"All I ask is that you name the restaurant something that's a little easier to pronounce and spell"
240 Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10001 (b/n 25th and 24th streets; map); 212-242-4730
Service: Surprisingly knowledgeable and friendly
Setting: A felicitously lit and simply furnished comfy space
Compare It To: Tia Pol, El Quinto Pino
Must-Haves: Albondigas, patatas mentaiko, bocata, arraultza
Price: $25 to $50 a person, depending on how many plates and how much wine you order
Alex Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, introduced New Yorkers to the joys of seriously delicious, authentic yet contemporary Spanish food, first at Tia Pol and then at El Quinto Pino. When for undisclosed reasons they left those kitchens, serious eaters mourned, and rightfully so. Now they're back with Txikito (pronounced chic-kee-toe), which switches their focus to the mostly undiscovered (at least to New Yorkers) food of the Basque country, cocina Vasca. In fact, Txikito is a particularly gutsy restaurant in that not one dish made the trip from their former restaurants. This restaurant is a tribute to their restless culinary creativity, passion, and fierce dedication to Spanish food that is neither museumlike or foam-oriented.
With Txikito, Raij and Montero show they are masters of using unusual (at least in this country) Spanish ingredients. If you're like me, you'll find yourself asking your server to explain many terms on the menu. One ingredient you will immediately recognize is bread. Bread in many forms is used in many, many dishes, and it's used rather well.
There are mostly hot (beroak) and cold (hotzak) small plates and sandwiches of various sizes on the menu, along with a handful of large hot dishes. What did we eat?
Txiki txanpi ($8) are perfect two-bite mini mushroom and shrimp grilled cheese sandwiches, served on tiny pieces of toast the size of cocktail rye or pumpernickel slices.
Arraultza ($8) is essentially an open-face Basque breakfast sandwich made with a sofrito (pepper, onions, and garlic) marmalade, chorizo, and a sunny-side up quail egg. If McDonald's has any locations in the Basque region, surely they serve this sandwich.
Atuna ($7) is an elevated but still simple tuna sandwich worthy of your time and money, made with great Serrats brand canned Basque tuna, piquillo pepper oil, and sweet onion.
Rusa ($9) is a Basque version of a Russian salad made with potato, the above-mentioned tuna, and homemade mayo, is almost, if not quite, light. It's not swamped by mayo the way many Russian salads. As a result you can actually taste the tuna.
Morcilla ($8), described as crisp blood-sausage-filled bundles, are a dead ringer for blood-sausage spring rolls with crunchy, thin wrappers.
Piperrak ($9) are simply flash-fried Basque peppers tossed with sea salt. very similar to pimientos de padron
Patatas mentaiko ($8) are superb fries in a spicy cod roe mayo that puts other fry-dipping sauces to shame.
Albondigas ($12) are tender, toothsome meatballs in an intense shellfish sauce. Think Basque surf and turf.
Txilindron ($11) are spicy cross-cut pork spare ribs. Raij says she wanted these ribs to be chewy. Well, she succeeded. We should all implore her to braise them or cook them in a pressure cooker so that they will be falling-off-the-bone tender. That's the way this serious eater likes his ribs.
Bocata ($10) is a worthy rival to the arraultza as a Sandwich Hall of Fame entry. Both sandwiches will become famous here, on a par with Raij and Montero's sea urchin and ham sandwiches at El Quinto Pino. It's a warm sandwich of unsmoked bacon, melted Ossou Raty cheese, and nigella seed.
Arroz con chirlas ($17; $19 for a bigger portion than this) is an intensely flavorful boiled-rice dish served in a little metal pot studded with little clams out of their shells that has been moistened with olive oil and flavored with fresh parsley. Imagine a Basque version of a no-touch, no-stir risotto.
Desserts, a gateau Basque ($6) and cuajada ($6), a traditional milk pudding topped with too much orange honey that is the equivalent of Junket rennet custard, are at this point works in progress.
You know what's great about Txikito? The space is just as inviting as the food. Unlike Tia Pol, it is comfy, warm, and inviting, and you can actually talk to your dining companions. And unlike El Quinto Pino, you can actually sit and enjoy your food. And there's no need to scream over the music, because the music is blessedly turned down.
Welcome back, Alex and Eder. And thanks for introducing us to the pleasures of Basque food as seen through your unique food lens. Next time all I ask is that you name the restaurant something that's a little easier to pronounce and spell.