Sometimes, lack of choice ends up working against the consumer. This is one of those times. It’s unfortunate when the spendiest experience at any restaurant — the prix fixe is $55 — is the least inspired experience. But the good news is that the a la carte half of Huertas is a smoky, sexy, wood-fired affair that shows off the ample talents of two Danny Meyer vets: Jonah Miller, formerly a chef at Maialino, and Nate Adler, an ex-beverage director at Blue Smoke.
The concept of the front room is simple: You sit down and waiters start bringing out food, a dim-sum-style of dining evocative of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions or New York’s Ma Peche. Like what you see? Order it. The duck croquettes, crispy on the outside and as pillowy as a meatball within, are essentially the red meat equivalents of a chicken McNugget. Don’t like what you see? Order it anyway — the seafood-heavy fare really can’t be faulted. And to round out the meal a printed menu offers more substantial dishes and well-priced cured meats — Iberico is just $6!
"That the power of persuasion, when applied smartly, can focus the diner on what’s important in a wine."
Then there’s Adler, who’ll want to pour you a copper-colored Amontillado. "The beautiful thing about this sherry" he says, "is that it tastes of the sea," a confusing statement for a beverage that’s not a dirty martini. Trust him. The fortified wine smells of burnt sugar and looks like a glass of dessert, though it’s dry on the palate, with a concentrated nuttiness to match the acorn aromas of good Iberico. Then it happens. That wave of salinity hits. It's a good reminder that the power of persuasion, when applied smartly, can focus the diner on what’s important in a wine.
It’s this type of high-grade competence that makes Huertas a fine addition to New York’s diverse Iberian culinary scene, whose best members include the haute-Portuguese Aldea, the Sephardic and Moorish-inclined La Vara, the pan-regional Toro, and of course the ham-heavy Tertulia. I say mostly because Huertas needs to fix or eliminate its no-choice prix-fixe menu.
No choice or low-choice affairs have largely been confined to longer tastings at cutting-edge venues like Elizabeth or Benu. In exchange for this submission to the will of the chef, diners get to sample more dishes than they would have otherwise.
But at Huertas, the opportunity cost of committing to five courses is missing out on 25 or so dishes in the tapas bar — not to mention all the passed plates and daily specials. That’s not to say a shorter no-choice menu doesn’t work every now and then; budget gourmet restaurants like Le Chateubriand in Paris (€65) or Contra on Manhattan’s Lower East Side ($55) make good cases for this format, because they serve visually stunning and boundary-pushing fare worthy of discussion. Huertas doesn’t. That's not a criticism. Despite Miller's penchant for sous-viding his meats, Huertas' delicious fare has a rustic-leaning feel to it, a style that's more conducive to sharing than individually composed plates.
A slow cooked egg with broccoli and cauliflower cream is fine for a single bite, but it’s a veritable snoozer when each member of your party has an entire plate of it to finish. Better is the a la carte version, with thicker slices of toasted bread, ready to soak up the juices of a fried egg and chorizo. Luckily, Huertas will gladly substitute that version on the prix-fixe upon request, or let you supplement the set menu with anything from the more satisfying tapas menu.
Too bad there’s no logical substitute for the fideos with cockles, a vermicelli preparation that doubles as a reminder that many other restaurants do an entirely better version of pasta with clams; Miller's sub-par preparation lacks any detectable brine.
Pros will take a seat at the tapas bar and order any of the canned fish selections from Northern Spain*, like oily sardines or scallops with concentrated tomato; the latter’s a knockout that combines such brilliant seaside salts and earthy sugars it recalls the city’s best Manhattan seafood chowders. Pair it with a fino sherry, whose vegemite-like yeasts burst with every sip.
That’ll go nicely to with the octopus as well, roasted in the wood burning oven until it has the texture of marshmallow and the flavor of smoked paprika — a veritable Halloween treat for grownups. Get the Calasparra rice too, which is assaulted with mushroom stock and cooked up crispy like a paella — but at half of the cost: $14. Tortilla Española, often a room-temperature frittata, becomes at Huertas an epic terrine of soft potatoes and onions, with a runny omelet draped on top. And best of all is the potato carbonara, with the tuber cut into spaghetti-like strands and cooked in the style of al-dente pasta, drenched in egg and spicy chorizo.
Finish off with toasted Marcona almond ice cream and there’s your new first date staple. It’s a heck of a lot better than doing the prix-fixe with four friends, where you’re all facing four slices of almond cake for dessert, when one would’ve done just fine. Now you know: Huertas gets tapas right and set menus wrong.
*Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Huertas cans its fish in-house. It does not. That fish is imported from Northern Spain.
Edit Note: Ryan Sutton awards gold stars on a scale of zero (disappointing) to four (exceptional). His colleague Robert Sietsema awards his own set of (different colored) stars. Sietsema reviewed Huertas alongside another Basque newcomer Donostia back in June. Read his three star review here.
Photos by Daniel Krieger