Before Casa Mono, Boqueria and Bar Basque---among the better spots in New York for contemporary Spanish cooking---there was a Tribeca restaurant called Meigas. For a couple of years, starting in 1999, the place had its moment. And then it was gone, banished to Norwalk, Connecticut, where you'll still find it today.
More than a decade after leaving the city, its opening chef, Luis Bollo (he's since been biding his time at other Spanish restaurants in New Haven and Princeton, New Jersey), is back with Salinas, another hot Iberian number. The flashy venue, a former dog spa in Chelsea transformed into a posh restaurant, is a buzzy limestone grotto with a water wall and a candlelit garden beneath a retractable roof. The place feels like a party most nights, with brightly hued cocktails and velvet-rope prices to match.
The best stuff on the menu captures the boisterous spirit of authentic tapas-style dining. The small plates here are boldly flavored and actually portioned to share. There are deep bowls of crispy monkfish and sepia "frito," tossed with steamed clams, fresh fennel, pickled peppers, potato and spicy aioli---a rambunctious and delicious mess. Miniature brussels sprouts and Greenmarket cauliflower, fried crisp on the edges, come drenched in citrusy yogurt, with smoked paprika and toasted pine nuts---a vivid confetti of hot, cold, nutty and smoky components.
Bollo isn't of the minimalist school of traditional Spanish cuisine---potatoes, chorizo, aioli, let's call it a day---but nor is he particularly cutting-edge either. His food is creative in the kitchen-sink sense, featuring plenty of everything, and sometimes too much. One opener of bacon-wrapped quail seems simple enough, but the dish also features seared unripe plums, spring onions, sage and a syrupy balsamic reduction---the salty bacon, sour fruit and sweet vinegar add up to an unfortunate muddle.
An entre of salt-crusted striped bass is a more successful pastiche of piled-on ingredients---the succulent fish caught in a tasty tempest of pine nuts, chorizo, asparagus, raisins, spinach and confited potato. Bollo's rossejat, a sort of noodle paella from Catalonia, has just as much going on, its toasted vermicelli tangled around plump cockles, chewy chorizo and dry hunks of chicken, with potent aioli on top. Despite the overcooked breast meat, it's a soulful blue-collar dish (but a bit of a stretch at $24). The suckling pig here, though $38, is a much better buy---an enormous golden haunch, cooked in the style of the Balearic Islands, with crispy skin brushed in sweet honey.
The restaurant, or so a waiter insisted one night, is inspired by Spain's Mediterranean isles, best known for sunburnt Brits and Germans---not serious gastronomy. The fiesta spirit of the place fits that theme nicely. But while Bollo's return to the city may not be a full-fledged triumph, much of the food---including a sweet finale of caramelized torrija bread pudding soaked in brandy---is more impressive than the loungey setting suggests.
Eat this: Mixed seafood "frito," cauliflower and brussels sprouts with yogurt, salt-crusted striped bass, suckling pig, caramelized torrija
Drink this: Begin with a fresh cucumber martini ($15), a clubby cocktail that's also clean and refreshing. A bright bottle of subtly effervescent Basque txakolina, from Arabako ($47), will carry you through the rest of the meal.
Sit here: In good weather and bad, the garden out back is the best and most sedate perch in the restaurant.
Conversation piece: Salinas means "salt flats" in Spanish. Sea salt is harvested in the Balearic Islands and up and down Spain's Mediterranean coast.