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?

Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel- New York

One of the hottest restaurants in New York City and the winner of 2011 Zagat Survey’s Best New Restaurant in New York is Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in the exclusive Gramercy Park area.   This quaint Italian restaurant is the newest addition to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s empire which includes the Shake Shack chain, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern (voted 2011 Zagat Survey New York’s most popular restaurant for the 6th time in 10 years).   With dinner reservations being booked for months ahead since its opening last fall and the walk-in bar perennially overflowing with patrons, breakfast or lunch is an easier alternative to trying Maialino.  In fact, lunch may be one of the best times to dine there, when the bright warm sun shines through the large bay windows that look out onto Gramercy Park- but even for lunch, you’ll have to make a reservation weeks in advance. 

Located off of Gramercy Park Hotel’s main lobby, Maialino’s interior creates a warm and inviting atmosphere that naturally encourages mingling, conversation and feasting.  Next to the large open bar are the charcuterie, cheese, pastry and bread counters that are lined with mouthwatering delicacies that emanate enticing aromas.  Walk past the counters to arrive at the rear dining room where the blue checkered tablecloths and antique framed photos of Italy will transport you to a rustic Roman trattoria.  The Italian menu comes courtesy of Executive Chef Nick Anderer, who got his first big start at Babbo, then spent a year working in Milan after which he returned to New York City to cook at Gramercy Tavern.  The menu draws its inspirations from classic Roman dishes using locally grown seasonal produce. 

When Danny Meyers used to work in Rome, locals affectionately called him Meyerlino, which means ‘little Meyer’.  Eventually that name morphed into Maialino, which means ‘little pig’, hence the name of the restaurant and the theme of the menu which is slow-roasted crispy-skinned suckling pig.  Trotters, guanciale and different cuts of suckling pig find its way throughout the menu. 

Trippa alla Trastaverina is a beautiful plate of tender strips of tripe stewed in a tomato based sauce, coated with generous sprinklings of pecorino and mint.  Pile the tripe onto their freshly baked bread, wait for a few seconds for the tomato sauce to soak through the top layer and devour it whole.  The tripe melts like butter and tastes like heaven. 

Other enticing antipastis include chicken liver and aged balsamic crostone di fegato, and fried artichokes in anchovy bread sauce (carciofini fritti).  A plate of assorted charcuterie featuring prosciutto di Parma from Emilia-Romagna and soppressata picante from Long Island with buffalo mozzarella will make lunch even more perfect.

Insalata Misticanza is a simple salad made with seasonal greens, lemon and olive oil, and even this is fantastic, as all produce are from the Greenmarket farmers market. 

One of their signature dishes is the Malfatti al Maialino, a buttery suckling-pig ragù that clings onto folded sheets of hand torn malfatti pasta.  Generous chunks of tender pork are magnificent, its fattiness cut by bitter arugula.  The dish is perfect, but I can’t help but wonder how the pasta would taste with a few bits of crispy maialino pork skin thrown in.  

Other primi pasta dishes stick to Roman classics, like bucatini all’Amatriciana, fettuccine alla Carbonara (both with guanciale) and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Paninis for brunch and lunch feature a porchetta sandwich with slow roasted suckling pig and egg.

Secondis offer a wide variety of proteins, like hanger steak bistecca di bue, pollo milanese, suckling pig terrine and suckling pig’s foot, but our server insists that we get the swordfish.  How can swordfish be the best thing on the menu?  It’s always overcooked, tough, tasteless and boring.  I push through my skepticism and follow his orders.  He is right.

Pesce Spada is a simple no-fuss dish with grilled swordfish, eryngii king trumpet mushrooms and sprinkles of fennel fronds, but so perfect in execution that it becomes sensational.  The swordfish is tender, buttery, rich and delicious. 

Desserts offer a classic lineup of Italian sweets, like gianduja budino, torta della nonna, affogato and a variety of gelato.  Torta di Olio d’Oliva, an olive oil cake with vanilla bean mascarpone, pleases with a rich nutty flavor inside a soft moist batter. 

Other sections of the Gramercy Park Hotel, newly renovated by Ian Schrager, are worth a visit.  The majestic lobby lined with crimson red carpet and tall wooden ceilings are awe inspiring, and every nook and cranny shows a diffferent combination of design form.   Some flaunt eerie goth embellishments like shark tooth sword lamps, while others transport you to the hotel in ‘The Shining’.

Large chandeliers and dramatic red velvet curtains set the stage for contemporary paintings by Warhol, Basquiat and Haring, but once you step into the exclusive bar that branches off of the lobby, you will see an expression of 21st century bohemia.   Whichever section of the hotel you decide to browse, it will be a magical escape far away from the sights and sounds of the concrete jungle outside. 

The Private Roof Club and Garden upstairs is another gorgeous Ian Schrager space, with tables and a bar situated underneath a retractable roof 16 stories above the city.  The ceiling of the indoor lounge features an incredible mass of hanging light bulbs, perhaps numbering in the 300’s, that add to the drama of the intimate space. 

The outdoor section evokes an urban oasis, a tropical greenhouse in the middle of the city,  with wicker chairs strewn along a corridor of hanging ivy and potted green plants. 

Most likely you’re not one of the privileged few who reside in and have a key to the private Gramercy Park, but the rooftop club will do for now.  Gaze out onto the park and the rest of Manhattan while you sip on martinis on your private little bench in the corner.  All yours, at least for a couple of hours until you close your bill.   

Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010
(212) 777-2410

Random trivia:  Did you know that the swordfish has the widest temperature tolerance of any billfish,  with the ability to swim the surface and dive to depths of 2,100 feet (650 m) or greater, where the water temperature may be just above freezing?  They have a ‘brain and eye heater’, a special bundle of tissue that insulates and warms these organs.  This helps to prevent rapid cooling and damage to the brain, and increases visual acuity in cold deep waters.