Amazing meals sometimes come in unexpected places. That was certainly the case the other evening at Nai, an unassuming looking restaurant on 1st Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, a neighborhood whose mix of old and new landmarks makes it one of the most fascinating in New York.
Around the corner is Veniero, one of New York’s oldest Italian bakeries and cafes. On the west side of 1st Avenue is Momofuko, a hot destination for foodies. And across the street from Momofuko is Nai, a Tapas place that’s a neighborhood favorite, seeking to attract a larger audience.
Restaurateur/Chef Ruben Rodriguez
Restaurateur/Executive Chef Ruben Rodriguez is young, only 32, but comes from a Spanish family of restaurateurs. His menu offers a mix of traditional tapas from Galicia — including recipes from his mother (Nai) and grandmother – and innovative tapas – some molecular, some Asian-inspired – and very much his own creation.
Wine Director, David Martinez
Nai also carries a wide range of craft beers, predominantly Spanish wines and home-made sangrias that co-owner and wine director, David Martinez, pairs expertly with each dish. His wine and beer choices were amazing. To accompany our first courses, for example, he poured a beer with a citrusy edge from Cooperstown, New York – Hennepin — that perfectly complemented our fish and shellfish dishes.
Hennepin Beer from Cooperstown, NY
At a press tasting, Rodriguez’s ambition was evident from the start. As a palate opener, out came a parade of spoons cradling what seemed to be egg yolks. In fact, they were green olives — a molecular trompe l”oeil — liquefied and then reconstituted. Molecular gastronomy, invented in Spain by Ferran Addrià, is full of such visual and olfactory tricks, and Rodriguez is clearly fascinated by the possibilities it brings. The taste was surprising – light and olivey – which most people loved. Personally, I preferred the real green olives to come.
Mini-Airbags Rellenos stuffed with Manchego Foam and Jamon Iberico and Olives
Our next dish was crazy good – tiny puffs of pastry stuffed with what tasted like pure butter but was actually Manchego cheese foam. Here, Rodriguez hit the bell. I could have devoured every one of them. They far outshined the traditional plate of Sliced Iberico ham and olives that were brought to the table at the same time.
Neither the Manchego Airbags nor the Olive Spherifications are on the menu. They are what the chef calls “welcoming tapas,” and he plans to offer them – or others like them — as complimentary palate openers in the near future. I suspect, too, that these dishes, and future ones he may create, satisfy Rodriguez’s deep desire to experiment and grow as a chef.
Oysters with Lemon Air ($14)
Another inventive course followed. For oyster lovers, Rodriguez delivered raw oysters covered with an airy lemon foam that slid down one’s throat in perfect harmony. Inspired! It was served with a sparkling cava swirled about with fruit rinds – an idea that sounded better than it tasted. Though it looked lovely, the cava would have been fine without the infusion.
Chilean Sea Bass (Tostada de Lubino) $15
Best of all was the ethereal Chilean Sea Bass wrapped in a thin layer of toast – drenched in olive oil so rich it tasted like butter – topped with Serrano ham-wrapped asparagus spears, sitting on an orange emulsion and balsamic reduction drizzled with saffron salt. One of the best dishes of the entire evening.
Shrimp in Garlic Sauce (Two portion sizes: $9 and $15)
Some of Nai’s Tapas are served in two portion sizes, including Nai’s classic and well executed Shrimp in Garlic Sauce served with hunks of bread to dunk into the great oil-garlic drippings.
Aguacate Rolleno (Avocado Stuffed with Crab Meat) $11
A sushi-looking dish, Avocado stuffed with lump crabmeat sprinkled with crisp bits of Serrano ham, was delicious – though a bit too drenched with mayonnaise for my taste – and not particularly Spanish. Though I admire the Chef’s adventurousness, it would not be on the top of my tapas list.
Valdemonaxes – Albarino Grapes
Altos de Luzon – Tempranillo Grapes
Montevannos – (Ribera del Duero)
Martinez poured a variety of Spanish wines, red and white, as we progressed from fish to meat dishes. Many are also available by the glass and, if in doubt as to the right choice, I suggest you turn to Martinez for advice.
Sangria infused watermelon (Courtesy of the Chef)
As we transitioned to a series of impressive chicken and meat dishes, Rodriguez delivered a visually lovely and unusual palate cleanser, watermelon squares infused with Sangria, with an accent of fresh mint. Delicious, refreshing and a thoughtful touch.
Pollo Ahumado – (Smoked Chicken) – $12
Another ingenious presentation and dish was hickory smoked, sous-vide glazed chicken thighs on skewers. It came to the table under a dome which, when lifted, enveloped us in the lovely smell of smoked hickory. Though the chicken was a bit dry, when rolled around in the Asian-Spanish teriyaki-like sauce, it were extremely tasty.
Coles de Bruselas Con Lacon (Brussels Sprouts with Pork Belly) – $11
I love Brussels Sprouts and I love pork belly but, somehow, there was too much going on in this dish for either of these tastes to emerge. The ingredients were drowned in a spicy mustard aioli sauce (again too much mayo) and topped with apple slices sprinkled with scallions.
Barriga de Cerdo (Pork Belly) $12
Salmorejo Canario (Baby Back Ribs)
Pintxo de Chistorra (Chorizo with Quail Egg)
However, the next three meat dishes were outstanding, one better than the next. The pork belly with caramelized pecans and yucca chips with two large daubs of cream of carrot was rich, satisfying and everything pork belly should be. The marinated Baby Back Ribs, redolent of Rosemary, with cheese potatoes and fried green peppers, were out of this world. I particularly loved the green peppers. And our final meat dish – a slice of Basque chorizo over piquillo peppers on toast topped with melted Manchego cheese and a quail egg – was not only beautiful to look at but fabulous to taste. The tiny quail egg atop each round of toast made the platter look like doll food but, as one delicious bite proved, it was a highly creative and grown-up treat. It would be a wonderful brunch dish.
Caramelo de Algodon (Pear Cotton Candy)
Churros Rellenos de Chocolate ($7)
Rodriguez couldn’t resist a final bit of whimsy – Pear Cotton Candy on a stick – another molecular invention that I could live without but everyone else seemed to find delightful. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to live without his chocolate filled Churros! They were wonderful, especially when accompanied by a delicate and aromatic Spanish dessert wine that is a real discovery. Don’t miss it.
Rodriguez’s food is imaginative and impressive. He clearly has ambitions that go way beyond a conventional tapas place. In fact, he is planning to open a new dining area on the second floor. It will feature an open kitchen and Tasting Menus on the order of what we enjoyed. Rodriguez hopes it will be up and running by the Fall.
In the meantime, enjoy Nai Tapas Bar as it is, a modestly priced, undiscovered gem, with an ambitious chef capable of delivering some astonishing and satisfying dishes. And if you like Flamenco, there are Flamenco Nights (live music and dancing) at 8:30 and 10:30 PM on Thursday and Saturday nights, presented without an extra charge.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag