Nestled in the East Village lies a charming little Basque restaurant where you might just have one of the better dining experiences of your life. Nai Tapas Bar doesn’t sound or look like much—in fact, the unassuming little restaurant was entirely empty when we arrived on a frigid January day. But, trust us, you’ll want to book in for brunch rapidamente.
Dedicated to Basque culture and cuisine, Nai Tapas has an industrial farmhouse aesthetic, with dark wood and metallic tables and fixtures, minimal décor and concrete flooring. The space is minimal yet cozy. We loved the large, sturdy wooden tables and the mismatched chairs in wood and mixed metal placed around the room.
Upon being seated, a handsome waiter with a classically thick Spanish accent whisked enormous glasses of house-made, white wine sangria to the table. We were off to a good start.
Shortly thereafter, he reappeared, brandishing more wine, and a complicated set-up for some clams. Turns out, these are not traditional clams, but a classic Basque dish, broiled clams served with lemon zest and yuzu. While we typically prefer mussels or oysters, it was hard to go wrong with these babies—consider us believers. We were excited to begin a traditional meal through indoctrination in the Basque tradition.
Upon discovering that part of our party was vegetarian, the charming waiter hustled to the kitchen to adjust our tasting experience. Shortly thereafter, he returned with a beautiful, bright pink plate of basmati beet rice, topped with a perfectly poached egg, shaved manchego and microherbs. This stunning creation was packed with flavor and a satisfying dish for on a blustery day. We polished off the hearty portion and found ourselves scraping for more—and this was only the second item!
Next arrived another award-winning vegetarian dish, the carpaccio de portobello, which comprised thinly sliced portobello mushrooms, marinated in truffle oil, sprinkled with manchego cheese, crushed Marcona almonds, and saffron salt. This decadent, rich, and savory platter offered an incredible combination of flavors, in particular our favorite flavors of truffle, manchego, and portobello. It was an inventive dish in terms of concept, flavors, and presentation and something we’ll be thinking about for weeks.
The third vegetarian dish was overwhelming, in a good way. An enormous head of cauliflower, dressed to the nines in a sweet but spicy, cilantro emulsion and sprinkled with more Marcona almonds. It was an enormous tower of cauliflower and green sauce—and we didn’t know where to begin in terms of tackling this dish. Fortunately, our dashing waiter returned with yet another odd object tableside—garden scissors, which he used to chop and prune the cauliflower tableside.
Fortunately for our waistlines, the next few dishes were tapas sized, as we’d already gone all in on the three hearty yet healthy, heaping helpings of vegetarian food.
The sashimi appetizers came with a show—with the waiter brandishing a blow torch tableside. The Chilean sea bass sashimi was wrapped in a dehydrated, balsamic toast with Serrano ham and asparagus. Served on a granite slab, it was accompanied by salmon sashimi, topped over saffron rice with an aioli gratin. The salmon was, however, set alight tableside, causing a brûlée result, with a caramelized topping on the salmon.
The pork belly was utterly divine, perfectly seared with the right amount of fat, it was perched atop a creamy carrot spread and topped with a tiny yuca chip and a candied pecan.
By this time, we’d made our way through several beverages, beginning with the Txakoli, then the sangria, and continuing with multiple pairings of Spanish wine to complement each dish. We were pie-eyed, but taking copious notes on the incredible experience, which have been transcribed in an effort to do the experience justice.
The grand finale of our experience were the churros, a classic Spanish dessert that happens to be my favorite, having spent a good deal of time in Argentina, Spain, and Mexico.
The Bitches say: five Champagne flutes. This is a dining experience worthy of a journey down to the East Village.
Nai Tapas serves brunch every day from noon-4 p.m.