I found myself in my new favorite area (E. Village) of Manhattan for dining out once again, this time with Suba acting as host for the evening. There were several factors that attracted me to decide on Suba. Haven't had tapas/Spanish food in awhile, I've had success in the neighborhood as of late, the website was well laid out, the 1000pts on Open Table didn't hurt and the unknown factor was also key. No one on Chowhound, at least recently, has mentioned it, and I haven't heard the word from any friends...so it was time to check it out.
Walking down Ludlow, you start to wonder if you haven't passed it already, as the storefronts turn from a mini restaurant row (bet. Houston and Stanton) into dumpy buildings and bodegas, but then outdoor seating and a red awning tell you that you've arrived.
Once inside, a host, wearing, unfortunately, too casual an outfit (Fred Perry collared shirt just didn't fit it - for guests, okay) pleasantly greeted me and had a hostess-in-training show me to my table. As we walk through the street level tapas lounge with red chairs, a square bar with lilys (which always seem to remind me of funerals), I'm soon surprised by the change in scenery. As we turn a few corners we end up on a wide, steel grated staircase (stiletto or heel-wearing women, take note) that leads us to a dining platform on top of a pool of water. The water, constantly moving, creates playful reflections against the brick walls that make up three sides of the room. Steel beams above, with several speakers - none of them seeming to be on (maybe the ones at the far end of the room) and intermittent lighting round out the room.
Let's talk about the food. I went with the tasting menu...but we'll take everything into account.
2 types of bread, a country white and a wheat were just fine and acted as a good vehicle for delivering the salty, almost anchovy-like and simply tasty olive oil.
English pea soup with manchego
Very cheesey but didn't wash out the flavor of the pea. This came out piping hot and was a pleasant start. One issue with this was the extra small demitasse spoon they provide. It took more than a dozen dips of the spoon to finish the amuse and I find that the motion of eating (spoon to mouth) that many times triggers your mind to think you are eating more than you are. Which, at a tapas joint, might be the point.
Crudos de Vieras
Scallops with horseradish cream and pickled radishes
"Covered" seafood makes me nervous. In this case, beautiful greens (possibly from Windfall Farms at the Union Square Greenmarket) were the culprit. The pickled radish was only noticeable in taste and the horseradish cream was a bit too much like mayonnaise in consistency and texture. All of it tasted good though, the scallops being remarkably fresh. I am not a scallop person, despite the fact one of my best friends, Wes, is a scallop fisherman, but I was encouraged by this dish to try them again in the future. I've avoided them for years...no more. They were very thin slices, or probably tenderized down, which was cause for the split (no longer round) pieces of scallop hidden under the greens.
Gambas con Arroz Cremoso
Poached shrimp, creamy manchego rice, chorizo sauce and crispy Serrano ham
One bite of this and I was won over. Delicious. The rice was creamy but al dente with excellent flavors of ham and chorizo. The two shrimp were expertly poached and attractive in both color and display. I thought to myself that I would order this again in a heartbeat...but was disappointed to see the a la carte appetizer version of it. Instead of in a shallow bowl with a nice amount of manchego rice like the one I had, it was in a line on a rectangular plate, with four shrimp (good) but with what looked to be less rice. For shame. Anyway, this dish proved to be a winner.
Bonito al Sesamo
Sesame seed crusted tuna with pea shoots, onion soubise and Vizcaina sauce
This was fine. Three pieces of tuna crusted with black and white sesame seeds blah blah blah. Nothing at all new with this dish as far as the tuna was concerned. Tuna may have finally lost its place in dining out...at least for me. The tuna was fresh, the sauce was nice, but all in all it's a dish I've had a dozen times over...at home or eating out. Good, but nothing to laud about.
Carne con Puree de Camote Blanco
Grilled hanger steak, pickled ramps, corn, fava beans and English peas
The only extended delay between courses was between the tuna and this dish. Whether that was as a digestif or because the house started to fill up is up for debate. Either way it suited me fine. The three pieces of crispy edged and rare in the middle beef had a great flavor that was enhanced slightly by the sauce it sat in. However, the ramps made this dish. Ah, gotta love spring. The ramps, most likely from Mountain Sweet Berry Farm (again, Union Sq. Greenmarket) added the perfect zing to the dish. The fava beans, though dry in nature, had the same effect the black soy and turnip had on my Pork Belly dish at WD~50 which added a needed texture to the dish. Ramps!
White chocolate soup
with raspberry foam
Wow. I can bet that this could seal the deal for a second date with your lady friend. The soup, as far as I could tell, had three levels to it. The first couple of bites were sharp raspberry flavors, then it almost took on a cotton candy-like flavor and then it gradually became a strong white chocolate cream. I like white "chocolate" but only for a few bites. After two bites or so, it becomes grating or harsh on my palate toward the end. It might be better as a milk chocolate soup. Again with the demitasse spoons...but this time necessary.
Sopa de Frutas de Temporada
Warm spiced wine soup with raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and vanilla ice cream
The spiced wine soup was very good but the fruit didn't hold up and actually tasted flat and the ice cream was average at best. Not a great dish...and where was rhubarb? Seemed like a natural fit for this. I guess they thought otherwise. Dessert, at least by this display, could be skipped. Too bad il Laboratorio del Gelato wasn't open at this hour.
Montecristo (12 y.o rum) Mojito
I just bought a bunch of wine for home, so I felt guilty buying a glass or two this evening, so I went for an old favorite...the mojito. This was fine...certainly not the best I've had but the rum was nice and the cane sugar wasn't too overbearing. I had two and barely got a buzz (I'm usually mumbling after two) and for $12 a pop, I was hoping for one.
The wine list is remarkably user-friendly and consists of wines from the Iberian peninsula and South America. The whites, for example, were listed by "dry and crisp", "aromatic", "rich and smooth", etc. The reds were listed by "elegant and balanced" and "dark and powerful".
Joseph (I only know from the bill), my waiter, was a doppelganger of my friend Alex, even in voice, and so I was taken aback slightly. He definitely knew the menu up and down and wasn't shy about favoring certain dishes over others but kept loyalty to the chef's catalog. All diners within listening distance seemed to trust his comments implicitly. He seemed to be a seasoned server and was very accomodating and eager to please. Refreshing for sure and not cloyingly so. He might fit in perfectly at Hearth.
This was a different dining experience. I wouldn't necessarily encourage friends to rush over there but I would recommend it as a first date place. Maybe even a second date place and definitely a place you could go with say, three coworkers you just had happy hour with nearby and you don't want to wait on line for inoteca. The easy-to-navigate wine list will certainly help on a first date.
The space downstairs is both surprising and fun and provides an added element to the dining experience. Despite the brick walls, the sound was balanced nicely, probably because of the water. Overall level of noise was moderate. The tasting menu was $55 and I think it was worth it. I am pleasantly full and got to sample several different dishes. I wish that some of these dishes had more aroma to them. The Gambas being the only dish to truly hit the nose before hitting the mouth.
And speaking of inoteca, I walked by afterwards and got to see a wonderful Italian version of "Happy Birthday" sung to a guest sitting by the open windows facing Rivington by one of the Italian busboys. Bravo.
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