There are not many forgotten neighborhoods in New York these days, but the Eventi, a new hotel from the Kimpton Group, has found one in the heart of Midtown, on Sixth Avenue just a few blocks south of Macy's.
The hotel rises on a block that seems lost in a grittier time, its neighbors a check-cashing storefront, a vacant lot and a number of establishments selling wigs made of 100 percent real human hair. The context makes the contrast even more striking when you enter a discreet door, climb a tall flight of stairs and enter the sleek, sophisticated world of Bar Basque, a new restaurant devoted to the cuisine of Spain.
Spain has had its moments in the spotlight in recent years, especially Barcelona, with the 1992 Olympics, the 2008 Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the world-wide press attention on chef Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli. But the U.S. has been slow to embrace Spanish cuisine, and there are only a few ambitious Spanish restaurants even in New York (I'm thinking of Casa Mono, La Fonda del Sol, Aldea, Tia Pol, Sala One Nine and Boqueria).
So it's a pleasure to have a new one join their ranks. As in Spain, Spanish restaurants in America generally fall into one of two very different camps: rustic, with casual interiors and simple dishes based on traditional ingredients such as ham, shellfish and lamb; or avant-garde, with high-concept dining rooms and menus that use the full complement of molecular gastronomy pioneered by Adrià. Bar Basque, part of the China Grill Management group, leans towards the latter approach in ambience, but straddles the line when it comes to the menu and wine list.
The interior is a study in scarlet, with hard, curved surfaces echoing with techno beats. The designer is Syd Mead, known for his work on science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron. There's a sleek bar, a lounge with communal tables, an open kitchen and a glass-enclosed terrace with seating for 120 that faces a courtyard enclosed by a wall on which a giant video screen plays during dinner. On a recent evening we segued from My Man Godfrey to an animated tale of what appeared to be gods and goddesses from India. It's a lively place to eat, and draws a stylish, international crowd.
The menu includes iconic Spanish fare such as silky, nutty salt-cured ham from Ibérican pigs fed on acorns ($36), sweet roasted piquillo red peppers ($8) and simply grilled langoustines, briny and tender (5 for $30). More adventurous, but still based on traditional Spanish ingredients, are an egg, poached, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, placed on mashed potatoes and fried Serrano ham ($12) and savory suckling pig, with crisp skin, melting fat and juicy meat, over a "risotto" made of truffled potato cubes ($34). "Chocolatina de Terry" is a dense chocolate cake with caramelized hazelnuts, named for restaurant manager Terry Zarikian and perfect with an unctuous Pedro Ximénez Sherry from Toro Albala ($6).
The 150-selection wine list (almost entirely Spanish) is fairly priced, with many bottles under $60; it covers the breadth of Spain and is well-balanced between traditional and modern styles. Its principal weakness is a lack of vintage depth; most of the wines are from 2004 or younger. Young sommelier Emmanuel Pena, who worked for a time at Rioja's Bodegas Campillo, is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.
Pena recommended Pago de Carraovejas, a Ribera del Duero that debuted in the 1991 vintage. The 2006 Crianza ($118) is a blend of mostly Tempranillo with about 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, aged for a year in French and American oak. It showed the fresh acidity of the vintage, with ripe black cherry and plum complemented by mineral and earth notes; rich yet focused, it managed to balance modern structure and traditional character. I rated it 92 points, non-blind.
Between the music and the movies, the assertive decor and some overly elaborate dishes, there's a lot going on at Bar Basque. At times, for me, a bit too much. But whether you stop in for a glass of cava and a plate of jamón, or linger until the last drop of Pedro Ximénez is gone and the credits roll across the giant screen, there's also a lot to like. The neighborhood is kind of a backwater, but Bar Basque is a welcome island for a lover of the food and wines of Spain.
Joy Ubina — NY, NY USA — November 8, 2010 5:59pm ET
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