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A Warm and Tasty Evening at Nai Tapas

January 19, 2011

Up until tonight, I have only had one experience with tapas, at one of my favorite places to eat in Boston, Masa. Granted, I had that experience many, many times, because a platter of 10 tapas for $5 is simply one of the best things ever, but since I wasn’t personally doing the picking and choosing, I guess some would argue that I haven’t really experienced tapas until tonight, when I ventured through the slush with a friend for dinner at Nai Tapas in the East Village. Officially, we thought we were going to a different tapas place that had been in the same location before Nai, but even though we were greeted with a new place, we decided to check it out anyway. And thank god.

The warm ambiance immediately made me feel welcomed and at home. It was a few steps below the sidewalk, with exposed brick walls, a wooden bar, high tables and low lighting. The music, while perhaps a bit schizophrenic for some, was a fun combination of Spanish instrumental and pop. Everyone who worked there was extremely friendly, charming, knowledgeable, and helpful. We ordered a small pitcher of white wine sangria before diving into the extensive menu. The sangria, while still tasty and refreshing, turned out to be most disappointing part of the meal, tasting more like Orangina than a mixed drink. To start off we ordered gambas al ajillo (grilled shrimp in garlic sauce), mejillones a la cerverza (mussels cooked with shallots, garlic, cilantro, and lager), patatas bravas (spicy potatos with tomato sauce), croquetas de bacalo and croquetas de jamon (cod and ham croquettes), and chroizo a la sidra (Spanish sausauge sauteed in cider).

I’m not really sure what to rave about first. If I had to pick a favorite, I would choose the shrimp. The sauce was simply incredible – we kept the dish there long after the shrimp were gone to sop every last drop up with bread. The mussels were delicious, but since I had had the sauce before, it wasn’t as exciting as the other dishes. The croquettes were nice and comforting, although I preferred the ham ones to the cod. I found the potatoes too spicy, but I’m a total wimp when it comes to spice. My friend thought they were amazing. I loved the chorizo, though. The unique pairing of sausage and cider was very interesting and the subtle fruity effect it had on the chorizo was lovely.

We decided that we needed one or two more dishes to complete our meal after this first round, and our new best friend, Raoul, who I believe was the owner, rattled off a list of recommendations. We took his word on the empanadillas de atun (tuna turnovers) and the albondiguillas estofadas (meatballs stewed in brandy sauce). The empanadillas were brought out first and it was quickly decided that they were the stars of the evening. The handmade dough was perfectly crispy and buttery, and the tuna filling was so full of endless layers of flavor that I would have thought I was eating pulled pork if I didn’t know it was fish. If there was one complaint about the evening, it was that the dish came with only three of them, so we had to split the third one. Then, the meatballs. To be honest, I hadn’t been expecting much, but the brandy sauce was truly special. Again, its strength came from the layering of flavors. I immediately picked up on a hint of unexpected orange, while my friend focused more on the full-bodied flavor of the brandy.

If we had endless budgets and stomachs, I would have loved to try out a few more dishes. Raoul also recommended the pulpo a la gallega (octopus in olive oil, sea salt, and sweet paprika) which sounded delicious. The calamares fritos (fried calamari) caught my eye, as well as the crepes de txangurro (crepes stuffed with crabmeat and piquillo sauce), which we were going to order on our second round but they ended up not having that evening. Our night ended with dessert on the house, which was a light, tasty lemon pudding that was the perfect compliment to a nearly perfect meal. We learned that the place had only been open nine weeks (which may explain its lack of website), so I would love to see how these dishes evolve over time. They have a distinctive voice, and I’m sure that if their menu were to expand it would only bring more wonderful things. For an added bonus, we learned that they also have a live flamenco show every Thursday at 8:30, which is sure to make for an amazing evening. As we left, we promised Raoul we would be back soon, and I am counting the days until I get a chance to return again.

Nai Tapas is located at 174 1st Avenue, between 10th and 11th Streets. (212) 677-1030

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