At El Porron, Taste of Spain Is Delivered

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authentic dishes served with flair

by tom steele

before i visited spain for the first time, my friends warned me that i'd be disappointed by the cuisine there. on the contrary, i was not only completely beguiled, but the trip changed the way i cooked in several important ways. for example, as soon as i returned to new york, the first thing i did was get myself a good spanish paella pan. ever since, paella has almost always been my go-to dish for company-it's so incredibly versatile, and you don't have to spend hours in the kitchen; after a certain point, it just cooks itself.

oddly, especially given how sensible, relatively economical and mostly salubrious the cuisine is, it's surprising that there aren't dozens upon dozens of good spanish restaurants in manhattan. but what we have is mostly very good. my favorite downtown spaniards are las ramblas and the indefatigable el faro (b. 1927); my favorite uptown is now el porron.

the restaurant was named for an eccentric glass-drinking pitcher with a long spout that pours the wine directly into your mouth (well, with a little practice). it was opened one year ago by executive chef gonzalo "mr. g" bermeo, his brother mario, and his son, diego, who also serves as a most charming and focused front-of-house director.

the jaunty restaurant sports a spacious bar area, agreeable even lighting, partially clothed high dark wood tables, glowing brick walls and currently a large sign saluting the restaurant's first birthday, with "happy anniversary, el porron" written entirely with rows of wine corks.

a pitcher of sangria-made with the traditional red, white or sparkling wines-is the way to begin. the red mixture is unusually bracing and just fruity enough to buoy the rioja and keep your interest to the last drop.

there are hot and cold tapas galore. from the cold roster, we sampled satiny slender slices of serrano ham (only recently allowed to be sold or served in the united states), with flavors that really undulate on the palate. toasted garlic bread and a juicy fresh tomato are along for the ride, but i was happy to devour just that incomparable ham.

if i had to pick one favorite cheese, it would probably be manchego cheese, a sheep's cheese that is absolutely ubiquitous in spain, and is really coming into its own here, as well it should. el porron offers the cheese with a nice raisin-pecan bread and honeyed quince paste.

having been marinated in sherry vinegar, white anchovy fillets-none better-are draped across toasted slices of artisanal bread. alongside, an endive spear is filled with a lush pico de gallo.

from among the hot tapas, octopus is lightly boiled and dribbled with spanish olive oil, red wine vinegar and spanish (smoked) pimenton paprika, one of spain's most significant contributions to world cuisine. after my sojourn to spain, i've never used hungarian paprika again.

fresh tiger shrimp are gently sautéed in garlicky olive oil, then sauced with a thoughtful galician albariño white wine sauce, and served in a ruddy ceramic cazuela. go ahead and eat the still-attached brittle tail shell, as they do in spain. it practically doubles the shrimp flavor.

on to the entrées (though many a spaniard makes an entire evening meal from tapas): tender veal scallops are watchfully sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, and the pan is deglazed with oloroso sherry. the veal is plated with a spear of fresh rosemary, veal's best friend.

paella is proudly made "from scratch," and takes 30-40 minutes, but if you order it when you order your tapas, everything will work out just right. paella marinera is the generous seafood route, and it's extremely flavorful. the clams, mussels, squid, bay scallops and chunks of monkfish are brought together beautifully in the mound of short-grained rice stewed with red bell peppers and green peas.

we had just enough room for an evenly toasted egg flan, served in a volcano shape with coffee syrup dribbling out of the crater, all finished with slices of piquant and refreshing kiwi.

with dishes by turns authentic and creative served in a romantic and relaxing dining room, it's certainly no wonder that el porron has attracted a steady and devoted following-and not just denizens from the neighborhood. clearly, people are coming to el porron from all over the city.


el porron

1123 1st ave. (at 61st street)


entrées: $18-$30

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