Graze Like the Spaniards Do

While the Parisian bistro has been repeatedly and reliably cloned, an equally charismatic European eatery has successfully resisted New York knockoffs—the Spanish tapas bar. Our best examples, like Rio Mar, are paella parlors that date from a much earlier era, offering a handful of tapas as an afterthought. Now Taperia Madrid presents itself among the rabble of eateries on upper Second Avenue, and wants to be your favorite tapas bar. The front is a mass of painted tiles that look faded from centuries of harsh sunlight, and there's a winning naïveté to the misspelling of the establishment's name on the facade. Predictably, the interior is crowded with bullfight posters, and the dark-eyed waitresses may indeed be Spanish, though the chattering, chain-smoking singles who squirm on the bar stools are pure Upper East Side.

In Spain, every tapas bar has a specialty or two, but most often the other small dishes on the menu hover between good and mediocre. Count among Taperia's zingers patatas tolas ($5.25), a heaping plate of chile-dusted potato cubes tumbling around a lettuce cradle of Catalan aioli tasting powerfully of garlic and good Spanish olive oil. Another is mejillones en vinegreta ($6.95), a collection of cold mussels in a tart pickle of onions and parti-colored sweet peppers. A friend who had just returned from Spain pronounced them plumper and tastier than their Iberian counterparts.

While not wonderful, the octopus is competently done, brushed with hot paprika and possessing the gradient of gelatinous-to-firm textures that makes this ink squirter such a fine dinner companion. Though the chorizo cooked in cognac tastes exactly as you might expect, the morcilla de la abuela ("grandma's blood sausage," $6.75) is far better, despite conjuring nightmare images of granny swinging a bloody ax. Poised on a slice of toast to collect all the stray crumbs, it's crusty on the outside, damp and cumin-scented within, and dotted with cubes of fat. You've never tasted better.

A terrific tapas bar hides in the culinary wasteland of upper Second Avenue.
photo: Carla Gahr
A terrific tapas bar hides in the culinary wasteland of upper Second Avenue.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the out-and-out duds. Anything with vizcaina sauce should be shunned, especially the cod, the unfreshness of which on a recent occasion was not concealed by the bland crush of canned tomatoes. A real Basque sauce is anything but bland. Though the red beet and roasted garlic salad sounds interesting, this concoction lacks the oomph that a good dressing might confer. The menu also boasts a handful of paellas that no one seems to order, and a couple of sandwiches, including a tender pork-loin beauty ($8.25) sided with great wobbly fries.

Taperia's most remarkable dish is angulas de vizcaya, a tangled mass of baby eels swimming in scalding oil and dotted with garlic cloves. Chopsticks would be the ideal utensil. Instead you have toasts, which don't help with the slippery eel, but absorb the tasty oil. The first time we tried it there wasn't so much as a grease smear left in the bottom of the brown teacup. Nevertheless, I hesitate to recommend this monofilament mass, partly because it was bad the second time I tried it, reeking of burned garlic. But maybe the price is a better deterrent—$28.95. Madre de Dios!

 
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