Friday, November 16, 2012


Casa Mono was on that fated list, nearly a decade ago, that ended up introducing me to this world below the salamander of which I have become so enamored.  Mike Colameco's Food Talk on WOR Radio hosted a contest rewarding the first caller to pronounce their top ten restaurants in New York.  Some way or another, Colameco
and I ended up sharing a meal at a short-lived steakhouse in Times Square, a day before Thanksgiving, with a pair of A-list chefs sharing a table for four.  And he is the one who began to nurture in me this passion for all things culinary.  At any rate, I hadn't been back to Casa Mono since it first qualified for that list, and I'm happy to report that this monkey is swinging as strong as ever.

And this is my assessment even having taken menu suggestions from a waiter whose palate I belatedly found to be diametrically opposed to mine.  (Note to self: if I'm going to take recommendations from a stranger, it would behoove me to ask  first what is their favorite food.  If the response is pork belly, or mackerel, or even macaroni and cheese, it should raise a red flag that our tastebuds might vibrate on different wavelengths.  I did not ask.  Let the orderer beware.)  Suffice it to say that the minimalist descriptions paired with the suggestions from our waiter culminated in presenting some dishes I would not have otherwise chosen to involve myself with.  This was not the case, however, with the blackened beet dish with which we
began.  They were charred and smokey, encrusted with a savory, seedy granola and paired with smooth curds of cana de cabra.  A side of brussels sprouts were halved, slicked with oil and simply roasted, retaining the vegetal splendor of their emerald green outer leaves but seared dark on their faces and tender inside.
The baby squid with local corn grits (a waiter-recommendation) had the little chunks of octopod breaded and fried like popcorn shrimp (an unexpected treatment) dotting the periphery of an exquisite bed of dense grits draped with a voluptuous poached egg.
 I would have preferred the squid grilled or sauteed, that way the pan juice would lend continuity with the rest of the dish, but it's sometimes a little difficult to know what is coming gauging from the stark menu listings: the longest entry has but nine words total.  The same scenario presented itself with the rabbit, which arrived as two deboned hunks of juicy meat, chicken-fried worthy of the Colonel,

with an anticucho of its gizzards spanning the divide.  Grilled spears of carrot straddled the rabbit, and a habanero-spiked cuajada (a yogurty smear of unctuous milk curd) cushioned structure and contributed a zesty brightness.  I was dissuaded from a cod cheek pil pil, which I'm pretty sure I would've been happier with: I like saucy and complex, and I think Waiter likes meaty and fried.  At any rate, we found common ground with the seared scallops with pumpernickel gazpacho, which was salty and
 bold, novel with its punch of caraway and rich, nutty crusted seafood.    Crisp little toasts of marbled rye and crisp, raw celery stalks slanted amongst the scallops and anchored in the 'gazpacho', which was really more of a caraway-inflected tomato and bread crumb puree, and bound with a ribbon of zesty pickled ***.  Deciding between a side of sauteed setas and a more innovative-sounding option of artichokes with mint, I listened again to  Waiter.  While the mushrooms were a lovely mix, perfectly
 cooked and flecked with herbs, I bet the artichokes would've been more interesting.  For some reason, I kept outsourcing the task I usually revel to undertake, and it was shooting me in the foot.  That said, even with suboptimal ordering, the meal at Casa Mono impressed again and again.  The room is simultaneously intimate and lively, reflecting the care and precision, yet rustic boldness of the food  And my menu mishaps might just inspire me to allow much less time to elapse before a return visit.  Because even after all these years, I'd still put Casa Mono on my Top Ten List.

52 Irving Place at 17th street
tel.  212.253.2773

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