Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: Casa Mono & Bar Jamon

Casa Mono & Bar Jamon
52 Irving Pl., New York, NY 10003
(17th and 18th St)
212-253-2773

Since living in New York, I sometimes feel like the world is shrinking. Take Casa Mono, a microscopic tapas restaurant on Irving Place, just south of Gramercy Park. You won’t have to duck on the way in, but the ceiling is the only aspect of this room that is not freakishly cramped. Shifting left and right to avoid rubbing your rear on peoples’ faces, after a minute or so you will, with any luck, have squirmed your way over to your table. This isn’t unusual in Manhattan, but at a Mario Batali restaurant?

But as long as you know to expect it, the ultra-cramped atmosphere is part of the charm of Casa Mono. It buzzes. Sparkly glasses and shiny silverware stand out decadently against the dark tables and room, and the grill in the open kitchen hisses. When your neighbors overhear your conversation (and believe me, they will), they’ll likely shower you with hints and suggestions. “Order the pan con tomate,” suggests someone to my left, referring to simple slices of airy, crispy bread rubbed with garlic, crushed tomatoes, and oil. “It pairs perfectly with the jamon.” He’s right. I’m amazed how tasty these basic ingredients become, a simple but sublime combination. Spicy, oily peppers come later, their bitter edge a welcome counterpoint to a richly sweet duck foie gras. Very raw slices of steak, served with orange mermelada, provide some weight towards the end of the meal. Still, it takes quite a few of these plates to fill us up.

If sitting down in this environment doesn’t sound appealing, how about standing? Bar Jamon, Caso Mono’s little-brother outpost right around the corner, shares the same kitchen. Stacks of baguettes beckon from the street and wine bottles fill every possible nook inside. Be warned: Bar Jamon makes its bigger sibling look voluminous. Still, waiters manage to squeeze through the incredibly dense room, ferrying trays of some of the same delicious plates you would expect next door. Fancy young people perch on tall stools around two bar-like communal tables and socialize, consuming conspicuously more wine than food. No reservation means you can drop in unannounced. And it will make your tiny apartment feel positively spacious.