When Casa Mono (“Monkey House”) opened in 2003 in the snowiest December since 1948, Joe Bastianich pitched in by taking coats at the door. Meanwhile, Mario Batali stood alongside chef Andy Nusser at la plancha, the flat-top where much of the restaurant’s menu was prepared. In a New York Times review, Marian Burros complained that the place was cold and drafty, but lavishly praised the fried squid and pumpkin croquetas, while seeming more interested in the desserts. She pointedly eschewed the offal that was everywhere on the menu: head cheese, tripe, and the floppy red cockscombs identified as “critic bait” in my Village Voice review — and so they were, sending food journalists scampering to their desktop computers.
Over the intervening years, the appearance of the smallish restaurant at the corner of 17th Street and Irving Place hasn’t changed except for the outdoor dining structures that flank it on two sides. But the menu has evolved, with the cockscombs long since disappeared along with Mario Batali — though Nusser is still executive chef. In the interim Ferran Adrià sky rocketed to American fame, and the cavalcade of New Spanish cooking has clearly had an impact on the food here, forcing it to be even more colorful and innovative than it already was.
I visited Casa Mono while researching my clam map, since it was one of the few places in town that consistently serves razor clams. The restaurant recently removed them from the menu, but I lingered for a meal that was even better than the ones I’d had nearly 18 years previously. Paired with a glass of dry sherry, the sweetbreads ($25) were cooked to a custardy softness with an exterior crustiness. The towering gland was presented on a bed of fennel stems, which tasted like artichoke. Saturating the reddish-brown heap was a New Spanish flourish — an almond vinaigrette that covered the heap in crushed nuts and sent the entire dish galloping toward Catalonia.
That would have been enough for a highly caloric lunch, but I dutifully searched the menu for any sign of clams and spotted fideos ($21). These gossamer wheat noodles came tossed with shell-on manila clams and chorizo, which tinted the broth brick red. The noodles were cooked al dente, but toasted on the top, altering their fundamental nature and making them crunch as well as squish. A dollop of beige sherry aioli sat on top. What to do with it? Smear it on each bite.
I was so impressed with my meal there that I returned with a friend a few days later. Lucky for us, the razor clams had returned to the menu, and now lay side-by-side on a small white plate like pale bedfellows. They were so fresh you could almost see the creatures wiggling, as if to shake off their slumber, and a blanket of shredded green parsley lay on top. Olive oil roiled over the crustaceans, ramping up the nautical slipperiness.
In a menu divided into four sections, almost at random and running to nearly 30 dishes, the offal is still there, a signature of tapas bars in Spain less often seen here. You can pick pig ears, pork belly, or skirt steak — partly composed of the cow’s outer diaphragm, which has a slight livery flavor — in addition to the above-mentioned sweetbreads. But my favorite variety meat on the menu was bone marrow, which seemed to have reached its height of popularity around a decade ago at area restaurants, usually plainly roasted and presented with toasts.
Here the presentation is colorful and festive. The surface of the split shin bones looks like a handful of confetti has been thrown upon it, and one can discern orange trout row, white dabs of aioli, purple onions, yellowish streamers of grated horseradish, and “everything bagel spices,” in facetious reference to a bagel spice combo that seems to be appearing nearly everywhere. The result is delightful twists and turns of flavor as you spread the jellylike marrow over the browned toasts.
But don’t despair of classic tapas, which are still available at Casa Mono. Each is presented with a single extra feature that enlivens the small plates. The salt cod croquetas ($12) come with curls of orange rind barely discernible on the brown expanse of the cylinders, adding subtle but sharp flavor; while shishito peppers arrive wrinkled like green fingers after lingering too long in the bathtub. They come atop a Manchego Huancaina aioli, referencing a city in the mountains of Peru famous for its cold cheese sauce. Really, it just tasted like mayo to me.
Finally, there’s the iconic patatas bravas. While this dish is interpreted differently all over the Spanish-speaking world, usually involving a squirt or two of hot sauce, here their bravura derives from an excess of a rich and not particularly spicy sauce, which makes the dish seem more like a casserole than the alternative version of steak fries it sometimes resembles. All for the better, since Casa Mono exists to revise our expectations for a tapas bar, where the food is easily the equal of the restaurant’s insanely extensive and excellent Spanish wine list.