My friend lets out a weary sigh as we belly up to the bar at the modest little tapas joint called Cata that opened several months ago on a restaurant-infested stretch of the Bowery, a couple of doors down from the New Museum. In more than a decade of dining together, wed seen tapas joints come and go, and this one looks distressingly like all the others. In place of bar stools, there are metal chairs painted firehouse red, and on this evening, most of them are empty. The ceilings are hung with a snaggle of lamps and filament bulbs, which look like they were heisted from a local garage, and instead of sit-down tables, the assembled tapeadors are perched tenuously at dining counters, like patrons in a train-station lounge on the outskirts of Barcelona.
My restaurant-savvy friend happens to be a gin-and-tonic fanatic, and his mood lifts considerably when the cocktail list arrives. Spain has been in the grips of a feverish gin-and-tonic craze for years now, and at Cata you can order over twenty varieties of this elegant Victorian drink. Theyre mixed in frosty glass tumblers, with artisanal gins from around the globe, and many of them come with exotic garnishes like Thai basil, star anise, and plumes of mint. We enjoyed a refreshing concoction called Kumquat Clove (Dorothy Parker gin, fresh kumquats, a clove, a dash of Schweppes), followed by two cocktails built, inventively, around the pleasures of Kaffir lime (one with the lime, the other with the lime leaves). My guest took a sip of one of these strong, summery drinks and then the other. I think we should order some dinner, he said.
Catas chef, Larry Baldwin, worked with the great Andy Nusser at Casa Mono, and like Nusser, he has a knack for infusing his classic recipes with a combination of old-fashioned elegance and modern heft. Our first wave of tapas included deviled eggs topped with crispy fried oysters, fried quail eggs Benedict arranged over button-size servings of chorizo and hash browns, and silvery anchovies laid out on squares of pumpernickel toast. The Vegetables and Sea sections of the menu are filled with all sorts of bounty (try the crispy prawns with chile oil, the salty nuggets of sea-bass tempura, and the stiff little planks of grilled Tuscan kale drizzled with buttermilk dressing), and if youre in the mood for something heavier, call for the deliciously charred strips of LaFrieda skirt steak, which are arranged in a little tower, with a bed of crackly bomba rice flavored with kimchee, and a wobbly fried egg.
My least favorite dishes at Cata, surprisingly, were the soft, slightly droopy paellas, one of which was topped with a strange circular arrangement of chorizo, dried-out shrimp, and chicken wings. If youre looking for a carbohydrate fix, focus instead on the classic croquetas, or the patatas bravas, which we complemented during the course of our gin-soaked feast with platters of smoked lamb ribs (from the Land section of the menu), piquillo peppers stuffed with smoked tuna and crème fraîche, and fresh razor clams sizzled in their shells with butter and lemons. Desserts are rarely a tapas specialty, but there are six of them to choose from, and if you wish to end your meal in classic tapeador style, get the citrusy, cream-soaked torrija bread pudding, which my woozy friend finished off in two bites.
Manzanilla, which opened several weeks ago at the bottom of a nameless office tower on Park Avenue South, bills itself as a Spanish brasserie, complete with gourmet charcuterie boards, a high-end foie gras dish, and a Next Wave bistro-style menu. But for those of us weary professionals whove frittered away endless hours in nameless midtown brasseries, the setup is depressingly familiar. The big-box space off 26th Street features an anonymous hotel-style bar area in the front designed for the consumption of antically named cocktails (Puzzled Look, Simple Twist of Fate) and assorted bistro snacks (Ibérico charcuterie, tragically gummy golf-ball-size squid-ink croquettes). Theres a de rigueur open kitchen in the clamorous, beige-colored dining room, and on crowded evenings, with the thrumming backbeat soundtrack at full blast, it can be difficult to hear yourself think.
Upscale restaurants like this are sometimes rescued by the quality of the cooking, but that doesnt happen here. My tuna tartare was served under a nice scrim of uni, but the tepid smoked-octopus appetizer we ordered one evening tasted like it had recently been removed from a slightly underheated microwave. The fact that the staff knew there was a restaurant critic in their midst (one of my guests inadvertently booked the table under my name) did not prevent the kitchen from slathering the barely edible $34 lamb shank in a tarlike glaze, or obscuring the bacalao in a dated, salty foam. That old Iberian standby suckling pig was pleasantly crispy on its exterior but overcooked in the middle, and the seared Ibérico pork presa tasted like a plate of leftover picnic ham. The most memorable of the forgettable desserts was simple rice pudding, which works best if you remove the ridiculous hairnet of spun sugar that decorates its top.
245 Bowery, entrance on Stanton St.; 212-505-2282; catarestaurant.com
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight, Sunday until 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Tapas, $3.50 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Crispy prawns with chile oil, grilled Tuscan kale, deviled eggs with oysters or quail eggs Benedict, lamb ribs or skirt steak, torrija bread pudding, gin-and-tonic.
Note: There are many drinks at the full bar besides gin-and-tonics, along with an excellent mid-range list of Spanish and European wines.
Scratchpad: One star for the inventive cooking and another for the booze.
345 Park Ave S., entrance on 26th St.; 212-255-4086; manzanillanyc.com
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday until 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $15; entrées, $24 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Tuna tartare, suckling pig, rice pudding.
Note: Offers several sandwiches at lunch, including a slow-braised oxtail burger for $20.
Scratchpad: Zero stars for the atmosphere, the diligent but helter-skelter service, and the interestingly conceived but badly executed menu.
*This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.