Eight Arms to Hold You
Gentrification patterns often astonish. How, for example, did Avenue B become the most hopping restaurant strip in the East Village? Or Smith Street in Brooklyn accumulate dozens of upscale bistros? In a similar fashion, Williamsburg's Grand Street has gone from being a sleepy backwater of bodegas and small industrial shops that ends ingloriously in a BQE abutment into the hot zone where many of the newest bars, clubs, and restaurants seem to be landing. Allioli might sound like a French or Italian place, but the name is a misspelling of the Spanish word for garlic mayonnaise. As a reminder, the first thing that hits the table is a free plate of boiled potatoes, still firm in their red jackets and inundated with gooey homemade ali-oli. Coarser, oilier, and more garlicky than aioli, it's irresistibly delicious.
We first tasted it on a summer evening in the restaurant's back garden, where the surrounding buildings sprout whirring industrial fans and television antennae that point like spacecraft toward New York's sci-fi-pink sky. Set on uneven flagstones, the table tilted every time a dish touched down. We enthusiastically dispatched plate after plate of tapas, including a trio of grilled sardines ($7) heaped with a garlic-zapped tomato relish, thoughtfully planted on a piece of bread that gamely soaked up the tasty drippings. We were also impressed by a warm and juicy salad of baby squid, tomatoes, and basil, though it hardly seemed Spanish, and, best of all, an abundant bowl of mixed olives ($4) doused with plenty of oil infused with garlic, rosemary, and lemon rind.
When we returned in autumn, the action had moved inside, and we noted with some dread that a DJ had been installed at the end of the dining room. Somehow, the earsplitting drum'n'bass, while conducive to dancing, seemed incompatible with the slower Iberian rhythms of a tapas bar. Nevertheless, this visit helped to identify some of the duds on the menu. We learned to skip both dishes featuring buffalo mozzarella, which doesn't belong in a Spanish joint anyhow, and a weird snack of roasted dates wrapped in Serrano ham. The cool caress of ham sounded perfect for a hot date, but when it arrived, the Serrano, too, had been roasted, turning the world's best cured pork into mediocre bacon. But we had some good things as well, including tostada con anchoas de l'escala ($6), three toasts topped with a brilliantly conceived saline tangle of anchovies and caramelized onions. But disappointingly, a dish of baby eels sided with polenta was unavailable, as it was when ordered on the other visits. We wondered what culinary magic could justify the $22 price tag.
Though we had resolved to return sooner, it wasn't until winter that another visit proved feasible. Thankfully, the DJ had been yanked from his little raised platform and replaced with a communal wooden table, and the place was mobbed with 'Burg homies sharing plates of tapas and knocking back glasses of decent Rioja. Indeed, though many of the tapas resemble their Spanish counterparts, the size of the portions is much more generous, so that with some careful choosing three plates can constitute dinner for two. The kinks had been ironed out of the sloppy service, and we were able to zero in on the menu's best offerings. These included ensalada de pulpito ($9), a tidal pool of octopus, potatoes, and pimientos in pungent olive oil. Luckily, the single octopod was more adolescent than infant, and we readily dissected the head into several good-size portions. And since there were an even number of diners, we didn't have to fight over the tentacles.
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