One evening a friend and I had the good fortune of sitting next to two Spanish men on a first date. "What do you think of the patas bravas?" I asked the tall bald one, after offering him a bite of the paprika-dusted potatoes squiggled with orange aioli ($7). "It is good," he replied thoughtfully as he finished chewing, "but it should be hotter. 'Bravas' means fierce in Spanish, you know." The shorter dude who'd retained his hair nodded in agreement.
The seating at Boqueria encourages such easy conversation and tapas-sharing among patrons. The tall banquettes, opposing stools, and tiny tables are high off the floor, making you feel like a small child with legs left dangling. This paradoxically creates a feeling of freedom and spaciousness, even though the restaurant is often so crowded and deafening, you might want to throw down your fork and throttle the guy at the end of the table ranting loudly about hedge funds. The room is relentlessly beige, with a low ceiling and nifty light fixtures that make it feel like an airline departure lounge in Barcelona, circa 1957.
The menu channels Barcelona, too, hometown of Catalan cuisine. Pimientos de Padrón ($7) are fresh green chiles that have been briefly fried and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt, causing them to glint in the dim light. Watch out! While most are sweet, every tenth pepper is scaldingly spicy. The best thing on the menu is a pair of slender toasts domed with brandadea fancy name for salty and fishy mashed potatoes. Sublime!
A meal at Boqueria is best kicked off with a plate of charcuterie, sliced to order in the front window, giving the cigarette smokers outside something to gawk at. There's excellent 15-month-old Serrano ham ($6), which arrives mounted on tomato-smeared toast, but even better is fuet. Correctly pronounced, the name of this damp, garlicky Catalan sausage sounds like gas escaping from a punctured tire. If you want cheese instead, you must ask for the dessert menu. Priced around $4 each, the perfectly aged specimens come lushly sided with dark raisin bread, cubes of guava paste, and a skid mark of quince jelly. Pick the rosemary-rind manchego, or idiazabal, a soft cheese with a smoky finish.
Arranged according to dish size, the menu's other four sections are bewildering to navigate. From the media raciones (most $11) comes a thick stew of miniature lentils cradling a slow-poached egg, spritzed with truffle oil and decorated with shreds of fried Serrano. The egg wobbles and oozes disturbingly, pointing to the influence of Catalan science chef Ferran Adrià. Among the larger portions called "raciones" (most $19) find plump slices of baby chicken angled on a bed of wild gray trumpet mushrooms.
There were things we didn't like, too, including a squid salad that left us playing "find the cephalopod" in a copse of arugula. The selection was later replaced by an octopus confit that proved disappointingly bland. Among the shareable full plates called para compartir, paella ($29) was lushly outfitted with seafood, but still disappointing"Not enough rice, not enough salt," as the shorter one tersely concluded. But then again, isn't New York City paella always a triumph of quantity over quality?
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