The Dumbo area is somewhat deprived of restaurants. Aside from the outlandishly pricey River Cafe, there’s the perennially acceptable Superfine, and a couple of notable pizzerias—none of them really worth crossing the bridge for.The remainder of the establishments tend to suffer from wild inconsistencies—e.g. you never know when Bubby’s might destroy your brunch pilgrimage with a private wedding— or otherwise inconsistent hours of operation.
On Washington Street, there is Rice—part of the mini-chain in Manhattan and Fort Greene—which has been highly unpredictable in terms of food quality in the last couple of years; the same dish may fluctuate from pretty good one week to nearly inedible the next.The best attribute of Rice, arguably, was always Speak Low, the romantic subterranean bar-space downstairs from the takeout counter. It is in this charming little Dumbo watering hole that David Selig, the owner of Rice, has recently opened a second location of ñ, his Manhattan tapas restaurant.
Those devoted to the intimate charms of Speak Low will be pleased to find them wholly unchanged.The decor remains the same; it is still mostly empty, save a few random couples quietly canoodling by candlelight.The music is usually at a conversationfriendly volume and impressively good (when
I was there, it was a Tropicalia mix of selections by Os Mutantes and Jorje Ben).There is no indication of a sudden conversion to Spanish Restaurantness other than jars of olives and salted almonds on the bar, next to a pitcher of red sangria.The one major difference is that there is now a menu of tapas and various Spanish ways to eat octopus, rabbit and herring, should you care to indulge.
You might not care to indulge. These Basque-inspired offerings tend to range from the C to C- levels of mediocrity; but they are an improvement over no bar food whatsoever.
I brought my teetotaling vegetarian friend Dr. Melvin van Peebles (not his real name). I scanned the Spanish wines by the glass and selected an entirely acceptable Ribera del Duero ($9), served in a little flat-bottom tumbler.When the doctor asked for a non-alcoholic option, he was offered a Not Toddy, a nonalcoholic version of the Hot Toddy that consisted of a slice of lemon, cloves and a cinnamon stick in a cup of hot water.
The laconic waiter recommended the Bocato de Lomo Adobado ($8), a pork sandwich, but we weren’t in the mood. I asked about the “Black Pearls,” an appetizer of little meatballs in squid ink. “You really need to like squid ink,” warned the waiter, so I passed.
My vegetarian amigo ordered an appetizer that amounted to a coating of pureed tomato on top of slices of rustic bread.We split an Ensalada Croquante ($6), a rather musky and wilted salad made from shredded hearts of asparagus, celery, broccoli and snow peas, drizzled in just enough black truffle oil to give it an earthy whiff of gymlocker. It didn’t get eaten.
I tried the Gambas En Salsa Verde, an entrée consisting of some rather too-shrimpytasting shrimp floating in a congealing pool of lemon-butter, which I abandoned.The doctor managed to eat an entire “tortilla” ($5), which is really more like a potato/ zucchini frittata, and somewhat bland.
The restaurant also has some annoying restrictions. For one, there is no silverware, save for undersized cocktail forks.You may choose between a $6 and $10 cheese plate, but you are only allowed to get all mild selections (Tetilla and Garrotxa) or all sharp cheeses (Manchego and Cabrales).You can’t get a combination of Manchego and Garrotxa no matter how you whine, beg or bribe—and believe me, I tried twice.This seems petty and draconian, since the cheeses, olives, bread and almonds are what you mainly end up eating anyway.
The dessert is nice: chunks of melting, salted dark chocolate on rustic peasant bread that goes nicely with red wine. Beggars can’t be choosers in the food-starved land of Dumbo. But ñ may not be where you eat your last meal before you sing “La Paloma” and face the firing squad, but there is food, and it is served late, seven days a week.
81 Washington St. (betw. York & Front Sts.), 718-222-9880