Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Casa Mono
Irving Place, Gramercy Park, New York, NY
212-883-9555
Review by Diana, Wraith6, Susu, MaceVindaloo, Jools, MostlyIrish







If you have the perfect meal, what would it be? And if you came across it by serendipity, would you know at the time you were experiencing something exquisite? Will it always be perfect, or is that the result of some lucky cosmic collusion in your life?

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:


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 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 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. And actually, maybe octopus does benefit from charring, so maybe cooking over higher heat would have been good?

The razor clams were treated a in a very fresh chopped 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.

Dorado is quite a meaty fish and reminded us a little of duck, in how the skin was cooked to a crisp, perhaps to drain fat? The filet was placed atop fava beans and slices of blood sausage, which alsmot makes this a breakfast dish, according to those of us who'd come from cultures where blood pudding is breakfast fare! it was tasty, though the dorado was a little dry from it's extended duck-treatment.

Chopped up oxtails cooked in a mirepoix and stewed, served with pasilla chiles were so good and so rich and heavy, we were satisfied with the spoonful per person at the table. It was very tasty and maybe the epitome of how oxtail meat and fat should be cooked. One of use hoarded the dish, so as not to let a drop of the stew/sauce get away from him!

Flank steak sliced thin and placed over a tomato based cooked salsa was tender-yet-chewy as flank steak should be. The cooked sauce was piquant without being overbearing.

Salad Mono is frisée piled up and surrounded by thin slices of manchego, a Spanish cheese similar to a creamy parmesan. In people's comments on restaurant sites they either adored this salad or hated it. We loved it, and there was just enough cheese. More would have been overbearing, and a thicker slice might have felt to cloying or fatty in the mouth. We loved the granular sweet nutty things they sprinkled over the salad too, it added crunch without being big and hefty like a crouton might've been.

We were assured by the waiter that the grilled vegetables were very good ... perhaps he was making a comment on our choice of plates up to now? Anyway, grilled artichokes with mint was one of his recommendations. The vegetables were trimmed and cooked properly and the grilling did infuse a smokiness to them that was very appealing.

Grilled asparagus is a great favorite of ours, and these plump spears were delightful. They were served atop an aoili with shaved fennel over them. But all in all, they were simply grilled asparagus, and several of us do this at home frequently over the summer. Minus the aoili, of course!

Sweetbreads is a "love them / hate them" type of thing, but we suspect those who hate them haven't tried them or they were taken completely by surprise. Depending on where you are from, sweetbreads are the brain of a young sheep, or the pancreas or thymus of a young sheep or calf. Then again, in other cultures, it's defined as any edible gland from any meat animal. These were coated and fried and served atop grilled fenel bulbs. The softness of the sweetbreads makes the thin, crispy fried exterior a great contrasting set. The grilled fennel was soft, slightly licoricey-tasting and would have been a great dish all by itself!

Pig's feet tend to be gelatinous and rich, and Casa Mono elected to pat the gelatinous pieces of meat together into a little square fritter and served with fresh (not brined or oil-packed) anchovy fillets. The strong flavor of the latter cut through the fritter, though some in our party were creeped out by the concept of eating pig's feet. Maybe it was overall too rich a dish? Anchovies can be quite rich, too.

Wild boar over an onion marmalade ... the wild boar didn't taste wild, it tasted very much like domestic pork, though it was somewhat leaner. But the marmalade beneath was a wow! It was more a sauce of caramelized onions and orange peel in a syrup. It was complex, deep, a bit sweet, a bit savory, and maybe that's why the subtleties of the pork were lost on us? We enjoyed smearing our bread bits through the marmalade after the pork was gone.

Burnt flan is, of course, crème brulée, and it was smoky and very light, not overly heavy at all. And unlike many crème brulées in this world, it was warm throughout rather than the traditional cold required to keep the stuff solid as the sugar crust was melted onto the top surface. The "cookies" were fried batter, formed around a bay leaf, so one would peel the dough off the leaf for eating. Was tasty!

If one is going to consume chocolate cake, it should be good stuff, and it should be surrounded by superlative, enhancing accompaniments, including a caramel ice cream and a stewed fig in a thick syrup. This was a lot better than a chocolate cake with fig filling and ice cream icing ... for some reason!

Tangerine sorbetto in a marmalade sauce, but unlike the wild boar marmalade, this was a thinned out marmalade (made with seville oranges) and served with mint leaves. It was really excellent, light, refreshing, and made us want more. Sorbettos are simply grown up Italian ices, and this one was balanced and pure and made us give thanks for the existance of tangerines.

The Mono Sundae is a bowl of plum ice cream with chocolate sauce and nuts and stewed sugared orange peels. Its name indicates that it's a signature dish and it's so divine as to overshadow the chocolate cake dessert! We all divvied up the ice cream balls and staked our claims — it was just too good to be nice and share further!


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.



We liked the "pockets" under the tables. When we first came in, the water glasses were secreted in there. It's a place to put your bag while you eat, maybe? And it seems to make the tables more stable, so they aren't wobbling on a single post like at so many eateries.

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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