A tapas riddle to get things started: what's better than Tía Pol, less crowded than Casa Mono, and an overall delightful place to eat? Anyone? Such a brainteaser actually has an easy answer: Nai. This East Village restaurant impressed us with its food and service, and we think it's top notch.
Tapas can be tough. How much is enough? How small is the small in "small plates?" We contemplated these enigmatic questions over a glass of blueberry-pomegranate-champagne ($5), one of six sangrias on the menu, and a glass of tinto de verano ($6), a mixture of red wine and 7-Up, which we've decided is our drink for the next eight weeks. Bottoms up! Happy hour, from 5 to 7 PM, meant these were a few dollars cheaper than normal. Most dishes come in two sizes: tapas and ración; we went with the former so as to try more.
Before we mention the food, we have to mention the service: best waiter ever. ¿Estáis listos?, he asked at the outset, Are you ready?, then proceeded to walk us through the menu, as if we were his only table that night (we were not). When the kitchen turned out to be low on gazpacho, he ticked off several items worth trying—and promised to take anything off the check that we didn't like.
Dinner began with a bang: anchovies and garlic on a thin slice of bread. Soaked in vinegar, the anchovies were fleshy and meaty; the minced garlic liberal and confident. If you like food, then no doubt you've occasionally played the "last bite on earth" game. Boquerones ($6) would be in our top 10—they are amazing.
Granted, the boquerones would be a tough act for any tapa to follow, but the next plate was considerably weaker. The pelotillas de queso de cabra ($6) were beyond-bite-size balls of fried goat cheese wrapped in a slice of Serrano ham and speared to another little wedge of bread. In addition to being just plain hard to wrap one's mouth around, the cheese oozed everywhere once the thin crust cracked.
Nai has three types of fried potatoes doused in sauce: patatas bravas (spicy tomato), patatas alioli (creamy garlic), and patatas cabrales ($5), which we ordered. Cabrales is a type of blue cheese made from raw cow's milk, and its sharp twang squished some of the crisp out of the cubed carbs. But fried potatoes are to tapas as sunny days are to summer, so we were glad we got some.
'Tis the season of weddings. Brides, grooms, and caterers would be wise to emulate Nai's chistorra envuelta ($6), the epitome of wrapped meat. This version uses pounded fried potato to envelop a wee Basque chorizo. Although the dull orange of the sauce might not be found in nature, its central ingredient, piquillo pepper, certainly is. The spice of the pepper combined with the spice of the sausage to produce a thunderstorm in the mouth. Yes, that's a good thing.
Our waiter recommended the albondiguillas estofadas ($5.50), mini-meatballs in brandy sauce. Given how good these were, we'd also have bought stock or perhaps even a bridge, had the waiter offered those for purchase as well. These little meatballs stood up to their gooey, sweetish sauce, which we mopped up with the ever-present slices of bread.
Thursdays and Saturdays, Nai offers a flamenco show with a four-five-piece band and dancers. Make a reservation. We'll see you there, sitting at a high table against the long brick wall, sipping another type of sangria. With its warm atmosphere and tasty traditional staples, Nai is best for: a demystified date.
174 First Avenue, New York NY 10009 (map)
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.