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Photography by Evan Sung

A Spanish Inquisition

by By Adeena Sussman | Manhattan magazine | February 5, 2011

Say what you will about restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, but he doesn’t shy away from a challenge. While much of the New York food community tries to separate us from our shekels with a barrage of Neapolitan pizzas and custom-blend burgers, El Chod (Asia de Cuba, China Grill) has gone rogue, launching Bar Basque, a high-end, high-concept Spanish spot in the new Eventi hotel just below Herald Square. (Terry Zarikian, his in-house culinary consultant and a known Spanish food expert, clearly had a hand in this project.)

            The Eventi may signal an upgrade for the neighborhood, but the strip of Sixth Avenue it inhabits is still a mess, marked by one-off luggage stores, heavy traffic and a cavernous construction crater next door. Perhaps it was the gritty environs that prompted Chodorow to hire legendary Blade Runner and Alien set designer/futurist Syd Mead to conceptualize the interiors of the second-floor eatery.             The elevators open onto a bar backed by illuminated bottles and a glowing, acetylene-blue hologram that is vintage Mead. It’s unclear where a long red hallway, accented with neon touches and circuit board–like panels actually leads, but the design seems less a nod to the future and more an early version of an Atari video game. The more subtle lounge, outfitted with low-slung, black spherical ottomans and high, white-backed bar tables, is situated within view of one of the city’s only Enomatic wine delivery systems, a sort of vacuum-sealed digital dispensary that allows drinkers to select different-size pours of 32 Spanish vintages from a temperature-controlled glass case. The overall effect stakes a claim to the future of Spanish cuisine, but the space delivers mixed messages that may muddy its agenda.             At least someone is firmly grounded in the here and now: young chef Yuhi Fujinaga. The lounge’s pintxos menu is a good introduction to the cooking of this Hawaii native, who can claim classical training under chef Ed Brown at 81, as well as time spent touring and tasting in Basque country with Zarikian. His silky, mildly smoky piquillo peppers are the essence of Spain, and plump green olives are ingeniously coated in crushed Cool Ranch Doritos before being deep-fried. Fujinaga does equally good work with more complicated plates. Super-fresh yellowfin tuna tartare cloaked in a thin slick of acidic tomato gel and little capsules of red-wine “caviar” herald the arrival of a serious talent intent on elevating our perceptions of Spanish food beyond fried potatoes and smoked paprika. He’s also paying homage to legendary molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adrià (there’s even a cocktail named after the famed el Bulli chef).             Past the lounge, the dining room is a noisy, cavernous space without a visual focal point. Outside the giant windows, a two-story Jumbotron plays a variety of films and media clips without a soundtrack, a distracting sideshow reminiscent of a scene from one of Mead’s cinematic master plans. Tables are spacious, but the place feels better suited to a stand-up, after-work drink or private event than a sit-down dinner. Service, while earnest, can be spotty—not surprising, considering it’s a haul to get from the kitchen to the farthest tables. Come summertime, the windows will peel away, and it’ll be worth exploring whether Bar Basque’s dining room functions better with an infusion of fresh air than it does as a winterized solarium.              Maybe it’s a Spanish thing, but small plates are more inviting than the main courses. Virtually every restaurant in the city has a version of goat cheese and roasted-beet salad on the menu, but it’s hard to make it interesting. Fujinaga does it, bruléeing the cheese with a sugary crunch and leaving each miniature beet whole, lining a plate filled with tasty greens dressed with a sherry vinaigrette. (Conversely, a plain salad of “mixed bitter greens” needs dressing and, at $9, some menu real-estate justification.) A farm-fresh egg is slow-poached, then blanketed in house-made olive oil potato chip crumbs, and finally suspended in an Idiazábal-cheese broth, the whole delicious mess accented with a rectangle of crisped Serrano ham.             A selection of croquetas filled with cheese, ham or mushrooms is greaseless and crisp, great with a sparkly glass of rosé cava. The same goes for cod-stuffed piquillo peppers or a serving of Iberian ham from free-range black pigs that feast on sweet acorns, relatively hard to find on New York menus and a reminder that Spanish ingredients can give Italy’s raw materials a run for their money.             One of those ingredients, firm Calasparra rice, plays a prominent role in the paella. No seafood-and-starch free-for-all, this version is a thoughtfully composed dish of juicy shrimp and mussels, plus a tiny dice of squid that cleverly camouflages itself among the rice. Another entrée, lamb served three ways, showcases the meat inventively. A grilled chop is accompanied by a tender nugget of lamb sweetbread, the trio completed by an irresistible tater tot–size croquette, this one stuffed with braised shoulder. It’s a perfect example of purposeful, inspired food on a mission. If Bar Basque figures out a way to reconcile its environment with its menu, it’s got a chance of helping ensure that its sophisticated Spanish cuisine does in fact have a future in New York City.   Bar Basque Rating *** 839 Avenue of the Americas 646.600.7150   What the stars mean: * = fair, some noteworthy qualities **= good, above average ***= very good, well above norm ****= excellent, among the area’s best *****= world-class, extraordinary
in every detail   Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.   HOURS Dinner Sun–Thurs, 6–11pm Fri–Sat, 6pm–midnight.   What to eat Slow-roasted piquillo peppers, croquetas, crispy farm egg, paella, beet salad, braised milk-fed lamb, grilled items.   Who’s there Business travelers
staying at the Eventi, design
junkies, Spaniards.   Two points To anyone who figures out what the “cosmic bride” hologram above the bar is all about.     Mead mania The designer’s website is a fanboy’s dream come true—check it out at sydmead.com.   WHAT IT COSTS Cocktails, $11–$15; intxos and small plates, $2–$7.50; appetizers, $9–$19; entrees, $29–$39.