Monday, March 14, 2011
Socarrat Nolita: Too Close for Comfort
Inundated by poor iterations of perhaps the most iconic of all Spanish foods, it's almost as if New Yorkers like the idea of paella better than the dish itself. How else can one explain how we continue to tolerate the ubiquitous concoctions of soggy rice containing overcooked seafood at nearly every tapas restaurants? But our paella prayers were answered when owner Jesus Manso opened Socarrat Paella Bar in Chelsea.
Named after the crispy rice that forms on the bottom of paella pans, Socarrat was immediately given the title of having the "best" paella in all of New York. Naturally, people flocked to this shoebox of a restaurant, often enduring hour plus waits only to be packed in tighter than sardines in order to savor the restaurant's namesake dish. Although intrigued, Socarrat's no reservation policy (and elbow room) had always deterred us from visiting. But learning that Socarrat recently opened a sister restaurant in Nolita that (gasp) accepted reservations, and was more spacious to boot, gave us the perfect opportunity to see for ourselves just how good this paella really was.
Located on a relatively quiet strip of Mulberry Street away from the hustle and bustle of Houston, the restaurant was in full swing by the time we arrived for our reservation. Inside was far larger than either of us expected, but much to our chagrin, instead of utilizing its increased real estate more efficiently, we were led to the dreaded communal table bumping shoulders along the way. From our observations, parties of four were comfortably seated at their own tables while smaller groups were relegated to a comically narrow communal table. Trying our best to avoid joining our neighbor's conversations, we spent a majority of our meal dodging eye contact and elbows whenever our neighbors scraped additional socarrat from their paella pans. Adding insult to injury were the elevated stools without backs that, while cushioned, became quite uncomfortable towards the end of the meal.
As if sensing our plight, our server attempted to make the best of the situation by quickly bringing us the wine list. Observing nearly everyone in the restaurant with their own pitcher, we figured the house Sangria was a good option and followed suit. The sangria was forgettable, but then again, what sangria isn't? Regardless, the alcohol eventually worked its magic, helping make our seating arrangement seem almost tolerable.
Social lubrication in hand, we ordered some tapas to sate our hunger as our paella was being prepared. First to arrive, the Sepia a la Plancha - Quickly Griddled Cuttlefish, Parsley, Garlic - was a good start. Simply dressed with parsley, garlic and lemon, the cuttlefish developed a nice bit of color from the flat top and were supremely tender.
Passing on the delicious Jamon Iberico, we "settled" on the less expensive, Jamon Serrano. Hand cut to order, we quickly devoured these salty ribbons of pork with the aid of some accompanying bread.
Arriving with an audible hiss, the Gambas al Ajillo - Sizzling Shrimp, Garlic, Olive Oil, Guindilla Hot Pepper - caught the attention of the entire restaurant, turning heads as the our server made her way from the kitchen. The shrimp were delicious. Perfectly cooked, they contained the essence of sliced garlic and hot pepper while preserving their natural sweetness. An additional treat was the remaining olive oil that was permeated with garlic and was eagerly sopped up with any remaining bread.
But the best was yet to come, and the Cochinillo - Suckling Pig - special was definitely worth the wait. Piled atop bitter greens was a brick of succulent pork highlighted by a thick layer of crispy skin. The bitterness of the greens helped keep the fattiness of the pork in check, and balanced the dish nicely, but there was no debate that the combination of toothsome skin and juicy meat was the real deal.
Drawn by the allure of langoustines, MW made certain that we ordered the Paella Langosta that was loaded with a split Lobster Tail, Langoustines, Calamari, Cod Fish and Cockles. Priced at $28/person, and the restaurant's most expensive paella, the langosta was met with mixed reviews. On one hand, all of the seafood was phenomenally prepared. Nothing overcooked or dry. Particularly good were the massive head-on prawns and moist chunks of cod. Also noteworthy was the socarrat.
On the other hand, the paella had its share of flaws. First, the dish's most expensive component, the lobster, tasted frozen and was virtually flavorless. However, the paella's greatest problem lay within the rice itself. Unlike an ideal paella, which absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients, it was evident that here, the seafood and rice were cooked separately, resulting in a lack of cohesiveness we desperately sought.
Despite all the food we ate being solid, only under ideal circumstances could we realistically see ourselves rushing back. Overall, we felt that Socarrat's paella langosta was good, not great, and certainly not special enough to warrant a trip by itself. While some elements were far more successful than any other paella we've eaten, namely the crusty bits of socarrat we had to pry from the pan, the rice and seafood felt like two disparate components rather than one harmonious dish. So unless you're really jonesing for Spanish food, have a reservation for a party of four, or don't mind eating on top of complete strangers, your best bet for that transcendent paella may be to continue to save those pennies for a trip to Valencia.
284 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.