After a hiatus of over two years, La Nacional has reopened. This basement in the Spanish Benevolent Society — the anchor since 1868 of the neighborhood known as Little Spain — was a men’s bar and social club until 2002, when it was turned into the kind of tapas bar restaurant once common in the neighborhood. Retaining its timeworn décor, it quickly became a sentimental favorite.
But in 2016, La Nacional shuttered, with the purpose of turning it into a more serious restaurant featuring a rotating cast of chefs visiting from Spain. These itinerant chefs would stay in the transient rooms upstairs, as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other visiting dignitaries once did.
The layout of La Nacional remains largely the same, though the place has been considerably spiffed up. A pixilated poster of grapes looking like balloons enlivens the front room, along with a whitewashed fireplace. Tables, some raised and others at normal height, are sparsely scattered around the room, replacing the worn wood school tables of the past. The kitchen in the back room — where dimpled banquettes now provide bright red accents — has been retained, and now a counter allows you to watch the chefs at work.
The four chefs currently installed are all from Valencia, Spain, the original home of paella: Jordi Morera, Salvador Boix, Gracia Sales, and Javier Parreno. All four were in the kitchen when two friends and I visited soon after the reopening. The menu was a little less ambitious than we expected, featuring four boards of cheese and charcuterie, nine tapas, two main courses, and three desserts. The place is more of a tapas bar than ever before.
While the tapas included the obvious, such things as patatas bravas, tortillas, garlic shrimp, and gazpacho, many of these were given amazing twists that reflect the excitement of contemporary Spanish cooking. The gazpacho ($7) blew in as a pink froth with cucumber shaved ice, an all together delightful dish at a surprisingly low price. Served in wedges with little squirts of allioli, the creamy potato-and-egg tortilla was conventional but perfectly rendered, while the gambas al ajillo ($16) featured a generous quantity of shrimp awash in olive oil. Don’t hesitate to call for bread, because it won’t arrive unbidden.
Another eye opener was grilled octopus offered on a cushion of whipped potatoes. Other tapas include tuna belly with avocado, a choice of wild mushroom or ham croquettes, and the grilled bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes called pan tomaca. While the tapas were good and sometimes even thrilling, the pair of main courses, which appeared in the category Rice Dishes, were both disappointing.
While New Yorkers might expect seafood in paella, traditional Valencian versions often feature snails and such game as duck and rabbit, and vegetal components that can run to artichokes and beans. Whatever the components, one hopes for a certain excitement from the dish. At La Nacional, the paella ($20) seemed to be chicken and white beans. It’s designated “paella del dia,” so probably changes from time to time. So, too, the arroz con secreto iberico ($23) was a bummer, more like an Italian risotto, with strips of pork shoulder (that’s what “secreto” refers to) and dry, shredded mushrooms on top.
The wonderful desserts were a return to form, including a dense and flavorful flan that a friend who travels often in Spain said was one of the best she’d had in New York City; and a deconstructed lemon tart that, while not revolutionary, was filled with sharp flavors and perfectly executed. Is La Nacional a better restaurant than it was previously? No doubt about it.