What's a Modern Spanish Brasserie?
I'd been trying off and on for the past 15 minutes, in increasingly cartoonish gestures, to make eye contact with one of the servers sauntering past me at Manzanilla, when a woman at the table next to mine cracked, lifted both arms above her head, and began waving like a desperate shipwreck survivor who knows, deep down, that the cargo vessel on the horizon will not spot her. "Please! Hello?"
She directed her shouts at a group of servers in the center of the dining room: "We would really like to see a menu!" She and her husband had been waiting even longer than me. "Hold on," said the server who had stepped over to assist, abandoning them again, "I'll go and find your server." You'd think the couple might get up and leave at this point, but they were willing to put up with anything for the chance to taste chef Dani García's food.
García is a Spanish chef who began cooking when he was 17 and has earned plenty of awards since then, including very prestigious ones, like the International Academy of Gastronomy's "chef of the future," and Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía's "best chef." Just a few years ago, García earned a second Michelin star at Calima, his fine-dining restaurant in Marbella, where he is from, so it would be fair to sit down at his new restaurant in Gramercy expecting a lesson in hospitality, rather than one in patience.
García teamed up with restaurateur Yann de Rochefort of Boqueria on Manzanilla, where he riffs on classics from the Spanish repertoire and his own. Follow-up visits over the next couple of weeks proved stronger, especially in the warm front room where the service seems to be more attentive, at the row of raised tables separated by a bar from the massive dining room—a gleaming 135-seat space that fills up quickly with an after-work crowd in jackets and loosened ties.
But no matter where you sit, the menu is the same. There is tomato tartare ($8), which references rustic pan con tomate and steak tartare—the cured tomato's sweetness and umami drawn out, garnished with mango puree disguised as tiny egg yolks. And there are crisp, extraordinarily lacy sheets of shrimpy tortillita gaditana ($8) with a bit of mayonnaise to dip them in. A sweet, lovely dish of bomba rice ($26), black with squid ink, is served with a nest of white cuttlefish noodles on top and a side of aioli to season mouthfuls as you go along. One of the best things on the menu is the pork "presa" ($36), which involves slices of meat reclining on potatoes and peppers. The Iberico pork is fine and fatty, served a freshly spanked pink.
But there are missteps, too. Spherification, in which a liquid is suspended in a thin jelly casing, can be a delight when it's deployed with care, and García's delicate bites of sea bass with raw fennel and liquid bubbles of bright citrus dressing show skeptics how the technique can make a familiar dish more exciting, more beautiful, more delicious. But applied to a big bowl of kale salad ($14), it veers toward revolting. To dress the big leaves, you've got to make a slippery mess of nearly raw quail eggs and black spheres of olive dressing, and the swells of liquid drain like blisters under your fork.
García is known for pairing contradicting textures and flavors, but there's often a disconnect to the high-low presentations at Manzanilla. A tuna tartare ($14) is served inside a sea urchin shell, on a bed of crushed ice, under a froth of urchin. It tastes nice and it's very pretty, recalling the loveliness and excess of classical French cuisine, but it's far too overdressed alongside the restaurant's more casual presentations, looking just plain silly next to a pair of fat oxtail sliders ($10).
Several modern Spanish chefs closed their New York restaurants not too long after they opened them, so it would be understandable if García were reluctant to commit entirely to anything too haute or experimental. As a "modern Spanish brasserie," which is what Manzanilla calls itself, the restaurant seeks a safer sort of middle ground—permission to fool around in experimental fine-dining territory, right next to the promise of reassuring crowd-pleasers like a 12-ounce strip steak and a "snack" of Brussels sprouts. While it's charming that a smart, technique-driven chef has come from Spain to present New York with a dish of eight fried sprouts ($12), it's also a bit peculiar: Served in one long row, slightly raw in the center, they're like the punch line to a joke that's been lost in translation.
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