Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Worth its Salt

Patatas Bravas at Tia Pol
Image courtesy of Project Me!
Certain cultures develop a palette, or a tendency, for particular flavors or textures. For instance, some Chinese regions favor the slippery or chewy – think shark fin soup, fish maw, and glutinous flour. Moroccan food is often sweet, with a reliance on sugar and high-sugar fruits and vegetables like carrots and raisins. Americans? Fat, perhaps. American cuisine has deep roots in the Lardy Fryolated Lumberjack Trucker Blue-Plate Special with a side of grease (Hoo-rah!) Just ask Paula Deen.

But what I’ve learned of Spanish food suggests that their cultural palette is gung-ho for that most ubiquitous spice: SALT.
This to me is very fitting for a cuisine that has perfected many variations on simple recipes. While the cutting edge of world culinary development can arguably be placed in Spain, in particular at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant, the bulk of Spanish food is simple and practical.

The most familiar part of it is, of course, tapas. This bar food that began as a small covering over the glasses in insect-laden establishments is a sophisticated treatment of simple tasting dishes. The past few years have seen swarms of this style of restaurant open in NYC, and they almost always got it wrong. Here’s why: the chefs often focused on the small portions, which gave them an excuse to create the expansive and expensive dishes they love on a smaller scale, charge $9 a plate for them, and end up making money because people need four of them to fill up (that’s $36 before drinks for those who are counting). But tapas aren’t really meant to be a meal, and they’re also not supposed to be gourmet. They are usually simple dishes with simple ingredients at a reasonable price. In Spain, they’re great for a night of bar-hopping, because you can go to the place with the good tortilla, and then the place next door with the great jamón. In short, it plays right into our ideal at Beyond the Quail: specialty dishes at reasonable prices.

In New York, this is hard to find. I can personally recall a few nights with my sister and her husband hopping from place to place, from l’Orange Bleue (a restaurant name with a surrealist literary reference we writers can appreciate) to the now-defunct Ñ and 66 for little plates, but the cost was prohibitive, especially with Manhattan drink prices. But the spot that restored the faith (and it ain’t really a secret spot at this point), was the wonderful Tía Pol in Chelsea (10th Ave. and 23rd St.). There are a few reasons why this is a first-tier Beyond the Quail favorite: first, even if it’s crowded and there’s a wait for tables – the room is tiny – you can order food and eat standing up. Second, some of the best menu items are the cheapest and most filling. The patatas bravas (fried potato cubes with a garlicky paprika aioli), fried chick peas, and tortilla (potato omelet) are delicious, and easy on the wallet. The slightly pricier, but essential, piparras (blistered, salty peppers) are perfect for drinks. In Spain they use chili peppers that are usually mild, but occasionally spicy, and the Russian roulette element makes for exciting eating. The same happens with the shishito peppers used at Tía Pol. And each pepper is crusted with thick grains of, you guessed it, salt. For this post, we single out the piparras and the patatas bravas as the reason to go. Wash it down with some white sangria, a rebujito, or a fino sherry.

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