February 9, 2004 | Ask Gael
What’s the trick to scoring a table at Casa Mono?

         Forget it. With fans of Molto Mario (Batali) and partner Joe Bastianich out in full clamor and only twelve tables, you’ll be lucky to land a spot at Casa Mono’s fourteen-seat no-reservations bar. List your name and squeeze into Bar Jamón around the corner to wait for your summons, warming up with an intense Rioja Reserva and a few tapas, especially the two sensational jamónes. Back at the Casa, not everything is strictly Spanish, but never mind. The small plates we’re tasting are mostly marvelous (even Brussels sprouts a la plancha). Crusty balls of sweetbread on fennel, saffron-scented wild boar, skirt steak with onion marmalade, and a lush crema Catalana under a crackle of burned sugar. A few items come in threes, annoying our foursome, as does a chintzy ration of octopus, but we love fried calamari, cuttle-fish with white beans, and patatas bravas. Slithering through nonexistent aisles, servers stay cool and professional, and our sommelier sure knows her grapes.

52 Irving Place, at 17th Street 212 253 2773