IT’S SPANISH FOR SNACK Diners dig into small plates at bar-high tables at Boqueria on West 19th Street.
Credit Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
This information was last updated: Nov. 1, 2017
BY all rights New York should have more places for tapas than it does.
The tapas spirit, or at least versions of it, took root here long ago, spreading wide and far.
In many of the city’s Japanese and Italian restaurants and even at a French enclave as punctilious as L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, you can build meals incrementally, with modestly portioned dishes. You can flit noncommittally through appetizer and side-dish selections more numerous and ambitious than main-course options. The whole concept of grazing? It’s just the tapas spirit wrapped in a gerund with reassuring connotations of restraint.
But blistered Padrón peppers haven’t achieved the profile that edamame has. Prosciutto crowds jamón serrano off the stage. And Spain, the realm of true tapas, doesn’t enjoy the top billing that other culinary wonderlands do. In New York, it’s easier to make like you’re having tapas than to actually have them.
The happy, peppy new Spanish restaurant Boqueria, named for the food market in Barcelona, is doing what it can to change that. It devotes about two-thirds of its menu to tapas, most of which cost $6, and to what it calls “media raciones,” or half portions that are slightly bigger and, at $11 each, relatively inexpensive.
In other ways as well Boqueria sends the message that you needn’t commit to a conventional meal, that an early evening or late-night snack — which is what tapas are really about — provides ample reason to drop in. The restaurant’s no-reservations policy is in part a call to spontaneity, a rejection of ceremony.
So is it’s clever seating arrangement. At Boqueria, every perch is a high chair, and no matter where you sit — at one of the small cafe tables in the front, at the large communal table in the back or on banquettes that trace the restaurant’s perimeter — your feet are many inches above the ground, as if you were on a stool at a bar.
This has a practical benefit, along with a theoretical one. It puts you at eye level with servers, making your interactions with them feel smoother and friendlier. And it means that if Manhattan somehow flooded, you could dine at Boqueria and keep your shoes dry.
You could also eat extremely well. Although an early visit left me with doubts, this restaurant has improved steadily and markedly since it opened in mid-August. And although its menu still harbors a few disappointments, they’re eclipsed by plenty of standouts and by a charismatically bustling, remarkably warm scene. Glossier than Tía Pol, cozier than Barça 18, Boqueria manages to have the virtues of stylishness without the vanity, luring relatively young, good-looking diners who turn out for the eating more than the posing.
During a recent visit, one of the specials was a terrific dish of sardines two ways — either oil-cured, or stuffed with olives and pine nuts and then fried — on a bed of potatoes and heirloom tomatoes. I saw it being delivered to table after table, even though it wouldn’t seem a born crowd-pleaser. Sardines aren’t for sissies.
Neither are anchovies, but they were among the specials as well, fried and smartly paired with fried slivers of candied lemon and, at the base of the dish, a salty tapenade. Usually for better but sometimes for worse, the chef, Seamus Mullen, relishes salty effects: the regularly offered tapas include salt cod fritters and a salt cod brandade, both satisfying, and a media ración presents frisée with salt cod and white anchovies, a dish that teetered into salty excess.
He has teamed at Boqueria with Yann de Rochefort, a restaurateur who also owns Suba on the Lower East Side. Neither of them is Spanish, but Mr. Mullen has studied and cooked in Spain. That exposure is reflected in the full justice he does to classics like patatas bravas, fried potato wedges bathed in a spicy and smoky red pepper aioli; tortilla Española, a Spanish omelet with potato and onion; and ajo blanco, a chilled almond soup with red grapes and chorizo oil.
He paired chorizo and fried quail eggs on little pieces of toast: my kind of finger food. He sprinkled an appropriately generous measure of coarse salt over those Padrón peppers.
A dozen or so dishes are labeled tapas. Subsequent menu categories — media raciones, raciones and “para compartir” (“for sharing”) — chart escalating portion sizes while expanding your Spanish vocabulary. It’s in these categories that Mr. Mullen displayed more creativity and came up with some of his biggest successes.
Foremost among them was a fantastic salad showcasing baby squid, which he seared quickly on a plancha, giving it external crunch and internal tenderness, then tossed with baby arugula, fried chickpeas (more crunch) and fried breakfast radish (even more). The salad underscored the care he lavishes not only on the cooking of a dish’s central element but also on finding surprising, flavorful ways to round out a composition.
A beautifully braised lamb shank was placed over prunes and a celery root purée, with a rosemary-seasoned yogurt on one side, a glittering green basil and tarragon pistou on the other and a dusting of crushed hazelnuts on top.
Suckling pig came as a tightly packed rectangle of irresistibly crisp, fatty skin over slick, succulent pork. Three almonds crowned the skin, while sautéed figs lapped at the edges of the meat. Mr. Mullen wisely leavens his salty impulses with sweet ones — remember those candied lemon slivers — and often achieves a winning balance in the process.
Dishes that seem designed for tamer tastes — prime rib for two, shrimp sautéed with garlic in olive oil — were well executed. So were desserts, including crema Catalana and a tower of hazelnut ice cream, chocolate mousse and candied hazelnuts.
Paella didn’t work out as well, but then it’s long been the Bermuda Triangle of Spanish restaurants in New York, breached at considerable peril, with likely hazards of overcooked shellfish or clumpy rice. Boqueria’s paella avoided neither.
So navigate your way around it. Do what a tapas bar intends you to. Sample some of the Spanish cured meats and cheeses on hand. Have a glass of sangria — there’s a bracingly tart variant made with beer — or one of the many affordable Spanish wines. Let your appetite wander while your feet dangle.
That’s the tapas spirit, and at Boqueria, it’s found a Spanish home.
53 West 19th Street (Avenue of the Americas), Chelsea; (212) 255-4160.
ATMOSPHERE A glossy spin on a tapas bar with cafe tables up front, a communal table in the back and raised banquettes with the feel of cushier, more commodious bar stools.
SOUND LEVEL Considerably but manageably loud.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Patatas bravas; quail egg and chorizo on toast; squid with fried chickpeas; almond soup; fried anchovies; boar terrine; lamb shank; suckling pig; hazelnut ice cream with chocolate mousse; crema Catalana.
WINE LIST Spanish and adventurous, with many bottles under $45.
PRICE RANGE Lunch tapas, larger appetizers and salads, $6 to $11; entrees, $19. Dinner tapas and larger appetizers, $6 to $11; entrees, $19 to $31. Desserts, $7.
HOURS Noon to 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, with a limited menu until midnight, and to midnight Friday and Saturday, with a limited menu until 2 a.m.
RESERVATIONS Not accepted.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Entrance and dining areas on street level and accessible restroom, but the narrowness of front lounge area and height of tables present difficulties.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN:
(None) Poor to satisfactory
** Very good
Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambiance, and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.