359 Sixth Avenue, New York NY 10014 (at Washington Place; map); 646-559-9909; tertulianyc.com
Service: Varies between professional and lackluster
Setting: Beautifully worn-looking, warm-feeling taverna
Must-Haves: Cojonudo, tosta matrimonio, arroz a la plancha, any pork special
Cost: Expect $35-45/person before drinks or dessert
In a season of highly anticipated openings, Seamus Mullen's Tertulia was up there with RedFarm as one of September's most talked-about. "[The] rich, deceptively sophisticated menu... does for tapas-style Spanish cuisine what Batali did for Italian pastas and April Bloomfield did for English pub food," wrote Adam Platt in New York Magazine. Melissa Clark of the New York Times raved on Grub Street that a chorizo and garbanzo dish was "unbelievably good. Delicious sausage, delicious beans." Cheshes at Time Out calls out Mullen's olive oil as "superlative." And earlier tonight? Sam Sifton at the Times: "Add to the ranks of Harold Dieterle's Thai-speaking Kin Shop another Manhattan amazement, another soldier in the army that marches against fake authenticity in the name of hard work and big flavors."
If you've been reading this early press, you'd believe it's the opening of the year.
Frankly, we don't get it.
Don't get us wrong—there's plenty to like about Tertulia. It's not a disappointing restaurant in the least, unless you've read the glowing reviews cited above. We're not on board with any of these claims, particularly those chickpeas and that olive oil. (We'll get to them later.) Compounded by the difficulty of getting a table, the occasionally lackluster service, and the fact that none of it comes cheap, we can't give Tertulia the rave everyone else has. Even if there's quite a lot we liked.
Vermont-born, Spanish-obsessed Seamus Mullen has cooked in San Sebastián and Barcelona, but is best known in New York for Boqueria, a tapas bar and restaurant first opened in the Flatiron in 2006 and then at a second location in Soho. Mullen later left both, and Tertulia is his first project since.
Named for and inspired by cider houses in Asturias, it's appealingly rustic, with rough-worn wood and barrels behind the bar and a roaring fire grill in back. The sort of place you want to duck into with autumn's first chill in the air, a place for a carafe of Garnacha and something hearty. At the narrow entrance you're met by a long bar where wines wait on tap; tostas are assembled in the corner where cheeses and legs of ham are stationed. While waiting for a table, the parade of plates can't help but entice. Anchovies lined up across sheep's milk cheese, Ibérico on everything; it's hard to see them walked by and not plan on ordering a few yourself.
These sort of small plates were some of the best things we tried. The cojonudo ($5), accurately advertised as "two bites of smoked pig cheek," were two delightful bites, crisp suckling pig cheek topped with a crispy, runny fried quail egg and the surprising, sharp note of pickled pepper.
Really great Pan con Tomate ($5) is a play between three ingredients: great bread, tomatoes, and olive oil. At Tertulia, they got the first two down, but the olive oil flavor was completely missing.
This problem soon became a theme. Many of Mullen's dishes rely heavily on olive oil, and there's nothing wrong with that; but in dish after dish, we sensed none of its flavor, grassy or fruity or peppery or otherwise. What we ended up with was the feeling of olive oil without the taste of it. So perplexed were we when Cheshes called Mullen's oil out as "superlative" that we pushed this review back for one more visit, and one more round of pan con tomate—and still, we missed any olive oil flavor at all. For what it's worth, Mullen says he's cooking with several varieties (mainly Arbequina) from a single producer, Valderrama—it's cold-pressed extra virgin from outside Toledo. But we find it almost hard to believe that Cheshes was eating the same dishes we were.
It's an issue that recurred with the torilla española ($6), the classic omelet-like layered pancake of egg, onion, and potato; we missed the compelling note of olive oil in there with the egg and sweet onion. (That said, we had no complaints texturally: nice and moist, the potatoes creamy.) Ditto a swordfish dish since removed from the menu. Tender and moist with a hint of smoke from the grill, served with squash and tomatoes, it was a tasty, if uninspired dish whose strong lemon flavor again left us wishing for the taste of olive oil.
Our favorite tapas relied on other strong flavors. The tosta huevo roto y jamón Ibérico ($10), something like an open-faced Spanish breakfast sandwich, had eggs and potato smashed on thin, just-toasted bread that suited it perfectly; thin petals of funky jamón curled on top. We also enjoyed the Tosta Setas ($8), a slab of bread with mixed marinated mushrooms, smoky-creamy ricotta, and a sprinkling of pine nuts. But if we only went back for one, it'd be the tosta matrimonio ($9), both briny black salt-packed anchovies and tart, vinegary boquerones mellowed by a layer of sheep's milk cheese and sweetened by slow-cooked tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.
Keeping to the seafood theme, we were fans of the almejas a la brasa ($15), perfectly grilled little cockles that are tender and briny with a hint of bitterness. The slightly undercooked beans seem like an afterthought, but either way, we appreciate a good skillet of grilled clams, well-served by the garlic and herbs and citrus that graced them. The berenjenas rebozadas ($12) disappeared just as quickly, sizeable bites of fairytale eggplant in a light, crisp batter with a lemony yogurt sauce and a spicy hazelnut-based one. This kitchen clearly knows how to fry, as also shows in the faultlessly fried croquetas de jamón ($9), molten-centered and Ibérico-studded. And if you've got a high salt and garlic tolerance (we do), you'll appreciate the salty triple-fried potatoes (nuestras patatas; $9) that are as crisp as you could hope for with a dense, creamy interior. Not-too-garlicky allioli is squirted generously on top. We'd come to the bar for a dish of these now and then.
Order the Arroz a la Plancha($16) if you're a fan of the soccarat that builds up on the bottom of a paella. The rice itself is tasty, if a little mushy, with the creaminess of a risotto and a nicely browned crust. Mushrooms and snails alternate in tender, earthy bites, and we'll never object to a few curls of ham on top. Like many dishes, we were left thinking that it never became more than the sum of its parts, but at least those parts were all executed well.
If only the same were true of the chorizo criollo ($19). We couldn't be bigger fans of chickpeas and chorizo, which is why this was the biggest disappointment of the night. We were looking forward to a hearty stew of chickpea and sausage—something tasty, homey, rib-sticking, and delicious—instead what we got was a number of individual elements stuck together on one plate. Bland, undercooked chickpeas with undercooked chunks of carrot. The sausage on top was certainly better, a mildly spiced and plenty juicy pork sausage made and hung in house. Served on an empty place, it'd be tasty enough, but the whole assemblage didn't even hint at the heights that this simple dish can be taken to.
But after disappointments, we were won over by a pork special, Secreto Iberico ($21). Any good carnivore knows that the bits of fatty flesh right around the ribs are the finest tasting parts of an animal, and Ibérico pigs are some of the finest-fatted in the world. Here, there's a single Ibérico rib that your table should and will be fighting over, along with thin slices of smoky, salty, grilled pork that melt in your mouth in an almost bacon-like way. It's served with glazed mushrooms, a cucumber yogurt salad, and fabes beans, all of which benefit from the pork sitting on top. If it became a regular menu item, that'd be reason enough to return here again and again.
Desserts are straightforward but the better for it: Frisuelos de manzana ($7) were the best, citrus-laced crepes with apple confiture and pastry cream; a tarta de chocolate ($7) helped out by a nutty almond crust, a coffee-spiked dark chocolate ganache, and sea salt to perk all that up.
But we enjoyed them less than we could have, given how long they took to appear—this was about the time our waiter went missing the first time we visited, as our water glasses sat empty, as we sat baking within range of the flaming grill. The difference between casual service and careless service often frustrates us. We're not expecting white tablecloths or much in the way of elbow room or, frankly, even the possibility of making reservations at a new downtown restaurant these days. But we do expect a reasonably attentive waiter and a check we don't have to get up and leave our table to ask for.
To be clear: We're not saying that Tertulia can't be the great restaurant other critics appeared to see. But we will say that our experiences didn't reflect this caliber of restaurant. Not ones to doubt our instincts, we were still prompted to return more than usual, looking for the fireworks. They didn't appear. We love Ibérico as much as the next publication, but a good leg of ham does not a superlative restaurant make.
How do we characterize Tertulia? In some of its better moments, it reminded us of Buvette, opened by Jody Williams last year also in the West Village—inspired by the Continent but adapted for New York, food simple in concept but refined in composition, a place best for watching small bites constructed before you order them.
Mullen's cooking occasionally goes far beyond this, as with the Ibérico special we're still thinking about. The problem we faced is that enough was hit-or-miss that it's hard to recommend wholeheartedly. For every incredible bite of pig, there was an uninspired tureen of chickpeas; for every bright and briny anchovy toast, a disappointing tortilla. What's more, it's not a cheap spot. When a meal for two, with a bottle of $40 house wine, will likely set you back $150—well, ordering the misses would be quite an expensive mistake.
Still, it's early for Tertulia, and there's plenty to celebrate. Here's hoping that the rest of the menu rises to the level of those better dishes. Because then we'd be back in a minute.