Jamon Iberico de Bellota, a luxury ham on par with foie gras and truffles, rules Tertulia, a new tapas spot in Manhattan’s West Village.
Chef Seamus Mullen makes it the star of his menu -- 1.5 ounces for 20 bucks (that’s $213 per pound).
The thick-cut, mahogany-hued meat has a floral, coconut perfume, hinting at the acorns the black-foot pigs were raised on. Complement it with one of seven sherries, maybe Palo Cortado or Oloroso, fortified wines with the punch of caramel yet none of the cloying sugar.
The kitchen piles garlic-chili potatoes over soft-cooked egg and toast, topped with Iberico.
Mullen blends more of the ham into bechamel-studded croquetas ($9). He cuts sticky snail rice, loaded with fennel, with the same fine meat. He takes an Iberico skirt steak and grills it rare, a bloody porcine treat with the spidery marbling of Kobe.
Is this three-star food? Yes, though if this were a three-star restaurant, Mullen would regulate the crowds (the bar can be three deep), cut the 90-minute waiting time, take reservations (only parties of 6 or more may book ahead), add soundproofing (the noise can exceed 80 decibels) and teach staffers not to drop stuff on the hard floors.
Instead, Tertulia jibes with New York’s haute-casual zeitgeist, a reasonable tradeoff given the designer food at discount prices. Who’s that dining with Jay-Z? Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, of course. They don’t care about the lost half-star for the wait.
Skeptics will argue that $5 is too much for pan con tomate, a traditional tomato and garlic rub invented to revive day-old bread. Believers like me will counter that it’s one of the best versions in town, a tight balance of sour, sugar and salt.
Tertulia, with painted brick and dark wood, is modeled on Northern Spain’s Asturian cider houses. Too bad the cider lacks any zing. The flat beverage, the pomaceous equivalent of an English cask ale, lacks the vibrant acidity of good apples. Here’s a better way to label Tertulia: It’s our most adventurous tapas restaurant after the offal-heavy Casa Mono.
Cauliflower is fried with tripe, the finger food a brilliant vessel for mojo picon, the smoky cumin-spiked sauce from the Canary Islands. At Boqueria, Mullen’s old, somewhat uneven Spanish spot, the chef would pair chorizo with quail eggs. Now he subs out the sausage for pig’s cheek. Cool.
Chicken breast is lean. Lamb breast is not. Most chefs give diners a blubbery mess. Mullen butchers the complicated cut into a 50/50 ratio of fat to meat. He cooks the lamb thrice: a quick cold smoke, a three-hour confit, then a pass on the grill. The musty fat dissolves in the mouth; a swath of sheep’s yogurt counters the gamey musk.
The 40-day Creekstone prime rib ($72) is not for beginners. It’s for those who love the concentrated flavor of dry-aged beef. The mineral-tinged beauty is cooked medium; the extra heat helps render out the fat; vinegared potatoes cut the richness.
Swordfish oozes its oils into a pile of tomatoes. Baby cuttlefish are infused with the smoke of hardwood embers. Delicious, dreamily saffroned seafood paella ($42) smells as wonderful as it tastes; don’t forget to scrape off and savor the crunchy rice. Finish things off with a sea-salted chocolate tart.
At 11 p.m. on a Friday there’s still a wait, because this is where Manhattan is eating right now. Rightly so.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most small plates under $20.
Sound Level: Can get very loud, around 80 decibels.
Date Place: If your date can wait in wingtips or heels.
Inside Tip: Let the word Iberico guide your choices.
Special feature: Wide selection of sherries.
Will I be back? Late at night, when the crowds thin.
Tertulia is at 359 Sixth Avenue, near Washington Place. Information: +1-646-559-9909 or http://tertulianyc.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)