Sunday, October 6, 2013


How do you say "favorite" in Spanish?  Because that's what this relatively new Chelsea tapas-focused Spaniard has become.  A mecca of robust flavors, it balances traditional and creative Basque under the deft hand of San Sebastian native Luis Bollo, an established and award-winning chef who is worth every accolade.  Salinas is on the east coast of Spain, but towards the west edge of Chelsea, and in no way too far or inconvenient to beeline to, regardless of where you're coming from.

The room has a sultry quality to it, not in temperature, but with a swankiness that feels mysterious.    White-washed exposed brick and glossy black limit the color palette, aside from voluptuous bouquets of ruffly, heavy-headed roses, in deep oranges and pinks, bunched in monochromatic masses that break up the darkness.  They are also used, ingeniously, to break up a communal table, thus sequestering each end to be used as a two-top, divided by the massive flowers, without moving any furniture around.  Deep blue velvet booths are tucked neatly along the periphery, and a large, open-air room in back can either hold an overflow of reservations, or be reserved for private affairs.  Given the appropriate circumstances, any romantic sentiments might easily escalate with the inspiration from flickery candles,  glowy lighting and the tumbles of blooms.

The food has a sexy quality to it as well, edging towards decadence without excess.  We began with the traditional  pa amb oli (Catalan for bread with oil),  but this crusty bread grilled smoky was anointed with fresh, garlicky crushed tomatoes as well as its drizzle of fruity
 olive oil.    The juices will run down your chin: care less about
 this than procuring your fair share.   Another classic plate is patatas
 bravas, Salinas' version using cubed morsels of waxy potato fried crisper than crisp, buttery smooth inside and thinly smeared with a zesty coat of spicy mayonnaise.

 But the standout dish of the night was inarguably the Coles e Colifor, featuring florets of cauliflower and halved brussels sprouts, grilled to a rich roastiness and nuzzled into a plush pillow of thick, lemon zest-infused yogurt.  Pimenton de la vera adds a touch of woodsy smoke and a kiss
of heat, and one order to share amongst four people was nothing short of inadequate.  The wonderful thing about tapas-style dining is that one's order can be augmented throughout, so an indispensable 'refill' of these arrived swiftly, despite the increasingly populated dining room and constant circulation of runners ferrying enticingly fragrant platters and emptied trays to and fro.  Alcachofas Fritas are fried to an inimitable crunch, paired with perhaps a few too few small, sweet candy cane beets and a scatter of toasty pignoli.  A smooth emulsion of rulo, only mildly goaty, is brightened with lemon and accompanies the rich artichokes for dipping.

Of course, there are meatier tapas on hand as well,  traditional jamons , sausages and artisanal quesos.     We tried the crispy quail decadently cloaked in applewood smoked bacon, four plump drumsticks lolling over a melange of apples roasted with spring onions and tiny caps of shiitake mushroom.

A handful of seasonal offerings are also listed on the menu, as are a few specials your server will describe.  One of these was an under-seasoned sauté of somewhat bland calamares, who took on a bit too much chew whether under- or

overcooked, paired with enormous creamy white beans and morsels of lobster mushroom.  The dish itself was fairly monochromatic: the flavors didn't stray much from its appearance.  On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum rang in a Fideos Canarios from a section of Spanish pastas, which can be ordered as tapas or main course-sized.  Fideos are cut into manageable, abbreviated strands which avoid the Italian twirling conundrum, and these silky, slippery noodles were richly seasoned, thick with umami, salt and depth: this is what Rice-a-Roni is supposed to taste like, but never could.  Tender bits of smoked rabbit coalesce with nubs of roasted green cauliflower, with a moist, oversize scallop standing guard aside flanked with tiny, briny crispy shrimp, creating a surf 'n turf 'n earth par excellence.

Finishing up, any additional food was purely superfluous.  But I had my dad in tow, and when there is bread pudding anywhere in an accessible vicinity, it is simply mandatory.  Salinas' was of the pumpkin variety, a bit chi-chi for the likes of such a traditionally humble sweet, but nonetheless delicious for it.  The pudding side of it featured soft, toasty cubes that held their shape bound with a creamy pumpkin custard and topped with gently spiced scoop of ice cream.  A crisp, buttery plank studded with pepitas spanned the plate and anchored itself in a smooth puree on the opposing end, but the best bites included tidbits from all the components.  I ordered a decaf to go along: this would have paired well with a bitter espresso, but my coffee order went missing- which I actually appreciated, in the end.  I couldn't much fit another morsel of anything on top of an at-capacity stomach, and it didn't make its way onto the bill, either, so I'm guessing she just didn't hear me.  And that was the only snafu of service at any juncture throughout a spectacular meal in a beautiful space with a deft crew, under the thumb of a chef who has garnered my irrevocable admiration.

136 9th Avenue •  Between 18th & 19th Streets 
• 212-776-1990


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