Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Spain
Locations worldwide: Around 200 in 7 countries
NYC locations: One in Soho
Lizarran, the Spanish tapas chain with locations as far-flung as China and Russia, quietly opened in Soho this March. Unless you were already familiar with the brand, it wouldn't be immediately obvious from the chalkboards proclaiming specials (and World Cup coverage, of course) and a flapping red-and-gold Spanish flag out front that this was merely one of 200 restaurants just like it.
Once inside the long, narrow brick-walled room that feels like an upscale suburban eatery, professionally designed posters touting the $2.50 per tapa premise hint at their corporate origins. Using Basque pintxos as a selling point, there are two glass cases filled with slices of bread with ingredients adhered to them by toothpicks. Point and choose as many as you like, then take your plate back to your table, saving your toothpicks to be tallied at the end your meal. It's civilized, for sure. In Barcelona, patrons would crowd the bar, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, enveloped in smoke. This is a bar in looks only; no chairs, no standing, no raucousness. In fact, on my two Friday night visits the restaurant has been worryingly under-populated.
Seated, you can order a wider variety of tapas or larger entrees from a menu, or sample the wares of roving servers carrying plates of freshly made pintxos, dim sum-style. This is the most original part of Lizarran's concept, but the rounds are infrequent and sporadic. In an hour, three walk-bys might occur.
One fortuitous pass-through provided callos, a chickpea, morcilla, and tripe stew you rarely see at New York tapas bars. Typically a hearty one-dish meal, this $2.50 portion is just right for getting a taste of the rich blood sausage and chewy strips of stomach without completely filling up your own stomach.
A stop at the front counter yielded a selection of tomato-and-garlic rubbed bread topped with Serrano ham, chorizo and a big triangle of manchego. The pintxo on the left is a sweet one slathered in honeyed cream cheese and adorned with raisins, walnuts and a date.
Patatas bravas ($8), ordered from the menu, were more sweet and ketchupy than spicy and the serving is large so unless you split them among a group, the potatoes' heat will turn their crispy edges to sog by the time you make it to the bottom of the bowl. Though the menu says that you get a choice of brava sauce or aioli, these came with both.
A more successful potato-based dish is the huevos rotos con chistorra ($12). Slices of browned potato are covered by fried eggs and stubby Basque sausages and hit with smoked paprika. Lizarran had been advertising a daily brunch, and this ideal morning meal is one of the choices.
For a break from all of the meat and cheese, pulpo a feira ($15) is worth a try. Fat, scallop-sized rounds of octopus are chewy, not tough, tossed with potatoes, plenty of olive oil, and more of that pimentón. The usual preparation is not this soupy fork-and-spoon affair; normally, the components are laid out on a wooden board and can be speared with toothpicks.
Sometimes tinkering with tradition can still be tasty (as with the pulpo), but in a straightforward let-the-food-speak-for-itself concept like the cheese plate, you'd expect quality and an adherence to geography. Manchego on the tabla de quesos ($18) was not surprising; but the the blue and goat were of unknown provenance and the brie and blob of cream cheese were just peculiar. Maybe this selection would fly in Suzhou, but we know our cheese better than this.
It's unclear exactly who Lizarran's target clientele is meant to be. Are they trying to lure homesick Spaniards like a T.G.I. Friday's in Madrid might catch an American's fancy (ok, maybe just mine) or entice the locals? Notably, the staff was all Spanish-speaking, as were a majority of the diners—something I've not experienced at other tapas bars around the city. It might be hard to attract savvy New Yorkers who'd prefer sleeker Mercat or the creativity of El Quinto Pino—don't go looking for uni panini here—but the restaurant is fine for after-work groups or weary shoppers who'd like a pitcher of sangria and a variety of nibbles.
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