El Quinto Pino
401 West 24th Street (near 9th Ave.; map); 212-206-6900; elquintopinonyc.com
Service: Warm and professional
Setting: Tiny bar room is cramped but jovial; new dining room recalls mid-century living room design—in a good way
Must-Haves: Scrambled eggs with sea anemone, chickpeas and spinach, pan amb tomaca
Compare To: Txikito, Tia Pol
Grade: Recommended. Rewarding tapas and wine list get the dining room they deserve.
For years, El Quinto Pino has been my little place in Chelsea. I've lost count of how many dates I've taken there, or meetings I've had leaning against its walls, or casual meals of tapas I've eaten at the bar. Its only problem? It's not just mine.
When a bar runs all of 400 square feet, every body counts, and owners Alex Raij and Eder Montero know how to pack them in there. With its winning Spanish wine list (don't forget about the boozy horchata slushie), rewarding tapas, and "oh isn't this cute" tininess, the seven-year-old El Quinto Pino keeps a steady crowd of loyal customers, and it's a tight squeeze inside, even for contortionists trained on the 6 train at rush hour.
That all changed a few months ago when the bar annexed a dining room next door. For the first time in El Quinto Pino's history, cooks didn't need to step outside to reach the walk-in fridge. And the extra space, a whole lot bigger than the original bar, allowed for real tables and chairs and, glory be!, a chance to sit down for a proper meal. Oh, and did I mention they take reservations?
There's an expanded menu, too, which maintains Raij's and Montero's mission of going above and beyond the cookie cutter tapas of New York's other Spanish joints. Old hits like the uni panino are joined by the likes of Scrambled Eggs with Sea Anemone, with soft, dense curds, still molten in pockets. At $14 it's one of New York's priciest plates of scrambled, but don't discount the anemone within, a crackly crust on its unfurled edges that gives way to meat as tender and sweet as a fried oyster's.
Those eggs tell you what you need to know about El Quinto Pino and its tendency to turn ordinary food into enthralling things. There's assiduous technique aided by uncommon ingredients, but in wee New York tapas sizes and for lofty New York tapas prices. With new real estate at the ready, the kitchen would do well to add some entrées to the menu for those seeking a a fuller meal.
In the meantime I'll happily scarf down more Pan amb Tomaca ($6) like so many Olive Garden breadsticks. Three batons of bread come rubbed with olive oil, garlic, and minced tomatoes, juicy and sweet even in February, a more glorious take on the humble Spanish pan con tomate. An extra $6 adds anchovies which whisper their fishiness just enough to make the tomatoes blush.
I'll also accept paying $10 for El Quinto Pino's Spinach and Chickpeas because of the earthy musk the beans exude, a depth of flavor that veers towards smoke and a texture that manages to be completely tender but not at all mushy.
But sometimes dishes' small size comes back to bite them. There's nothing wrong with Pinchos Morunos, richly spiced skewers of gamey lamb, except their $9 price tag for what amounts to an hors d'oeuvre. (The normal portion is two skewers, not the three pictured here.) And a dish like Arroz Brut de Conejo ($12) calls out the need for an entrée-sized portion. A fistful of jambalaya-esque rice with shreds of pulled rabbit needs more room to develop than allowed by its handball-sized wrapping of cabbage leaves. There's a subtle beauty in the accompanying saffron broth, but it wants for something more to do.
Fortunately the selection of Bocadillos (toasted sandwiches) scales up. A Pringa Cubano ($15) for instance, is stuffed with cool, funky morcilla, ham, chilies, cheese, and pickles, familiar flavors with a few extras for good measure, plus a wide saucer of white sauce on the side that you'll want to spread over most of your meal.
Dessert ($8) also doesn't let you down; Crema Catalana starts with silky crème brûlée, caramelized crust and all, then adds a jolt of lemon zest. It'll make you wonder why other renditions of the dessert are so dull and slow-moving.
Among all of El Quinto Pino's changes, one thing hasn't: the crowds are still there, and the new dining room only seems to have encouraged them. I'm glad, for as long as they remain, my little place in Chelsea should stay put just fine. And now I have a place to put my coat.