Next to wine bars, the most popular category for start-up restaurants the past few years has been tapas bars, and the two have lots in common. Offering small morsels of food at inflated prices, both manage to make alcohol the center of attention. Drinkers like it, but then so do foodies, because, in their concentrated goodness, the petite plates often feature big flavors. The modest portions could help you lose weight, too—if only you didn’t drink so much.
Among tapas bars, the game changers were Casa Mono (2003) and Boqueria (2006), which boosted the institution’s image from that of an antediluvian Spanish taverna with fraying bar stools, painfully red décor, and old men wearing berets, to that of a noisy modern canteen, where younger patrons of both sexes snack lightly while drinking expensive glasses of wine. Full meals were an option at those two modern tapas bars, too, if you could only figure out how to assemble dishes of unpredictable size into a repast. But whether snacking or dining, you inevitably ended up with a check larger than you expected.
Enter Caliu, a new tapas bar on Hudson Street in the West Village, on a strip that, until recently, yawned with empty storefronts but is now a burgeoning restaurant row. The deep, narrow room boasts a small bar up front, a larger dining room in back, and an open kitchen where nothing much ever seems to happen. As if some Satanic mass had just been interrupted, votives flicker eerily on every surface and in niches. According to a definition scrawled on the wall, the name means: “Hot ashes. The feeling of warmth. What’s left from a feeling, passion, or affection,” which makes it sound like a great spot for breaking up.
Chef Franco Barrio lists both Casa Mono and Boqueria on his résumé, which is an unimpeachable credential in today’s expanding tapasphere. As with his two previous employers, the menu’s bedrock is traditional tapas, featuring very small servings ($5 each) of cured pork products and cheeses, including 18-month-old Serrano ham (excellent), fuet (a small-bore Catalan sausage), and idiazabal (Basque sheep’s-milk cheese), along with several others from a varying roster. The restaurant is sometimes out of items on the list, and brings different meats and cheeses than you ordered without telling you.
Served warm are some very good pan con tomate ($5)—toasts smeared with fresh tomatoes. Less satisfactory are the toasts heaped with a romesco—a purée of tomatoes, sweet peppers, garlic, and almonds—that comes with shreds of mint flapping on top, which overpower the dull romesco as readily as the fierce winds battered the Spanish armada off the coast of Ireland. Dotted with chorizo, the round omelet known as a tortilla is here rendered in exciting fashion, glistening with oil stained red with paprika, while that fill-me-up standard of papas bravas (“fierce potatoes”) tastes like it’s been sitting in a Barcelona steam cabinet for quite some time. That the dish is still edible demonstrates the amazing invincibility of the spud.
Among invented tapas, Pintxos de Gambas al Ajillo ($7) is a dud: a pair of tiny shrimp, pepper, and onion kebabs laved with garlic oil. Trying to pull the skewered elements off the wooden stick spatters hot oil on your comrades, and the dish tastes like bad backyard barbecue. By contrast, big cubes of lamb belly slicked with herbed yogurt (bocata de beicon, $8) display a compelling crispness and flavor, and add a welcome Greek note to the narrow tapas canon. It’s the best dish on the menu.
Among the larger plates, called platitos, the mussels in a crock augmented with chorizo and white wine are worth experiencing, though too few for the price at $13. Another plate features slices of pork tenderloin on a bed of truffled lentils—the meat is tender, though you’ll wish Barrio hadn’t rubbed it with cinnamon. Most noteworthy is the chef’s strange take on paella ($16), a dish popular in the West Village for decades as a cheap mountain of rice and seafood. Predictably, Barrios’s version is small and soupy, with a big head-on shrimp standing up in the mini-crock like a captain in a rowboat. A pair of lamb burgers at his side add to the sense of absurdity.
Ultimately, Caliu’s advantage as a tapas bar lies not in the excellence of its food, but in its low noise level and unexpectedly low wine prices. When the short list finally appeared recently after a long wait for a license, it had several good bottles in the under-$35 category, which makes Caliu a place that turns the modern tapas formula on its head—by selling the booze cheap enough that you’ll probably stay for an entire meal.