A lot of hardship has surrounded the opening of two new Spanish restaurants,Suba (technically a relaunch) and Mercat, which opened a few days and several blocksapart from each other. Both have overcome difficulties—one medical, the other chemical—though one emerges successful, while the other, not so much.
In its former incarnation, Suba attained middling critical acclaim. Last year, owner Yann de Rochefort had better luck with his second Spanish spot, the excellent Boqueria, helmed by chef Seamus Mullen, and lured Mullen south to apply his magic touch to his tired LES eatery. De Rochefort also used the occasion to whitewash the subterranean space, but didn’t do away with its silly basement moat, wide enough to warrant a menu disclaimer for lost objects. Then the trouble began. Shortly after the reopening, Mullen was felled with rheumatoid arthritis and dropped out of the kitchen for a month.
Mullen has been back at the stove for just as long, enough time to put his stamp on Suba. It falls well short of his previous success, more due to conceptual flaws than the kitchen hiatus. Boqueria’s innovative sangrias, including a must-be-tried beer version (lager, triple sec, pear and lemon juice), followed him here, but the tapas bar’s raw passion—the hiss of bread being pressed, the paella served in skillets hot enough to singe skin, the freshly cut serrano ham—is ostensibly absent.
The menu encourages tapas-style tasting and sharing, but Mullen eschews most of the classics. He shows frequent flair with dishes like the sweet soft-shell crabs dusted in almond in a cold almond soup; pleasantly sinewy sliced hanger steak; and smoked sardines that could be mistaken for sushi-grade eel.
But several dishes underwhelm: fishy, fried crab-and-corn croquettes; and arroz cremosa, a tiny portion of risotto-style rice with peas and Manchego cheese, required a microscope to detect the promised pork belly. Tapas are designed to be small, but even the larger courses failed to fill us up, and leaving hungry is never good when you’ve just dropped a lot of cash.
A far smaller bankroll is required at the vibrant Mercat. It, too, had a rough start—a gas leak delayed its well-publicized opening for a month. Credit owner Jaime Reixach, a Barcelona native, and his chefs, David Seigal (Bouley) and Ryan Lowder (Jean Georges), with using the hold-up to tighten their game.
The two chefs, both of whom logged cooking time in Spain, have mastered the bar-snack essentials: sweet and spicy padrón peppers, blistered and covered with salt; tender grilled baby calamari; and fantastic patatas bravas, fried potatoes latticed with a searing garlic-and-smoked-paprika aioli.
Seigal’s and Lowder’s French training is evident in the more complex dishes. Mercat’s yeasty, aged hanger steak was sandwiched between a piercing horseradish sauce and a rich ratatouille. Dried cranberries clung to fatty slices of guinea hen with a thick, crisp skin. Pungent aioli topped their fideua negra, the Catalan comfort dish—soft, short noodles tossed with diced cuttlefish dyed with its ink.
Don’t come here for dessert—the churros are standard, the ice creams taste like soft serve. But the lively scene at the wonderful marble bar demands lingering. During one visit, when I was forced to wait 45 minutes past my reservation time, my party enjoyed snacking there so much that we turned down our table when it was finally ready. To Mercat’s credit, the hostess had removed the appetizers from the bill without our asking. That’s the kind of goodwill that trumps any bad karma.