Starting in the 1930s, Manhattan had lots of tapas bars in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, serving small portions of flaming chorizo and grilled octopus. But beginning in the early years of this century, tapas bars underwent a spectacular revival, with the newcomers introducing creative dishes at least partly inspired by the new Spanish cooking of Ferran Adria and his disciples, like Boqueria and Tertulia. Now a new place has opened up that proves tapas fever hasn’t abated yet.
Tomiño Taberna Gallega — located in Little Italy on Grand Street — specializes in tapas from Galicia, a rugged land on Spain’s northwest coast. There, bagpipes are still played, and the empanada was invented. The consulting chef is Lucia Freitas, whose restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, A Tafona Casa de Xantar, remains one of Galicia’s most notable.
Located on Grand between Mott and Mulberry on the fringes of Chinatown and Little Italy, Tomiño provides an oasis of light late into the evening. The front half of the restaurant is a wood-accented barroom, with big doors that open onto the street, and a long bar with a fresh seafood case at one end. From that case fly langostinos a la plancha ($17), three jumbo prawns cooked on a griddle — head, antennae, beady eyes, and all. Crunch at their buttery perfection.
Opposite are a pair of booths, which provide the most lively and comfortable seating. Overhead a printed curtain ripples, upon which a mural of gleaners wading into the surf to pull percebes (gooseneck barnacles) from the rocks is depicted, though unfortunately, the restaurant hasn’t offered them. Up a few steps, the rear dining room is more prosaic, with functional furniture, Spanish pottery in niches, and an open kitchen at the end. Both rooms feel very European.
It is in that back room that you should chow down on any of the more substantial meals known as Platos Principales. Bacalao con coliflor ($28) is the most interesting, a sizzling plate of fresh cod with potatoes and cauliflower swamped with béchamel, like a white wave breaking over rocks. Also good is macarron de la abuela, a grandmotherly dish of penne, chicken, and forest mushrooms that one-ups chicken cacciatore. Skip the risotto-like arroz caldosto ($48, for two), which is altogether too salty, sloppy, and soupy to merit the exemplary seafood washing around therein.
But really, this is not a place for a formal sit-down meal, since most of the excitement is in the four other menu sections, which concentrate on small plates, several demonstrating the quirky and unique cuisine of Galicia. Check out the tortilla de Betanzos ($10), named after a small town that was known as Carunium in Roman times. It looks like a round bouncy cushion upon which a jewel might be displayed, but when cut open, a liquid center of potatoes and egg yolk spills out. No more dry tortilla.
Huevos rotos con zorza turns out to be a wonderful hash of pork loin, eggs, and crisp potatoes; I could eat this every day for breakfast. Foremost of all dishes that are more rare in New York is Tomiño’s take on the empanada. The restaurant offers the version most New Yorkers are familiar with, a folded and crimped pocket pie carried by Spanish mariners all over the world. But the original empanada was more of a communal pastry, a giant pie cut into pieces. Tomiño stuffs this giant pie with salt cod or chorizo and chicken, and serves it in four small rectangular pieces per order ($12).
Yes, Tomiño also offers the greatest hits of tapas bars, including tiny, finger-size chorizos set aflame in a cast iron pan; gooey octopus dusted with paprika and stuck on toothpicks; and callos, a righteous stew of tripe, sausage, and chickpeas. The mellow delights of Spain, which would be displayed right on the bar if it weren’t for NYC’s paranoid Health Department, are best experienced in the tapas combo called “mixta” ($17), which includes a wedge of tortilla, slices of serrano ham, pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomatoes), and bowl of mixed olives.
The food menu is bolstered by a powerful drinks program that allows a choice between Galician beer and Spanish cider on tap, expertly made gin and tonics featuring such flavors as raspberry and ginger, and vermouth, which is in many ways the signature beverage of Spain. At Tomiño, the list runs to nine varieties in shades of red and white, served traditionally in a tumbler with ice and an orange slice ($7 to $9). You won’t find a more refreshing beverage for sipping, nor one that goes better with a wedge of tortilla or pair of grilled sardines.