Unlike sentient jalapeño popper Guy Fieri and his cavernous, Donkey Sauce–soaked Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, fellow celebrity chef Jose Garces, who built a James Beard Award–winning career exploring Spain’s and Latin America’s culinary riches, opted for a noticeably lower-key Times Square debut. The two possess an equally grandiose entrepreneurial spirit, so when the Chicago-born, Philadelphia-based empire-builder shoehorned Ortzi, his latest venture, into the back of a midtown hotel, it was notable for what it wasn’t — namely, splashier.
Garces is no stranger to these symbio-corporate relationships. Last year he landed in NYC with an outpost of his Philly flagship tapas bar, Amada, satisfying the mix of worker bees and tourists who swarm Battery Park City’s Brookfield Place complex. And while the erstwhile Food Network star struck out big in 2014 when he was forced to close four properties at the failed Revel casino in Atlantic City, he returned confidently this March with three new spots in the Tropicana Casino. A month later, he was opening shop at the new Luma hotel on 41st Street, launching this ode to Basque cuisine.
Looks can be deceiving, and that’s a blessing in the case of Ortzi, which boasts views, depending on where you’re seated, of either the semi-open kitchen or the lobby elevators — the same ones you’re unfortunately forced to use to access the bathrooms. These design quirks can make eating at Ortzi feel slightly awkward and unpolished, like seeing a Stephen Sondheim production in a sleepy nonprofit playhouse. Even so, they’re glitches worth overlooking, and ones that the restaurant ultimately overcomes, thanks to amiable service and some deft contemporary Spanish cooking from a team led by chef de cuisine Michael Han, who spent time under David Bouley and most recently was executive sous-chef of A Voce Madison.
Perhaps expectedly, the restaurant is at its most bustling in the pre-theater hours, when you can hear the tempos of group conversations all the way from the check-in stand at the front of the soaring, glossy structure. Follow that boisterous cacophony to find tables crowded with plates of Serrano and Iberico hams (market price), vegetable options like shaggy heads of wood-roasted cabbage ($12) showered with manchego cheese, and glasses of Txakoli, the Basque country’s gently fizzy, dry white wine. Pressed for time en route to Grand Central Terminal one evening, I made easy work of a spread that included potatoes ($10) with a thickly crisp crust drizzled with a creamy sauce made from pungent Asturian blue cheese; simple, perfectly seared lamb chops ($27); and coins of sweetly spiced blood sausage ($14) interspersed with roasted apple slices over silky onion sauce.
There are comparable pleasures populating the crudo and conserva section of the menu, which Garces claims was inspired by the region’s vast range of tinned seafood, something the Ecuadorian chef says he ate as a young cook “quite often while I was in Spain, given my tiny chef stipend.” Perhaps that’s why one of the best dishes here is a humble dip made with shredded oil-cured tuna belly ($16) mixed with creamy remoulade and briny capers. Spread on thin toast planks, its punchiness is far more compelling than the gilded lily of Han’s ritzier raw toro ($28) decorated with American hackleback caviar. Likewise, don’t miss out on chewy cockles ($14), which get a meaty boost from chorizo, the surf and turf laid out over sourdough toasts paved with potato puree. And if you enjoy the vegetal sharpness of green chiles, you’ll appreciate how Garces coarsely chops them for an escabeche that plays spicy foil to pale slivers of fresh black bass sprinkled with shavings of the salt-dried tuna loin called mojama.
Although you wouldn’t confuse this streamlined, neutral-toned room for one of the region’s rustic cider houses, you can order the kind of beastly chop you might encounter while drinking in one. Served in a cast-iron pan next to green peppers and crispy potatoes, the $65 dry-aged ribeye txuleta easily feeds two. But for a considerably less expensive example of Basque culinary culture it’s hard to beat a glass of tartly dry apple cider poured from great heights out of a porron, Spain’s traditional angled wine jug that’s shaped like a tapered watering can. Just as hearty as the steak are cazuelas, slowly achieved roasts and stews Garces says he warmed to while seeking out familiar comforts during his time working abroad, and which are harder to find among the city’s few other Basque establishments (most focus on pintxos, Basque’s answer to tapas). Best among these are king crab legs ($31) baked with piquillo pepper aioli, pudgy poussin ($24) laid over supple grits stained maroon from ñora chiles, and a small cauldron chock-full of ham-wrapped rabbit legs ($25), which first get braised in rabbit stock fortified with Albariño wine before artichokes and roasted potatoes are added. It comes garnished with an effete cracker dotted with mustard cream that belies the dish’s homey, deeply developed flavors.
If you find yourself distracted by the cavalcade of rolling suitcases, Ortzi’s uncomplicated desserts will steer your attention back to the table. There’s plenty to like about a fudgy wedge of pastel vasco, the sugary Basque baked custard tart, which here perches next to a pool of apricot coulis and crunchy pistachios. Same goes for the copa caramel, which ably blends milk-chocolate pudding, burnt-sugar foam, orange zest, and Pedro Ximénez sherry. As sweets go, they’re the type meant to be devoured quickly. Pair them with a slug of something from the long list of vermouths, sherries, and regional curiosities like grape pomace brandy infused with Galician herbs, and you may just want to linger, showtimes and train schedules be damned.