The food revolution that’s swept through Spain over the past 20 years has never made significant inroads in New York. While expat chef José Andrés has done his bit elsewhere in the U.S., spreading the gospel of El Bulli, Mugaritz and Arzak in D.C., L.A. and Miami, attempts at avant-garde Spanish cooking in this town have gone up in a cloud of liquid-nitrogen smoke (see the hyped but short-lived Romera, Graffit and Bar Basque, each too pretentious or awkward).
But Manzanilla, from Andalusian star Dani Garcia, may be the first modernist import with a real shot at success. The chef had the foresight to partner with a local pro, joining forces with Boqueria’s frontman, restaurateur Yann de Rochefort, and together they’ve opened a place that’s inviting enough for a drop-in snack at the bar. Instead of a rarefied temple of experimental excess like his Marbella flagship, two-Michelin-star Calima, Garcia’s new spot is a wide-open brasserie, with high mirror-topped walls, potted fronds and baroque chandeliers.
The chef, best known for mixing nostalgic flavors with modern technique, delivers sleight-of-hand spins on Spanish classics—never too self-consciously showy—that display more novel accents than exclamation points. New-wave tapas to nibble with flutes of dry sherry include a delicious riff on pan con tomate (tomato-smeared toast), with cured tomato pulp seasoned like sirloin in a mock steak tartare, featuring the classic sharp condiments (mustard, capers et al.) and sweet-sour rounds of spherified mango jiggling like quail-egg yolks on top. His super-savory squid-ink croquettes—oozing warm béchamel—come six to an order in a porcelain egg carton, nestled between dollops of citrus and cilantro aiolis.
Like so many well-traveled ambassadors of la nueva cocina, Garcia has picked up ideas and ingredients from all across the globe. His zingy take on pulpo a la gallega (a classic bar bite) features meaty octopus hunks flecked with Japanese togarashi pepper, along with the usual smoky paprika. The evanescent potatoes all around them, meanwhile, aren’t at all what they seem, molded from a mix of mashed spuds and Chilean hot chilies, with blowtorched soy sauce forming a frail skin around the outsides.
Sometimes Garcia’s surprises lurk behind a pretty straightforward facade. A conventional meat-and-potatoes entrée hides all sorts of funky, spicy multicultural layers, with crimson slivers of Iberico pork loin steeped in miso and mirin and served in a pool of Szechuan peppercorn jus. His roasted suckling pig is just as complex—ultra-succulent meat, fragrant with ginger and lemon, pressed into a compact terrine under candy-crisp skin.
A lot of these dishes feature fragments of things the chef’s served before, borrowed from his flagship or small gastrobars. His most outlandish desserts offer a glimpse of just how wild his food can get at the high end. Don’t miss the tart pineapple “iceberg,” a fruity meringue floating in a passion-fruit sea, or Marbella’s Full Moon, a delicate silver sphere of white chocolate filled with aromatic yuzu and mandarin.
At his homeland ventures, Garcia gets more conceptual, with three-hour meals—worth the journey to Spain, certainly—but wisely, he didn’t feel the need to import his full bag of tricks to New York. Instead, he’s opened a great introduction to new Spanish cooking, the sort of approachable start this city needed.
Eat this: Tomato tartare, squid-ink croquettes, octopus with spicy potatoes, suckling pig, seared Iberico pork, Marbella’s Full Moon
Drink this: Former Gotham Bar & Grill sommelier Rick Pitcher, general manager here, has compiled an impressive selection of Spanish wines and sherries. Let him guide you through the list, to a great-value light red like an A Portela Mencia ($35), or a gutsier rioja from Viña Arana ($60).
Conversation piece: Manzanilla is Dani Garcia’s eighth restaurant, and his only one outside Spain. The chef was one of the first anywhere to use liquid nitrogen in a professional kitchen. A few years ago he coined a term for his style of cooking: cocina contradicion, which can be translated as either “cooking with tradition” or “cooking contradiction.”
By Jay Cheshes