In the ’90s, if you told friends you were going to a tapas bar, they’d look at you funny and wonder what the hell you were talking about. Yes, the city had tapas, but they represented a limited collection of salty snacks encountered in the fusty, red-upholstered barrooms of the city’s most ancient Spanish restaurants. These places were often located on obscure side streets in Greenwich Village or Chelsea, and dated to the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The tapas were restricted to a handful, including toasts draped with pale pickled anchovies or cured Serrano ham, a small serving of garlic shrimp, or—if you were lucky—a chorizo that the waiter set aflame with brandy.
Then everything changed. Casa Mono (2003) and Boqueria (2007) appeared, tracing the modern arc of tapas bars. They updated the canon with broad-ranging small plates, added dubious entrées, and expanded the list of alcoholic beverages to include more than just purple sangria, jug tempranillo, and sweet sherry. There were downsides to this new approach, too: The food and booze were wildly more expensive, and the servings of unpredictable size, so that eating in one of these places was like sailing across the Atlantic without a chart, and you usually ended up with too much to eat.
While Casa Mono was Mario Batali’s brainchild, the architect of the menu at Boqueria was Seamus Mullen, once described by Al Roker as “a nice Irish kid making Spanish food.” A burly guy with tattooed arms, he’s now to be seen bustling around the tiled kitchen at the rear of Tertulia, the city’s latest tapas bar. Rather than having the gleaming modern appearance of Boqueria, Tertulia—which means “literary salon” in Spanish—looks like the decor was plucked from the iconic 1960s Time-Life volume The Cooking of Spain and Portugal. Rugged arches separate the barroom from the dining room, with walls composed of unfinished brick and faded tile of indeterminate shade. Seating is at a series of impossibly crowded tables, and the air is perfumed with smoke from a wood-burning oven.
The menu offers a combination of traditional and invented tapas, but you can’t go wrong ordering nearly anything of small size that comes from that oven. Foremost is tosta huevo roto y jamón Ibérico ($10), two substantial pieces of toasted bread topped with oily crushed potatoes, pummeled egg, and fat-streaked ham, making it the best breakfast you’ve ever eaten at dinnertime. There’s no breadbasket on the table, but if you love bread, nothing’s better than pan con tomate ($5)—slices cut from a rustic loaf smeared with ripe tomato. Even in the darkest days of autumn, it delivers a semblance of summer.
There’s a tortilla Española—what we’d call a frittata—made with potatoes and onions and almost unspeakably plain. I loved it. And a bowl of mussels ($13) animated with green chilies, apple cider, and luxuriant chunks of bacon—it won’t make you wish you were in a Belgian restaurant instead. The cider, by the way, is one of the Asturian colorations on a menu that tilts toward the region of Northwestern Spain where tiny bagpipes are played, and the locals are really Celts under deep cover. Seen in this light, maybe an Irish chef is at an advantage. Another Asturian touch is the opportunity to quaff bottled cider with your meal, and not the sweet stuff you’re used to. Here, for $32, you get 700 milliliters of Trabanco—a muddy, beery beverage with a saison-like sourness. It’s the perfect complement to a piece of cabrales cheese, the world’s most powerful bleu, also from Asturia.
Some of the invented tapas fizzle. A dish described as baby squid cooked a la plancha (on a flat metal griddle) turns out to be a chewy green salad and ultimately disappointing after the first bite or two. By contrast in the novelty department, one evening the chalkboard listed a special of raw goose barnacles (15 for $22), to be pulled from their fingernail-like enclosures and doused with lemon juice. They’re splendid and unlike any seafood you’ve tasted before.
Avoid the entrée-size dishes, which are big enough to be shared, but tend to be rather coarsely executed. The paella ($42), for example, is low on actual rice, and what there is arrives mired in a thick, dark paste of who knows what. The accompanying garlic sauce is great—but would be better on bread. A special of pork belly, sausage, and beans one evening was a total knockoff of French cassoulet. Sticking your lips together like crazy glue, the casserole’s supreme heaviness is the opposite of the light grazing you ought to be doing in a tapas bar.