Cocina vasca, La Vara
A New York minute is an instant.
The weekends go by fast. There’s almost too much to see, too much to do. Manhattan is a microcosm of society with an insatiable fear of missing out, colloquially known by its acronym “FOMO.” But if you let yourself, you can find so many of the leisurely qualities of Europe in New York – fashion, food, architecture – and imagine yourself transported.
Watch wispy giants, garbed in beautiful clothes, whisking down a makeshift runway in the old and historic James Farley post office. Enjoy cured sardines in Galician olive oil with charred bread in Brooklyn. Marvel at the arco de triunfo in Grand Army Plaza.
Before I runaway daydreaming, let’s get back to the food.
Dwarfed between two brownstone goliaths is the petit and blue La Vara. Although it claims to be comida casera, not trying to put comfort food on a pedestal, La Vara is far from home-cooking ( at least, I’ve never seen any home cook prepare such fine dishes del país vasco with as much taste, flair and presentation as this). La Vara is the third Basque child of husband-and-wife team Eder Montero and Alex Raij, younger sibling to txikito and El Quinto Pino. It is a merging of cultures.
The meal begins with Spanish wines in the outdoor garden, stringed with naked lightbulbs. Once inside, the Cantabrian Sea’s influence is apparent right off the bat on the menu. Many pintxos are laced with food from the ocean: Galician olive oil cured sardines, imported anchovies, tomato rubbed bread with nori, flashy Spanish red shrimp – completely succulent and meant to be torn apart with your hands to get at it’s salty meat.
Tapping into its Moorish heritage, La Vara reveals classic berenjenas con miel ( fried eggplants and honey), beautifully dress in melted cheese and nigella seeds ( a spice with a cumin-like flavor some say, used in Indian and Middle Eastern food). The dark horse of the entire menu: alcachofas fritas (friend artichokes) drizzled in anchovy aioli. It’s the umami quality of the anchovies that give this winter vegetable a lingering savory flavor- blissfully addictive. Traces of Sephardic Jewish culture also makes appearances: torta santiago, associated with Passover, garbanzos, etc.
The handmade Murcian pasta was reminiscent of the cubes of pure fat in some cocidos madrileños: overpoweringly fatty ( but I do love morcilla itself). The ground goat was a nice break from the disintegrating, buttery pasta. Thankfully, my palate was rescued by the delicate, cleansing and creamy natillas de arroz con leche, with tastes of cinnamon, rose and aromatic grapefruit and rosemary. I longed to try the orange blossom scented date walnut tart. It reminded me of all the lovely orange trees lining the streets of Sevilla, accompanied by one of my favorite ingredients: lemon curd.
Oh well, there’s always next time.