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On a Friday night at 8:30, we are sitting at a white-cloth-covered table at La Fonda del Sol. No more than three other tables are occupied, and the room seems oddly muffled because of the thick carpeting. It’s hushed, and not in a good way. But on another visit, at around 8 on a Wednesday night, we sit in the bar area-which looks like a really nice office cafeteria tricked out with mod red-plastic chairs and a black-and-white-checkered floor, with basketball playing on flat-screen televisions-and the place is hopping, full of people just off work, sporting striped shirts and khakis, getting a little drunk, munching on fried shrimp, and kvetching about the market.
To talk about La Fonda del Sol is really to talk about three different restaurants: There’s the formal, rather stuffy dining room, where the Spanish fare comes in the form of main courses or tapas, and there’s the lively bar area, where the menu is composed solely of tapas. (These two seating areas feel so different-there are even separate bathrooms-that you can hardly believe they are the same restaurant.) Finally, there’s the ghost of the restaurant past: the original La Fonda del Sol, a daring, colorful pan-Latin restaurant that opened in 1960 and was, by most accounts, the first Manhattan restaurant to serve Latin food in a fine-dining setting. Craig Claiborne wrote in a 1960 review that the restaurant “glitters with brilliance as gay as a Mardi Gras parade.” The new La Fonda del Sol is a good restaurant, but I wouldn’t compare it to Mardi Gras.
To be fair, when the Patina Group-a company that has about three dozen restaurants scattered through New York and California-announced plans to reincarnate the beloved restaurant, they made it clear it wouldn’t be an exercise in nostalgia. The pan-Latin theme was jettisoned in favor of straight-up Spanish, and instead of Alexander Girard’s exuberant color-saturated design, current designer Adam D. Tihany went subtle: playing with midcentury modern in the dining room (chocolate-brown rug with yellow sunbursts, brown wallpaper, squared-off upholstered chairs) and creating a streamlined bar. It’s all very tasteful and savvy, but you almost wish for a touch of kitsch here or there.
The switch to Spanish food makes sense: It’s a safe bet, and everyone’s looking for a safe bet right now-and who doesn’t like patatas bravas and Manchego croquettes? Plus, the company snagged talented chef Josh DeChellis, lately of Bar Fry and Sumile, to helm the kitchen. DeChellis enlisted Victor Broceaux, a Basque native who cooked at the original restaurant, to consult on Spanish cooking.
The main courses served in the dining room are well-executed, but something about them feels impersonal. You can get perfectly cooked loin of lamb, fanned out in garnet slices, in plenty of upscale restaurants. Granted, this lamb is crusted with pepitas and served with a length of grilled eggplant that has been hollowed out, filled with eggplant puree, and enriched with olive oil, anchovies, and raisins, but it also costs $38. Likewise, a dish of grilled turbot with red piquillo peppers is nicely done, but not transporting enough to warrant a $32 price tag. The best main dish is cod with cockles, in a pool of bright-green parsley sauce with smoked paprika potatoes.
You can order tapas in the formal dining room, but noshing on a bunch of shared plates in a room with white tablecloths and carpeting feels odd. You like to have a glass of wine with tapas and pass the plates around without worrying that you’ll mess up the tablecloth or feeling that you’re talking too loudly.
The optimal experience at La Fonda del Sol is a tableful of tapas in the bar area. The smaller dishes range from $4 to $12, and many are perfect-playful, but never overly complicated. The most untraditional tapa turns out to be one of the most delicious-a single meaty short rib, braised in red wine and topped with horseradish foam and little beads of pomegranate juice (made with the gelling agent agar agar) about the size of salmon roe. It’s a clever idea because the ruby beads look just like pomegranate seeds, but provide that rush of sweet-tart flavor without the seedy crunch.
Also wonderful are the whole-fried sweet shrimp from Maine, which have those bristly, lion-like heads. Dip them in the chile salt and crunch them down, flavorful heads and all. It’s easy to forget that shrimp are supposed to taste like this-sweet and full of deep, briny character. Generally, seafood is a good bet: toothsome nuggets of octopus, crunchy salt-cod croquettes with romesco sauce, and mini raw-tuna tacos in a blue-corn shell with avocado cream.
Patatas bravas, fried chunks of potato, are every bit as crispy and well-salted as they ought to be and are served with an excellent homemade hot sauce. For an adventure in excess, get the fried duck egg on top, and let the yolk drip down onto the potatoes. Cut all that richness with blistered Padron peppers-every fifth one or so is spicy; the others are sweet.
Good cocktails are one element that the new version and the original have in common. Claiborne found the pisco sour at the original “fascinating,” and you can still order a pisco sour here (although I’m not sure anyone thinks it’s fascinating anymore). On the other hand, the La Fonda del Sol martini is compelling: a blend of vodka and Fino sherry, garnished with blue-cheese-stuffed olives. Thankfully, the cocktails here are stiff and cost $9.50, which is no bargain, but it’s a nice change from the $12 drinks that were de rigueur not so long ago.
Opening any restaurant is a risk these days, but aside from that inherent risk, the new incarnation of La Fonda del Sol is a much safer proposition than the first. You can’t really blame them-unself-conscious flamboyance doesn’t really mix with a financial depression. Still, it’s easy to root for a chef who makes simple things like fried shrimp and braised short ribs into revelations.