Sunday, December 7, 2008

Adventures in Manhattaning

Yesterday couldn't have been more prototypically New York. While waiting for friends outside the Whitney Museum, I couldn't prevent myself from buying a dirty water dog. To be fair, I haven't had one in years, and though the bread is always mushy and the onions swimming in some red sauce that no one has ever properly described (why is it red, anyway?), it was the perfect midday snack.

Fewer than two hours later, we were done with the Alexander Calder exhibit (amazing) and the William Eggleston exhibit (not the day's prize winner, I'm afraid). Outside, it had turned cold and dark and so we walked down Madison Avenue in search of a bar. We landed at Park Avenue Winter, the seasonal restaurant that changes decor, theme, and menu on the quarter. Lucky for us, winter had come early to the Upper East Side; the restaurant changed from autumn to winter at the beginning of the week. We sat on fur-backed chairs at the ice bar, a built in trough of ice housing several vodkas and sparkling wines. Park Avenue makes three seasonal simple syrups for their make-your-own seasonal cocktails. This season, it's litchi-elderflower, Bartlett pear, and lemongrass. I had the Bartlett pear and Prosecco, but after trying my friend's litchi-elderflower and Prosecco I regretted my choice. The good news? I can always go back.

Next up, a trip to Chelsea to test the waters of the recently-reviewed paella bar, Socarrat. When we arrived--there were three of us awaiting a fourth--the maitre'd (if you can call him that) informed us that they could not seat incomplete parties. It didn't seem like a problem because, although there was one other woman waiting ahead of us, the resturant was rife with empty spots. I should add here that the restaurant consists of one long bar where diners sit across from one another in addition to one raised four-top. All told, the restaurant can accomodate about 25 people, no more. My friend showed up 15 minutes late, and by then other parties of four had arrived to take the seats over which we had been hovering. The paellas themselves take between 35 and 45 minutes to cook, so turn time... well... there is no turn time. Our plans, dashed.

Two of my friends, a married couple, offered to dine elsewhere. I bought their drinks to make the trade fair. The seating system, notably, makes little sense and inspires stress and irritation, which are never good qualities to impart on guests before they even have a chance to look at the menu.

Regardless, my tardy friend and I were eventually able to dine, and the paella didn't take nearly as long as they said it would. To start, we had roasted piquillo peppers (no spicy ones in the mix this time), the traditional Spanish 'pan con tomate,' essentially a very garlicky bruschetta, and deep-fried artichokes. The tapas menu is extensive and I could have picked a bunch more to snack on if given the time.

And then. Paella. Socrarrat offers about six paellas nightly. Paellas are for two people or more and arrive in a large cast iron skillet on a raised trivot. The word socarrat itself refers to the caramelized rice at the bottom of the paella pot. These pieces are eaten last and with the most gusto. I'd go back just for the black rice.

The paella we ordered--Valencia, featuring sugar snap peas, asparagus, scallions, pork rib, rabbit, and snails--looked incredible. Tender snails arrived in large and gorgeous shells. The pork rib, though often still attached to the bone, had tremendous flavor. But the rabbit was dry and tough and the asparagus was nowhere to be seen. Next time, I would opt for the traditional paella, enjoyed by our dining neighbors: head-on prawns, mussels, cockles, and vibrant fava beans (not in season, but who cares?). At paella's end, the restaurant's owner, speaking with a thick Castillian accent, came over to scrape the pot for us. "This is the best part," he instructed, as he divided the socarrat between our plates. He was right.

Desserts are minimalist. A delicate creme brule with a thin crust and a lemony finish was a nice way to end the meal. Wines cover important Spanish regions of interest without exhausting any possibilities. I had a nice garnacha rose followed by an aggressively oaky tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, which was probably the perfect match for Spanish home cooking and a blustery, snowy evening.

259 W. 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

Park Avenue Winter
100 E. 63rd Street
New York, NY 10021

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