The New York City dining scene is a restless one. Trends come and go, cuisines that used to be out of vogue are now back in fashion and everyone is constantly seeking the Next Big Thing. It can't be easy for a restaurant to find its unique identity.
Huertas is a new restaurant in the East Village that opened to much fanfare a few months ago. Upon reading first impressions, the whole endeavor sounded intruiging, if not chaotic, as it seems to try to encapsulate classic dining formats (tapas and passed dim sum) and current trends (a tasting menu, which is the nouveau fine dining experience, and conservas, seafood tins, which is new to the NYC dining scene but an integral part of coastal Spanish cuisine) within one restaurant. Let me break it down. Essentially, the space is split into two concepts: in the front is a tapas bar with a focus on traditional tapas and canned seafood. Up here, servers also pass the daily pintxos (small snacks) around on a tray, dim sum style, so you can eat at your leisure. The back, however, is a frequently-changing tasting menu that focuses on modern Spanish cuisine. With so much going on, how would this restaurant fare?
The chef, Jonah Miller, certainly has the pedigree to pull this place off. Under the tutelage of David Waltuck (Chantarelle) and Peter Hoffman (Savoy) not to mention a 3-year stint at Maialino, he honed his skills as a chef. Trips to Spain crystallized his vision for a restaurant and fueled his passion for his own place. Oh yeah, and the guy's only 28.
We checked out Huertas on a rainy Tuesday night in early September with the plans of drinking wine and having a couple bites (is there any better post-Pilates workout meal?). Walking in, the place was warm and inviting yet energetic at the same time. We perched on a couple bar stools as we contemplated drinks. The beverage menu was varied and interesting, with well-curated and reasonably priced selections of wine, beer and cidres. The first glass was Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012. The blend of Treixadura and Godello grapes lent itself to a crisp, moderately acidic wine, redolent of pear, ripe peach and bracing minerality. It was refreshing after the humidity was trekked through on our way to the restaurant.
We starting discussing tapas from the menu but a tray of pintxos came around and we were treated to a great surprise: all pintxos are only $1 on Tuesday nights. Dinner? Done.
The first one was a duck croquette, a crispy fried ball stuffed with duck. The contrast of the crisp exterior and creamy, saucy interior was delightful but be forewarned: this sucker is hot. And it squirts. Proceed with a knife and fork. Another croquette came around, this time with mushroom, and was another fried winner. We also tasted a pane con tomate (olive oil and tomato rubbed bread) as well as a tortilla (Spanish omelette). Both were very traditional and well executed. There was also an anchovy, skewered and snaked around olives, which was a briny, bright contrast to the croquettes. We noshed on several of these as they came 'round and 'round and ordered up our second wine of the evening, Monopole, Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013. Like the first wine, there was a good deal of acid and minerality on both nose and palate, but the fruit was a bit more opulent on this wine as ripe peach and pineapple came through.
We were chatting with the bartenders and having a grand 'ole time when an object caught our eye. A cross between a decanter and a watering can, we discovered the porron, a Spanish wine pitcher.
Often at parties in Spain, guests will pour wine directly into their mouths using the porron and as the night progresses it becomes a fun, albeit messy, drinking game. Naturally, we had to try it out.*
Still feeling peckish, we took another look at the tapas menu and settled on the bocadillo, a sandwich with fried calamari, arugula, fried lemon, and squid in aioli. The umami of the ink aioli balanced perfectly with the acidity of the fried lemon and sweet calamari. It was a delicious sandwich, although the bread ratio seemed a bit high and obscured the calamari on a couple of bites.
One of the best elements of Huertas was the service. The guys behind the bar were attentive as well as passionate about what they were doing. One of them overheard us contemplating an octopus dish versus the bocadillo and brought us out a small plate of the sea creature; it was his favorite thing on the menu and wanted to make sure we tried it. Damn, he was spot on; that was one of the best bites of octopus I've had in a while. They were also knowledgable and helped guide us in our wine selections (not to mention gave us a crash course on the porron).
I'm now eager to go back for the tasting menu. If the $1 pintxos are any indication of what's to come, that's going to be a memorable experience.
Reservation for Huertas can me made on the New York restaurants page on OpenTable.
*I am proud to report that while neither of us mastered the art of the porron, we did not need to take a trip to the dry cleaner the next day.