There are pros and cons to restaurants that base their menus around small plates. Small plates are a great way to try a wide range of dishes at once, truly getting a feel for the chef’s culinary point of view. Plus they allow diners to create a meal sized to their mood with the option of ordering two dishes or twelve.
The downside to small plates is that sometimes picking dishes that complement each other can be difficult and if you chose wrong, you’re left with a bad survey of the restaurant. Then there’s the issue of party size. Too many people and you have to share a tiny plate six ways. Not enough people and you’re limited on how many dishes you can try. So maybe going to a small plates place alone wasn’t the best idea.
But I’d heard about Casa Mono in New York City from several different sources and I was aching for food that reminded me of my trip to Spain. So I bellied up to the bar at Casa Mono ready to eat my weight in small plates.
Casa Mono is not new in the food scene; the restaurant and its next-door bar, Bar Jamon, have been around for a decade–that’s like a century in New York City restaurant years. Part of the Mario Batali restaurant empire, Casa Mono was awarded a Michelin star in 2010 and has maintained it ever since (including for 2015).
The tiny restaurant is cramped and loud, with a brightly lit open kitchen only adding to the orchestrated chaos. I forgot that New Yorkers regularly eat dinner at 10 pm, so I was shocked to see the place packed when I arrived. The only availability was at the bar, so I got a front row seat to the several chefs making each dish as it was ordered. It was fascinating.
Once I looked at the menu, I quickly abandoned my plan to recreate dishes I had in Spain (like pan con tomate, $5, jamon iberico, $30, razor clams, $17 and croquetas, $9), intrigued by the creative dishes I wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else. I was overwhelmed on what to order, but eventually settled on three dishes.
I started with Scallops with apple membrillo butter and spiced pomegranate salad ($17), recommended by my server. The scallops were seared perfectly, where the edges have a slight crunch and a hint of sweetness to them while the centers stay soft and juicy. The texture contrasted well with the crispy apples but the pomegranate salad compounded the sweetness of the dish to an almost detrimental level.
Next came Sweetbreads with fennel al mono in a marcona almond vinaigrette ($19). Crunchy and crispy, the sweetbreads had a fried chicken-like essence and were just as greasy. Had the dish arrived at the same time as the scallops, the two probably would have balanced each other well. But a salt-intense dish was tough after the sugar explosion of the scallops.
Pork belly and chanterelles with swiss chard puree in an anchovy vinaigrette ($19) followed. It was another salty dish but more balanced. The relish was cold, a refreshingly unexpected element that went well with the crunchy pork belly and savory chanterelles. It was definitely the highlight of dinner.
I couldn’t leave without dessert, despite how full I was, so I picked a light dish to end the night: olive oil ice cream with pears in sweet wine ($9). I loved the mellowness of the olive oil ice cream but the pears made the blood orange vanilla sauce distractingly sweet unless it was in the same bite as the sesame seed cracker. Apparently I was not in a sweet mood that night!
The bad thing about sitting at the bar is I watched the chefs create amazing dish after amazing dish, making me second-guess my choices. Next time I’ll order differently and hopefully have someone to share my dishes—and decision-making—with.
The service at Casa Mono is rumored to be stuffy but the numerous guys that served me that night made me feel more than welcome, which is something I desperately needed after a long day.
Go to Casa Mono for :: electric small plates inspired by Spanish tapas. Notes :: Reservations are recommended and accepted one month in advance. (They can be made online here.) They host wine-tasting events every month that sound awesome.