A good piece of advice when dining at Ernesto’s — chef Ryan Bartlow’s very good Basque restaurant in Two Bridges — is to order eggs. Order them in starters, mains, and desserts. Get them fried and sunny side up with pig ears, hard boiled and sliced into salads, or slow baked into tocino de cielo, an impossibly rich flan made with only yolks.
“The Basques love eggs cooked every way and at every meal, and none of the dishes in the Basque repertoire better conveys the tension between humble modesty and luxury than those made with eggs,” chef-restaurateurs Alex Raij and Eder Montero write in the Basque Book, an excellent introduction into the type of cooking one might find in San Sebastian and elsewhere in Northern Spain.
Indeed, Bartlow doesn’t shy away from spendier egg preparations when the occasion calls for it. Over the summer, he nixed his classic $10 tortilla in favor of a luxe $45 version with jamon Iberico, and more recently, he debuted a $30 plate of soft scrambled eggs topped off with a giant mound of crab txangurro.
These pricey appetizers prompt an obvious question, which is whether Bartlow has the chops to pull off something like this or whether such upscaleification is good idea in the first place. Normally, piling luxury ingredients onto an otherwise affordable preparation can bring things into so-called stunt dish territory. One thinks of the $72 Wagyu-fried rice at Lily in San Francisco or scores of other dishes seemingly concocted to lure in an expense account crowd. But there are also times when good chefs figure out smart and meaningful new ways to evoke classic fanciness, such as when Daniel Boulud started stuffing his burgers with foie gras and truffles, as a French-American ode of sorts to the multi-tiered charcuterie of his native Lyon.
Bartlow, I’ll argue, gets his pricey egg dishes right, thanks to some smart techniques and very good ingredients.
A good tortilla isn’t necessarily easy to make, but the recipe is fairly basic. A chef sautes some potatoes and onions in olive oil, pours in some egg batter, then heats the mixture in a pan and flips it, before letting it all rest and come to room temperature. Slicing into the finished product is one of the world’s great epicurean pleasures; sometimes the exterior is barely thicker than a ravioli skin, while the insides seem to wobble like a barely set panna cotta.
Bartlow, however, changes the dish almost entirely. He cooks each tortilla to order and doesn’t flip it. “It’s like an unfinished pancake,” Bartlow tells me over the phone, and indeed the product is assertively runny on the top side. He then anoints the affair with a generous sheath of sliced Cinco Jotas jamon Iberico (the good stuff) and shaves black summer truffles over it all.
The result is a dish with more distinctly layered aromas and textures than the traditional tortilla. The earthy musk of the tartufo hits you first, followed by the nutty perfume of the Iberico — prized ham from pigs that have gorged themselves on acorns. The eggs, as orange as the namesake fruit and nearly as rich as cheese, gently heat up the ham, causing it to emit a more powerful porcine scent than usual. Then finally, that cracker underneath provides a bit of snappy relief to the softness of the eggs. Had the kitchen served this masterpiece to me without any explanation I’d surely have thought of it less as a tortilla and more as a Basque answer to a good Mexican tostada or even a light Roman-style pizza.
The eggs with jamon are currently off the menu, alas. Bartlow tells me folks were “begging” him to start serving the venue’s simpler $10 tortilla again — and indeed that one is back now — but he says he’ll reintroduce the spendier version too, either as is or with crab txangurro substituting for the truffles. I can’t predict how the new version will taste, but I can already affirm that Bartlow has a way with shellfish.
He currently pairs a version of txangurro with scrambled eggs, and the result is phenomenal. Bartlow takes a mixture of peekytoe and Dungeness crab — with all the coral and tomalley — and slowly cooks it down with tomato, aromatics, brandy, and a touch of butter and cream. The result is what the chef calls a “concentrated, intense, rich ragu.”
Bartlow places an ice cream scoop’s worth of the crustacean on top of the eggs, the way one might garnish a breakfast porridge with a giant pat of butter. The crab melts into the golden curds. Each bite delivers a powerful hit of the sea, fortified by the tannic sting of cognac, before the eggs do their job and help cleanse the palate with their own opulence. It is an exceedingly crabby crab — nothing like a bland steakhouse crab cake. Another chef might have transformed this appetizer into a crunchier toast, but honestly that would counteract the chief goal here, which is to convey nourishing silkiness from the land and sea.
You know where this is going. I’m rating both egg dishes a BUY, and I’ll continue to return to Ernesto’s as the menu keeps evolving.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).