawled in Spanish on blackboards above the kitchen, and many of the dishes that emerge from Mullen’s roaring oven are served on hand-carved wooden platters that the chef discovered on his rambles through Northern Spain.
Mullen made his reputation in partnership with other restaurateurs in New York serving fairly standard, crowd-pleasing Spanish recipes (cod brandade, roast pork, garlic shrimp, etc.) at popular spots like Boqueria, in the Flatiron district. But at Tertulia, he finally has a restaurant to call his own, and the result is a rich, deceptively sophisticated menu which does for tapas-style Spanish cuisine what Batali did for Italian pastas and April Bloomfield did for English pub food. His cooking here is authentic in its essential Spanishness, but it’s also brawny, seasonal, and deeply flavored in a nuevo rústico, distinctly New York kind of way. The first thing I sampled on my initial visit was a helping of slivery black and white anchovies, layered on little squares of crispy toast with sweet, fresh-roasted tomatoes, tangy dabs of balsamic, and deliciously creamy deposits of sheep’s-milk cheese. It was followed by rare gooseneck barnacles from Galicia, spread on generous slabs of toast, and an ingenious hungry-man ham-and-eggs creation called tosta huevo roto y jamón Ibérico, which combined so many elemental pleasures in a single bite (potatoes and eggs, olive oil and toast, a decadent wisp of Ibérico pork fat) that my companions and I ordered it twice.
I put in lots of repeat orders during my visits to Tertulia. Like the waxy, densely smoky Ibérico ham itself, which is hand-cut in thin, sweet slices, and that elemental Northern Spanish dish, pa amb tomàquet (pan con tomate on the menu), which the kitchen serves over fat slices of toast spread with a thin, barely visible scrim of grated tomatoes. Every Spanish restaurant has its obligatory squid dish, but Mullen composes his excellent chipirones a la plancha by cooking soft twirls of baby squid two ways (the body is seared, the tentacles deep-fried), then tossing them together with pine nuts and fresh Greenmarket mustard greens in a spicy poblano vinaigrette. The crunchy, golf-ball-size croquetas at Tertulia are stippled with nuggets of Ibérico, and the soupy, flavorful house mussels are served in a terra-cotta bowl filled with bacon-laced tomatoes, guindilla peppers, and apple cider.
Like any self-respecting rustic-minded cook of his generation, Mullen is a stickler for seasonal ingredients, which means many of his most inspired creations are daily specials. The aforementioned gooseneck barnacles were a special one night I dropped in, along with an entire grilled turbot, which was stuffed with pork jowls, then poured with a warm, deliciously tart anchovy vinaigrette. The bomba rice paella seemed slightly mundane by comparison, and so did the house chorizo, which is flavored with garlic and served over a small mountain of garbanzo beans. If you’re looking for a rice dish, try the creamy, crunchy-topped arroz a la plancha (folded with snails and wild mushrooms), and if you’re in the mood for a true beef feast (and have $72 to burn), order the well-aged, Viking-size chuletón de buey prime rib, which is charred over the coals and served with a pot of house-made romesco sauce on the side.
Like the other bare-bones, raffishly fashionable downtown gastropubs after which it’s modeled, Tertulia doesn’t take reservations unless you have a party of six or more. Also like many of those establishments, the restaurant offers a wine list that’s sneakily ambitious (it includes a $650 bottle from Spain’s famous Vega Sicilia vineyard), and the simple, home-style desserts are more sophisticated than they look. These include wedges of Spanish rum cake piled with seasonal berries (sobao pasiego), and a stylish variation of the Catalonian specialty mel i matò made with fresh peaches and honey-laced ricotta. The chocolate tart at Tertulia is cut in crumbly, farm-style slices, and tastes pleasingly of coffee and hints of salt. The artisanal Spanish cheeses are served as an appetizer but work well as a dessert. If those don’t fill you up, look for the magisterial, smoky-tasting bread pudding served with a gently melting scoop of hazelnut ice cream and capped with a burnt brûlée crust as smooth and crackly as a pane of glass.
Address: 359 Sixth Ave., nr. Washington Pl.; 646-559-9909
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Prices: Small dishes, $5 to $20; family-style dishes, $19 to $72.
Ideal Meal: Anchovies with slow-roasted tomato, potato and crushed egg with Ibérico ham, baby squid with mustard greens, arroz a la plancha, grilled turbot (special), chocolate tart.
Note: Mullen’s weekend brunch menu includes such Spanish comfort items as anchovy finger sandwiches served with eggs and goat’s-milk butter, and churros with chocolate sauce.
Scratchpad: Sure, it’s a pokey little barroom. But we’ll give two stars for the inspired open-hearth cooking and another for the wines and desserts.