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NYC Restaurants Review: Casa Mono & Socarrat Paella Bar

Whenever I am planning to travel my first order of business is the Google search “Spanish restaurants in (destination city)”. My recent trip to New York City provided an unparalleled opportunity to visit a metropolis with more Spanish restaurants than any other city in the US. Previous trips produced impressive results (check out my NYC Tapas Crawl); this time would prove to one-up any other trip.

Casa Mono

After a day of wine seminars, tastings, and pouring, I was invited by my friends from Drink Ribera (Helen, Gabriella, April, and Roger) and Señor Eduardo Cano Uribe (Communication and Promotions Director for D.O. Ribera del Duero) to join them for dinner at Casa Mono. Let me first say that I was humbled by the thoughtful invitation and ecstatic that I would finally get an opportunity to enjoy the fare of Spain with other Hispanophiles. Interestingly enough, I had already made a reservation, scheduled a few days later, but was not about to pass up this opportunity! I most certainly made the right decision.

Located just east of Union Square, Casa Mono is part of the Mario Batali restaurant empire. Coupled with his tapas bar, Bar Jamón, these two venues represent Mario’s foray into the world of Spanish food and wine. (For those who are unaware, Mario lived in Spain with his family during his high school and impressionable eating years.) Between the two eateries, one is presented with a wine list of nearly 600 wines. Awarded two stars by the New York Times shortly after opening as well as a Michelin Star in 2009, much has been said – good and bad – about this restaurant. Ignoring what everyone else had to say I was eager to try it for myself. I was not to be disappointed.

One would think that arriving at the restaurant around 11:00 PM would seemingly be a non-issue. Not in New York City. We waited about 20 minutes for a table and keenly took our seats in anticipation of the parade of dishes we had planned to order. The extensive Catalan-inspired menu is almost overwhelming as there are so many tempting choices. After a Cava toast the ordering commenced. Next, the procession: Pan con Tomate, Pumpkin and Goat Cheese Croquetas, Sardinas Fritas, Baby Chopitos with Melted Spring Onions and Ramps, Razor Clams a la Plancha, Pulpo with Fennel and Grapefruit, Rabbit with Anticuchos and Habanero Cuajada, and Fideos with Chorizo and Clams (compliments of the chef). Our dinner wine was an incredibly delicious red from Utiel Requena, Bodegas Mustiguillo Finca Terrerazo. Finding just enough room for dessert, we narrowed the menu to just three choices: Mono Sundae, Crema Catalan with Buñuelos, and Pudín de Naranja. Two tasty dessert wines accompanied our final courses: Jorge Ordoñez Moscatel and Primitivo Quiles Fondillon (an unfortified, semi-sweet, Monastrell-based “vino ranció”).

Two hours later, the feast was over. I didn’t want it to end, and I could not imagine eating another bite – yet, there were still items on the menu that piqued my curiosity (even after my 10+ courses). Needless to say, my experience at Casa Mono proved one of the best and tastiest Spanish food experiences I have had outside the Iberian Peninsula. One caution, the dining is cozy (aka “small”) with 13 tables and 15 bar seats. So, making a reservation is highly recommended.

Socarrat Paella Bar

My previous reservation for Casa Mono now cancelled I took the opportunity to extend my current streak of incredible Spanish cuisine in the city that never sleeps. Upon a recommendation from a newly-acquired friend as well as a review from TimeOut New York, I set my sites on Socarrat Paella Bar. Again, another great decision, if I must say so myself! Don’t know what “socarrat” is? Check this out from the restaurant’s menu:

socarrat. /sokarat/ n. 1. Seductive caramelization of the bottom layer of a perfect paella when the liquid is absorbed and the rice is done. n. 2. Paella Bar. 259 W 19th Street, New York, NY 1011. T 212 462 1000.

I was first struck by the communal table running down the center of this small Chelsea restaurant. I have always enjoyed the opportunity to partake of incredible food rubbing elbows (literally) with my neighbors who are, undoubtedly, enjoying the same experience. Chef/Owner Jesus “Lolo” Manso (also proprietor of La Nacional Spanish Benevolent Society, North America’s second social club for Spanish immigrants and oldest Spanish restaurant in NYC) has created a tremendous and inviting space to share paellas and fideuas (there are eight on the menu) as well as a traditional and unique selection of tapas.

Regularly enjoying paella at home I decided to give the array of tapas a go. My meal consisted of equally-delicious dishes: Patatas Bravas, Croquetas del Dia (chicken that day), Calamar a la Plancha, Canelones (stuffed with shrimp), Pan Tomaca, Cochinillo (roast suckling pig offered only on the weekends), and buñuelos. To wash it all down, I downed a very tasty Cava Sangria. Incidentally, guests on both sides of me were enjoying the paella (which looked absolutely delicious) with the well-formed socarrat perfectly crusted to the bottom of the paellera. Although I would also have liked to try the paella I felt more than satisfied with the delectable array of tapas presented to me. I was full and satisfied. I was two for two for this trip.

This trip to New York City produced two of my all-time best restaurant visits. Yet, for me, every trip is an attempt to better the last. Do you have a trip planned to New York City? I would recommend a visit to one or both of these fine establishments. Headed somewhere else? Open your Google search engine and start hunting!

¡Buen Provecho!

Rick Fisher

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