Restaurant Review: El Quijote in Chelsea

There used to be dozens of Spanish restaurants around Chelsea and the Village, and although it was possible to argue about which paella was best, there was no serious debate about which one was the biggest. It was to Quixote, at the Chelsea Hotel.

When El Quixote opened in 1930, the recession began but the nightclub era was still rolling. An awning, extending from the curb on West 23rd Street to the red neon sign above the door, protected felt hats and fur coats from the elements. Inside, captains wore crimson lasers and runners wore black vests over white shirts. Murals and framed paintings inspired by Don Quixote, bullfights or another idea of ​​old Spain looked down on everyone.

As the years extracted their price, the original glow of al-Qajuta had to deal with sloping ceilings, rubbed checkers linoleum and dusty sculptures. The paella can have the consistency of yesterday’s oats. The taste of the sangria, served by the pitcher under a few inches of fruit salad, can best be described as purple. But faded splendor is still splendor. Critic Craig Claiborne, not a kitsch fan, allowed in a capsule review in the 1967 Times that God Quixote has a “certain silly attraction.” No doubt some of his meticulousness was dragged down by hotel guests and residents, who were able to enter through a door in the lobby.

Patti Smith, who lived upstairs, wrote in her memoir “Just Kids” that she walked into El Quijote’s bar one afternoon in 1969 to find “musicians everywhere, sitting in front of tables set with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, jars” Sangria and bottles of tequila. ” The Jefferson plane was there. So is Janice Joplin and her band. Jimmy Hendrix sat at the door.

This particular table, brought by Woodstock, has never been repeated. However, El Quixote continued to paint musicians, artists, writers and others who appreciated his combination of surrealism, tradition and prices that hardly changed from one decade to the next. El Quijote can almost always turn an evening into an event, a rare quality in a restaurant whose playlist included arrangements of elevator music to songs by the Beatles and Wald Zeppelin. It was a dream ghost ship that calmed down in the swirling currents of Manhattan.

Such places are not interchangeable, and when El Quixote was closed for renovations four years ago by hotel owners, the ancient Bohemian axis in the city feared that it would be destroyed or at least cleaned beyond recognition. Now that the restaurant has been back in business for two months, most of these worries can be forgotten.

The biggest loss is the disappearance of the Dolcinia and Cervantes rooms behind. These spaces were not as dreamy as his front room and bar, but they did make up almost half of the seats, making it easier to enter it urgently or hold a last-minute birthday party together. A new private dining room will not serve the same purposes. The more crowded accommodation becomes a problem when it’s time to make reservations and the only available spaces are 5pm or 10pm

However, the space left was treated with all the sensitivity that any urban nostalgia could ask for. The mural of the room-length windmill, painted in calligraphic white strokes on a dark caramel-colored background, looks like a museum creation after its cleaning. The linoleum was raised to reveal tiny ceramic tiles that are probably original. The white tablecloths are gone, and the servers are now wearing soft cotton coats instead of blazers, but the color is still red like a bullfighter’s cape.

The old recipes have retired, as they should have. Jaime Young, founder of the Sunday Hospitality restaurant group and its culinary director, oversees the menu with Byron Hogan, chef de cuisine, whose resume includes three years as acting chef of the United States Embassy in Madrid. Together they completely refreshed the kitchen’s connection with contemporary Spanish cooking.

Paella used to steam in deep aluminum pots; Now mix the rice in a real paella, shallow and wide like a hub cap, for a more intense flavor and a much higher crispy factor. Saffron is now used, a welcome change from Hanato who used to dye the rice without adding much flavor. The current version is dotted with all i oli, an olive-garlic oil emulsion, and is sown with both shellfish and rabbit, meat that is very popular with paella eaters in Valencia.

Lobster, cooked on a plancha and dripping with smoky, cherry-flavored pimenton butter, is far from the chewy toy with the garlic scent of yesteryear. Arbkina olive oil, fruity and with a distinct taste, softens the bite of garlic in gamba al agilo, attached to their pink peel. Tuna cooked with asphalt pepper in hot olive oil until it reaches the softness and richness of braided beef cheeks.

The chefs give simple tapas and pinchos extra flavor layers. This is usually a benefit. Preparing tomato confit to spread on a pan con tomato is a smart approach to off-season produce. Soaking a mixture of Spanish olives with pepper peppers gives them an appealing flicker of heat. Stuffing baby squid in loose lozenges and softening them before hiding them under squid ink sauce creates a wonderfully intense version of the classic Chipirons & Sue Tinta.

The spice influenced by North Africa on Pinchus Mornos-style chicken skewers is strong enough to tolerate it, but I’m not sure I see the point in brushing fish sauce over them. And all the umami-goose blends that are added to the fideuà (old-fashioned Moscatel, for example) only cloud the flavors.

Luckily, there was no monkey around with the incredibly tall Basque ghetto, spiced with bromine and served with a sparkling orange puddle of Kara Kara marmalade.

The genius of traditional Spanish cooking lies in knowing when to leave well enough alone. This is a principle that the bartenders in El Qihuta can tolerate learning. Cocktails that originally required two or three ingredients get five or six; The kalimotxo, a blend of red wine and cola which is one of Spain’s great tricks for partying, has wine, rum and two types of amro when it only needs cola.

The more-it-more approach works better with the sangria; Driven with cinnamon and seasoned with balsamic vinegar, it goes down something like chilled mulled wine, and is a huge improvement over its predecessor. So, I suspect, is the wine list, which is short but manages to attach a fair sample of modern winemakers like Ramon Jeanne and more traditional costumes like CVNE

I miss the rich atmosphere and shelter of the old Al Qihuata, but not much more. Towards the end, even Ford Quixote’s Ford administration prices were not enough to make anyone forget that a number of restaurants served much better Spanish food. Now it’s one of them, and that’s fine.

What do the stars mean? Because of the plague, restaurants do not receive star ratings.

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