Bar Jamón fills an important hole in the city's Spanish landscape In most of the United States, if all you knew about Spain came from the Spanish restaurants in your town, you'd be laboring under the impression that everyone in Spain listens exclusively to folk music, uses too much paprika and hasn't yet reached the Iron Age, preferring to cook exclusively in terra cotta crocks. These are places to which you go out for tapas, apparently the staple food of Spaniards. Unlike many such national minstrel shows (the red-sauce Italian, moo-shu Chinese or plate-breaking Greek), these notions are based in a reality that continues to exist; however, they should never have come to represent a nation of millions. In New York City, there is one kind of restaurant that is sorely lacking; one that is the bedrock of Spanish food culture. It's a small, casual bar that just happens to serve better food than it needs to, a place where eating is not the point of your evening, it's just an ever-present element thereof. You go out to meet friends, to talk, to hang out; you have some cheese, a plate of anchovies, a little bread to keep you going. Arguing about who makes the best pan con tomate and whether to get the squid or the chorizo may be most of the conversation, but you'll never sit in front of a massive plate, taking photos and eating in silence until the next course comes. It's aspirational living at its best, being incredibly exacting about food while treating it with the nonchalance it deserves. This is what you get at Bar Jamón (125 E. 17th St., casamononyc.com), the round-the-corner companion to Mario Batali's longstanding Casa Mono. The narrow, dark-wood-lined space is unforgivingly small, the room dominated by a winding, high-topped table and a narrow marble bar at the entry that also serves as wine display and prep space. Enormous mirrors cover the walls at both ends of the room, one marked in white with the menu, the other reflecting diners' flushed, laughing faces back to them in the shimmer of candlelight. It is a perfectly romantic location to put your date through a surreptitious battery of tests: Are they adventurous, or will they blanch when told that the "pulpo" in pulpo with spicy garbanzos is octopus (though you might let them-more for the rest of us!)? Can they appreciate a dish almost ludicrous in its simplicity like that pan con tomate, two slices of toasted bread smeared with olive oil and tomato pulp and a judicious scattering of chunky salt? It's the best in the city precisely because of that simplicity, relying on the quality of the sharply green oil and obscenely red tomatoes rather than chef-y theatrics to dazzle. Should your date fail the tests, there's plenty to drown your sorrows in a wine list that is second to none for highlighting the varietals that are routinely overshadowed by dark red malbecs and tempranillos on most round-the-world wine lists. For a lighter way to spend your night, one of the Basque txakolis is the only way to go. What is otherwise an exceptionally well-balanced, mid-weight white is made sublime by its presentation: poured in a thin stream into a small carafe from as high as your waiter's wingspan can manage, the aeration lending a slight effervescence that lurks without overpowering the palate. Like sparkling wines it pairs perfectly with rich, fatty foods like cheeses and the eponymous jamón, but as a heavier white it works just as well with brighter, more acidic foods like olives and stuffed piquillo peppers. Whatever you do, don't order all at once. Get one plate at a time, linger over your (generously sized) glass of wine, people-watch, have a real conversation with your companion. In other words, get Spanish.
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