[Pigging by Wilfrid: February 17, 2014]
Donostia is the Basque name for San Sebastián. It's also now the name for a narrow tapas bar, with a deep beverage list, on Avenue B, just across from Tompkins Square Park.
And let's be clear: even if you've an aversion to conservas--canned fish and veg served Spanish-style as tapas, that's no need to strike Donostia off your list.
I'm not too sure why this neighborhood should be conservas central. Maiden Lane, a few steps away, opened last year as a beer and wine bar with a menu based around preserved foods--for the very good reason that it had no kitchen. I've dropped by for cod liver in its oil, and a few sherries. The sherry list is good, but leans towards some well-known houses--Lustau, Valdespino.
The sherry list at Donostia has the edge for rarer sherries, and the prices are slightly kinder--unless, of course, you opt for the Gonzalez Byass Apostoles, a 30 year old VORS Palo Cortado, which--if it isn't the best sherry in the world, is surely the best you're likely to find on sale in New York. $16 for that velvety, nutty, figgy treasure.
But you don't have to go the sherry route. The Spanish wine selection steers away from boutique Priorats and Riojas to take in regions like Penedès, Galicia, and the Basque Country, of course. There's a selection of regional red vermuts, served Spanish-style over ice with a twist of lemon (I liked a Catalunyan Gran Reserva, a steal at $6). I haven't even started, yet, on the cavas (there's a Juve i Camps Gran Reserva), or the artisanal sidras.
The stools are really comfortable. That is acually possible.
Yes, Casa Mono has the high-end Spanish wines comprehensively covered, but this is best all-round Spanish beverage list I've seen in the city. And refreshingly, there are selections in most categories starting around the $6/$7 mark.
But if the booze is a bargain, the food is insane. The central plank of the menu is, indeed, a choice of canned items (if this is completely weird to you, know that there's a world-famous tapas bar in Barcelona which specializes in the stuff: Quimet & Quimet). Most--not all--of the items are imported, and the menu lists the provenance.
From this provender, however, the one-man kitchen generates a storm of tiny tapas: tarteletas (tarts), conos (cones), montaditos (open sandwiches), bocadillos (closed sandwiches), bandilleras (skewers) and pâtés. With tortillas (the fat potato-egg omelettes, not wraps), and cheese and meat plates, it's a generous choice.
From the top: Tartelettes of tuna with a sweet pickled anchovy, aioli, and a piquillo pepper, and of salt cod with caramelized onion and sun-dried tomato. Plain tortilla espanol with some charred peppers taking a ride, and a fresh cheese cone with a salted anchovy. A montadito of tortilla with dense, chewy morcilla, and some slightly spicier pickled peppers. Bandilleras of artichoke with salted anchovies.
Montaditos of baby squid in its ink, and mussels escabeche. A salt cod montadito. Butifarra, the great Catalan ham sausage, with a sprinkle of Marcona almonds and some fig cake. Salchichón, a kind of peppery salami, served likewise. 18 month jamón Serrano in a bocadillo with melted Tronchón cheese. Caña de cabra (goat cheese) on a montadito with strawberry preserve, and a slice of pantxineta, a kind of almond custard tart. The latter was comped.
Now I've already seen complaints that you can't get dinner here. So let's review. This is a tapas bar. In New York, we have many so-called tapas bars functioning as full service restaurants, from Casa Mono to Boqueria to the new El Born in Greenpoint. Yes, they may serve small plates, but their existence is predicated on customers turning those small plates into a full, multi-course meal.
In Spain, tapas bars are places where you snack, while drinking, before dinner. I am not talking about the grand, experimental tapas bars of Barcelona, but regular, neighborhood tapas bars. That's what Donostia is; it's how it should be used; and however unlikely it seems, the prices allow it to be used that way.
Each of those individual items above is priced from around $2 to $5. Truly. Okay, $7 for the sandwich. Snacking, sure, but I spent $20 a head on food and staggered out, bursting. Let's hope enough New Yorkers have a taste for sherry and true tapas to make this place a stayer.