Walking Spanish: Suckling Pig at Meigas, aka "The Foam Place"


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Meigas
350 Hudson St. (King St.),
627-5800
www.meigasrestaurant.com


Meigas is a new and stupendously good Spanish restaurant on Hudson St., basically just around the corner from Film Forum, on a stretch of the city that I like to think of as High-Toned Tribeca?that corridor between the West Village, with its cozy vibe, and Tribeca proper, which is high-toned inside the buildings, but still kind of grimy and authentic at street level. Not so the Hudson Square vicinity, a little dash of midtown delivered unto lower Manhattan. Glass and steel, shiny, glistening, populated by citizens in suits. Women who are done. A distinct absence of the nylon apparel better suited to night jumps into enemy territory than nocturnal forays into food service.


Meigas fits perfectly into this demi-neighborhood. Unlike the tapas bars?, La Paella, Xunta, Rio Mar?that now dot Manhattan, their limber casualness and often thoroughly mediocre food parts of the whole Iberian allure that they successfully assert, Meigas is a true restaurant. Its kin is Solera, the underrated uptowner that, regrettably, suffers from its location. Meigas, however, is a much more ambitious exercise in restaurateurship. The culinary model, at least as far as I understand it, is the currently celebrated El Bulli, on the Costa Brava near Barcelona, where Ferran Adria has claimed, at least for the time being (until Ducasse gets his new place open over here), Alain Ducasse's title as Best Cook in the Whole Wide World.


Adria's signature is foam. He transforms all manner of food into foam and applies it to plates for the baffled consideration of the globetrotting gourmands who flock to his restaurant. I had heard that Luis A. Bollo, Meigas' chef, was also in the foam business. I mentioned this to a friend while we were discussing where to eat one night.


"Let's try this foam place out," I said.


"Foam?" she replied.


"Yeah," I deftly countered. "Foam."


I was surprised to discover that a dinner reservation at what we began calling "The Foam Place" was no problem. I guess there's a chance that on the weekends the joint buzzes, but during the week, and early (we dined around 8), the large dining room was only about two-thirds filled. (The bar, however, was packed. And if the tapas?nine choices, all under $10?I witnessed on a follow-up visit were any indication of what one can order along its polished, quarter-of-a-block length, then it's going to remain packed for the foreseeable future.)


Spain possesses, depending on whom you talk to, either the world's number-two or number-four wine culture. (Behind only France; or behind France, Italy and California, respectively.) I ought to find in myself an innate simpatico with the Spanish: I like sherry and Rioja and reflexively admire the elegant, swashbuckling breed of golfer the country produces (Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and, more recently, the teenage phenom Sergio Garcia). I've seen some pretty wonderful work coming from the current generation of Spanish artists. It's one of the portions of the planet where seafood and meat and a kitchen ideology of Mediterranean freshness combine. They nap at noon. They wear colorful clothing. The women are hot.


Anyhow, this is mere background to preface what I am compelled to describe as one of the three or four most exciting restaurant meals I've eaten in New York in the past year. The point is that I was primed for pleasure. I've eaten a humongous buttload of Italian and French food. I was ready for something similar, but at the same time completely different. And Meigas did not fail to deliver.


The room itself is fairly corporate, but in the era of pre-weathered and over-fauxed micro-themeparks such as Pastis and Balthazar?where the food is more or less fine, but hardly commands attention commensurate with the decor or the crowds?corporate can be refreshing. Sometimes a brand-new restaurant should look brand-new. Meigas does. You enter on Hudson through a glass vestibule with shelves that showcase assorted Iberian art objects. The aforementioned long, polished bar is separated from the main dining room by a series of frosted-glass partitions. A vast and fastidious cheerfulness governs the space, but the tablecloths are still starched and white, the gently curving chairs still upholstered with a somber mocha fabric. Above, the high ceiling features a vaguely Southwestern (though I guess we know where that originally came from) pattern of turquoise diamonds. There's actually a scrolly wallpaper border running along the ceiling line. This is a brave esthetic in a city where a lot of people seem to want to be transported to Peru or Paris or Vienna. It's a Spanish restaurant in New York that wants to come off as a Spanish restaurant in New York. It doesn't want to fool anybody. It wants to fit in.


Except where that screwy mural is concerned. The main room is dominated, all along the east wall, by an immense painting of...I'm not sure what, exactly. It's some kind of Spanish seacoast scene overhung with a glorious blue sky thick with cottony clouds, in the middle of which hovers...a gossamer witch, who appears to be either conjuring up or hexing a hovering table laden with food. Yep, it's bizarre, in a twisted Spanish sort of way. It's as if El Greco met Dali and they cracked open a bottle of Lustau and went crazy, but kept their spirits up, evaded hallucinations and depression. There's an amiable occultishness to the thing. You can't take your eyes off it, but it won't scare small children.


The food, on the other hand, might, though only if your children dislike the idea of Piglet being hacked up and roasted. The suckling pig is not to be missed?it's a portion only of the newborn creature, but plenty for two to share. The skin is crisp and vibrating with flavor, while the flesh is?as it's supposed to be with cooked baby pig?the antithesis of what we're used to when consuming the often arid "other white meat." For one thing, suckling pig meat is tender, moist and pink. It oozes and dribbles. It tastes like pig, and when was the last time you tasted that? It's served with a honey and sherry vinegar sauce that achieves the desired effect of counterpointing the lush meat with a one-two sweet-and-sour punch.


We also gave the homemade bacalao a whirl, and were not disappointed. Grilled to flaky, dewy perfection, it's plated with a side of stewed squid and onions that perplexed me until I returned a few days later and studied more closely the menu. Other platos that tempted were the grilled monkfish, with clams and mussels; and the roasted loin of rabbit wrapped in bacon. There are also a grilled rib-eye and a chicken stew on the menu, as well as a vegetarian dish that I think might function as a good appetizer for a large dinner party.


Our waiter, an informative guy with a mustache and an almost relentlessly enthusiastic demeanor (typical of the entire staff at Meigas, a well-trained and devoutly professional crew), steered me away from the wine I had planned to try toward a '94 Vega Izan Reserva from Ribero del Duero. It was pleasantly surprising, not as robust as what I'm used to in Spanish reds, a delicate and fragrant and almost rosebuddish wine whose light body and limpid color reminded me of a French Burgundy. (Meigas' full wine list is pretty impressive, a comprehensive but well-selected rundown of the country's trendy and reliable regions and styles, and there's a special list of notable reds, all reasonably priced.)


Appetizers?of which we sampled three?were pretty thrilling, satisfying and simply good: pimentos del piquillo rellenos, peppers stuffed with marinated tuna and served cold; txipirones calamares, baby squid in its own sepulchral ink, with Basque rice on the side; and my personal favorite, falda de ternera, a breast of veal stuffed with veal sweetbreads, squid and onions, topped with a nest of slender onion rings and surrounded by a sauce of Rioja and squid ink that I used two baskets of Meigas' amazing bread to sop up.


What about the foam? Dessert was the only course where we got any: almond-crusted chocolate croquettes accompanied by coconut foam. This was one of the more interesting desserts I've eaten in years, each of the three croquettes served on an individual spoon. It's diabolical, to present three pieces to a pair of diners. Assuming both are stunned mute by deliciousness, it all boils down to a fight over that third spoonful.


This time, I won. But there will be a rematch. I can promise that. Meigas is where you go to eat extremely well when you're sick and tired of trying to pretend that you don't live in New York, or that you do live in New York but can eat as if you don't, or...or some other dipshitty permutation of that notion. Meigas is, without a doubt, the most ethnically genuine premium restaurant (appetizers, $8-$16.50; entrees, $18?and $66 for the rib-eye for two) in town right now. It's slow cuisine?the suckling pig takes half an hour to prepare?for people who like to eat and who would never, ever wear New Balances to dinner. Find a tie and wear it, bravely, downtown.


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