Restaurant review: Tertulia

Seamus Mullen summons olive oil, ham and fire for his triumphant return.

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Rice with snails at Tertulia

  • Photographs: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Wood-fired grill and wine on tap at Tertulia

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Tertulia

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Tertulia

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Tertulia

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Lamb breast at Tertulia

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Tertulia

  • Photographs: Paul Wagtouicz

    Tertulia

    Tertulia

Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Tertulia

Rice with snails at Tertulia

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

New York is spoiled rotten with top-shelf trattorias, great casual spots for weekday Italian, where the food is fresh but not fussy, and you don't have to think much about what's on your plate. But most of the city isn't as blessed with the Spanish equivalent. A few years back, chef Seamus Mullen did his bit to change that, launching his Boquerias in Soho and Chelsea with restaurateur Yann de Rochefort.

The chef, who left those still thriving restaurants for health reasons last year, is back—in the West Village this time—with Tertulia, an equally charming solo endeavor. It's the sort of easy taberna you might stumble upon during a road trip through northern Spain, somewhere between San Sebastin and Gijn, perhaps, thinking not much initially of its rustic food and interiors, only realizing later the impression they've left.

Tertulia pays homage to the cider houses of Asturias, on the Atlantic coast just west of the Basque Country, offering hard cider on tap along with regional snacks. Its overall aesthetic harks back to a time before Spanish cuisine's avant-garde shift. The nostalgic dining room, with its arched wine-cellar ceiling, oak booths and scuffed white brick walls, is so convincingly weathered, you'd think the place had been open for decades, not just a few weeks.

The menu seems, on the surface, as well-worn as the space, but there's a big difference between the food at Tertulia and at the city's real Iberian dinosaurs (like El Faro and Sevilla, still hanging on a few blocks away). Mullen, a great modern chef, offers an idealized spin on old-fashioned fare, featuring careful cooking and top-notch ingredients. Peer into the open kitchen and you'll get an idea of what's really at work here—the chef flanked by a wood-burning grill on one side and on the other by a whole haunch of Iberico ham.

Mullen wields that precious jamn like a stash of fresh truffles, draping hand-sliced wisps on a tosta with chopped egg and crushed confited potato, and folding minced scraps into the molten bchamel oozing from his supremely crunchy croquettes. There's jamn too, on his sensational crispy snail and mushroom rice, translucent slices melting beneath a mushroom and shaved-celery salad.

All of these dishes are meant for passing and sharing, at a big table, ideally, with good friends around you. Mullen's stealth work in the kitchen rarely draws much attention to itself. Never mind that the pimentn-spiced potatoes have just the right crunch, that the anchovies are smartly paired with sheep's cheese on toast, that the smoky grilled clams arrive to the table right as they've popped. Just eat and enjoy.

While the ingredients here do most of the work, some plates are more baroque than others. A canap of sunny-side-up quail eggs on caramelized pig cheeks and another featuring plump spicy mussels in tart Trabanco cider offer real fireworks. The lamb breast is also a showstopper, tender like pork belly and glazed in sweet sherry vinegar.

Still, it's easy to take Mullen's food for granted, if you don't look too closely—at the gently grilled sushi-grade mackerel, for instance, or the superlative olive oil it's sauced in. The homespun desserts—crispy crpes rolled around vanilla custard, a fine sweet-and-salty chocolate tart—are just as easy to scarf down without pondering too much. Which is just as it should be.

Vitals

Eat this: Pig cheeks with quail egg, grilled clams, spicy mussels, lamb breast, snail rice

Drink this: The bargain house wines ($8--$10), cider ($4) and sangria ($9) on tap are all great easy matches for the restaurant's convivial food and vibe. There are also many intriguing Iberian bottles to choose from. Ask the sommelier to direct you to something offbeat, like an earthy Monje Tradicional red ($50) from the Canary Islands.

Sit here: Grab a stool at the bar for a solo snack. The best seats for dinner, though, are in the back half of the dining room, looking in toward the bustling kitchen.

Conversation piece: Seamus Mullen took a break from the restaurant business to cope with rheumatoid arthritis. He's found some relief in the anti-inflammatory effects of the olive oil, almonds and oil-rich fish that are so central to Spanish cooking (and to his menu at Tertulia).

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359 Sixth Ave between Washington Pl and W 4th St (646-559-9909). Subway: A, C, E, B, D, F, M to W 4th St. Mon--Thu 5:30--11:30pm, Fri 5:30pm--midnight, Sat 11am--midnight, Sun 11am--11pm. Average small plate: $12.