52 Irving Place corner of 17th Street
$120 for two, with two drinks, with tip
Mario Batali took a lit bit of convincing to let Chef Andy Nusser open up a Spanish tapas bar under his name, but as told in Heat, a tasting knocked their socks off. Two years after they first opened, the place is still packed and the wait to sit at the bar is still long. We went out one cold night after I wrote about Barcelona with plans on eating at Bar Jamon but I’ve been there so many times that I just wanted to see how its sister restaurant compared. Without reservations, the wait for the bar was an hour. We put our names down anyway and waited in the pub down the street. One Guiness later, the maitre d’ called to seat us. We put our coats back on and ran back to the restaurant where he gave us two choices: a table that we will need to give up after an hour and a half for another couple who actually had reservations, or at the bar where we can watch the chefs cook. Which do you think we chose?
We split four plates and a dessert with our small carafes of red wine. We saw that the Cal Pep of Barcelona had its influence here with their deep-fried green peppers and chipirones, or baby squid, with garbanzos, or chick peas. The giant duck egg is also a mainstay but we skipped those dishes because we wanted to try something with Casa Mono’s own signature on it.
The cockles, or small clams, were cooked with sloppy scrambled eggs topped with scallions. It was a good combination but we could barely taste the clams. The sweetbreads were toasty on the outside and soft in the inside and the roasted fennel was a nice touch. I would like to think I’m difficult to impress and only good chefs would think of bringing two things like them together.
Speaking of another great combination, the pig trotters were made into breaded square patties sandwiched with white anchovies. The vinegary taste of the small fish provided a great balance to the overwhelmingly gelatinous and sticky quality of the pig’s feet. It’s definitely not for everybody but I loved it. (And if your dining companion ends up liking it, too, I suggest that you keep him.)
I had to admit that I only ordered the cock’s combs because I was tickled to say it. (What, the cockles weren’t enough?) Because they were cooked in a porcini reduction, they tasted like mushrooms even though they had the consistency of soft tofu. They looked like black slugs on our plates but the earthy taste was very addicting. Two scoops of plum ice cream with candied orange rinds and crunchy orange-flavored nuts were the perfect ending to these flavorful, sometimes oversalted, dishes.
Go to Bar Jamon if you want to have simpler tapas like cured meats, but Casa Mono is worth a try if you want to experience the Batali influence in Catalan cooking.