239 West 14th Street, New York NY 10011 (b/n Seventh and Eighth avenues; map); 212-243-9308; lanacionaltapas.com
Service: Casual but attentive
Setting: Dining room is a little piece of Spain
Compare It To: Nowhere, really, but Tia Pol and Casa Mono if you must
Must-Haves: Paella, black rice, fideua, tosta choricera, almond cake
Cost: $45, including three courses, a glass of sangria, tax, and tip
The only reason I discovered La Nacional is that Alex Raij, the founding chef of Tia Pol and El Quinto Pino, dialed my cell phone by accident. She thought she was dialing her husband, Edda, whose number is right next to mine in her cell phone contacts.
Once we got our wires uncrossed Alex started telling me about this restaurant, La Nacional, that she uses as her de facto office. She said, "I think it's the best, most authentic Spanish restaurant in New York." Coming from as accomplished a Spanish chef as Alex Raij, that was quite a statement. We agreed to meet at La Nacional for a little predinner dinner. "Look for the flags on West 14th Street. The restaurant is in the basement of the the Spanish Benevolent Society, founded in 1868 as a home away from home.
I spotted the flags. I walked down a couple of stairs and through a semilit hallway. A sign on the door told me where we were in no uncertain terms:
When you walk through the door you're in a windowless bar with tables and a couple of old television sets tuned to sports. A dining room with brown, ageless walls looks and feels like many a dining room in Spain.
Alex announced that the chef-owner, Lolo Manso, makes the best paella in New York. She told me, "Ed, it's all about the rice." I'm no food dummy, so I ordered the paella de la casa (house paella, $18), the arroz negro (black rice, $18), and the fideua (noodles with fish and seafood, $18), the paella-like dish made with pasta instead of rice. We also ordered some croquetas (croquettes, $8), some fried artichokes ($8), and something called "tosta choricera" ($9.50), which was described on the menu as "toasted bread, egg, chorizo." How could I resist? How could anyone?
Tosta choricera turned out to the be the open-faced Spanish breakfast sandwich of my dreams. A piece of lightly toasted bread is topped by an over-easy egg, fried in olive oil, surrounded by pieces of fried chorizo and sweet sautéed onions. In other words, heaven on toast. The croquetas were fairly light and well-fried, but I had to ask Alex and Edda what kind of croquettes they were (turned out they were chicken).
Lolo himself brought the paella, black rice, and fideua out and impishly wagged his finger at us as he taught us the proper way to eat these three dishes: "You must wait for ten minutes to eat this. These dishes all need time for the flavors and textures to set and settle."
At the five-minute mark we all dove in. We couldn't wait any longer. Alex was right. Lulo is a paella, black rice, and fideua Zen master. Every grain of rice was bursting with flavor. Each grain and every noodle was firm but not hard, tender without being gummy. The rice and noodles around the edges, called the socarrat (which is the name of the paella bar Lolo just opened on West 19th Street) were, as Alex predicted, the money bites. They were crunchy and imbued with so much flavor and soul I could practically hear flamenco rhythms playing in my head as I ate.
Subsequent visits confirmed Alex's pronouncements. Lolo Manso is a first-rate Spanish cook. A simple plate of succulent, properly seared lamb chops was served with a mountain of fries. Actually, the lamb chops were properly seared the second time I ordered them. Pork chops prepared the same way are accompanied by the same great fries,
Manso's octopus ($9.50) is ridiculously tender chunks of the cephalopod served in a little olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Grilled whole shrimp ($9), served in the shell, are unadorned except for a slice of lemon and are wonderfully meaty and miraculously moist.
For dessert there is excellent, moist but not heavy almond cake ($6) served with a drizzle of raspberry sauce and a squiggle of whipped cream and a very fine, not too sweet, dark caramelized Catalan custard ($5). A glass of sweet Pinord Muscatel ($6) is the appropriate end to a meal here.
So go to West 14th Street, look for the flags, walk down two steps, and enter a world that this longtime food explorer never knew existed. It's Lolo Manso's world, the world of classic, soulful, and unpretentious Spanish food. He is the unsung hero of real, honest, and, above all, authentic Spanish food in New York.