Upper East Siders, let’s face it: we could stand for a little more sexy in the neighborhood, especially that of the Latin persuasion. At least that’s what the brothers behind Astoria’s El Boqueron tapas bar thought when they opened El Porrón, on First Avenue. Since alcohol is arguably sexier than food, the dimly lit space leads with an airy bar area that accounts for almost half the restaurant. The long bar and high tables, where many patrons choose to dine, are adorned in dark wood and cool Spanish tile. They even named the establishment after a large glass pitcher with a thin spout that allows you to pour the wine right into your mouth. These porróns can be found resting on almost every table, artfully lining the back walls and clutched in the hands of patrons attempting to try the rather ambitious method that leaves many wearing their Tempranillo on their sleeves.
This is not to say, however, that this Latin newcomer does not take its food seriously. The double-sided menu proves just as bold as the signature drinking device. More than 30 hot and cold tapas range from classic, like the jamón Serrano and tortilla espanola, to contemporary, with ingredients such as black squid ink and citrus-berry reduction. The back of the menu showcases about 10 different meat and fish entrees and a few paella variations. But this is, after all, a tapas bar.
When deciding on which of the many dishes to choose from, my attention is immediately drawn to the circled stars next to a few of the hot and cold tapas. A very cryptic explanation of the meaning of these stars, listed at the bottom of the menu, reads, “Exclusive Chef (“Mr. G”) Specialty Dish.” Which raises two questions: who is this Mr. G and why is he so exclusive? I ask our waiter, who speaks with the signature Spanish lisp, who Mr. G is. With an insidious grin he replies, “Gonzalo,” before disappearing to fetch our bread and olive oil.
After choosing a Tempranillo from the moderately priced list, we finally decide on our dishes. We ordered the jamón Serrano (Spanish country ham), pulpo a la gallega (boiled octopus), albóndigas de ternera (Spanish veal meatballs) and chorizo al vino de Rijoa (Spanish sausage in Rioja wine).
We decide to wait to attempt the porrón until we have some food in us, patiently chomping on a rather bland loaf of white bread in the meantime. The tapas arrived within minutes, starting with the jamón Serrano, which is served atop slabs of toasted garlic bread and diced tomato. The ham, sliced in house from a leg they keep on display up front, exudes a thick salty freshness that pairs exquisitely with the spicy Tempranillo. The quality and tenderness of the meat is impressive. Less so, however, are the pieces of toast that accompany it, which prove almost too hard to eat. The limp, out-of-season tomatoes don’t add any particularly luster to the dish either.
The pulpo a la gallega was recommended by our waiter. Boiling the octopus and topping it very simply with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar and Spanish “pimenton” paprika is a specialty of the Galicia region, and one of the most common ways to consume seafood throughout the country. I can see why. The minimal garnish pronounces the subtle octopus flavor. While I did miss the tasty charred bits that usually accompany grilled or broiled octopus, the boiling left the meaty pieces tender, with just the right amount of chew.
The Spanish veal meatballs, a “Mr. G” specialty, were a standout. They arrived at our table simmering in a delicious leek, carrot, celery and tomato stew, topped with sliced almonds. We found ourselves using the seemingly day-old-bread to sop up every last bit.
“Mr. G” effectively jazzed up the classic Spanish chorizo by topping it with a sweet Rioja reduction and sending it out to us sizzling in a traditional cazuela, or clay pot. While the meat was a bit overcooked, the drama of the steaming clay pot sold me on this dish. Who says you can’t eat décor?
Desserts were few and predictable: a chocolate one, a creamy one, some churros. We ordered a French toast concoction with strawberries; it came to us cold and burnt.
El Porrón has great culinary ambitions that have not yet been reached. Execution of dishes ranged from good to awkward, and the wait staff seem a bit lost in translation. But for now, the cache of the porrón seems to be what’s pleasing the crowd, or at least getting them too drunk to care.
1123 First Ave. Betw. 61st and 62nd streets
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