At first, Manolo Tapas confounded us. Ingredients come straight from Spain, via La Rosa, a grocery down the street owned by the same folks (and in business for more than five decades). Reclaimed Spanish beams support the brick walls, while heavy tables line the narrow dining area. Tapas at this Washington Heights restaurant arrive carefully composed on miniature cutting boards. A pastoral scene on the wall reinforces the agrarian feel. But then there's the soccer in HD, the fake flowers, the Spanish pop and Reel 2 Real, back from the mid-1990s, to urge us to move it, move it, vigorously. Manolo has a farm-to-table ethos, if the farm were run by teenage boys in Galicia.
We ordered five small plates. The vieira a la gallega ($10) offered a moist mess of a mollusk. The shell had been thoroughly scraped, and its innards replaced with broiled bits of scallop and breadcrumbs. We tasted hints of onion and tomato too, no doubt elements of the "Galician sauce" mentioned by the menu.
The orejas y morro ($8) featured chunks of pig ears and snout, drizzled with olive oil and coated with smoked paprika. The ear meat comes sandwiched around the firm cartilage, while the pieces of snout seem rubbery enough to bounce. While some bites deliver lovely porcine aromas and tastes, not all pork lovers will love this dish--whether you savor it or spit it out will largely be determined by your tolerance for the textures. If you know you like it, order it and impress your date with your adventurousness.
Piquillo relleno de cordero asado ($9) sat on the other end of the mouthfeel spectrum. Red peppers, more sour than sweet, had been stuffed with ground lamb, stewed and brisket-like. Overall the dish exuded softness. A reduction of tempranillo on top lent smokiness.
The yellowfin tuna in the mojama con pipirrana manchega ($10) had been cured to the consistency of a fruit roll-up, then placed on top of a refreshing relish of cheese and corn. It was almost too pretty to eat. But that feeling didn't last long, so we dug into the chewy fish and slightly bitter salad below.
We reveled in the pan catalán con jamón serrano ($8), an open-faced ham-and-tomato-spread sandwich splashed with extra virgin olive oil. Thankfully, the tomato is spread thinly, allowing the ham to be the star. As with any good jamón serrano, the months it spent hanging in the secadero come through in its deep, lingering flavor. Manolo offers this kind of nuance: an understanding of when to jazz things up, as with the tuna, and when to let things ride, as with the ham. If you're splurging, go for the even more luscious jamón Ibérico pata negra ($25).
It's hard to go wrong with tapas on a date: everyone can find something they like, and the number and variety of plates you wind up getting ensures that you'll have plenty to talk about. The fútbol and the playlist can work against romance, to be sure (and not taking plastic may irritate some), but the raucous atmosphere of tapas joints further downtown--Casa Mono, say, or Boqueria--is dialed back at the comparatively restrained Manolo, making it more conducive to courting. With its almost-there atmosphere and range of authentic, interesting dishes Manolo is best for: a getting-to-know-you date.