Monday, January 30, 2012


Glomming on to the recent no-reservations trend for parties less than six, Seamus Mullen's Tertulia pretty much requires an hour + wait unless you get there at 5 o'clock.  This place is bumping, inside and out, and truth be told, it's worth it.  Worth it to get there that early, if a drink at the packed bar and waiting that long is unappealing, or in endeavoring upon those latter pastimes if you wanna get the full experience.

Much like Boqueria (Flatiron and Downtown), Mullen's former successes, Tertulia is a celebration of Spanish tapas, this time with a Basque focus.  The name derives from a Spanish term for a literary salon, and has evolved into its modern usage of a place where people can enjoy great conversation, drinks and food.  Given the cacophonous noise levels here, I don't know if the first prerequisite holds true, but the food and drink definitely live up to the title.

Squeezing past the sardine-packed bar, we joined two other parties at the far end of a communal table.  My chair was so lofty I felt like a child in a highchair, but any conspicuousness quickly ebbed as the relaxed, convivial atmosphere began to affect its charm.   Our server was chipper and savvy, and we didn't need a lot of time to start ordering.   The tempting aromas wafting from the kitchen were incentive enough to get food on our plates as quickly as possible.  Fresh from Toro Bravo (see review/12-23-11), I was anxious to try the tosta setas to compare.  It, unfortunately, couldn't hold a candle to Gorham's version, although for fairness's sake, they were drastically different: this one was a cold crouton smeared with smoky ricotta and topped with a vinegary melange of small mushrooms spritzed with spicy little pepper flakes.  Toro's is hot and saucy, which I vastly preferred, and even think warming up Tertulia's version would've improved it as well.

Croquetas de jamon iberico, though, initiated Tertulia's real momentum: crispy orbs oozing a sweet, mild bechamel studded with tender chunks of ham are served over daubs of quince paste.  Delicious.  One of my favorite things ever, fried pimientos de Padron, sparkle with flakes of salt- " lots of salt" states the menu, and they're not yanking your chain.  But they are perfect.  If you have blood pressure issues, well, just shake some of it off.  Personally, I could eat a bowl of that salt alone, impregnated with the flavor of the peppers.  Another vegetable success is the coles de bruselas: an original take on the crucifer, cooking them long and hot 'til their leaves are crisp and their hearts have melted, then seasoned intensely with a zesty, garlicky mojo picon.  Who says Spanish food is all about the meat?  That said, there is a full array of embutidos, but more the focus here is food from the kitchen, rather than Boqueria's market-based simplicity.

I was pretty excited for our last plate, and proudly experimental, too.  But the plate that arrived tested me a little more than I'd bargained for:  the Zamburinas y Mollejas was exponentially more sweetbreads, scallops and mushrooms than scallops, mushroom and sweetbreads as described on the menu.   An earthy-sweet parsnip puree rounds out the meaty offal and delicate crustaceans.  But it was an exquisite dish, subtly and richly flavored, and while the paucity of scallops left my dining companion finishing off a surplus of glands, he did look pretty content doing so.

We closed out with a crumbly, caramelly apple cake, sticky sweet with a buttery caramel and thick, rum ice cream, if a little scarce of actual apples.  Like the dinner menu, minimalist descriptions belie enormous pleasures.  Small portions work well at this place, because flavors are so amplified as to render bigger doses excessive.  Everything at Tertulia works, from the anticipation created by the no-reservations policy and the festive atmosphere of communal dining, to the robustly Spanish flourish and happy, gracious, and helpful waitstaff.  It is, it seems, just exactly what you would expect of a tertulia.

359 6th Avenue (corner of Washington Place)
tel. (646) 559-9900

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