Huertas Brings a Taste of Northern Spain to the East Village
Jonah Miller began mapping out plans for a restaurant when he was still a teenager. "Broadly speaking, I grew up in the city, and I knew from a very young age what I wanted to do," he says. "I started working in restaurants at 14."
Twelve years later, the chef -- who has spent time behind the burners at Chanterelle, Gramercy Tavern, and Savoy -- is making good on that goal. Huertas (107 First Avenue), a pintxos bar and restaurant that channels northern Spain, will make its official debut on Tuesday.
Miller's inspiration comes from a variety of experiences. "When I was coming up, it was a time when Spain was influencing cooking throughout the world," he says. "That and the fact that Spanish was spoken in kitchens made me want to study abroad in Spain in college. When I was there, I realized the experience of eating in Madrid is not really available in New York."
So he built it, giving an East Village space a revamp to make it feel old -- "We want people to feel like they've been here before," he explains -- in which he erected a pintxos bar in the front room and a more traditional restaurant, albeit one that serves only a fixed price menu, in the back.
The pintxos bar, he explains, is a staple of Spanish culture, and in that country, it's a casual and freewheeling experience. There, you order drinks, and you pair them to small bites. "I wanted to emulate the experience of walking into a bar in Madrid or San Sebastian and being curious, standing on your tiptoes as the next platter of pintxos hits the bar," he says. "Then you say, 'Wow that looks good, I'll take two,'" putting together a meal of many snacks, sometimes without even really knowing what they are.
Cognizant that New Yorkers are less inclined toward standing around a counter and shouting orders, though, Miller has installed a dim sum-like service experience for the this part of the space: Servers will pass by with pintxos on trays, and you can take what interests you. Look for items like tortilla Española, mushrooms with smoked garlic, and papas braviolis -- fried potatoes with brava sauce and aioli. There will be cheese, meat, and conservas -- food served in tins imported from Spain -- as well as churros con chocolate, too.
And while you eat, you should order rounds of wine, beer, and housemade vermouth poured on tap, or, better yet, says Miller, "unabashedly Spanish" drinks like the calimocho, a blend of red wine and Coke.
Miller didn't want to just cook small bites, though. "I'm opening a restaurant, so I have to be selfish," he says. "I wanted to create a restaurant I wanted to eat in and work in." That meant giving himself an outlet to do something a little more technique-oriented, which is exactly what he'll do in the back room, adhering to another traditional Spanish menu format, the menu del dia. "Restaurants in Spain are basically required to offer a menu del dia," he says. "We'll have the same flavors in the back as the front, but they'll be a bit more refined."
The four courses, he says, will kick off with a series of "pintxos that'll be a bit more refined than the front room," and then move through an egg course -- "Spaniards love eggs," he says -- and an entree, for which diners will have a choice between a meat-, fish-, and vegetable-based dish. The meal wraps with a chocolate- or fruit-focused dessert or, of course, cheese.
That menu will ring in at $52 per person, but you can opt to add beverage pairings -- culled from all sections of Huertas' list -- to bring your total to $80. Miller says he has no plans to add a la carte options, though he does say he can accommodate vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free diners.
Huertas began accepting walk-ins a couple of nights ago, but it begins taking reservations next Tuesday. For now, the place is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, but it will add Sunday service and brunch around June and lunch sometime after that.
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