Alexandra Raij's Tapas Spot Txikito
"The mussel special is really, really good," a wide-eyed older woman at the next table uttered with the gravity of someone talking about global warming, not mollusks. On another night, a couple at the adjacent table stared at our crispy-skinned joint of pork and finally asked us what it was. Even when fellow diners aren't talking to you, they might be talking about you—well, more likely about your food. "Ooooh, that's the salt cod with headcheese," remarked a girl to her friend, as they peered over at our dishes. Txikito (pronounced "chic-kee-toe," reminding me, oddly, of Singaporean char kway teo noodles) is the sort of restaurant that fosters conversation with perfect strangers.
Usually I don't enjoy forced banter with people I didn't invite to dinner, but the convivial, sharing spirit feels right here. This is partly because the space is so tiny (28 seats) that you can smell your neighbors' food and practically hear them crunching—at which point you know them so intimately that you might as well ask how the canapé is. Also, the Basque-style tapas (or pintxos, as small plates are called in that region) are meant for sharing—although only with your companions, obviously.
Alexandra Raij was executive chef and partner at Tia Pol and El Quinto Pino, both wildly successful tapas spots. (Her sea-urchin panini at El Quinto Pino got more love than Jesus or the Beatles.) But for undisclosed reasons, Raij and the restaurants parted ways, leaving her and her sous chef/husband, Eder Montero, looking for a new project. This time, they've found inspiration in Montero's native Basque Country. There are many shareable pleasures to be found on the extensive menu.
240 Ninth Avenue, 212-242-4730
The menu has three main categories: Basque canapés (pintxos), cold items (hotzak), and hot items (beroak). There are also three specials of the day, but many of them will run you double or triple the cost of the tapas, despite being only marginally larger. The tapas are, on average, $9 to $11, with a few outliers on either end at $7 or $17.
The canapés rely on bread as the delivery system, and some are more elaborate than others. On the simple side, there's txitxiki, a fat-cigar-sized sandwich of crusty bread stuffed with homemade chorizo hash. It's immoderately good (although a friend was overwhelmed by the floral-funky hit of chorizo). The bolomo is simply two small toasts, topped with a silken bit of roasted green peppers and house-cured lomo, which arrives hot, the fat around the edges sizzling. The pepper against the lomo takes advantage of the elementary pleasure of sweet combined with salty.
For a more elaborate bite, you can't do better than the arraultza, which prompted total silence at my table. It's crostini topped with sofrito—a stewed concoction of tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, and smoky Spanish paprika—then shards of chorizo, and finally, a quivering, sunny-side-up quail egg. When you bite into the canapé, the quail yolk runs everywhere (including down your chin), soaks the bread, and enriches the already-rich sofrito and chorizo.
But a girl can't live on canapés alone, so on we ate through the rest of the menu, starting from the hotzak. Who knew that Russian salad has been expropriated into a beloved Basque tapa? Not me, but I'm game for anything mixed with mayo. The rusa salad at Txikito is composed of a layer of excellent-quality canned Spanish tuna, topped with a molded disk of potatoes, green peas, diced carrots, green olives, and a boiled egg, all of it slicked with homemade mayo.
Even better, the octopus carpaccio featured paper-thin slices of the suckers, drizzled with tart-edged lemon oil, enriched with a bit of that homemade mayonnaise, and finished with a sprinkle of pimente d'espilette, the incredibly flavorful brick-red chile from the French side of Basque Country.
Meanwhile, the staff is nothing but friendly and professional. When you sit down, there's none of that oh-so-common "Let's go through the menu so I can explain the chef's vision," which always makes me want to ask, "Is this a menu that lists various foods? And can I order this food and then pay for it with American currency?" But at Txikito, where many people not entirely familiar with Basque-food words might actually have questions, the servers simply hand you the menu and ask you to let them know if you have any questions. It's a simple and genuine way to deal with diners of all sorts. And when you do have questions, your server will invariably know the answer.
For instance, I discovered that kokotxas are gelatinous lobes that grow in the back of a fish's throat—and I also discovered that I don't like kokotxas. The forked bit of flesh appears in a rather wan rendition of pil pil, the classic Basque dish of salt cod cooked in olive oil and garlic. The salt cod in its rich sauce (made from the thickened olive oil in which the fish has been cooked) was firm, flaky, and clean-tasting the way good cod is, but the two lobes from the throat? Chewy, fibrous, jellied, and not up my alley at all.
The pil pil is on the beroak section of the menu. Here, you'll find bakailoa: a house-cured salt cod sliced very thin, topped with dice-sized nuggets of breaded, fried headcheese that crunches and then gushes pork fat and gelatin under your teeth. The richness of the headcheese plays nicely with the salty, lean cod.
One night, we splurged on the nightly special of cochinillo—roast suckling pig—for a whopping $30. That might be marginally acceptable at some high-end restaurants, but at Txikito, where you should order several tapas as well, the pig increases the bill considerably. When it arrived, though, all thoughts of money vanished. (This is my problem.) The pork shank was covered in burnished, crackly skin. Under the skin was a thin layer of white, melting fat and then perfectly fork-tender, faintly gamey meat, a porky marvel that sat in a pool of tart, herbal green sauce (tximitxurri, related to chimichurri). We jousted with forks over the crispiest bits of skin. This is the sort of thing that you don't want to share, but good sense dictates that you definitely should.
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