Irving Place, Gramercy Park, New York, NY
Review by Diana, Wraith6, Susu, MaceVindaloo, Jools, MostlyIrish
It was a damp, rainy, cold, windy spring day something Winnie the Pooh might refer to as "blustery," and we had reservations at this tiny corner restaurant. There is very cramped table seating for about 20, plus 6 or so seats at the grill bar. It's really a wine bar, not a full bar; they have no liquor. Every bit of space is utilized in this tiny eatery, and though it's cramped and crazy, it's really charming, especially if you go for and early lunch, when the place is empty. (An hour later, and especially in the evenings, this place becomes a clautrophobic nightmare.)
There are no outside walls; they are really windows, which swing open in warm weather for a few more tables, or a bit more room, so there is a lot of light coming in from outside. The columns are covered with shelves, and filled with wine and the waiter station supplies for service. On the back walls are the wine bar on one side, and the griddle / kitchen at the other. If you can score a seat at the grill, you can watch the chef create many tapas; he never seems harried, no matter how crazy it gets. Hey, he has the most room to move and breath when the joint is full!
The down-to-the-floor windows make this seem more like a porch. The floors have the "painted rug" or "painted floor" quality to them, but also they evoke broken pottery mosaics. Upon closer inspection, they seem to be tile or firm linoleum, cut into haphazard trapezoids and fitted together skillfully. It was very comforting, and made the space seem actually very homey, rather than "precious."
And, since this place is owned / run by Mario Batali, there is a certain element of "fabulousness" one should be wary of when the place is packed ... but we discovered that element was really brought in by the clientele. The place itself is homey, confident, and beautifully coordinated.
And, the food is fantastic! The concept is a Spanish tapas bar, where small plates of food can be ordered and shared, so you can try some new stuff, and in theory, you can control your budget and your caloric intake. Note we said, "in theory," for the food is cooked so well and tastes so amazing that you end up trying more. The waiter is patient, will explain anything on the menu, and will make recommendations. He steered us to a very, very nice bottle of dry sherry called "La Gitana," which we all liked so much that we ended up ordering three bottles of it throughout the meal. Unlike the sweet and cooking sherries you might have tasted before, it tasted of the cask, and was a light version of the distinctive sherry flavor. The "weight" was comparable to a Riesling, but with more casking.
There were many things we wanted to try, and the wonderful bread and olives in oil which came out at the start simply encouraged us to want to eat. (The bread, by the way, is reminiscent of the bread one of us ate at cooking school, which means the baker likely went to the same school?) There were three or four different olive types in a pool of oil, which was perfect for dipping the crisp-skinned, coarsely textured bread. Honestly, we would have been happy with just this part of the meal, with a glass of that wonderful dry sherry.
We ordered the calamari, pumpkin croquettes, grilled sardines, razor clams, and grilled pulpo (baby octopus). You know, if the only thing you are doing is grilling without much in the way of sauce, you'd better be good at what you do. They are masters at what they do the simple preparations are not simple to invent. The pumpkin was combined with goat cheese and rolled into 2-bite sized balls, the perfect size. You could pick them up and pop them in your mouth if you so wished, but you really should take the time to savor the things, which are the most perfect and wonderful croquettes. We will never eat those other things called by that name ever again!
The calamari was not your average fried squid rings. In fact, we doubt they were fried at all, more like salt baked. The creatures were young and thin, and so very tender and flavorful without overpowering. Both hood and tentacles were cooked and presented in a pile on a place with lemon wedges. We didn't want the lemon because the flavor was superlative on its own and the lemon would have thrown everything off! The razor clams were treated a in a garlic, parsley, and olive oil sauce which was reminiscent of French escargot, but was much lighter and the clam meat was more substantial and less muddy tasting. The sauce was worth sopping up with the excellent bread, which they keep bringing more of as you run out.
The sardines were likewise so light and not at all "burnt" which is what you normally expect of fire-grilled food. They were obviously sardines in flavor but lacked the heavy oily fishiness normally associated with this species. The fish were small enough to eat the bones and head, so that not a thing was left on the plates. The octopus was the least impressive, sitting atop a tasty dressed frisé salad, but it was good it was simply the least of the "first course" of appetizers we'd ordered.
The menus were brought out again, and we were more enthusiastic about ordering more little plates ... which were actually pretty hefty offerings. The food is rich and one plate would make a nice lunch for a normal person. But we found ourselves in an almost orgiastic frenzy, and we ordered many more plates. Come to think of it, there was so much that it might be best to explain in a show-and-tell table format:
While it's true that some things might have been below expectations, our expectations were simply high, from the time the bread and olives came to the table and we took our first sip of sherry. The service was attentive and very kind, with only one potentially snarky server in the mix, but the manager spoke with her immediately, which is the right thing to do. There were a lot of servers and only two cooks, but when a place gets this crowded, you do need enough staff, for sure. Our waiter was wonderful and the busboy was really efficient, wiping down the table with an unscented towel between "courses" (a really important, overlooked point don't want non-food cleaning supply smells here), and silverware and plates and glasses were taken away and replaced promptly and efficiently.
There were mixed reviews on some websites about this place, and it was puzzling since we didn't experience any bad service or below-par food. It was expensive, for sure, in the sense that it was so good that we ordered many more dishes than we'd intended to order. And the quality of the dishes were superb, and justified the higher price tag, though none of the plates went over $16 ... In our post-mortem analysis discussion, we decided that the people criticizing the place had some other agenda. As we'd noted, the "ab-fab" aspects of this place emanated not from the restaurant, but from the chicly dressed and choiffed patrons of this precious and historic neighborhood. We assume that if they tasted "only salt, no calamari" that they didn't really know what calamari tasted like in the absence of breading and deep-frying ... or if they said the salad Mono was overrated, that perhaps they don't like manchego or frisée. It's true that many things on offer were way outside the comfort zone of most typical restaurant-goers. That's not Casa Mono's fault.
We are happy that Casa Mono, which is now about three years old, has stuck to its concept, though rather than a tapas bar, it seems to have become a hybrid between that and a full-fledged 3-star restaurant. But they never make you feel like you're taking up space they could turn-over to another customer. You could sit and chat and imbibe for as long as you wanted to, or could afford to. Our tab came out to close to $100 per person, with wine, tax, tip included. A pricy luncheon, but one full of value. We agreed we'd rather come here for lunch and imbibe in all these beautiful flavors and have such a great experience in such a beautiful cozy room (one of us is going to redecorate their own place to look more like Casa Mono!) for three hours with friends who understood and appreciated the experience, too.
And it's a wonderful way to wile away a rainy, windy day. The chilly weather added to our experience here ... and we have to admit, we are somewhat afraid to return in case the next time doesn't have perfect weather! Being that it was so pricy, it's best we not go too often, anyway. But for another special occasion, Casa Mono gets our vote for a meeting place, though be sure to reserve well in advance. We had originally tried to get dinner reservations here, but there simply wasn't anything available, thus our lunchtime repast. But lunch is less zoo-ish, so providence had been looking out for us, after all! (If it hadn't, we might have tried the adjacent Cafe Jamon, with its smaller menu ... but that's another Noshery Review for another time!)
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