My new favorite TV show is “Spainâ€” On The Road Again” on PBS. Thanks to Slim McDinner and Sous Chef for introducing it to me. Chef Mario Batali, actress Gwyneth Paltrow (fluent in Spanish), New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman and Catalunyan actress Caludia Bassols take a road trip through Spain, eating the typical food of each region at all the best restaurants. In between lavish meals they find time to stop at a few cathedrals and alcÃ¡zars and marvel at a few museums. Needless to say, they stay in the best hotels and drive around in beautiful Mercedes convertibles. The show is great because it’s the next best thing to actually being there. I took a similar trip when I was working as an au pair in high school, taking care of the kids as some family friends traveled around Spain. I can almost taste the food they’re eating. For many of the same reasons, the show is also incredible aggravating. “Why can’t I be there?” you almost scream at the screen. “Why do beautiful, rich and famous people always gets to do things like this for a living?” Here’s a clip about how the unlikely foursome got together:
Much of my life since my trips to Spain in high school and college has been devoted to trying to get back there. I will be taking Empanada Boy there as soon as we get the money and time. In the meantime, I search for ways to recapture the flavors of Spain. As you may recall from reading previous posts about Spanish restaurants, I am usually disappointed in this pursuit. But I recently went to La Nacional with Honey Roasted Peanut and Corned Beef Hashette to sample what purported to be highly authentic Spanish food. La Nacional is the restaurant of La Sociedad Benefica EspaÃ±ola de Socorros Mutuos, a Spanish social club founded in 1868. Tucked away on the basement level of a West 14th Street townhouse, the restaurant opens onto a bar area has TVs playing Spanish shows and sports. Old Spanish men sit at small wooden tables with a glass of beer. They chat and play cards. The only truly Spanish element of this picture that’s missing is the clouds of cigarette smoke.
The restaurant area is modest with more of the same solid wooden furniture. We started with a round of vino tinto de la casas and some tapas. When the tortilla espaÃ±ola arrived along with a plate of fried baby artichokes, I was so eager to try them that I forgot to take pictures. The tortilla was the closest thing to a real Spanish tortilla I’ve tried. It was served at room temperature with just the right balance between the softness of the egg and potato and the firmness of the wedge that they had become. They were cooked in flavorful Spanish olive oil, and there was a nice edge of saltiness. The fried artichokes had a crispy crust and a satisfyingly rich center. Still, they weren’t amazing. I wanted to try the sardines or the salpicÃ³n de mariscos, but CB Hashette doesn’t eat fish. Those will definitely be on my list of tapas next time. Our final tapa, which I remembered to photograph after we had already eaten half, was the Plato Campero. It consisted of a spread of chorizo, jamÃ³n serrano and manchego cheese. While the jamÃ³n wasn’t quite the oil-soaked patanegra variety so famous in Spain, the cheese and the meats were of high quality. This was the first assemblage of its kind outside of Spain to truly evoked some of the authentic flavors.
La Nacional is known for its paellas. The owners of the restaurant also own Soccarat, a pricier place devoted almost entirely to paella. Paellas come in two sizes. We sampled two smallsâ€” one with chicken and chorizo and the other a classic mixta with shellfish and chicken. The first of these was a special creation for the benefit of the non-seafood-eater at our table. The scent of saffron wafted up as both paellas were brought to the table. The rice was pleasantly al dente in both, but neither had enough of the crusty, crunchy base (soccarat, sofrito) that traditionally forms at the bottom of the pan. Although I loved having the shellfish in the paella, the addition of chorizo to the other pan gave it an extra smoky depth that the paella de la casa lacked. Both were delicious, but if I could have combined the two and crisped them up a bit, I would have been in heaven.
For dessert we shared a crema catalana, the Spanish equivalent of crÃ¨me brulÃ©e. This version had a more crackly burnt sugar crust than the brulÃ©es offered in many more expensive French restaurants. The custard inside a crema catalana is a bit eggier and less solid than its French cousin, and this preparation remained true to its Spanish roots. Although we ended up spending more than we had anticipated because of the two paellas and the dessert, two could dine for $25 here, including wine. Perhaps that is the restaurant’s most authentic trait of all: tapas are meant to be light snacks, and paella is meant to share. Neither is meant to break the bank. Although it wasn’t mind-blowing, La Nacional hit the right notes. I left wishing I were on my way to Spain. With enough restaurants like this and shows like “Spainâ€” On The Road Again,” I may be able to tide myself over until I can hop aboard a plane.
239 West 14th St.
New York, NY 10011