Tapas! I have to admit that I have not extensively explored the world of tapas before. I've visited a few restaurants and they were good but nothing that I would "write home about", so to speak. But last week, I visited Nai Tapas Bar in the East Village and all that changed.
This was a complete culinary experience. I'd never seen anything like it before. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from this restaurant but our whole experience was simply amazing.
The restaurant boasts a sit-down bar for 15 people. The rest of the dining room seats about 75 people. The decor is rustic and unique. I loved that there was a silhouette of a face carved into one of the brick walls. There is also an original Spanish mural near the back of the dining room.
The Executive Chef, Ruben Rodriguez, and the Wine Director, David Martinez, are co-owners of Nai and they both hail from Galicia in Spain. Nai means "Mother" in Gallego, the language of Galicia. Many of the traditional dishes served in the restaurant are actually Ruben's mother's recipes.
But do not be fooled. Yes, this restaurant appears to be a traditional tapas restaurant. However, Ruben has put quite a spin on some of the dishes coming out of their kitchen. He has incorporated several elements of molecular gastronomy in his dishes. This was the first time I had experienced anything like this and I was blown away. Let's not wait any longer and get into the food!
David presented us with the following menu to prepare us for the meal. I'm just going to leave this here...
Yep, it was going to be a long night. Here we go!
Esferificacion de Aceituna (olive spherification) - You might be wondering about this one...Essentially, this an olive puree that is shaped into a sphere. There are a lot of technical things going on that I don't really understand, but the bottom line is that this is super cool! Now. I'll come right out and say that I do not like olives. However, this puree was pretty mild and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to try one of these little gems. These aren't on the menu yet but David and Ruben are thinking of providing them as a starter before meals.
Mini-Airbags Rellenos de Queso Manchego (mini-airbags stuffed with manchego foam) - These small bites were crispy on the outside and so light and creamy on the inside. The manchego flavor was subtle but was definitely present.
Jamon Iberico (sliced Iberico ham) - In addition to the manchego airbags, we were also served this dish, which is a premium cured ham from Spain. This was quite tasty! As you might have suspected, I did not partake in the olives but the rest of the table enjoyed them. Both this and the mini-airbags were paired with a saison ale from Ommegang.
Ostras con Aire de Limon (oysters topped with lemon air accompanied with fruit rinds in cava) - I need to share another secret with you. I had never had an oyster before. Huh?!!? I say "never had" because I tried it that night! While I'm not sure how I feel about oysters yet, I really enjoyed the lemon air that was carefully placed on top of the oysters. Ruben mixes the lemon with sodium to create a really intense citrus foam which is a nice contrast to the oyster. This dish was paired perfectly with a citrus-flavored cava.
Tostada de Lubina (Chilean sea bass wrapped in toast) - This sea bass was delicious! Just by looking at this, it appears that it would be a heavy dish, but just the opposite is true! The toast is really thin and the fish is really tender and flaky. I have a never-ending love affair with balsamic vinegar so the balsamic reduction could do no wrong. I was also pleasantly surprised by the saffron salt, which provided a nice contract to the sweet balsamic.
Gambas al Ajillo (traditional shrimp in garlic sauce) - In addition to all the magical goodies that we were being fed, David and Ruben also wanted us to experience dishes that would be considered more traditional tapas fare. They presented us with shrimp smothered in garlic sauce. This dish was very tasty.
Aguacate Relleno (avocado stuffed with crab meat sprinkled with serrano ham) - Doesn't this look like sushi? Amazing! The presentation of this dish is spectacular. The crab salad is underneath the layered avocado and also set atop a sherry-based cream sauce. The combination of the creamy crab and avocado was nicely paired with the crispy serrano ham that was crumbled on top.
Sandia Impregnada con Sangria (palate cleanser - sangria infused watermelon) - The name pretty much describes this bite. Crisp and clean watermelon is married with sangria. Mint is a fresh addition. This was a nice cleanser in between the seafood and the meat courses.
Pollo Ahumado (smoked, sous-vide glazed chicken thigh skewers) - Can we please have a moment for these chicken thighs? The presentation was incredible! The chicken was brought out under bell jars filled with smoke. The smoke was lightly infused in the tender meat, which paired well with the glaze. I don't know exactly what was in the glaze, but there seemed to be an Asian influence in there. This dish was quite memorable!
Coles de Bruselas con Lacon (brussel sprouts with diced pork belly in a spicy mustard aioli topped with fresh apples in an orange emulsion) - I don't normally choose to eat brussel sprouts when I go to restaurants, as they tend to be hit-or-miss for me. This time it was a hit! The sprouts had a meaty texture coupled with the flavor of the pork belly. The mustard was sharp and the apples were crisp. All in all, this was a good dish in my opinion.
Barriga de Cerdo (pork belly with caramelized pecans and yuca chips over a cream of carrot) - David explained to us that this is a traditional Galician dish. Well...I'll come right out and say it. This was my favorite dish of the evening. What's interesting is that this dish wasn't something that I was looking forward to. Not that I wasn't looking forward to it, but I just didn't think it would be so so good. The pork belly was really tender and lean. The pecans and chips and carrot cream were excellent additions to an already flavorful meat selection. I really thought I wasn't a fan of pork belly but Ruben has made me see the error of my ways.
Salmorejo Canario (marinated baby back ribs with cabrales potatoes and fried peppers) - This was another excellent dish. I love ribs so I figured I'd enjoy this one and I was correct. This was my second favorite dish of the night, after the pork belly. The ribs were smoky and fell off the bone. David mentioned that this was one of the oldest dishes in Spain. The ribs were marinated in the rub and then cooked using a confit process which makes the meat amazingly tender. I also tried the fried pepper and it was (thankfully!) a mild one. The cheesy potatoes were delicious! Wow! I could eat these as a meal in itself for sure.
Pintxo de Chistorra (spicy Basque chorizo over piquillo peppers on toast topped with melted manchego cheese and quail egg) - This was a nice selection. It consisted of a spicy chorizo and creamy manchego on top of a crispy bread, then topped with a soft-cooked quail egg. This was tasty but I was more enamored with the pork belly and the ribs that I had just eaten.
Caramelo de Algodon (pear cotton candy) - Yes. That is correct. This is pear-flavored cotton candy. Holy moly. I wish I could have eaten this all day. I have a "thing" for cotton candy. I also have a "thing" for pear-flavored treats, so basically, this little delicacy was everything to me!
Churros Rellenos de Chocolate (chocolate filled churros) - My other love in this world happens to be chocolate. I'm even more partial to hazelnut-flavored chocolate, which this happens to be! This churro was quite crisp and I was surprised that it didn't taste as if it were fried, although of course I know that it was. The chocolate hazelnut center was divine, as I suspected it would be. I'll take a whole plate of these. Thank you.
This was an epic dinner filled with tapas sorcery!
As already expressed, my favorites were the pork belly and the rib dishes, followed closely by the pear cotton candy. David was a gracious and informative host. Ruben came out to talk with us after the meal was over. He was really excited to discuss the food and the thought process behind how and why certain dishes were created and put on the menu.
David and Ruben mentioned that they are planning on expanding the restaurant to the second floor as well. A part of the second floor would be an extension of the existing restaurant, but the other part of the second floor would be an experimental kitchen where they would test out new recipes for their customers. There will be 3 tasting menus with 3 different price points so anyone who wanted to enjoy a molecular gastronomy experience will have the opportunity.
If the experimental kitchen is not for you, then maybe a weekday happy hour is something you might consider? Every weekday from 5-7 there is a reduced price for wine and beer. Nai doesn't serve mixed drinks, but they do offer sangria. And if you happen to wander in on a Thursday or Saturday night, you may be amazed by the 4-piece band and Flamenco dancers. This show happens 8:30pm and 10:30pm both nights.
I know that I will be back to Nai. I am now a tapas convert as a result of this experience and I can't wait to try out the rest of the menu!
**Disclosure: I was provided this meal free of charge. However, all opinions are my own!