Thursday Tapas @ Tertulia

I don’t know about all of you, but in my group of friends tapas/small plates reign as the preferred way to eat out. Probably because small plates work for larger groups and everyone can have a little taste of everything. But don’t think just because it’s shared plates that your meal will be any smaller than if you went for Italian and ordered a big plate of pasta. Those “small” nibbles of everything on the table can end up being quite filling, so don’t kid yourself and think you’re in for a “light” meal.  Nonetheless, tapas restaurants can be fun with groups and quite tasty. My most recent sampling of the cuisine was in the West Village at Tertulia .

Tertulia is one of the newer restaurants to enter the tapas scene in New York City (opened in 2011). And of course it’s got a cool vibe, it’s in the West Village after all! Walking by you might not think twice from the simple exterior, but once you walk in the door the constant buzz will tell you immediately there’s something vibrant about this place. I went with two girl friends a couple of weeks ago. I knew I had to pick somewhere fun and interesting because one of them had just moved to New York from Los Angeles, and she too has a knack for inventive cuisine. I arrived early and found myself a seat at the bar. The restaurant does not take reservations for dinner, and because it was a Thursday night I knew I should put our name down early.

While waiting I ordered a glass of sangria from the friendly bartender. He went over to this large wine barrel that had a number of spouts sticking out at the bottom (I later found out this was used for all their house wines). As an aesthetic touch I thought it looked pretty cool. He poured the red wine into a glass, went to mixing and then scooped out citrus fruits that had been marinated in liquor from a glass jar placed on top of the bar. (Note:If you end up going to the restaurant, you must report back as to whether or not the sangria fruit is still in this large jar at the very rightmost part of the bar. There was quite the debate between the bartender and one of the wait staff as to whether it looked “strange” to have all these fruits sitting out on the bar. I didn’t think so, but interested to know what ended up being the fate for those fruits.)

After the sangria, my friends arrived and we were seated at our table. There are two options for seating. There are a number of high-topped communal tables where they squeeze you in like sardines next to a number of other groups or you may be seated at wooden-topped dining room tables, which line the perimeter of the main room. There are also some tables in the bar room, which may be a way to avoid some of the noise and bumping elbows -It can get a bit noisy in the restaurant once it fills in. We ended up at one of the communal tables and even though I felt a little too close  with my neighbors, and could hear most of their conversation, the energy of the place was definitely a nice pick-me-up after a long day at work.

As I have emphasized before, a diverse and wide-ranging menu is key. Tertulia does a good job of composing a menu that combines creativity with tradition. There are a number of inventive tapas dishes coupled with the old standbys such as: Pan Con Tomate, Jamon Serrano or traditional Spanish Tortilla. With menus like this I usually find it helpful to call upon the waiter/waitress to explain the more popular or personal favorite items listed. Otherwise there is far too much to choose from. After our waitress’ assist, and a bit of our own input, we decided on a number of dishes: Jamon Serrano (18-month cured Serrano ham), Tosta Mejillones (Grilled mussels, fennel jam, raisins, all I oli), Surtido De Quesos Atresenales (Selection of three cheeses), Nuestra Tortilla Espanola (Classic tortilla: egg, potato, onion and olive oil), Pimientos De Padron (Fried Padron peppers with lots of sea salt), Cogollos (Gem lettuce, asparagus, crispy quinoa, Meyer lemon, quail eggs), Pan Con Tomate (Toasted bread rubbed with tomato) and a special Trout dish the restaurant had prepared that evening. The mussels definitely stood out. Each one was prepared on a delicate piece of toast that was covered with the sweet fennel jam and raisins, topped off by the savory mussels. It was a shame there were only enough for each of us to have one! I am also a fan of the classics, so the Pan Con Tomate, Jamon Serrano and Padron peppers brought back memories to my travels in Spain. I wasn’t crazy about the trout as it tasted just a bit too much like it came right out of the sea. Some people enjoy their fish that way, but I prefer less “fishiness.” My two friends seemed to enjoy it. 

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To round off the meal we ordered the Torta De Arandanos (Mutti’s blueberry boy bait, lemon, creme fraiche ice-cream) and the Tarta de Chocolate (Dark chocolate and coffee ganache, almond crust and sea salt). Usually I don’t get enthused by Spanish desserts, but there were some intriguing ones to choose from and my sweet tooth could not say no. The chocolate ganache was dense, heavy and rich. Everything a chocolate lover desires from dessert. The sea salt was a nice touch. Even though I love chocolate, the blueberry boy bait won my favor that night. For those who are unfamiliar with “boy bait” (because I was) I would liken it to a moist blueberry pound cake. The lemon and creme fraiche ice-cream were great additives, and the sweet refreshing taste made me forget, for just a moment, that it was one of the hottest, most humid evenings of the summer.

Trust me, I am fully aware the West Village has a lot to offer in the way of dining options. Tertulia caught my attention for its unassuming nature, rustic ambience and lively atmosphere. If you don’t like noise or feeling cramped, I would not recommend this restaurant for you. But if that does not bother you, it’s worth making the stop by for some tapas with friends. Plus, the price is right and you won’t feel like you’ve got an empty wallet afterward.  Try the mussels, the blueberry boy bait, go with some classics and definitely indulge yourself and order a pitcher of sangria. Ciao!

Tertulia, 359 Sixth Avenue, NY, NY 10014. Phone: (212) 559-9909.

When To Book: Tertulia does not take reservations for dinner, except for groups of six or more up to two weeks prior. Reservations for brunch and lunch can be made by phone.

Celebratory Dinner @ Union Square Cafe

There are only a handful of restaurants in New York City that can really be categorized as timeless. Union Square Cafe is one of them. I recently made my second visit to the “Danny Meyer Original” to celebrate my dad’s birthday. I don’t know about all you reading, but when I am put in charge of picking the location for a special occasion of any kind I do a lot of searching. It’s not just about the restaurant’s name, how many Michelin stars or what celebrity chef happens to be behind the brilliance. When picking just the right place for a celebration such as a birthday, it is necessary to take a number of things into consideration. Here are just a few: 1) he/she who is being celebrated 2) appropriate ambience 3) cuisine and 4) menu, menu, menu. Can you guess where I put a lot of focus? Menu is key. You want breadth and depth. You want to make sure there is something on the menu that each and every guest will eat. The last point may seem easy enough, but when you come from a family where one person does not eat poultry, one whose diet excludes seafood and pork, and myself who does not eat beef, it can sometimes be difficult to please everyone’s palete.

So back to Union Square Cafe. I try to take my dad out for his birthday every year. So it’s no surprise that around three weeks prior, my mind began to stew about where this year’s festivities would take place. My first line of defense is Open Table. Even though I am disenchanted at times when a restaurant I have been looking to try is not on Open Table, the site is comprehensive enough and can prove to be quite helpful in these situations. I went through a whole slew of restaurants, keeping in mind that my dad is a modest man and prefers quality with less frills, before coming to the end of the alphabet at Union Square Cafe. Nothing really seemed to fit until then. Keep in mind, I had also recently finished reading Danny Meyer’s Setting The Table and was (and still am) completely fascinated with how he built his restaurant empire from the ground up. So, yes, I was interested in the place myself.

I had dined at Union Square Cafe once before, but I was young and could not fully remember how the menu was composed.  When I went to the website I knew I had found the right place. My grandmother would have scallops, my sister would more than likely eat the Roasted Chicken with Rice, they had Grilled Yellowtail Tuna or Crispy Soft-Shell Crab for my dad, and as for me. … I wanted to eat all the entrees except the Prime New York Strip Steak (for reasons already explained) and the Wild Sockeye Salmon (another one of my not-so-favorite foods). Now, in my family, menu due diligence does not stop at the main menu. Dessert is crucial, not an afterthought. Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding. Sold! Not only was this menu one that would appease all my family member’s paletes, but Union Square Cafe really is a seamless medley of great food, hospitable service and dining room that I would describe as understated elegance.

Now that I have covered all the logistics, on to the meal itself.  We ordered a number of starters which included: Summer Squash Salad, Snap Pea Salad  and Grilled Octopus. The salads came highly recommended from our waitress and were a delightful blend of sweet summer vegetables with vibrant colors. The grilled octopus was creative as well, but if you are not one for pungent food of the sea, it might not be the dish for you. Back to our waitress for a quick minute. She definitely made the evening much easier for the entire table. I struggled with the menu and making choices, but her interest and depth of knowledge for each dish really made that decision quite simpler. On to our main courses. I was guided toward the Grilled Lamb Chops Scotta Dita as they are a Union Square Cafe classic. If you are a fan of lamb I definitely recommend trying this dish. As suspected, my sister ordered the chicken, my grandmother’s order was a surprise and she followed my lead with the lamb chops, and dad went with the Grilled Yellowtail Tuna. So I guess I am OK at predicting what my family likes. Then it was time for dessert.

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Upon arrival I noted to the hostess that we were celebrating my dad’s birthday. I know she paid attention because when the waitress dropped the dessert menus off at our table she said, “I hear we are celebrating something special here tonight.”  We ordered the Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding and Blueberry Sugar Pie. A nice contrast from the decadence of chocolate to the sweet, crisp flavors of fruit pies in summer. The bread pudding came out with a candle and “Happy Birthday” perfectly written in chocolate sauce across the top. It was delicious. I personally enjoyed the Blueberry Sugar Pie, but there was one flaw. The pie is garnished with a scoop of Sweet Corn Ice Cream. Now this may sound interesting, and maybe even adventurous, but it definitely was not for me (and the comment card knows it!). The pie was delicious and barely needed anything extra at all. A scoop of plain vanilla would have done it justice. And to be a little more fancy, maybe some Tahitian Vanilla Bean. All in all, what really mattered is that dad enjoyed his evening with his “girls” and that we enjoyed some high quality eats.

So here’s the verdict on Union Square Cafe. As was noted at the beginning, it truly is classic New York City dining. Plain and simple – the restaurant is solid. It has a great menu with warm staff and an ambience that can fit any clientele. You can go there for celebration, a business dinner, a night when you want to treat yourself or even a date. Some in my generation (those in their mid-twenties) may not think it is trendy or “hip” enough for their tastes. It’s not Meatpacking District or the West Village after all. But don’t shy away. the quality will alleviate any worries of entering a “stuffy” or more “mature” environment. If you go and are disappointed please feel free to comment appropriately.

Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th Street, NY, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 243-4020

When to Book: Usually good to book a few weeks in advance, although depending on the season it can be easier to get a table the day of or a few days prior. Reservations available on OpenTable.