Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
136 Ninth Ave,
between 18 & 19 Street
New York, NY 10011
Spain is a culturally diverse country, with 17 very distinct regions each with its own history and foods; many of the regions even use their own language in addition to Castilian, which is the general language used in Spain.
To understand Spanish cuisine it’s important to remember the way daily meals are in Spain. Usually breakfasts are small and simple; lunches are large and extravagant with several courses; dinners are short and fairly light, unless you are dinning at a major chef’s restaurant where a multi-course meal can take 3 to 5 hours.
The standard breakfast in Spain ranges from a quick café con leche and toast to fresh fruit and very rarely a mini baguette sandwich. Spanish desayuno (breakfast) never includes heavy foods like fried eggs, bacon and potatoes. Because lunch is usually served late, around 1:30 to 2:30 in the afternoon, many have only an early cup of coffee for breakfast, then have a quick 10 o’clock snack and then a big family lunch followed by siesta in the warm months. Most Spaniards, especially the Madrilleńos, go ‘tapear’ i.e. stroll from bar to bar in the evening, drinking sherry, wine or beer and munching on tapas, until very late.
The reason that food in Spain is now so delicious is because talented chefs have, for many years, adopted traditional recipes from different cuisines sometimes adding ingredients and cooking methods from other parts of the world, adapted them to a modern Spanish palate and presented them to an appreciative audience.
After one of my recent articles printed at a New York City daily about the merits of Northern Spanish food, I was invited to visit ‘Salinas’ restaurant located in the heart of trendy West Chelsea, on Manhattan’s west side. The executive chef and partner Luis Bollo (pronounced Bóy˙o), is Basque; he started his career in San Sebastián, the undisputed gastronomic capital of Northern Spain. After apprenticing in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, he came to New York City to open a restaurant in Lower Manhattan that offered nouvelle Spanish cuisine, complete with food-foams, spherized gels etc., similar to the kind of dishes that Ferran Adriŕ of elBulli fame used to create.
In the Salinas incarnation, chef Bollo has returned to solid Spanish cooking, using the freshest available ingredients, with only a few of the dishes indicating any avant garde implementation.
We had a 12 course tasting dinner and the food was as exciting and excellent as I had in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants.
Like in most exceptional restaurants, menus change as seasonal ingredient availability changes, and one should go to the restaurant’s web site http://www.salinasnyc.com/menus/ to see what the current menu has to offer. Of note is the fact that some key ingredients are imported directly from Spain, such as Jamón Ibérico “Fermín” from Salamanca, and Jamón de Bellota (made from pigs fed exclusively on acorns), both special tasting hams not easily found in the New York City marketplace. I was also happy to see on the menu classics, like Patatas Bravas one of the very few staple dishes that, together with Tortilla Espańola, will be found in every self-respecting restaurant or bar in Spain.
The wine list has currently fifteen wines by the glass that include several very nice Cavas from Penedés and Extramadura, white verdejos, albarińos and godellos, a couple rosés and five ‘tinto’ mostly medium bodied red wines.
The “by the bottle” section is divided into light/medium/full bodied segments for both whites and reds. I recognized a number as exceptional libations, and – depending on what courses you have – you should have no difficulty selecting a great wine from Penedés, Priorat, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or any other of the better Spanish viticultural regions.
We started with an oblong marble tray sporting two tall shot glasses of Gazpacho (on the menu indicated as Chupitos de Gazpacho and made with heirloom tomatoes, cucumber and lemon granita), and two each of boquerones on multigrain toast (white pickled sardines with smoked potato brandade and pickled vegetables jardiničre, indicated on the menu as Anchoas Jardinera) and Croquetas Ligeras de Jamón y Maiz (Ibérico ham, boiled egg, and roasted corn croquettes with herbed aioli and pimentón el Angel). Washed down with a glass of manzanilla from Cádiz, this starter was a delight and a sure indication of fine things to come.
My dinning partner tried the White Sangria, and thought it was terrific and well-suited to the starters. Somehow, I personally can’t warm up to ‘white’ sangria (after all the name ‘sangria’ is based on the Spanish word for ‘blood-letting’ and blood is not white).
Sangria is usually made in the North from a blend of dark red wine, cubed apples, sliced lemons or limes and sliced oranges, a sweetener – like honey or simple syrup – and brandy. In Southeastern Spain, it is called ‘zurra’ and is usually made with a lighter red wine, cubed peaches, or more recently nectarines, and peach brandy. In Spanish bars it is usually chilled for an hour or two, but in Portugal where sangria is also very popular, it could be macerating for as long as a couple days.
My most favorite Sangria was one I had in Catalonia a few years back made with Rosé Cava, ripe peach and lemon slices, honey and a small amount of Cardenal Mendoza brandy that added flavors of raisins and burnt caramel, therefore more complexity, to the Sangria.
But back to the small plates…
The next item was a salad with Spanish bonito tuna, cherry tomatoes, corn, white beans and fennel shavings with vinaigrette dressing and an oloroso (sherry) reduction.
Following came Calamares a la Plancha. Charcoal grilled squid stuffed with caramelized onions and squid ink; the squid was crunchy on the outside and silky on the inside. A very traditional dish on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Spain.
Next was Queso Mozárabe, an Andaluz specialty of crispy fried phyllo purses stuffed with fresh cheese and toasted crushed Marcona almonds in a honey, coriander and olive oil foam. The play of sweet and salty tastes was yummy.
At this point I changed wines to a crisp, white, slightly acidic Albarińo and my partner moved to the red Sangria, which she thought was preferable to the white for the rest of the dishes.
Following was Ventresca al Oloroso; charcoal grilled belly of yellowtail tuna with oloroso (sherry) picante glaze and Andalusian pipirrana; shaved fennel, small cucumber cubes, shaved bell pepper, sweet onions and anise. For one that likes charcoal grilled tuna, it is a winner!
The final small plate was another outstanding winner: baby quail legs resting on cubed apple and wrapped with crispy ribbons of apple-smoked bacon, glazed with a sweet and savory Pedro Ximénez sherry (this type of sherry is known in Spain just by the initials PX).
Then came examples of Spanish pasta and rice dishes. While pasta is usually a primo piatto in Italy (a course larger than an appetizer and slightly smaller than a main), in Spain pasta (fideos) or rice (arroces) dishes are considered part of the mains. If in the photo the portion seems small, it is half-portion by request. Multi-course tasting menus require a bit of restraint, even when the food is superb.
Fideo is what we call in the States ‘Angel Hair’. It was al dente toasted vermicelli, cooked in squid ink broth, with shaved white cuttlefish strips on top, sprinkled with Spanish paprika. Crunchy and a bit on the salty side, it is a typical Catalan dish favored in Barcaloneta seafood restaurants (Barceloneta is a seaside community of Barcelona where the best fish restaurants are found).
The next main was Arroz Meloso de Pulpo. It is a Galician specialty; a rice dish with heirloom tomatoes, pimentón and wild mushrooms, with octopus tentacles on top. The rice is cooked in a red Rioja wine, very similar in execution to an Amarone risotto from the Veneto. We had it “socarrat” (with the rice toasted and crunchy from the bottom of the pan) and loved it. What also made this dish exceptional was the taste and aroma of garden fresh oregano that permeated it.
The final main course was Duck Breasts topped with salty Ibérico ham on a bed of small lentils cooked al dente, with strips of red onions and a sweet glaze. By that time we were both so stuffed that, after tasting the dish, we asked the waiter to pack it for us.
But we were not finished; dessert was coming!
No matter how full one is, in Spain there is always room for dessert because usually dessert is NOT sticky and sickly sweet as in the Levant.
In this case it was a flourless chocolate cake topped with a slab of crunchy salty caramel, with a scoop of crushed pistachioes over vanilla ice cream on the side. A fitting end to a delightful dinner.
Huge bouquets of Ecuadorian fresh roses and a gas fireplace decorate the back dining room that in summer has a retractable roof. In warm weather you are dining al-fresco! In front, is a small bar and lounge. Salinas is intimate and seating can be tight. While the setting is very nice, it’s the quality of the food and the outstanding service that earn this place our seal of approval. And this comes from someone who has spent many years traveling the world in search of culinary distinction.
© October 2015 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.