When Huertas (107 First Avenue, 212-228-4490) opened its doors a year ago, it offered a pair of distinct concepts under one roof: Grab a table in the front room, and you’d dine via a sort of dim-sum-style service wherein servers popped by your table with trays of pintxos (Basque tapas). Book a reservation for the back, and you’d get a five-course tasting menu designed by chef Jonah Miller. Miller wanted to showcase Spanish technique and seasonal ingredients, and so dinner changed daily.
Now, twelve months into their East Village tenure, the chef and his partner Nate Adler have learned a few lessons, and they’re finessing Huertas into one cohesive concept with a few new touches.
“We created a lot of rules for this restaurant,” says Adler. “In the frame of reference of a year of data…it would be better for a larger audience if we break those walls down, and have a lot of fun with what we’re doing.”
“It was difficult for us to do the tasting menu and the bar menu at the standard we hoped,” adds Miller. “I think we did a solid job, but it was difficult to execute and communicate. So we’re going to take the rules and constraints away, allow ourselves to have more fun, and execute at a higher level. We’ll build in more unexpected things by saving time on the front end.”
The partners will ax the tasting menu, and they’ll also revise the dim-sum-style service so that servers don’t have to continuously interrupt parties. You’ll be able to build a meal with larger plates from an expanded à la carte menu. And Huertas will accept reservations for about 40 percent of the seats in the restaurant, reserving the rest for walk-ins.
The changes, says Miller, will make it so diners don’t have to anticipate ahead of time what kind of experience they want to have. “At first, we only took reservations for the back, so if people were coming from far away, they’d make a reservation,” he says. “But then they’d be excited about the front. Sometimes guests would come in and decide they wanted the other experience. This way, everyone who comes in can experience everything we have.”
But the shift comes as much from diners’ requests as it does from listening to the Huertas servers. “The biggest thing that we’ve learned is to listen to our employees,” says Adler. “A lot of the changes that are coming are things to get them excited. The structure of the new menu comes from their ideas and words. We’ve adapted what they’ve said and put it on paper.”
Adler and Miller are also adding some additional features, like a weekly Monday-night pintxo takeover, for which they enlist a guest chef to come in and create small bites for diners. “We’ve done two so far, and they’ve been a great success,” says Miller. And they’re continuing large-format feasts, focusing each menu on a different region of northern Spain. Currently, they’re drawing inspiration from the Catalan calçotada, a traditional celebration of the calçot, or spring onion. Miller is serving it with spring lamb and sparkling cava. “We started that two weeks ago, and there’s been a lot of excitement,” says Miller. “We’ll have calçots for another two months and then move into something else in the summer.”
With the shifts, the partners hope to settle in as a neighborhood restaurant. “We think the new format has a more widespread appeal,” says Adler. “This way, an East Villager can come in and have a glass of wine, a larger plate, a couple pintxos, and do some work at the bar, and not feel like they need to have this full experience and have a five-course tasting menu or the dim sum pintxos. This is a space where everyone can come in and feel comfortable.”
So what are Miller’s and Adler’s goals for the future? “We want to be an institution — a place that’s on everyone’s list,” says Miller.
Adler adds, “We want to make this an establishment, a neighborhood joint, where anyone can feel comfortable. We want to use the space to incubate new ideas, to push the envelope. We’re never going to stay stagnant. Complacency is not in our vocabulary — we get jittery if we stay in the same place.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 28, 2015