Despana is a little wine shop, gourmet Spanish grocery, and tapas/pintxos bar in Soho, all rolled into one. My wife won a wine tasting here in a silent auction, so last night we went in to give it a shot.
We tried six different wines from Spain that utilized grape varietals that I have never tried before. All were great. I’m not a wine snob by any means, but I do appreciate the good stuff and I know it when I taste it.
Speaking of tasting good shit, the snacks here are delicious.
That lean muscle lomo on the bottom right side of the charcuterie board was amazing. And that sous vide octopus? BUTTER!
I went to La Leña in Hudson Yards’ “Little Spain” specifically to try a cut of steak from an 8-10yr old Holstein dairy cow from Mindful Meats in California.
This “Vaca Vieja” style steak is common in Spain and other parts of Europe, so I was psyched to try it. The beef was very lean, and also dry-aged, making it ripe for a quick cook. However, the restaurant spent nearly an hour cooking it in their fantastic open flame style kitchen. They ruined it.
We ordered medium rare but it came out to us somewhere between medium and medium well.
Ultimately it was a very uneven fire, with some parts in the center being properly medium rare, but with way too much thick grey-banding on the exterior.
Amateurish, and likely fired by a cook who was unfamiliar with open flame cooking. The result was a grainy textured eating experience. Not much in the way of flavor either. I had hoped for more uniqueness, having heard that dairy cows can develop great marbling with robust flavors when they get up there in age. 5/10.
At $120 for 24oz this was a complete rip off. Not only that, but when we informed the waiter of the improper cook, he simply said thanks and that he would let the chef know. No offer of a new steak. No money off the bill. Not even a free dessert or drink.
If you must go here, stick to the pork until these guys learn how to cook a steak. My wife said the pork tasting menu was good. Also, nice gin and tonic:
I recently revisited one of my favorite tapas and wine bars: Nai Tapas Bar. They’ve expanded into a two floor location, now on 2nd Ave at 5th Street (they moved from their old location on 1st Ave near 11th Street).
They offer an $89 chef’s tasting menu, which only jumps to $110 with their generous, high quality wine pairing pours for each course (and then some).
Not only is this a great deal, but it’s one of the best tasting menus I’ve had in years. Here’s how it went down.
We were met with a heaping goblet of white sangria…
Followed by a pour of the first white wine…
Which paired with the following bites:
This is truffle mushroom basmati rice with manchego cheese, beets and a perfectly poached egg.
These clams are gently broiled open and then dressed with cilantro, citrus zest and yuzu.
Next up was a pour of another white wine to go with this torched salmon and saffron nigiri and glazed Chilean sea bass (wrapped in crispy fried bread and topped with Serrano ham and asparagus).
After this, another glass of white (Gewürztraminer) came out with my favorite dish of the night (and a possible best of 2019 contender): portobello mushroom carpaccio. The Manchego cheese and crushed marcona almonds really made this pop, and the mushrooms are marinated in truffle oil.
There was a nice sangria-marinated cube of watermelon with mint served at this point, to get us ready for the next round.
After that, a red was poured…
To go along with these three meat courses:
Chicken: what a presentation. Broiled sweet mustard marinated thighs with tobiko, seaweed and champagne picked shallots. There were three kinds of sauces too.
Pork: braised marinated baby back rib.
Beef: prime rib eye katsu sando with Hokkaido milk bread and aioli, over shishito peppers.
After that, a palate cleansing cava came out, and then a glass of dessert white…
To go with this lemon tart and chocolate-stuffed churro.
What an amazing meal! There are so many more dishes I want to try on the menu. I’ll be back here again soon for sure, and I highly recommend you go as well. The price is low, the food is great, and there’s even live flamenco music.
NOTE: THIS PLACE HAS MOVED AND I HAVE AN UPDATED REVIEW: CLICK HERE.
My wife and I were recently invited to Nai, a Spanish tapas bar in the east village, for a press dinner.
This place slings classic Spanish tapas that hail from Galicia, but they also serve some high-end molecular gastronomy as well as fine dining cuisine. But at first glance, the inside might not make you think about fine dining. By no means do I mean to suggest that the decor is not good. On the contrary. It’s set up like a warm, inviting and cozy tavern. Very low key. There’s lots of custom dark wood fixtures and furniture, and even some artwork on the walls.
On the food and service angle, though, this place is nothing short of 5-star dining. What you’re getting here is high quality fine dining in a cozy, rustic setting, with beautiful plating and stellar service, all at an affordable price. The 40 different tapas on the menu range from $6 to $15 a piece. I mean, shit… they even offer a prix fixe deal for 12 or more guests: 10 dishes and unlimited open bar for 2.5 hours at just $45. That’s unheard of!
The wine list is 95% Spanish, and all the beer on tap and in bottles are also Spanish, with the exception of one Ommegang farmhouse saison (one of my favorites, which was served with our first courses). I tasted this refreshing wheat beer:
In April or May, Nai will expand its space into an upstairs second floor, which will have an open view test kitchen and a more experimental menu. In addition, the wine list will become 100% Spanish, with a much larger selection.
They offer happy hour specials, a live flamenco band and flamenco dancing on Thursdays and Saturdays, and six different flavors of sangria, including mango and blueberry. Pitchers of sangria are just $22 during happy hour and all night Monday through Wednesday.
Nai means “mother” in Gallego, which is meaningful because Chef Ruben has garnered all of the traditional tapas recipes from his mother (also a chef and restaurateur), and in turn, his mother’s mother. He’s added his own touch since studying under famous Spanish chefs from Europe, picking up newer, more modern and more technical styles. There are 15 tapas that he considers to be core items, which are always available on the menu. The other 25 items change seasonally.
Having grown up in his mother’s restaurants in Spain, Ruben is comfortable in, and passionate with, his craft. He’s always striving for more, to be better, to take his food to the next level, and he’s constantly shooting for perfection. This passion is reflected in his food, as what I tasted at this meal was truly some of the best tapas I’ve ever had.
Essentially we had a multi-course fine dining experience here, with wine pairings for each. I’ll take you through each course below.
This first bite was a hint of that molecular gastronomy style of high-tech cheffery. It looks like an olive, but it is essentially a small edible water balloon filled with liquefied olive. A great way to open up the taste buds.
Next up was a platter of thinly sliced jamon and a bowl of marinated REAL olives. Very simple, very beautiful, and very delicious.
Those two courses paired with the Ommegang farmhouse saison.
These mini-airbags were like a crispy yet soft pastry filled with creamy manchego cheese foam. It was cool and savory. I immediately exclaimed that I could pop these for hours. Very deadly.
There was also this delicious plate of bluepoint oysters with a lemon foam as garnish. These go for $14 per half dozen. Not bad! They’re bright, crisp, creamy and fresh.
Those bites were paired with cava that was mixed with lemon, orange rind and fresh mint. Watch as David Martinez, co-owner, wine director and general manager, swirls it up before pouring:
The next course was one of two favorites for me; a delicious sea bass wrapped in thin-sliced crispy toast and then topped with asparagus that was wrapped in prosciutto. What a perfect bite here! Soft, crunchy, savory, juicy and light.
In fact that’s something that runs through all the courses here: lightness. Nothing felt heavy or burdensome to eat, which is a feat given the ham-heavy offerings available here.
Shrimp in garlic sauce was next. The sauce on these babies was amazing. We sopped it up with some bread after devouring all the perfectly cooked shrimp in the skillet.
This next dish is crab meat wrapped in avocado and then topped with crisped ham sprinkles. It was a lot like a sushi roll, though I felt that it needed a touch of finishing salt. The crispy ham on top didn’t quite have that savory salt-punch that I expected. In any event, this was a light, fresh and creamy-textured dish.
Those fish items were paired with an albarino single grape wine that was crisp and refreshing.
This palate cleanser was watermelon infused with sangria and topped with mint leaf.
The next dish was smoked chicken with Asian bbq glaze. The chicken is pre-smoked with hickory wood, then cooked sous vide style for hours, then glazed and skewered. The presentation is great with this dish. Watch as David lifts the cloche and wafts the smoke:
The chicken was tender and soft, and the glaze was key for adding that salty, spicy-sweet kick.
We also had these fried croquettes that were filled with ham. They had a potato and cheese flavor and feel, with a crisp cornmeal texture on the outside.
This pork belly was super soft, and was served with a carrot puree and toasted pecans. It reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner!
These bites were paired with a three-grape red wine blend of cabernet, temperanillo and monestrell grapes. Super smooth.
Here comes my other favorite of the night: spicy basque chorizo, with manchego cheese and piquillo pepper on toast, topped with a fried quail egg. This is upscale breakfast at its finest! It had spice, smoke, fat, and ooey-gooeyness. The texture was dynamic.
The final savory course was this short rib platter. It came with fire roasted shishito peppers and diced potatoes in a cheese sauce. Very hearty but not heavy. It was a Spanish tapas nod to great American BBQ, if I had to fit it into a pre-conceived food notion.
These were paired with crianza red wine from an area south of Rioja, made with a temperanillo grape called “tinto fino.”
For dessert we had a small stick of pear flavored cotton candy. It was fun, and actually tasted like a mix of pear and sour apple.
Finally, there was this incredible chocolate filled churro. The outside was crisp and light, and the inside was soft and fluffy. It was filled with a melty chocolate and nutella mixture that was decadent.
Dessert was paired with a nice sweet white moscatel dessert wine.
This place is amazing. I will definitely be back for happy hour, sangria night and flamenco night. I think my next party or event will probably be here too. There’s amazing food, amazing service and everything is really fairly priced.
A good thing to know for those with diet restrictions: Chef Ruben whipped up this vegetarian menu with only 30 minutes notice regarding one of the press meal invitees. I tasted a few things from this menu, and they were all delicious.
I was recently invited to a press dinner at Da Marcella Mediterranean Taverna in midtown. This place has an Italian- and Spanish-inspired menu that showcases high quality ingredients and expert preparation. Owner Manuel Moreno has two Da Marcella restaurants. The original taverna is in Greenwich Village, is small, and has a very comforting, mom & pop neighborhood feel with very affordable prices ($10 pastas). It’s been open for two years. The goal since the midtown opening in November is to recreate that atmosphere, despite the challenges of the area being less of a neighborhood.
Manuel also endeavored to bring his Spanish heritage to light as well in the midtown location, as he is half Italian (mom’s side) and half Spanish (dad’s side).
The downtown menu is fully Italian, but the midtown menu shows off some tapas, paella and other Spanish staples. All recipes were handed down from his grandmother to his mother (the restaurants’ namesake), so you know you are getting something authentic when you eat at his restaurants.
Our host for the evening was Ernesto, who is manager but also the wine expert. The downtown wine menu is Italian, but the midtown wine list is thoroughly Mediterranean, with choices from Spain and Greece a well as Italy. There are 18 wines by the glass, nine of which change frequently.
As you can see from the tasting menu, he picked some really great wines to pair with each dish, all of which seemed to get increasingly better as the meal went on.
So we started with the marinated octopus with caperberries, and Scottish salmon tartare with avocado. Both were absolutely amazing. The octopus was hands down the most tender I have ever eaten. The only thing that would have made it better is if it were grilled to give it a little char. The tartare was perfectly balanced between acidic, savory and even sweet. The wine paired here was a nice dry but floral white from Riax Baixas in the north part of Spain. I enjoyed it, and I typically don’t really like whites all that much.
Next were the veal and pork mini-meatballs and a plate of burrata with prosciutto and truffle sauce. The truffle sauce was just the right amount of earthiness to bring out the other flavors and make them all pop. And the meatballs, well, they were soft and flavorful. It’s always tough to impress me with meatballs because I am spoiled by having good Italian mom and grandma meatballs, but these were excellent. The wine here was a really nice light Chainti. Well paired.
The tagliatelle pasta was perfect. Fresh made, al dente, properly sauced, and really delicious. The bolognese sauce is highly complex without being heavy, which in itself is a feat. It contains 18 ingredients, a few of which are meats. They really make grandma proud here, as this is clearly a signature item at the restaurant. With the pasta we had a Cabernet-Montepulciano wine, which was my favorite of the night. Robust and flavorful, but not heavy or too acidic.
Next we had the seafood and chicken paella, which contained chicken (of course), clams, mussels, calamari, string beans and peas. I haven’t had many paellas in my day, as I tend to like Asian rice dishes better for the crisp texture, but this was pretty damned good. I was amazed at how they got each separate ingredient to be perfectly cooked. For example, I imagine they have to throw in the calamari at a different time than the clams, and at a different time than the chicken, string beans, etc. Each component was just right, so that must be a real challenge. The wine for this and the beef course (next) was a rich Temperanillo. Full bodied, well aged; a no bullshit kind of wine. Probably quite costly too had we been paying customers.
Our last savory course was the wine-braised beef short rib with creamy polenta. This was awesome. The meat was a bit salty, but when you took a bite with the polenta (which was amazing on its own too) it really balanced it out nicely. I was a happy meat man when eating this. So tender, soft and flavorful.
For dessert we had a sampling of three items: pannacotta, tiramisu, and ricotta cheese cake. Owner Manuel is a baker by trade, so all desserts are made in house if not brought in from his personal Long Island City bakery called the Bakery of New York. The pannacotta was my favorite here. It was perfectly textured – creamy yet firm. It had herb notes of sage or tarragon as well. Very inventive. The tiramisu was very nice as well, but the consensus of others at the table was that the cheese cake was the big winner. Not too heavy, really nice flavors.
To sum it up; I really enjoyed the meal here, and I plan to go back soon, especially since it’s so close to my office. I’d also love to get down to the original location in the village to try out some of their very affordable and highly rated pastas (if I can get a table – the place is now generating big lines from what I understand, because there is a lot of demand).