November 12, 1984 | Vintage Insatiable
The Tapa-Dance Kid

       Every other week, somebody confessed sinking $2 million into the design of a new restaurant and frittering away two years of construction.  So it’s amazing to see what artist Antoni Miralda has done in three months to transform the ancient Teddy’s into an already jumping El Internacional.  It looks like he’s spent all $39.95.  A few dollars for spray glitter.  Ten bucks’ worth of Carmen Miranda-inspired oilcloth.  Aluminum tumblers and saucers, dime-store ice buckets and trays, even air-conditioning ducts spray-painted iridescent purple and aquamarine.  Clearly the treasures of job-lotters on Canal Street.  What else would one expect from Miralda, the dimpled, pony-tailed sculptor of red-and-green bread walls, painter of chocolate murals?

      His calculated discount funk and witty food-art -- the forties revolving bullfighter lamps in the window, the flags of all nations (note the banners for countries not yet charted) on the vestibule floor, the metallic-purple pipe-tumbler-and-saucer light fixtures over the bar -- set the stage for Montse Guillen and her fabulous tapas, Spain’s legendary pub snacks.  Together they have crafted a scene of sweet and silly theater. 

      In the first week, savvy foodlings were clucking the word.  And almost instantly, a motley conflux washed aboard: sedate upper-crust Spaniards, raucous downtowners, artists from studios nearby (sculptor Donald Lipski, painters James De Woody and Julian Schnabel), and gawjus juntas dressed in evolved-after-therapy Annie Hall and vintage Pigalle, Since You Went Away chapeaux and Japanese bag-lady garb, tossing sturdy vinto tinto  (the red wine of the house) down their throats from the juice glass or directly from the spout of the porron carafe, men and women macho a macha. 

      If they stick to sharing tapas -- morsels of sausage or cod beignets or sublimely grilled sea critters in bite-size portions (most under $2.50) or by the ampler racion  ($2 on up), with some of the house’s wonderful crusty country bread slathered with olive oil and the juice of fresh tomato, optionally topped with ham -- it’s possible to fill up for a modest fee.  Even two downing a dozen tapas, the $8 porron, and sharing one three-course dinner ($20 to $30) needn’t spend more than $80, tax and tip included.

      It’s easy to zoom by El Internacional.  The cabdriver must be forgiven some confusion.  After all, it still says TEDDY’S on the whitewashed façade.  If you haven’t got $2 million to spend, first things must come first.  “One day I’ll take down the “T”,” Miralda muses.  “And someday perhaps the ‘E.””  There’s a doorman, too, if he isn’t loping across Varick, stalking a cab for clients exiting in a whiff of garlic.  Just inside, thee is the Teddy memorial vitrine with photos of Liz and Dick in Teddy’s golden era -- back when West Broadway was barren, before TriBeCa and warehouse chic. (I know.  I came here as a twelve-year-old with my daddy, a voyage from midtown no less bold than crossing the Sahara seems today.) 

       Grab a copy of the green-tinted newspaper El Internacional, stacked for the taking.  Read about the archaeological dig that yielded Miralda the mosaic-tiled walls, glass and gold leaf behind Teddy’s Sheetrock and ersatz suede.  “When I saw the turquoise, I had to sit down,” Miralda confides.  Read about Guillen’s odyssey, from cooking on a toy stove at two through domesticity and the food shop in Ibiza to the restaurant in Barcelona and now…here.  There is her recipe for salt-cod salad in eight languages and a greeting in Esperanto: “Nosh une hot dog, nosh une egg roll. Nosh une gyro…Nosh dis, nosh dat. Nosh 24 horas a day in la metropoliz…New York desurv le nosh d’Catalan: le nosh tapa.”

       These are not the first tapas in Manhattan.  Guillen worked with Felipe Rojas-Lombardi at The Ballroom designing that house’s stunning array of tapas.  But here the scene is fiercely Spanish.

       The tall, handsome maitre d’hotel in formal black tie looks as if he walked into a bedlam and is desperately trying to pretend it’s the Madrid Ritz.  Servers jabber away in Spanish at one another as they ferry hot tapas from the kitchen.  And Sindria , the glory of the west end of the bar, has the lusty passion of a young Sophia Loren as she hands a drink to a patron, explaining that the little flecks only mean it was made with real lemon, so “it is more good, good, good.”

       Settle at the marble counter and you are in a Miralda fantasy, with its hanging salt cod and the giant hams and sausage wearing tiny purple parasols upside down to catch the drip.  Braided country breads are piled against the electric fly-zapper. (“It’s like Spain down here,” Sindria observed as a fly buzzes corroboration.)  Inevitably, eyes are drawn to the miniature clear-glass columns with a plastic figure atop each.  “It is Christopher Columbus,” Guillen explains.  “And the blue water inside is the Mediterranean.”  She grins (dimples too) and shrugs.

       But center ring are her tapas -- moist tasty potato tortilla, pleasant cod-and-tomato salad, Moroccan eggplant perfumed with garlic coriander -- on glass shelves suspended between what look like aquamarine pipes and purple plumbing joints.  The tapa, literally “lid,” descends from the Spanish custom of topping an open bottle with a slice of bread to keep the flies out of the wine.  One day, some gourmand saint plopped a bit of sausage on the bread.  In time, the tapa found its way to a tiny saucer.  In Spain, they count the saucers from five to nine in the evening, serving sherry and spicy odds and ends before dinner, a sharing that provokes hunger, poetry, intimacy.

       So start at the bar, with delicately tender squid a la plancha, grilled sardines and shrimp (shrimp with their heads on, from Chinatown), the intoxicating eggplant, grilled mushrooms with a garlic kick, and that delicious tortilla.  Best of all squid a la Romana, crisp as can be, deep-fried to perfection. Tooth-picks pry snails from their stylish striped shells to douse in a fiery hot sauce.  There are tenderest grilled langoustines, cigalas in Spanish.  Be sure to suck the juice and tiny bits of flesh that cling to the heads.  Big chunks of chorizo al Diablo are zesty, and the chicken croquettes are lush with creamy béchamel. 

      Baby eels, a costly exotica, like broken bits of noodle except for the black-dot eyes, sizzle in peppery garlicked oil, as do baby scallops.  The blandness of cod fritters calls for a dab of garlicky aioli (if anyone remembers to serve it).  Pig’s ear strikes me as an acquired affection, but these are certainly tastier than most I’ve encountered.  Stuffed squid is merely okay, and the octopus Galician style is unpleasantly murky.  Don’t forget to order the toasted pan (bread).

       Many Internacional fans never leave the oilcloth-cloaked tables in the bar, sharing snacks and perhaps pork or filet mignon sandwiches, then dessert.  But we move on to the dining room with its archaeological excavations—the undulating dripped ceiling scarcely concealed in sunset-mauve sparkle, the clumsy banquettes, the chandeliers, three in a row, fussed up to look like marzipan.  Here tapas come only appetizer size.  You may or may not get a finger bowl.  A statue of Bacchus on a pedestal stands in front of the glassed-off kitchen.  Just to the right is a television screen with Miralda’s food-art videos -- scenes of Barcelona, the town’s white gorilla, floating food, dazzling cusinary carryout. 

       “The real next to the fantasy,” Miralda observes, never indicating exactly which he deems which.

       Perhaps an international restaurant is not really what New York needs.  Though we sample a fine borscht and heavenly sweet-potato pancakes on the $25 United Nations Week dinner, Guillens tapas are infinitely more pleasing than her dinners.  Not that the stewed duck and pear is inedible.  It’s just heavy-handed.  Even her very favorite mar i montanya (sea and mountain) on the Columbus Week menu, delicate as the lobster may be, is defeated by near-fossilized chicken.  The truth is…once hunger and greed have seduced you through a mountain of tapas what you want is a great crunch of Spanish salad, possibly something grilled, perhaps only dessert. 

       Don’t miss the crema catalana, a sublime rendition of crème brûlée, rich and creamy with a crackling of carmelized sugar.  The gypsy’s arm, lush custard in a roll of Génoise, has that same crusty roof, and a splendid, intense chocolate mousse is crowned with a curl of gold foil.  Guava pudding is rather bready. Ignore the lumpen custard irresistibly named piglet angels. Espresso is supernal.   

       Miralda is still excavating upstairs in the Crystal Room.  He hopes to have it open before Christmas.  When people ask what he intends to put in the purple edged aquarium, he says he is awaiting the arrival of a Catalan mermaid, but in fact he plans to install giant chicken feet holding up a lobster in a tank (to celebrate Guillen’s mar i montanya).  He’s built a replica of Miss Liberty’s crown and plans to install it on the roof.  And there must be a Miss Liberty corner somewhere, perhaps with a pedestal table held up by the torch arm he has built.  “Once that’s done, we can sit there, under the crown, and we will all understand,” he predicts.  “Even I will understand then.”  Those of us who love to eat already understand.

219 West Broadway

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