la fonda del sol began life in 1960 on east 51st street at rockefeller center, where it presented spanish and latin cookery in an haute setting for the first time in manhattan. in terms of dining trends, the restaurant was literally decades ahead of its time; i wonder whether most new yorkers even knew what a tapa was back then. la fonda was the brainchild of the visionary restaurateur, the late joseph baum, and it flourished until the early 1970s.
no less visionary is the patina restaurant group, whose bicoastal efforts include the group of restaurants at rockefeller center's ice rink, brasserie and brasserie 8 1/2, tutto italia ristorante at the epcot world showcase in orlando, pinot brasserie in las vegas, and a collection of restaurants in anaheim's downtown disney district. the patina group decided it was time to revive la fonda del sol to ride the crest of the spanish food wave as it continues to cascade across america.
tihany design was brought in to re-imagine the bi-level space on the ground floor of the metlife building. tihany has designed more than 300 restaurants and hotels in the world. for la fonda, the group settled on stylish and mostly subtle color schemes throughout the complex space. an enormous glass wall separates the main dining area from the bar on the ground floor below. what i continually admire about tihany-designed restaurants is that every effort is made not to let the décor distract you from your dining partners or your food and also means relatively low noise levels.
patina tapped the esteemed josh dechellis to become executive chef. dechellis has cooked all over the world and with some of the most important chefs, including david bouley and jean-georges vongerichten. he took a long trip throughout spain before he sat down to create la fonda's menu of appetizers, tapas and main courses. the oddly organized menu also features several different price categories, as does the wine list.
though the restaurant opened only a few months ago, everything is running very smoothly. the staff is especially delightful. our handsome young server, michael, seemed almost psychic. as busy as the restaurant got, he always seemed to know exactly when we needed him.
house cocktails are saucy and unusual. the chile-mango margarita, served on the rocks, is a strong, sour, sweet and spicy brew of tequila, citronge, mango and lime, and each sip leaves a nice chile burn at the back of the throat.
michael suggested that we first order starters, then tapas, then main courses.
we quickly noticed that dechellis' cookery is characterized by some unusual ingredient combinations, but always flaunting an emphasis on clean, bright flavors. a deeply braised chunk of pork cheek is rich and lush, plated with gigantic tender "judiones" beans, which traditionally accompany pork dishes in various regions of spain.
perfectly grilled tender calamari are plated on a heap of lemony salad greens.
hand-carved iberian ham, jamón de bellota, unavailable-illegal-in america until quite recently, is so sweet and gentle that it made me forget all about prosciutto.
on to the tapas course: iberico cheese croquettes are all you could ever wish for in a breaded, deep-fried confection, filled with the creamy, slightly tangy flavors of that cow, goat and sheep milk cheese.
robust, soft tuna tacos feature plump chunks of tuna, avocado and jalapeño-inflected pickled onion.
as a main course, we had two fat wedges of roasted suckling pig, with a fried triangular slab of delightfully crunchy skin. the rich soft meat was given a good counter by smoked dates and marcona almonds.
i can never resist fried potatoes bravas, which is on every tapas menu i've ever seen, here or in spain. a luscious and searing crimson aioli is either drizzled all over the potato chunks or served in a ramekin on the side.
crema catalina, spanish crème brûlée, is usually darker in flavor than its french cousin. here it is brûléed to a fare-the-well for a black and lightly bitter crusting. the crema had light orange and cinnamon notes.
with its endlessly elegant but relaxed décor, the sheer imagination and follow-through of chef dechellis and the swift and well-organized service, la fonda del sol rushes to the top of the spanish restaurant list in manhattan. -- la fonda del sol 200 park ave. at 44th street and vanderbilt avenue in the metlife building 212-867-6767 entrées: $28 to $34