In a case of rapid New York City restaurant turnover, the space that once was Aliseo Osteria Del Borgo, the Italian spot on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, is now La Mujer Gala, a tapas and small plates restaurant that leans more heavily on true, Spanish-style tapas than on the generic small (but typically expensive) plates offered all over town these days.
Aliseo shut its doors in early February, and La Mujer Gala opened just a few weeks later, the restaurant's interior remaining unchanged and its head chef, Jennifer Cole-Ruiz, also staying at the helm—but totally redoing the menu. Cole-Ruiz has plenty of experience with Spanish food: she worked under luminaries such as Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak and Andres Madrigal of Balzac during her 15 years abroad, and was the opening chef of the luxurious Eurostars Madrid Tower's restaurant. (She also competed—and won—on season 8 of the popular Food Network show Chopped.)
At La Mujer Gala, Cole-Ruiz has created an expansive menu of appealing tapas plates that includes a bevy of vegetarian offerings, which comes as a welcome surprise given the tendency of pork to show up in many a Spanish dish. Dishes are small, but generous compared with many of the city's small plates, and prices are fair.
Each meal starts with a little bowl of complimentary popcorn dusted with Spanish paprika (pictured at top). It's crunchy, salty and smoky, a perfect match to a glass of the restaurant's cava.
No trip to a Spanish restaurant is complete without an order of pan con tomate ($4, pictured above), grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and drizzled with olive oil. One of the simplest Spanish dishes, it can also be one of the best, the crunchy, garlicky bread topped with sweet but acidic tomato and luxurious with olive oil. La Mujer Gala's version was strong, using good-quality bread and buttery Arbequina oil, but it suffered from a lack of salt (a general problem at the restaurant). Now is perhaps not the best time of year for the dish, as the tomato flavor was a bit wan.
Another topping-on-bread option is coca de escalivada con queso de Alt Urgel ($7.50), or roasted vegetables with Alt Urgel cheese on Catalan flatbread. The dish sounded appealing, but fell flat (no pun intended) due to the bread underneath, which wasn't a flatbread at all but rather a rectangle of commercial puff pastry that wasn't all that crispy. The roasted eggplant, red peppers, and onions piled atop the puff were sweet, and the soft Alt Urgel was rich and oozy. They would make great toppings were they matched with a better foundation.
A basic but flavorful dish of Spanish lentils ($6) was more successful. A simple lentil stew is topped with a perfectly poached quail egg and a drizzle of fresh herb oil. The dish as listed on the menu comes with a Serrano ham crisp; just ask the waitstaff to omit the ham for a vegetarian option.
I was surprised at the form seared vegetables with Romesco sauce ($6) took. Instead of a rustic approach, thinly-sliced eggplant, green zucchini, and red pepper were rolled around an asparagus and onion interior, with a dollop of intensely flavored Romesco—typically prepared with ground almonds, roasted red peppers, sherry vinegar and lots of garlic—on the side. The textures of the dish were solid, but disappointingly, the vegetables weren't actually grilled—some smoky char would have been welcome.
The restaurant's one vegetarian main dish, fideua de setas ($14) or toasted angel hair pasta with mushrooms, is its strongest offering by far. Fideua is a bit like paella made with noodles instead of rice: ultra-thin spaghetti is browned in olive oil until toasty and crispy, then topped with saffron-infused broth and, typically, seafood, then baked in the oven until the pasta absorbs the broth and becomes tender. In this case, earthy, perfectly cooked mushrooms are used, and the noodles underneath are soft while the top crust remains crispy. La Mujer Gala's menu is full of intriguing options. Hopefully, with time, more of them will rise to the level of this dish.