Paella is often overlooked or just gets a bad rap - especially for those of us who have spent limited time in Spain. I am definitely guilty of breezing right past it on any Spanish menu recalling my disappointment the few times I actually did order the rice dish. In the past, if I was craving a rice dish, I would immediately head to an Asian restaurant - never thinking twice about a Spanish option. Under seasoned yellow rice with an assortment of poorly prepared seafood and meats never quite did it for me. So I will admit I was a little nervous about heading to a restaurant whose name actually included "paella," but after hearing several rave reviews from friends and critics, I figured I had to give Socarrat Paella Bar a shot. After basically being forced to order paella, as it is the all too obvious feature of the restaurant, I now have a new found appreciation for the authentic Spanish dish and feel the need to tell other Spanish restaurants the secret of Socarrat Paella Bar.
Socarrat is located in a tiny space on 19th street. The restaurant can hold about twenty five people at a time with one table up front and one long table through the middle of the restaurant. While it was wonderful having the front open to fresh air on a warm fall night, I envision this with closed doors as the perfect, cozy winter date spot. The menu is made up of two sections - tapas and paella - ideal for sharing since the paella servings are for two at minimum. While the paella is obviously the focus, the chef places equal importance on the tapas as we were overly pleased with each dish we ordered. We started of with a traditional Spanish tortilla. I was a little hesitant to order this since I held similar feelings about this dish as with paella - I have one too many poorly prepared Spanish tortillas. However, we realized that this could be a true test for any Spanish restaurant - a successful tortilla equals truly authentic Spanish cuisine. Socarrat nailed it on the head - this was one of the best versions of this simple Spanish specialty. The fried artichokes were also simple, but prepared perfectly as they were not overly breaded or fried. My favorite of the tapas was a dish made up of snow peas, fava beans, asparagus, fresh corn, tomato, and serano ham. I had originally thought that this would be a cold dish, but the warm combination was a welcomed surprise.
The flow of food was constant. I appreciated how every dish came out as it was ready and at the right temperature. However, when it is time for the paella, you definitely need to clear the way as the large cast iron skillet takes up nearly the entire table. We shared the paella Valenciana - chunks of pork rib, rabbit, snails, scallions, sugar snow peas, and asparagus. I had never even heard of these options in any other version of paella. Not only was it a great combination of vegetables and meat, but I found the rice preparation to be amazing. Since it had been cooked into the cast-iron skillet, the rice was slightly charred - making it full of flavor. As you near the end of the dish, the waiters come around and actually scrape the bottom of it so that you can savor every morsel - really taking in the true flavors. As with the rest of the diners that night, we cleared our skillet.
Since we had been so nicely surprised by other basic dishes all night, we decided to round out the meal with what we thought was a basic cheesecake - not something I would typically order. And, as with the tortilla and the paella, I was wowed. It was actually served in a brulee type dish - and had the crust of a key lime pie (one of my favorite crusts). The inside was made with goat cheese - and was such a great dish for someone who often prefers a cheese plate to an actual dessert. Unlike a typical cheesecake, this was far from heavy and was actually the perfect balance between savory and sweet. If someone were to tell me that they were opening a new and improved Cheesecake Factory, perhaps even called Cheesecake Bar with this on the menu, I would head there right now. It just goes to show - you should never judge a book by its cover. All it takes is a little authenticity - and even the most overlooked dishes can come to life.
Socarrat Paella Bar
259 W 19th St
New York, NY 10011
Phone: (212) 462-1000