It Pays to Be Picky: Jonah Miller Brings Basque Pintxos to Prime Time at Huertas
All photos by Bradley Hawks
Slicked with olive oil and glistening in the glow of the dining room's hanging lamps, the skewered anchovies curved around Manzanilla olives and pickled guindilla peppers in a sultry cocktail-toothpick pole dance, their olfactory siren song beckoning from the server's tray. Yes, these gildas were ripe for the taking.
Lest you brand your critic a fishogynist, consider that the dish, a favorite Basque bar snack, draws its name from a 1946 film noir in which Rita Hayworth portrayed the titular femme fatale.
The dishes Jonah Miller prepares at Huertas (107 First Avenue, 212-228-4490) (the Spanish word for orchards) have a way of raising eyebrows, usually followed by smiles. The young chef frequently flashes the latter during dinner service as he makes the rounds from the casual, airy front area of the restaurant to the reservations-only back. The division of space works particularly well here, and the anterior dining room's intimacy plays well to Miller's decision to embrace a tasting menu, a move that mimics the flow at downtown staple Gramercy Tavern, where he trained while still in high school. At 27, he's fresh off the kitchen equivalent of an Ivy League education, including time under the tutelage of Peter Hoffman (at the erstwhile Savoy) and David Waltuck (a kitchen tour at Chanterelle led to Miller's first apprenticeship). A jumble of bacon, corn, tomatoes, and oil-soaked croutons glows with the flowing yolk of a fried egg, all sweet cream and smoke. Fried calamari explodes from between slices of too-crisp bread, but the bocadillo kicks into overdrive with fried slips of lemon and silky squid-ink mayonnaise. Classic huevos rotos -- french fries tossed with eggs and cured meat -- receive a playful spin as "Huertas rotos," with poached eggs and soft, under-fried potato strands. The spuds' texture is intentional, inspired by a Szechuan recipe of stringy potatoes with chili oil (here an unctuous chorizo vinaigrette). Miller's last gig before going solo was as sous chef at Danny Meyer's Maialino, and the plate eats like a buttoned-up carbonara. It's straightforward, gut-punch cooking.
Bulbous croquettes arrive, straining to stay together under the heft of savory duck filling. The shredded bird balloons are part of a roster of eight passed pintxos -- the Basque answer to tapas, typically impaled on a toothpick -- offered up front (you may choose to accept or decline). Huertas joins contemporary media darlings like San Francisco's State Bird Provisions and midtown's Momofuku Má Pêche in adopting the format, rooted in dim sum and its roving carts. Piquillo peppers come stuffed with garlicky Basque chistorra sausage, while deviled eggs hide under an anthill of the shaved cured tuna called mojama. Priced at $2 to $4, the bites are graze-friendly and perfect for enjoying between sips of beverages chosen by general manager and co-owner Nate Adler. On the all-Spanish wine list, moderate prices reign. Two varieties of vermouth are available on tap, several more by the bottle. Sherries represent, too, and both fortified beverages find their way onto the cocktail list (the "Cobbler" is especially refreshing). Adler takes a more global approach to ciders and beers, but there's thoughtfulness behind the selection, which champions smaller producers. Also not to miss: the refrescos, simple mixes of wine and soda -- think red wine with cola, or cava-spiked orange soda.
The Spanish have a longstanding tradition of food preservation, and shops like Soho's Despaña are constantly introducing local palates to new products. Miller spreads the canned-fish gospel with five different sea creatures, including the anchovies used in those gildas. Tiny, fork-tender scallops bobbing in tomato sauce look gorgeous in their tin, placed next to piles of herbs, coarse salt, and chewy bread. "It's a staff favorite," our waiter claims, and the marinated mollusks do make for a zesty snack, even if the Galician sauce that drives the assemblage tastes like Chef Boyardee at the beach.
The mood pivots in the back dining room, which boasts enough dark wood to make a cider house blush. The five-course menu del día runs $55 (or $85 with beverage pairings that include an aperitif and digestif). There's some flavor overlap, though dish presentations skew progressive rather than rustic and portion sizes progress in standard fashion. That lamb chistorra shows up next to braised summer beans, and buttery skate wing gets an earthy dose of turnips and fennel. For dessert there's goat cheese cheesecake, whose tangy sweetness is leavened with nectarines and nougat -- a Creamsicle with big ideas. Out front, meals end with stumpy churros or salty, exceedingly nutty Marcona-almond ice cream made with a vanilla base from Davey's Ice Cream down the street.
Only five months old, Huertas feels comfortable and established in a way that's similar to the vaunted restaurants where Miller developed his skills. An evening spent in either room, sipping draught vermouth and choosing from beautifully composed, Basque-inspired plates, offers a snapshot of the Spanish dining experience, filtered through a modern American lens.
Editor's note: We're now running our restaurant reviews right here on the Fork in the Road blog. Check our Restaurant Review category each Tuesday, when we post a new one.
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