My sister and niece are fans of Mario Batali’s tapas bar called Casa Mono and next door sibling, Bar Jamon. Rated the best Spanish restaurant in New York City soon after it opened several years ago, it is a relatively small, almost always packed, neighborhood hang out. Sister and niece have dined there many, many times and that alone is a sign to me that it must be good. The setting is extremely casual, as you might expect of a tapas bar, but the menu an interesting mix of classic, even simple sounding dishes but beautifully executed with terrific flavor twists on nearly every little plate. The wine selection, I am told, is quite spectacular, though our table only had two glasses of wine with lunch.
We ordered a plate of fried sardines, photo up top. They were SUPERB. The fish were just the right size, dredged in flour and perfectly deep fried. Again, there is just something about frying that makes everything so good, but particularly well-fried food is something else. The twist in this dish was in the accompanying side salad. A bracing mixture of belgian endive with a tart lemon dressing and slivers of preserved lemon. The intense flavor from the occasional brush with preserved lemon together with fried fish was just amazing.
We also had a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese and fresh figs with a balsamic style dressing. Sounds trite, or common, but the twist here were slivers of pickled red onions. This little addition was enough to really make me think twice about each mouth full of greens, the gooey pungent goat cheese, the soft sensuous sweet figs and sour hints from the pickled onions. Again, a smash hit from something that could have been so boring and overdone. It became quickly obvious that we would have a nice surprise in each little dish ordered. And I really liked that about Casa Mono.
My photos of the lunch are horrific, as I don’t like to take out my camera in nice restaurants, so these were hastily shot and often to extremely poor and unusable results. Such was almost the case for ths casuela containing pimentons stuffed with shredded stewed ox tails. Imagine the best parts and flavor of an osso buco, made himay or shredded and stuffed into a roasted red pepper. Delicious. Serious comfort food material. I could several of these with a pile of rice and be seriously Pinoy happy. :)
Three other dishes we ordered, for which I have no photos, were some grilled lamb chops served over chickpeas and a creamy base similar to a tahini, which was my least favorite dish as the chops seemed a bit overcharred, though they still possessed a nice flavor. A fantastic dish of fideos with clams and chorizos, unusually served upside down… in other words, the clams and chorizos were at the bottom of the cazuela, and the moist/crisp fideos pile up on top (I think this was served from a larger cooking dish). I love fideos done right, and have featured a dish in the archives, I think. We also had a dish of artichokes a la plancha or fresh grilled and flattened artichokes that were incredibly good. I like artichokes, so maybe that’s why I thought these were just the cat’s meow. I think I could have ordered 2-3 more dishes if we really wanted to pig out, but five tapas for lunch was probably just right.
For dessert we had vanilla ice cream with prunes and possibly marinated plums that was delicious and unique… The ice cream and plums were sitting on caramelized almonds doused in pedro ximenez… The crema catalana was very competently executed, but again the surprise twist for me was the bunuelos or fried fritters encasing a whole fresh bay leaf… and as you eat the fritter, you leave the bay leaf untouched. The flavor of bay is distinct and delicious, and of course who can turn down fried sugared dough? :)
A lunchtime meal for 3, including some drinks, might run you roughly $150-170 plus gratuity, so it’s not cheap, but it’s worth well worth the money, in my opinion. I have only been once, but sister and niece have gone dozens of times, so I think I can recommend this place with few reservations… Drop by next door for outrageously good, and probably outrageously expensive hams paired with equally good wine. :)