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.
125 E 17th St # 1
New York, NY 10003-3447
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?