El Quinto Pino: Sand Eels for Your Tongue
If you've been to a good tapas bar in Spain, what do you remember? Probably some pleasure-blurred mix of burbling conversation, the briny bomb of squid ink, the crunch of fritters, and the garlic-oiled gush of a shrimp's head. El Quinto Pino pretty much nails it all—the Lilliputian bar in east Chelsea is one of the best, and most authentic, tapas restaurants in the city. And now that it has gotten its original chef back, the place is experiencing a renaissance that is great, delicious fun. Stop in for patatas bravas and fried intestines with a glass of hard-to-find Galician white wine.
Chef-owners Alex Raij and Eder Montero opened El Quinto Pino in 2007, together with their partners from Tía Pol, another Spanish restaurant in Chelsea. But in 2008, Raij and Montero left El Quinto Pino's kitchen and later that year debuted Txikito, a Basque tapas spot just a block away on Ninth Avenue, without those partners. Recently, the group agreed to a reshuffling in which Raij and Montero returned to El Quinto Pino as sole owners in exchange for giving up their stake in Tía Pol.
Raij has spruced the place up with a new paint job and a few tables—it was previously barstools only. The new seating makes the restaurant much more comfortable for a full meal. As always, you can still perch at the curved marble bar that occupies one side of the room. The chef has also revitalized the menu, adding new dishes and a "menú turistico," a short list of regional plates, along with cheeses and wines from a select Spanish province that changes every month. For most of March, it's been Galicia, and rumor has it that Catalonia is next.
Certain seats at the bar have partial views into the mini kitchen, where you can see Raij assemble dishes lightning-quick. One night, I waited for a friend and drank a lemony-bright Godello (the white wine grape indigenous to Valdeorras, one of Galicia's wine regions) while watching Raij grill skewers, toast sandwiches, and set stews to bubbling under the salamander, all without her moving more than a step. When my friend arrived, we tried the red sangria, one of the newcomers to the drinks menu. It was appropriately sweet and fruity—not great and not bad, like most sangria.
On the menú turistico, three of the four Galician dishes star seafood, fitting for the coastal state. The list runs from caldo gallego—a brothy ragout of pork ribs, bacon, white beans, and turnip greens—to octopus with potatoes; to a shrimp, onion, and avocado salad; to sardine pie. All are thoroughly enjoyable and well-made, finding balance between fatty and lean, rich and astringent.
The sardine pie, actually called an empanada, is an unfamiliar confection for those of us who mainly know the pastry as a sort of turnover. This one is baked in a sheet like lasagna, and sliced into rectangles. The tomatoey, shortbread-like crust crumbles when cut or bit, giving way to hidden fillets of the fish. On another plate, chubby, purplish cross-sections of octopus tentacle teeter on rounds of boiled white potatoes, all of it enlivened with a generous dose of smoked paprika, which always makes me think of bacon. The shrimp salad offers cool zippiness—avocado for fat, onion for zing—but it's one of the only dishes that struck me as really overpriced: $12 for a mincing portion. As the sole terrestrial dish on the tour of Galicia, the pork-rib soup is a comforting, wintery concoction, relying on the immortal combination of pork, greens, and beans. If it was the tiniest bit oversalted, I didn't mind much.
Raij has made other changes to the menu, including the additions of some tapas standbys like croquettes and tortilla that were absent at the restaurant's opening. The patatas bravas, for instance, might be the best in the city, with resolutely crunchy fried potatoes that hold up under a deliciously goopy, spiced ketchup.
An equally good bar snack can be found in the fried lamb intestines. The thin tubes are fried until crisp and kinked, and served with a chile-vinegar sauce that's like an acidic version of Thai sweet chile sauce. The intestines taste like lamb potato chips, and are as friendly a gut as you'll ever find. Then again, as fried snacks go, the sand eels rival the intestines—the tiny, inch-long creatures sporting a craggy crust that reminds me of the best New England fried clams. The eels are topped with a sunny-side-up egg, the whites sizzled furiously to a lacey, golden state, the yolk still liquid, spilling its molten yellow goodness over the plate.
The most lauded dish on El Quinto Pino's menu remains: the sea urchin panini that constitutes a marvel of briny squish and funk. But I actually liked the fried squid sandwich better, the tentacles ensconced in a crusty wheat roll with a dousing of spicy aioli. It's an improvement on the Italian-American sub shop classic.
El Quinto Pino isn't perfect: There are missteps and some overpricing here and there. A dish of white beans, baby squid, and ink lacked that deep, oceanic oomph that it should have, and the tinto—essentially house wine—was going for $11 a glass, around the same price as the other choices. Not exactly the point of a house wine.
But the place is fun, and spirited—ably channeling the convivial, freewheeling heart of Spanish tapas. One night, our group ate hunks of bread rubbed with tomato, garlic, and anchovies from the newly reopened Bay of Biscay fishery, a very traditional snack. We followed it with that brilliant sea urchin panini. I drank a celery-sherry cocktail—and who knows where that came from? El Quinto Pino has never been bound to custom, and that's what might make it your most authentic neighborhood tapas joint.
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