‘Where are the tables?” the man asked the bartender at El Quinto Pino one recent Saturday night while he and his date surveyed the diminutive premises, possibly higher than they are wide and sparsely outfitted with a curved marble bar and a narrow ledge circling the walls. He wore an upturned collar, a windswept faux-hawk hairdo, and a look of incredulity on his face. Upon being told there were none, the couple shot out the door like a pair of vegans who had stumbled into Mario Batali’s private salumi locker.
Besides tables, there are other things El Quinto Pino doesn’t have—not that you’ll necessarily miss them. Sangria, for one (try the inspired frozen cocktails, like the brandy-spiked horchata or the oloroso-sherry-based “noche de ronda,” instead). And forget about ordering patatas bravas, tortilla española, croquettes, and the rest of the iconic small plates we’ve come to associate with the tapas-bar craze—thanks, in no small part, to El Quinto Pino’s owners themselves. Three years ago, Heather Belz, Mani Dawes, and chef Alexandra Raij opened Tía Pol, a nearly as tiny tapas restaurant around the corner from El Quinto Pino, where they instigated the city’s enduring appetite for fried chickpeas and blistered shishito peppers. Neither of those celebrated dishes has made the trip from Tenth Avenue over to Ninth. To keep things interesting, the trio have resisted the urge to clone their first success. Instead, they’ve embraced the bar part of tapas bar, hoping to create an authentic Spanish tapeo (bar-hop) experience, where lingering over a meal indefinitely—to say nothing of tables—really isn’t the point. In that spirit, the kitchen serves small plates that truly are (with almost dollhouse-size cutlery to match) and mines Spain for inspiration without slavishly rehashing the genre’s greatest hits.
El Quinto Pino honors Spanish tradition by offering some foods, like olives and anchovies, virtually untouched. But elsewhere, Raij and her chef de cuisine, Amorette Casaus, personalize the fare with unexpected flourishes. Five tender shrimp float in a pungent garlic sauce that’s infiltrated with ginger. The meaty bite in a chickpea-and-spinach stew comes from pimentón. And instead of gazpacho, Raij offers its so-called cousin, salmorejo, a creamy tomato emulsion with bits of hard-boiled egg and chorizo.
Sea-urchin roe is big in Asturias but not like this: inserted into a skinny length of ficelle, slicked with butter and Korean mustard oil, then pressed in the Easy-Bake-Oven-size kitchen behind the bar. It comes, like the menu’s other streamlined sandwiches (serrano ham and a pulled-chicken-pork-and-morcilla concoction) tucked into a waxed-paper bag like a Shackburger. Raij’s take on fish sticks (“soldaditos de pavia”) are fluffy fingers of cod so finely fried it’s hard to tell where the airy batter ends and the delicate fish begins. Seemingly Japanese- inspired fried eggplant gets equally fastidious treatment: crisp on the outside, melting within, the rolled morsels are flavored with honey and sprinkled with bonito flakes. Within the context of a menu so limited you can practically order everything on it in a visit and a half, Raij still manages to show her range, from a peasant dish like a gelatinous pig’s-ear salad to upscale specials like one night’s white asparagus with shaved black truffle and a poached quail egg.
By highlighting a specific region or two, the short, focused wine list provides a concise introduction to Spanish viticulture. There’s always a cheese of the day, and a dessert—two, actually. The rice pudding is excellent, but try to get your hands on the unadvertised nut-and-honey casadielles, a perfect bite of sweetness to end a meal that embodies the tapas-bar experience, no matter where (or whether) you’re sitting.
El Quinto Pino
Address: 401 W. 24th St., nr. Ninth Ave.; 212-206-6900
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m.
Prices: $3 to $15.
Ideal Meal: “Noche de ronda,” fried eggplant, uni panini, fried cod, chickpea stew, casadielles (fried ravioli with walnuts and honey).
Note: Try to station yourself at a bar stool in front of the chalkboard food menu, which might be the best seat in the 26-seat house.
Scratchpad: Without resting on Tía Pol’s laurels, its frisky younger sister exhibits a distinct personality, serving some toothsome morsels in a setting that’s less than a restaurant and more than a bar. Three stars for deliciously blurring the line.