In recent years, the casual dining trend has lead to the proliferation of “tapas-style” restaurants. The same way French dining lead every culture to adapt the “Appetizer, Entree, Dessert” layout. The small plates concept is now applicable to cuisines of all origins. Japanese (DohYo), Korean (Danji), Mexican (Empellon) are just a few recent examples.
There are however trade offs. The freedom to compose your own assortment of small plates takes away from the flow of a meal. You don’t get to enjoy the carefully choreographed meal where the chef has planned for one dish to lead into another. Perhaps that’s why tapas have never been high on my list of favorite eats.
Or perhaps that’s because most of the tapas places I’ve been to were not Spanish…..
While seeking ideas on an article featuring New York wine bars, friends were constantly recommending Bar Jamon. I was intrigued. Some research later, I figure that one visit would satisfy three objectives. Wine bar research, Michelin Star dinner, and getting a proper Spanish tapas fix.
Casa Mono was founded by Chef Andy Nusser and his former boss (and current partner) Mario Batali. Located a few blocks south of Gramercy Park, the dark dining room is illuminated by flickering candle light and lighting from the open kitchen. Within Casa Mono itself, there’re two bars. One facing the open kitchen where you can get a great view of the action. The other bar at the back of the room is a bar of the traditional sort.
The menu was very straight forward, and the wait staff was quite helpful in describing each dish and letting you know roughly how many plates to order. As you study the menu, the sizzling sounds and fantastic scent emanating from the open kitchen makes you want to order everything. Our waitress suggested 4-5 plates for 2 people.
The first plate had flavors that could only be described as explosive. Fresh succulent Mussels cooked in Cava (a sparkling Spanish wine) and flavored with the wondrous Chorizo sausage. The heavy handed use of garlic and herbs made the flavor really pop out at you. The broth made an excellent dip for the bread. If I could pack the broth to go, I would.
The second plate was equally stunning. Head on Shrimp with al Ajillo with Rainbow Chard was chef Nusser’s take on Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp with garlic), perhaps one of the most famous tapas. I felt right at home, since Spanish and Chinese cooking both rely heavily on garlic, and believe in the flavors of the head-on shrimp. The jumbo shrimp was absolutely delicious.
Next came the Ink Bomba Rice with Taylor Bay Scallops. These are not your average scallops, but beautiful and extremely flavorful scallops served in the original shell. Compared to diver scallops, these are smaller, but pack more intense flavor, and has a much softer texture. The ink bomba rice has a very squid derived taste, which I really enjoyed.
For our final tapa, the Oxtail Stuffed Piquillo Peppers didn’t have the same presence on the plate, and had a more subtle and delicate flavor. I really liked how the gelatinous oxtail meat melted away inside the piquillo pepper.
For dessert, we ordered the Warm Pumpkin and Apple Pie, which is a slice of cinnamon spiced pie with caramel ice cream. The pie crust was deliciously flaky, and the filling rich and tasty. We loved the salty caramel ice cream. (Does anyone know where to buy good quality caramel ice cream?)
With so many choices on the menu, we were pleasantly surprised to have scored a 4 for 4. That said, the food ordered by the adjacent table also looked and smelled absolutely fantastic. I’m sure we’ll be back again.
Small plates packing excellent big flavors, Casa Mono is not to be missed. Consider me a Spanish tapas convert.
What does this rating mean?
Casa Mono/Bar Jamon (Make a Reservation)
52 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003