Bottoms Up

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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.

Glass pitchers with thin spouts, otherwise known as “porróns,” line the back walls of the restaurant.

Glass pitchers with thin spouts, otherwise known as “porróns,” line the back walls of the restaurant.

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.

El Porrón
1123 First Ave. Betw. 61st and 62nd streets
Prices: $6-$30

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Bottoms Up

Written by None - Do not Delete on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

We’ve all been there: After a couple of drinks, you’ll start telling anyone sitting next to you at the bar all those naughty indiscretions and world-changing dreams. 

Lila Downs taps into that oh-so-embarrassing (and liberating) experience in her latest release, Entre Copa y Copa—an album of drinking songs that literally translates as From Glass To Glass

“It is my idea of sitting in a bar and telling a stranger all your secrets,” she said. “It’s about bawling out, feeling that melancolia of times gone by.”

Ever since she appeared in the film Frida, Salma Hayek’s passionate project on the life and times of the famed Mexican artist (she sang throughout the film and also performed the Oscar-nominated theme song with Caetano Veloso), she has seen her audience grow considerably, especially in Europe, where she plays to sold-out concert houses. 

“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “We just got back from France, and you can see that Latin music has moved a lot more into the picture. And we have a great following in England and Spain.”

Her new album has more of a traditional feel than her previous works (most notably her 2005 album, One Blood) did. This time around, the songs are closer to the rancheras and the norteña music that populates jukeboxes in the various Mexican cantinas in the outer boroughs of the city. While the electric guitar and the electronic loops are still there, this is essentially an acoustic album in which jumpier moments make more of a cameo appearance, such as in the opening track, “La Cumbia del Mole,” and “La Tequilera.”

 Due to the concept of this tour, those who saw her at Summerstage last year should not expect the same kind of high-energy performance that was presented then—when she took the stage with her drums and performed songs such as “La Bamba” and “La Cucaracha.” 

She described this as more of an “intimate setting.” Although she will revisit some tunes from past records, the intention here is for you to line up at the bar and drown your sorrows away. Your call on the tequila shots.

April 26. Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St. (at Bowery), 212-533-2111; 8, $20.