Bullets in the Cider
New York has had its share of restaurants, like Umberto's Clam House, that are more notable for gangland murders than for their chow. Meson Asturias is an exception to the rulethough it, too, boasts a famous rubout. One blustery evening in March 1992 the crusading former editor of El Diario, Manuel de Dios Unanue, was sitting at the small bar when a man in a hooded gray sweatshirt drifted in from the street and blew his brains out with a 9mm handgun. Speculation ran high as to whether the assassin was sent by Colombian drug lords, right-wing Cubans, or grifting Puerto Rican policemen, all of whom had been exposed by the muckraking journalist.
Meson Asturias is the grande dame of Queens Spanish restaurants, named after the rugged maritime province east of Galicia, where wolves still roam and fierce sea breezes carry the sound of bagpipes. Undisturbed by the Moors, the residents of this isolated region have as much in common with the Irish and Breton French as they do with other Spaniards. This is not paella country. Immediately demonstrating the cuisine's uniqueness, chorizo ($5.75) is poached in apple cider and garlic rather than grilled, producing a mellow, sweet flavor. Other appetizers include a buttery, paprika-dusted pulpo ($6.25) cut into wobbly chunks and presented on an indented circle of oak, and a platter of ham, cheese, and green olives that features the best Serrano ham I've had in New York, sliced thick and possessing a dense, waxy texture.
You don't really need appetizers at all, since every meal includes a host of freebies. There's an amuse gueule of chilled, vinegar-bathed mussels in their shells and diced sweet peppers, followed by a giant bowl of soup ceremoniously ladled from a shining tureen. On a recent visit it was caldo gallego, a Galician specialty that drops potatoes, kale, white beans, and ham chunks into a rich blond broth. The entrées themselves are voluminous, and include several uniquely Asturian choices. There's entrecote al cabrales ($17.50), a cudgel-size sirloin mantled with a sauce made from the region's famous blue cheesecomplex, purple-veined, and created from a combo of sheep's, goat's, and cow's milk. Though the sauce is a pleasantly sharp complement to the meat, the steak sometimes arrives cooked into shoe leather.
Seafaring entrées vastly outnumber the landlubbers. The most spectacular is zarzuela ($21.95), a tempest of lobster, clams, squid, mussels, and shrimp seething with garlic in a resolutely untomatoey sauce. The apple-cider technique is redeployed in rape a la sidra ($15.75), a casserole of monkfish dotted with diverse crustaceans. The cider emulsifies with olive oil to produce a powerful aioli-like sauce. But my favorite seafood entrée is asopado, a red seafood-and-rice stew whose tart flavor is accentuated with capers, green chiles, and pickled pearl onions. It's a forerunner of the Puerto Rican national dish, asopao.
A small oil painting in an impressionistic style hangs in the dining room, showing the restaurant's facade spotlit by helter-skelter police cars, the only acknowledgment of the murder within the establishment, though the square outside has been renamed for the journalist. So who offed him? The 16-year-old triggerman was convicted four years later along with five others, one of whom sang like a canary and implicated the Cali cocaine cartel.
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