Owning the city’s most popular Italian restaurants wasn’t good enough for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. So five years ago, they branched out into Spanish cuisine. Sure enough, they mastered that too.
Casa Mono was an instant hit, winning two stars from Marian Burros in the Times and a 25 food rating on Zagat, the highest of any Spanish restaurant in the city. It has taken me a while to get here because the place is always packed at the times I want to eat. Finally, I landed a Friday night 7:00 p.m. reservation.
Our dinner was almost scuppered when my girlfriend got stuck on a train. The hostess wouldn’t seat an incomplete party, and there is no waiting space inside this cramped restaurant: nada. She not-so-gently suggested that I mosey over to Bar Jamón, the wine bar next door, “and we’ll call when your party arrives.” But I’d already spent an hour at Bar Jamón and knew there was no space there either. So I shuffled my feet at the doorway, checking my watch.
My girlfriend arrived at 7:19 p.m., four minutes too late, according to the hostess. “I can offer you a table until 8:30 or seats at the bar without a time limit.” We took the bar seats, which may be the best way to experience Casa Mono. Watching the open kitchen just a few feet away is a pleasure in itself: it runs like clockwork in an insanely small space. You get to see a much wider variety of the gorgeous plates coming out, and the craftsmanship that goes into them.
There are some cuisines that, inexplicably, seem to be found only in casual settings (at least in New York), and Spanish is one of them. Alex Ureña tried to serve three-star food at Ureña, but it never caught on, and he had to dial it down a notch, renaming the place Pamplona. Batali and Bastianich, blessed with a keener sense of the culinary moment, made Casa Mono casual from the beginning, and never looked back.
The wine list, though, is a serious document. If there were a four-star Spanish restaurant, it could have the same list without changing a thing. You’ll find large-format bottles with four-digit prices, but also real value below $50. There was a slight hiccup when I ordered a 2004 at $45, and the server returned with an ’05, apparently not realizing the difference. Fear not, said the hastily summoned sommelier: the 2005’s are just as good, and according to some connoisseurs, maybe better.
On the all-tapas menu, you’ll pay anywhere from $5–25 a plate, with most in the teens. A selection of six plates plus a shared dessert brought our food tab to $102. You could probably get by with a little less than that, but not by much.
Batali has never worried about challenging the diner. You’ll find pig’s feet, lamb’s tongue, rabbit loin, cock’s combs, bone marrow, sweetbreads, duck hearts, and tripe. But you’ll also find safe choices like mussels, skirt steak, and lamb. We saw a lot of skirt steak going onto the griddle, but not one order of tripe. Even Marian Burros declined to try it. A fried cheese made of calves head and feet has been dropped since Burros visited, showing that even offal has its limits.
I’m not going to comment on most of the dishes individually, but they were all terrific, except for over-cooked pork belly. The photos don’t do the food justice, but they were the best I could manage in a low-light setting where flash wasn’t appropriate.
Desserts are sometimes a throwaway at this kind of restaurant, but we adored the Mono Sundae, a plum brandy ice cream with arrope and almonds. We observed other diners in phases of rapture over their desserts, so this is apparently not the only great one.
The food at Casa Mono arguably deserves a better setting. It is cramped and rushed. Although we sat at the bar, even the tables seemed small and tightly packed.
I’m not the type to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, but even if I were, this isn’t the place where I’d choose to do it. But for five years diners have either forgiven the setting or perhaps even embraced it. Food this good can make up for many an inconvenience.
Casa Mono (52 Irving Place at E. 17th Street, Union Square/Gramercy)