Reading Heat made me crave another Batali dining experience, since my visit to Otto a while back was such a success. I obviously wanted to try Babbo, not quite realizing that it's one of the hardest reservations to get. Years after opening, the buzz is still so strong that I couldn't even get past a busy signal to have someone tell me there were no tables available. I plan to go someday, but that will have to be a day when I have miraculously gained more patience.
My plan B was Casa Mono, the Batali backed Spanish tapas place featuring Chef Andy Nusser, who formerly worked at Babbo and Po. Getting a table was fairly simple, especially if you're open. I told the nice lady that I could eat any day that week as long as it was between 7 and 8. No problem, we were set for an end of the week fancy meal out, and I was excited.
Spanish food usually makes me extremely happy. The flavors and ingredients like sardines, chorizo, cured hams, and olives read like a list of my favorite foods – so, in a way, I can hardly go wrong with any Spanish restaurant, but it was a pleasure to go so right at Casa Mono.
After hearing about the tight quarters, I was bracing myself for not only dreaded stools, but a hectic, uncomfortable environment. Luckily I was wrong. While the space is tiny, tiny and bustling, it is also very friendly and even as you bump elbows with your fellow eaters, you feel less like you're invading their space and more like you are all sharing a special experience. An open, we're all in this together experience heightened by the very visible kitchen, a long counter right in the same room as the dining. Happily here is where the only stools sat – where really handsome chefs cook under the gaze of their diners without breaking a sweat. I can only imagine the stress of working in a kitchen, the added pressure of being on display and unable to utter a single curse word must be a maddening feat.
The chefs were not merely pretty faces, though, dish after dish they delivered something exceptional. Pumpkin and cheese croquettes, hot breaded balls of salty and sweet, began the meal with a bang. In fact, this was Jim's favorite dish all night. Next, the fresh sardines were my pick, being a huge sardine fan. (The photo is from the blog In Praise of Sardines, written by another fan of the fish). The plump crispy critters, simply prepared were delectable, right down to the eyeballs. Razor clams are one of those things that neither one of us can resist if given the option, so we knew we were going to order those as soon as we sat down. They were lemony and garlicky and unlike other places, where you receive a very small amount, came as a heaping pile that allowed us each to devour at least four a piece.
It's worth mentioning that actually every dish was like this. People often complain about the way bills can rack up at small dish restaurants, but I found at least Casa Mono gives you your money's worth. Every dish was unexpectedly large and or filling.
The duck eggs, served over easy a top a pile of spiced potatoes and succulent flavorful ham was no exception. This dish would make the best brunch entree ever, and I hungered for it the next morning. Finally the meal was rounded out by tender pork cheeks with quince, another complex flavor combination that had me rolling my eyes in yumminess.
There was no room for dessert at the end, as five dishes turned out to be more than enough food to fill us to the brim. The drink menu is mostly, in fact almost all wine, but we had Estrella, a crisp Spanish beer which?is reportedly rather hard to find.