Casa Mono- New York

On a cold wet day in New York City when trench coats become studded with specks of rain and speeding taxis create massive tsunamis that engulf the sidewalks, no place feels more cozy and right than Casa Mono in Gramercy Park, the charming little Spanish restaurant of the Batali/Bastianich empire. Since its opening 7 years ago, Casa Mono has become one of my favorite regular spots, one of those special places where I can feast in the familiar flavors of Spanish comfort food while discovering new ways to savor items like frog legs and cockscombs. Chef Andy Nusser’s hearty fare, influenced by Spanish tapas and served with a unique cosmopolitan style, has been bringing in hoards of city dwellers and out of towners into its neighborhood abode every night. After a 3 year blank in my yearly visits to New York City, I was looking forward to revisiting Casa Mono and enjoying what I had hoped would be yet another spectacular meal.

With only 10 small tables and a handful of bar seats, this little Spanish gem is always crowded, its overflow spilling into the adjacent Bar Jamón where the theme is more true to a traditional tapas bar and the food is decidedly Catalan, with classics like pa amb tomàquet, tuna escabeche, crema catalana, a handful of bocadillos and a glorious hock of jamón ibérico shaved to order. On the day that I went, I brushed off the drops of water from my coat, settled into my favorite seat at Casa Mono at the solitary table in the front corner of the restaurant, and watched the bustle of Manhattan through the large window as we opened a bottle of 2004 Baron de Magaña Navarra. With haloed streetlights and muffled traffic, New York City takes on a special glow and a sentimental character in heavy downpour, creating the perfect backdrop for a Casa Mono evening.

In the pulpo dish, perhaps the best dish at Casa Mono, perfectly charred tender baby octopus is seasoned with garlic and parsley, while fennel is served three ways, slice raw, sautéed and its bright green needle-like leaves sprinkled on top, all tossed with juicy wedges of pink grapefruit for a refreshing entrée.

Foie gras with cinco cebollas features a caramelized wedge of seared foie gras on baguette, its luscious fattiness complemented with 5 types of onions- pickled red pearl onions, ribbons of green onions, translucent leeks, sweet sugary sautéed onions and cipollinis, making for a fun dish where every bite delivers a different type of tanginess.

Razor clams a la plancha with generous heaps of garlic and chopped parsley scream La Boqueria, its juicy meaty flesh transporting me back to the vibrant sounds and smells of one of the most exciting marketplaces in the world. While Casa Mono is technically not a true Spanish tapas bar, they have simple fresh dishes like these that pay tribute to the spirit of delicious Spanish soul food.

The robust flavors of harissa, chickpeas, pickled red onions and mint stand up to the thick cuts of lamb chops that ooze savory fatty juice with each slice of the knife.

One cannot speak of Mario Batali’s food without mentioning pork, and at Casa Mono a whole Hudson Valley pig is broken down into several menu items like albondigas, crispy belly and croquetas, and we opted for the chorizo dish with spring beans and manchego cheese. Yellow wax beans, petit pois, generous shavings of manchego cheese and a dash of mint all brilliantly showcased the succulent piece of grilled chorizo sausage.

Roasted bone marrow with radish, caper and parsley gremolata is served with Casa Mono’s scrumptious version of pa amb tomàquet. While the marrow is delicious, the longitudinal cuts served to us are 80% bone and sparse in marrow content.

One of Casa Mono’s signature dishes is the whole duck egg with mojama, a twist on ham and eggs. A large sunny side up egg, perfectly cooked and bright canary yellow in all its glory, garnished with a slice of black truffle and gently laid over a bed of fingerling potatoes tossed in truffle vinaigrette, oozes golden lava into the valley of salt cured tuna. Mojama is traditionally enjoyed thinly sliced with a drizzle of the finest Spanish olive oil, but its savory meatiness is given an alternative dance partner in this soirée.

Every restaurant has its ups and downs, and the lobster dish with clams, peas, pea shoots, pickled red pepper and crispy jamón fails miserably, demonstrating that one cannot just throw in a bunch of tasty ingredients and expect to make it taste good. The lackluster sauce weighs down the beauty of the jamón and the spongy texture of the lobster spells its doom.

While crema catalana and the Mono Sundae made with plum brandy sound enticing, the pudín de naranja, a creamy bread pudding with red wine poached pears and caramel ice cream, is what we order. A slight burn on the edges of the bread pudding gives a nice crispy texture and smoky aroma, and it all goes down well with a glass of Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximénez, an amazing dessert wine with an intense passionate sweetness and honey viscosity.

The menu at Casa Mono, which is bigger than the tiny restaurant, is comprehensive if not a bit overwhelming, as it is impossible to conquer it all in even 2 consecutive visits. Bacalao croquetas, calamares fritos, baby chopitos, fideos with chorizo, sweetbreads, scallops, mackerel, cod cheeks, skirt steak and rabbit are but a sample of other items that are all undoubtedly amazing. Although local New Yorkers have told me that Casa Mono’s service and food have been inconsistent in the past few years, my revisit proved to be just as magical as I had remembered. Tucked inside of our cozy nook, far away from the clapping thunder and violent downpour on that gray Manhattan evening, my friends and I raised our glasses to another fun and delicious dinner at Casa Mono- still good, after all these years.

Casa Mono & Bar Jamón

125 E 17th St # 1
New York, NY 10003-3447
(212) 253-2773

Random trivia: Did you know that a baby octopus, which grows to about 2-5 inches in length, is the size of a flea when it is first born?

Comme ça

There’s nothing I love more than dining out with fellow foodies.   I love sharing meals with foodie friends, especially when we have the same taste in food and have perfect culinary chemistry.  I love exchanging information and opinions about restaurant history and culture, about which dish we love at what restaurant, which chef left which restaurant to open up his/her own place, who trained with which culinary master, etc.  And that is how I heard of the shocking news yesterday as I dined at Comme ça with one such friend.

Comme ça

Comme ça

Comme ça is a cute and lovely French bistro that chef David Myers opened up a year and a half ago in West Hollywood.  He is most recently famous for the success of his restaurant Sona that he opened up in Los Angeles a few years ago.  Sona was well known for its desserts that were created by his wife and pastry chef Michelle Myers.  Her success led her to open Boule patisserie across the street where I used to buy macaroons and artisanal chocolates.

I drove by Boule the other day and noticed that it was vacant and closed down.  What happened?  Divorce, my friend Shirley told me yesterday, as we nibbled on French bistro-style comfort food in the spacious and beautiful dining room of Comme ça.

Entrance to Comme ça

Entrance to Comme ça

Comme ça bar

Comme ça bar

Gulp….gasp.  Divorce.  Yes, the restaurant world has just as much gossip worthy of being featured in Us magazine as Hollywood does.  I’m sad to see Boule close down.  It was such a charming patisserie and I loved their signature robin’s egg blue and chocolate brown color swatches.    Their chocolate and sweets gift boxes made for wonderful presents.

But no time for lamenting, we must get back to the food.

For starters, Chef Creek oysters and Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia.

Oysters

Oysters

The Chef Creek oysters were big and plump, and had a crisp lettuce taste with a briny finish.  The Fanny Bays were smaller and flatter, with a light crisp cucumber finish.  I really liked the Fanny Bays.  They were so fresh, light and pleasant to eat.  I could easily eat a few dozen of them in one sitting.

We ordered very classic French bistro comfort food- moules frites and steak frites.

Moules frites

Moules frites

The moules frites were cooked in a lovely pernod sauce with celery, onions, shallots, thyme and tarragon.  I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, and kept lapping it up with their freshly baked piping hot baguettes.  Pernod is a type of liqueur called pastis, which is produced from licorice plant or anise.  It clouds up with the addition of water, which is what probably gave the sauce a white/yellow opaque color.  Ricard is one of the most famous French brands of pastis.  I had it for the first time, ironically, in the middle of the African bush in Liberia.  When I was doing medical humanitarian work  in 2006 in West Africa, one of the French ex-pats Guillaume brought a bottle of Ricard with him.  He cradled it very carefully in his arms as if holding a baby, and brought it all the way from Paris.  We all have those few comfort items that we just cannot live without.  For him, Ricard was one of them.  The night he arrived, we stayed up all night long talking and laughing while smoking Guinean cigarettes and drinking straight Ricard, in the middle of the West African jungle.  I have such fond memories of those days!

Steak frites

Steak frites

The steak was a prime flat iron center cut, grilled perfectly medium (though I ordered it medium rare) topped with tarragon butter and accompanied by one of my all time favorite foods in the world- pommes frites with aioli.  The pommes frites were done just how I like them- long, thin, and crispy.

Brioche chocolate bread pudding

Brioche chocolate bread pudding

Shirley, being a huge dessert buff, took a really long time deciding which dessert to have.  Strawberry clafoutis?  Chocolate pot de creme?  We followed our waiter’s recommendation and ordered the chocolate brioche bread pudding.  It was really rich, thick and sweet.  I felt like I was biting into a bar of chocolate (but that’s just me, I don’t have a sweet tooth).  The vanilla ice cream was delicious.  Shirley didn’t seem too happy with the waiter’s choice, and was regretting not following her heart and ordering the pot de creme.  There’s always a next time.

I recommend this restaurant not only for the food, but for the ambiance.  The dining room is absolutely beautiful and has such character.  White leather benches with bright red cushions, antique mirrors on one side of the wall, and cookbooks on the other side which is flanked by the liquor bar and the cheese bar.  If you want French comfort food, you will find it here at Comme ça.

http://www.commecarestaurant.com/

Random trivia:  Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a 40 year old, petite 105 pound Korean-American female competitive eater (that is her actual occupation) holds the current world record for oyster eating.  She ate 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.  Her most famous win is for 37 hotdogs in 12 minutes.  She is ranked 5th in the world for competitive eating. She is single.