June 14, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Bar Artisanal Gets a Spanish Accent

We smash the yolks and divide the flat bread as a warmup. Photo: Steven Richter
We smash the yolks and divide the flatbread as a warm-up. Photo: Steven Richter

        Like Doctors without Borders racing to a catastrophe, Terrance Brennan swooped downtown to the island of Tribeca to rescue the racy-looking corner that was briefly Trigo, installing Bar Artisanal. His opus was predictably cheesy – after all, in refining his uptown Picholine into a Michelin two-star over the years, it was Brennan who awakened New York appetites for the cheese trolley. But manna of cow and goat is only one of Brennan’s passions. Spain is another. His brain has been bursting with Spanish flavors from his travels. His sophisticated tuna tartare on tapioca crackers and a truffled game trifle with game jelly and truffled toasts in the bar at Picholine stood out on our citywide tapas crawl in 2008.  

Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja delivers paella we were too full to try. Photo: Steven Richter

        Brennan had been promising to open a Spanish restaurant long before the economy went flat.  So it was a surprise but no surprise to learn that overnight he’d rejiggered the Tribeca annex to give Bar Artisanal a Spanish accent.  “It wasn’t really focused enough,” he says. “French, but also Mediterranean, a little Italian, some Spanish. It didn’t have enough soul.”  Well, now it does. It has flamenco late on Fridays, a sparkling Cava brunch with a Spanish guitarist, and luscious paella with rice authentically stuck to the baking dish and seafood courageously, brazenly, determinedly, not overcooked. You can get sloshed in its creative sangrias – white wine with Pisco, mango and pineapple, for instance, and there’s a dense rum-spiked almond cake you won’t want to overlook.

Some paint, a new sound track and menu. Hola! It’s Spanish. Photo: Steven Richter

        Wrapped in floor to ceiling mullioned windows with the subtle distortion of antique glass and a vast European train station feel, the place already had good bones. A splash of paint, a new sound track. It didn’t hurt that the colors of the existing logo were those of the Spanish flag or that general manager Louis Andia, late of Pamplona and Pipa, just happened to be the son of a Sevillian bullfighter. (Brad Pitt will play him in the movie.) Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja, most recently at Chelsea’s Il Bodello and a veteran of Felidia, was a less obvious fit.  But if Brennan can channel Spanish, why not Nurdjaja?

Our server, Tina Springston, show off her dramatic pouring style.  Photo: Steven Richter

        A Brennan fan since Polo and Prix Fixe, a haven on West 18th Street for recession-lashed foodies in1990, I’m here early with friends who consider him a giant and are unlikely to utter a negative burp. But you can trust me.  Our server is fabulous. In her other life she’s a tap dancer, she confides, so it’s a cinch for her to execute a dramatic wine pour into a carafe. I’m going to kidnap or adopt her if she says “No problem” one more time to my demands – like can we have four cod croquetas instead of the standard three? But the kitchen is still in rehearsal, quick to deliver white gazpacho – the classic distillation of grape, garlic, almond – in four little cups so each of us can taste, then a bit slow with the rest of our order, but then, so are we. 

       Menus these days are either boldly minimal or attention deficit all over the place like this one. Here we have a page for nothing but cuartos de vino, sangrias, horchata variations, fanciful cocktails, jerez of course, and beers, draft or bottle, Spanish or Mexican. Then pages more for tapas (classicas and modernas), Pa Cocas (flatbreads), riffs on tomato bread, jamones, cheeses, sausages, starters and platos principles. Half an hour of turning pages has elapsed before we make a decision.  We decide to focus on tapas, flatbreads and starters (Entradas). 

Liguid foie gras ravioli and sea urchin crema to share. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m unhappy with the sweetness of piquillo pepper jam under the salt cod croquetas that transport me back to evenings warming up for dinner in the bars of Sevilla and Barcelona. If there can never be too much sea urchin in your life, you may not want to share the crema – its brininess tamed with cream. Uptown, Brennan puts liquid foie gras in chicken Kiev. Here he captures it in ravioli served on china spoons.  Eat it fast before it grows rubbery.

Standup clams in shells on pizza just doesn’t work for me. Photo: Steven Richter

        The four of us can’t agree on one Pa Coca, so we order two. I like potato, chorizo and fried egg flat bread better than the ham with oregano, guindilla pepper, and clams in the shell standing like sentinels - more of a photo op than a luscious mouthful. Marvelous char of baby leeks with smoked sea salt and romesco takes me back to a wild calzotada of singed calzots (like spring onions) with Jose Andres and his friends outside Barcelona. We’re planning to share paella but by the time we’ve tasted all the above, plus gigante beans with bottarga, a starter of wild mushrooms, asparagus and soft egg and silken fideos negros  (inky black noodles) with squid, piquillo peppers and blobs of aioli, we agree we can’t eat another bite.

Don’t miss the moist, dense Santiago almond torta. Photo: Steven Richter

        Even so, we revive for dessert.  I’m not a churros fan but one of our companions cannot resist a donut by any name beignet, fritters, bombolini. Tonight’s slim fried sticks of dough with hot chocolate dipping sauce taste of slightly used oil, but the Santiago torta is my kind of dessert – dense moist cake with a hint of rum and vanilla ice cream glazed with Pedro Ximenez Grand Reserve vinegar.

       It’s a shock to find the place so empty on Memorial Day, two weeks later when I return for that paella with friends who’ve not been before. But it’s not depressing at all given the mesmerizing patter of our Gilbert and Sullivan-styled waiter and the $38 pitcher of Rioja sangria he insists is what we’ll need to get through the evening. The flatbread spread with a stickiness of caramelized onion, olives, anchovy and roncal cheese is crisp as a cracker.  Not necessarily an improvement on earlier, softer versions. But the paella alone is definitely worth this second trek downtown. It has all the rice stuck-to-the-pan socarrat that defines a good paella with seafood that is miraculously not overcooked.  Lobster, mussels, clams, even the shrimp are tender, and the romesco sauce on the side is much better than last time, perfect nutty texture, a better balance of flavors.  Who cares if the chef added the seafood mid-way to keep it just cooked when the rice has so much flavor? 

An encore visit for splendid paella with carefully cooked sea creatures. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Hake could not be more perfectly roasted and chorizo, clams, and a grassy green sauce add pizzazz to its bland sweetness. It reminds me of my grandmother Cecilia.  We would laugh when she said “sweet as fish.” Properly moist chicken sits in a substantial puddle of a splendid lemon-garlic-pimento sauce. I’m not sure where the saucer of new potatoes in a green sauce belongs but I’m passing it on with a two thumbs up rating. Given all the tastes that came before and the generous portions, a fourth entrée is overkill. But I can’t resist a chance to taste fabada, the Spanish version of cassoulet with pork belly, chorizo and blood sausage in bean stew that might warm blustery nights come winter.

         Brennan launched brunch yesterday with sparkling $6 Cava cocktails, a Spanish guitarist, red wine French toast and whipped ricotta, eggs benedict Artisanal on tomato bread, and scrambled eggs with chorizo and clams.  Rotating paellas will be served family style for 2 to 8 people on Paella Sunday evenings with a starter and dessert for $48. The chef hopes to entice nocturnal nomads with live flamenco on Fridays from 11 pm to 1 am and a late night menu offering $4 drafts, $5 sangria, $6 cocktails and unlimited tapas for $20.  The discount menu is also available daily from 5 to 7 pm and Thursday to Saturday from 10 pm till close.


268 West Broadway at Sixth Avenue (one block below Canal) 212 925 1600. Dinner Monday to Wednesday 5 to 10 pm. Thursday through Saturday till 11 pm. Sunday 4 to 9 pm.  Late night Thursday through Saturday 11 pm to 1 am. Happy hour, Sunday to Friday 5 to 7 pm., Thursday and Friday 10 pm to close.  Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:45 am to 3 pm. 

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers