Entries in Tertulia (2)


The Art of the Cassoulet at Back Forty

Every winter, chef Peter Hoffman hosts a Cassoulet tasting at his Soho restaurant Back Forty, a worthy tradition carried over from dearly departed Savoy, which occupied the same location from 1990–2011.

The only constants in cassoulet are an earthenware pot and white beans. Almost any meats can be included, but duck leg and pork sausage are the most common. Savoy itself used to serve a terrific cassoulet, which it prepared in the upstairs fireplace. We had it in 2009.

There’s a cult of cassoulet, and even a Universal Cassoulet Academy devoted to the dish. Philippe Bertineau, the Academy’s only member based in America, serves an acclaimed cassoulet at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit. I suppose it would be too much to expect him to serve it at Back Forty.

Nevertheless, Hoffman assembled a worthy sextet of chefs (click on the menu for a larger image), including two from his pair of Back Forty restaurants.

The format isn’t ideal. You grab a napkin and fork, walk to serving stations (two downstairs, four upstairs), and take appetizer-sized portions of cassoulet, one at a time. Most of the tables have been removed, so you sit on benches along the outer edge of the dining room, balancing plates and bowls in your lap. It inevitably feels and tastes more like catering than dining.

There were staggered reservations between 6:30 and 7:30, and it was an advantage to arrive early. By the time we left, the later crowd was arriving and, for the most part, eating their cassoulet without a place to sit.

Within these constraints, the staff are efficient: checking coats, clearing plates promptly (you’re expected to re-use your fork), and patrolling the room with wine refills. You can’t beat the price: $65 including wines, before tax and tip, and the proceeds benefit the New Amsterdam Market.

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The new Spanish restaurant Tertulia is this year’s “I-don’t-get-it” place. It isn’t bad: I visited three times, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d hated it. But I don’t understand the hype.

And hyped it is. Tertulia got an enthusiastic two stars in The Times, two-and-half in Bloomberg, three in New York, and four out of five in Time Out. Serious Eats was a notable dissenter: they rated it a B, and said, “We don’t get it.”

To be fair, I wasn’t taken with Boqueria, chef Seamus Mullen’s last place, which he left “amicably” last year. The two places are similar (same cuisine, casual vibe, reservations not taken, quite loud when full), so perhaps Mullen and I are just not on the same wavelength.

The printed menu changes frequently, and there seem to be announced specials every day. Most of the offerings are in two categories: breads, cheeses, and charcuterie ($5–20) and tapas ($6–16). There are usually two or three larger plates offered, for which prices can vary widely. A 40-day aged prime rib, shown on the website and mentioned in some reviews, was $72, but as of last Friday it was no longer on the menu.

Anyhow, the tapas are the core of a meal here, but very few of them pleased me. Either they were too bland, or too salty, or too greasy. A couple were pretty good, but Mullen’s batting average wasn’t high enough.

Tomates de Nuestro Mercado, a salad of heirloom tomatoes, melon, cucumbers, fresh cheese, and herbs (, $14; above left) was competent and forgettable. Spanish mackerel with Fabes beans ($12, above right) was so bland that it left no impression at all. Even the roasted and pickled peppers were unable to come to the rescue.

Cojonudo…Revisited ($5; above left) was a hit, and one of the better bargains on the menu. It’s just two bites of smoked pig cheek topped with a fried quail egg and pepper, but packed with all the flavor the first two dishes lacked.

Nuestras Patatas ($9; above right) ought to come with a warning: not to be ordered by one person. Crispy potatoes drizzled with Pimentó and garlic had a spicy kick, but you want at least two or three fellow-diners to share it.

Mullen touts Arroz a la Plancha ($16; above left) as a signature dish, but I hated it. The description (Calasparra rice, snails, wild mushrooms, celery, fennel, Ibérico ham) sounds promising , but it’s dominated by a torpedo of greasy brown rice that had none of the crisp char that you would expect from the plancha.

The flavors really pop out in the Ensalata de Otoño ($13; above right), with squash, kale, mushrooms, Idiazábal cheese, and mushroom vinaigrette. There is not a lot going on here, but it’s a successful dish.

The last item I tried was one of the large-format plates, the Fabada ($32; above left), a bean stew with pork belly, house-made morcilla and chorizo. The pork belly was crisped up nicely, and the chorizo had a strong, spicy kick. The morcilla, or blood sausage, seemed a bit too loose, and the Fabes beans still seemed bland to me, as they had the first time. The cold side of red cabbage that came with it (above right) did not add much.

The beverage program emphasizes sherries, ciders, and wine. There is no printed cocktail list, but the mixed drinks are good, if you ask for them. As I was alone, I didn’t have an opportunity to explore much of the wine list, but the Spanish ciders are worth a try. One one visit, I was served wine in a juice glass, which a Facebook friend said is common in Spain, but on another I was given a proper wine stem.

The dining room occupies a long, narrow space, with distressed brick walls, dark wood tables without tablecloths, and an open kitchen in the back. It is rather dark, and there are no windows, except at the front. Unlike Boqueria, Tertulia at least has real tables and seats with backs, though I didn’t get one: I sat at the bar three times. Last Friday night, there was a 10-minute wait for a bar stool at 6:00 p.m., with most tables taken. It was standing-room-only by 7:30.

That is the rhythm of dinner at Tertulia, three months in. Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and good at multi-tasking, as they have to be in a place this busy. The cuisine here makes a nod at ambition. The menu seems to rely heavily on authentic ingredients, and the chef is not afraid to challenge his audience, but the ratio of hits to misses is not good enough.

Tertulia (359 Sixth Ave. between W. 4th St. & Washington Pl., West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *