Paella, anyone?

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and the normal anxiety of what to do for my dear mother is intensified because she always wants to go out for a simple, delicious paella.  She doesn’t want me to make one at home, rather she wants to be taken out be her two sons to a Spanish restaurant reminiscent of her trip to Spain many years ago.

New York City is home to many successful genres of ethnic cuisine.  Every one loves a great pasta joint, taco truck, or French brasserie.  Inexpensive Asian food has made a very successful transition to high-end gourmet preparation, and it seems that tapas can be found on many menus, Spanish theme not a requirement.

When I think about the available Spanish food in New York, I am usually underwhelmed. Why am I so disappointed?  Isn’t Spain the culinary center of the universe?  All those Michelin star restaurants like Arzak and Mugarritz, El Bulli and its modernist legacy, and El Celler de Can Roca, the #1 resto in the world.

I don’t long for linguine vongole from Rome, or steak tartare from Paris because I can find veritable versions here.  Perhaps authentic tacos are harder to find too, but Tex-Mex reigns in this town, and real tacos are slowly arriving.

Over the past five years, several Spanish restaurants have opened, and I have been excited every time, only to come home scratching my head, especially at what could have been.  With so many Spanish ingredients readily available to us in the U.S., and so many Spanish chefs wishing to make it here, what gives?

Recently I dined at Manzanilla, a sprawling restaurant managed by the people who brought us Boqueria and a known chef from Marbella.  Spanish menu.  Check.  Décor. Demi Check.  Wine list with sherry. Still improving. Spanish Chef in the kitchen.  Check.  So why on all the green grass on the Great Lawn does the food fail to impress? Where is the spirit I left in San Sebastian? Or Madrid for that matter?

When I planned to open Pata Negra in 2008, the most important part of the business model was sourcing quality product.  In 1990 I visited a tiny sliver of a bar in Barcelona whose name I have long forgotten.  I was impressed by its simplicity.  Good wine, cheese and the best jamon.  A cozy place that didn’t scream Spanish but evoked that vibe that was most discernibly La Patria.  Not only did the feeling stick with me for 18 years, but the quality of the product, and then of course the style of service, casual, friendly, yet professional, relaxed, and neighborly, well informed, and informative, learning through consuming, magical and simple all in one.

In 2008 the ban was lifted, thanks to Chef Jose Andres and successful lobbying, and true jamon iberico de bellota became legal to import. The cheese and wine had already been improving drastically compared to 1990.  No more waxy manchego, table Rioja, and jamon serrano.  Welcome pata negra, torta del casar, and mencia.

As for décor, garlic on the walls? Bulls? Flags?  No, the vibrations dictate the décor and mood.  Let the product and service do the talking.

Which brings me to the first point on why these restaurants have failed to hit the mark.  Product.  If you have ever been to Spain, the first thing that should have made an everlasting impression is the market.  The freshness and simplicity of the best sourced ingredients.  You walk into La Boqueria in Barcelona, or  the markets from Valencia to Madrid or Cadiz, and the product jumps out at you.  Proud vendors selling their wares as their reputation, forming relationships with their customers.  Oh, and the proof is in the arroz con leche.  You can have a bite in the market at the various kiosks in the market place, just to make sure those langoustines are up to snuff.

This is one reason why Essex Street market trumps Eataly.  Whether I stop at Anne Saxelby’s CheeseMonger shop, or Heritage Foods, I am dealing with small business owners who take pride in their work and foster relationships.  At Eataly, there is no relationship with the owners.  It is just a hyper supermarket sans soul.  Compare Eataly to the Mercat de San Anton in Chueca, Madrid, for example.  Compare rooftops.  No contest. A European market place extraordinaire is what it should have been modeled after.

I was fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli before it closed, and what jumped off the plate was not only the technique of the master chef, but the quality of the ingredients.  Upon further research (and reading from A Day at El Bulli), a major reason why El Bulli was so successful, had much to do with the product, which Chef Adria and his staff spent a painstaking amount of time acquiring for each and every service.  It is the same in any good Spanish restaurant, as well as any great tapas bar such as Cal Pep in Barcelona worthy of its name on the door.

What I find in Spanish restaurants in the New York City of today, is the classic restaurant dilemma.  How can we serve the masses and maintain quality by sourcing the best ingredients?  When tapas or Spanish dishes miss the mark, look to the pantry, and having worked with many Spanish chefs in New York City, corners are cut way too often.

The second problem facing a successful Spanish restaurant is technique.  It is obvious that modern cooking fathered in Spain and spearheaded by the master chef is inventive, intriguing and often delicious.  I feel Chef Adria tried to surprise the diner, create a playful relationship with food.  Some dishes were fun and forgetful, and others have lingered with me to this day.  So many chefs are applying modernist techniques in such a way as to forget about traditional good old-fashioned home cooking, taking the soul out of the food, and falling short of authenticity and ultimately pleasure.  This is partly why Romera closed, and why Chef Dani Garcia at Manzanilla has not hit his stride yet.  A play on pulpo a la gallega arrived to the table smoked in a box, very appealing until you bite into a tepidly temperatured octopus, potato and foam. The novelty of the technique failed to elevate the dish as memorable in a good way.  Back at home in Galicia, the ingredient would pop, so that a little love and attention produces great food, especially in the hands of such a talented chef as Dani has proven to be in Marbella.

I don’t mean to single out Manzanilla.  I could fill in the names of so many Spanish restaurants over the past ten years. It’s just that it is new and being reviewed by many critics now. Despite the corporate décor, which I tried to block out, I enjoyed several dishes there, but ultimately did not feel any closer to Spanish shores than Long Island.  Down on the Bowery at Cata, the people behind Alta have spent a pretty penny on making the place look old world Spanish, then throw a monkey wrench into the whole program with the most out of place, uncomfortable, red metal, cut off your circulation stools.  You can’t help but want to stand or leave.  An aggressive menu with several grilled items selected from a tapas case at the bar feels authentic, just short of a marisqueria.  I almost wish the marisqueria business model was singled out and followed through more thoroughly.  Cata is simply trying to cover all bases and do too much.  The concept is unfocused, the dishes are many, and Spain is lost in translation.

Part of this has to do with target audience.  I can’t count how many people pass through the door telling me their stories of their time in Spain, either studying or vacationing.  I get the feeling that the only thing they ate was croquetas, patatas bravas and paella.  After gently explaining to them that Spanish cuisine is much more than that, they look at me with perplexed visages if the veracity of their authentic Spanish experiences has been compromised.  And in a way it has, because pulpo should be eaten in Galicia, just as paella in Valencia, and not on the streets of Madrid.  A real pulpo a la gallega should only be made with Galician waters, which a real cook would carry across the Spanish terrain, if necessary, to ensure the right balance and flavor.

If Spanish restaurant owners and chefs want to showcase Spanish flavors, then they should do just that.  Not try to make money, be gimmicky, or trendy, or aim to receive three stars from the New York Times. One does not have to be a critic to know when a restaurant is trying to hard to be something it is not.   Too many people have been to Spain and have experienced Spanish flavors.  They can spot a place that looks cool but misses on flavor a mile away.  But in this town, often, if the restaurant gets the right press and is a place that a patron wants to be seen in, then the food is secondary and survives.  Who cares if you can’t get a proper tortilla in this town?  Well, I do, and I suspect others do too.

As for the old school New York establishments that serve watered down sangria, whose paella come out of pots without a smidgen of arroz bomba, smothering seafood in sauces and greasy fries dressed in ketchup/mayo, they are just as guilty as all those peddlers on the Gran Via trying to shovel the worst of what Spanish cuisine has to offer, their version of fast food.  Instead, isn’t it just easier to shop for the right stuff, cook the stuff with care, and be gracious throughout the whole process?