A New Age of Spanish Restaurants

Spain-loving chefs and sommeliers are changing the eating and drinking scene in the United States with innovative dishes and wine-forward menus.
Bellota, San Francisco / Photo by Stan Rasmussen

Across the U.S., Spanish restaurants that serve authentic takes on the country’s greatest hits are all the rage. Serving staples like tortilla española, hand-sliced jamón and paella as well as dishes like paprika-dusted octopus and salt-baked fish, these eateries are red-hot.

But it isn’t just the food that’s attracting a growing clientele to America’s best Spanish restaurants. The wine offerings at places like Casa Mono in New York City, Taberna de Haro in Boston and fledgling Bellota in San Francisco are draws as well. Customers arrive thirsty for Albariño, Tempranillo and whatever else today’s Spain-loving sommeliers are pushing—even Sherry and Cava.

The seven establishments profiled here succeed by crafting all-Spanish wine lists that sometimes offer hundreds of selections. The lists often span every quarter of Spain, from increasingly popular Galicia and reliable Rioja to regions with potential like Montsant (in Catalonia) and the Basque Country.

Buen provecho y salud!

Ryan McIlwraith, chef, and Michael Coss, sommelier, at Bellota
Ryan McIlwraith, chef (left), and Michael Coss, sommelier (right), of Bellota

The Place: Bellota

Where: San Francisco

Wine focus: Regional Diversity and Obscure Varieties

“We focus exclusively on producers who have a genuine love for what they’re doing, from the vineyard to the bottle,” says sommelier Michael Goss about the wine program at Bellota, one of San Francisco’s most hopping new restaurants.

Opened in June by the Absinthe Group in the South of Market district, the eatery has quickly emerged as the Bay Area’s top choice for Spanish food and wine. Bellota, “acorn” in Spanish, is the prized food of Spain’s cherished pata negra pigs. The menu is set by its Canadian-born chef, Ryan McIlwraith (above, left).

A Primer on Central Spain Wines

With more than 200 selections offered, Goss says the Spain-only list is strong in Galician wines, with Mencía from Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo doing better than he and Ian Baker, wine director of the Absinthe Group, could have imagined.

“The reds from Ribeira Sacra are so versatile,” says Goss. “Moving to the other side of the country, we love the culture of Barcelona along with the wines from the Penedès. Pansa Blanca—what the Catalans call Xarel-lo—is surprisingly complex and selling well. A bonus of working in a market like San Francisco is that people are willing to experiment.

“Sherry and Txakoli are opening minds, and we seem to be on our way to building a culture that’s receptive to not only Tempranillo, but strange stuff like La Zorra’s Teso Blanco from Salamanca, which is Rufete Blanca, a grape no one in California knows.”

Taberna de Haro
Taberna de Haro

The Place: Taberna de Haro

Where: Boston

Wine focus: Sherry and More Sherry

Few American-born restaurateurs have as much hands-on experience with the culture, food and wines of Spain as Deborah Hansen. She’s the owner, chef and sommelier at Taberna de Haro in the Boston-area town of Brookline. Now in its 18th year, Taberna de Haro takes its wine program seriously.

Chef Deborah Hansen
Chef Deborah Hansen

“I want to show an evolving world of Spanish wine, from the classics to what’s being made by brave youngsters who know what they’re doing,” says Hansen.

Hansen, who co-owned a restaurant in Madrid in the early 1990s and spent 1997 studying in Spain to become a sommelier, travels to Iberia at least once a year to visit with the winemakers whose wines she sells.

“People come here knowing that they can be guided to some very cool wines that they may not know,” she says. “For instance, I love the Comando G wines from Sierra de Gredos, as well as El Esquilon from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and the elegant wines being made by Dominik Huber of Terroir al Limit in Priorat.”

There are about 75 Sherries offered at Taberna de Haro, a figure Hansen, a self-professed fanatic for Sherry, admits she will never sell through.

“As long as we steer clear of old clichés, I’m happy.”

Jaleo Tapas Bar
Jaleo Tapas Bar

The Place: Jaleo

Where: Washington, DC

Wine focus: Well-Aged Rioja

Any successful Spanish restaurant that has opened over the past 20 years or so should send a thank-you note to the pioneering chef, José Andrés, who launched Jaleo in the nation’s capital in 1993. Because this is, arguably, where the current Spanish culinary movement in America began.

Jordi Paronella, sommelier, Andy Myers, MS, beverage director
Jordi Paronella, sommelier (left), Andy Myers MS, beverage director (right)

Today, there are three Jaleos in the greater Washington area as well as locations in Las Vegas and Mexico City. But it’s at the original restaurant where sommelier Jordi Paronella and Andy Myers, MS, the beverage director for José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, are creating the most vinous magic.

Among Jaleo’s 250 Spanish wines, Myers says the strongest part of the list is classic Rioja, some of which was purchased at auction from elBulli, the now-closed Costa Brava restaurant headed by Ferran Adrià.

With that purchase, Myers says, came some great older wines from CVNE, Marqués de Murrieta and Faustino.

“But what I am loving now is the Ribeira Sacra region,” he says. “Being an acid head, the wines of Dominio do Bibei and Raúl Pérez speak to me.”

Most popular with Jaleo’s customers are Albariño from Rías Baixas and reds from Rioja.

“Jordi and I are pushing, pushing, pushing things like Mencía, which I believe offers that fabulous mix of Cru Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Côte-Rôtie,” he says.

Xixon Restaurante
Xixón Restaurante / Photo by Jeffery Salter

The Place: Xixón

Where: Miami

Wine focus: A Shop With 300-Plus Selections

Like at most Miami businesses, you will find no “Se Habla Español” signs at Xixón—that goes without saying in this bilingual city, where more than half the population speaks Spanish. But it wouldn’t matter anyway: Xixón, founded by an Asturiana in 2001 as little more than a tapas stand, employs a mostly English-speaking staff from all corners of the Hispanic world.

Chef Tomás Cuadrado / Photo by Jeffery Salter
Chef Tomás Cuadrado / Photo by Jeffery Salter

The kitchen and wine program at this Coral Gables spot is helmed by Tomás Cuadrado, a certified sommelier and chef originally from Catalonia, in Spain’s northeastern corner.

“Our clientele is probably 60 percent Latino, but not necessarily from Spain,” says Cuadrado. “For many customers, we’re offering an introduction to our country.”

Being Catalan, Cuadrado has a soft spot for Cava, his home region’s signature wine, as does Begoña Tuya, Xixón’s owner. But Cuadrado says it’s Albariño that’s the hottest-selling wine among white varieties. And despite the high Miami temperatures, sales of Tempranillo-based reds from Ribera del Duero and Toro aren’t suffering, either.

A main feature at Xixón, which opened in its current location in 2011 and is the Asturian spelling for the city of Gijón, is an onsite wine shop. Customers can purchase whatever they like from more than 300 options and drink it with their meal.

“When I see someone in the shop who will be dining with us, that’s when I try to move them to something like Acústic Cellers from Montsant,” says Cuadrado. “We have more than 20 Cavas, and we are trying hard to introduce them to customers.”

Morcilla

The Place: Morcilla

Where: Pittsburgh

Wine focus: Txakoli and Hand-Pulled Cider

When one thinks about food in Pittsburgh, it’s probably pierogis that come to mind, not pintxos. That’s changing, however, in part due to the success of Morcilla, a new magnet in the Lawrenceville neighborhood owned and operated by Justin Severino, chef at the award-winning Cure, and his wife, Hilary Prescott Severino (below).

Owners and operators Hilary Prescott Severino and Justin Severino (above), and food spread (below) / Photo by Adam Milliron
Owners and operators Hilary Prescott Severino and Justin Severino (above), and food spread (below) / Photo by Adam Milliron

Morcilla serves wines and Trabanco ciders straight from the tap along with what Prescott, the restaurant’s wine ace, calls “safe choices like Tempranillo and Albariño.” Morcilla, Spanish for “blood sausage,” boasts a month-long wait for a table.

“We are not even a year old, so to get people in Pittsburgh to buy into a 100-percent all-Spain list, that’s really made us happy,” she says. “People here are curious, especially customers who have followed us from Cure.

“We don’t pretend to be traditional. Justin and I aren’t Spanish—we have no Spanish heritage. But we love the flavors of Spain, and Justin likes cooking with top-notch Spanish ingredients, so we are good with our concept, which is contemporary interpretations of Spain’s best dishes.”

Morcilla features about 35 Spanish wines, although Prescott would like to increase the breadth of her list.

“We’ve traveled through Rioja and Castilla y León,” she says. “We’ve been to Asturias for cider, and we’ve gone to San Sebastián for the great food. Pittsburgh may not yet be ready for cutting edge, but it’s becoming more adventurous. Wines like Txakoli and grapes like Mencía and Graciano are totally new here.”

Chef Luis Roger poses with his ingredients at BCN / Photo by Felix Sanchez
Chef Luis Roger poses with his ingredients at BCN / Photo by Felix Sanchez

The Place: BCN

Where: Houston

Wine focus: Cava and the Priorat

The dining scene in Houston isn’t defined by tattooed chefs and natural-wine-pouring hipsters. Indeed, in this part of Texas, it’s maybe better (and more lucrative) to be true to your roots, which is what BCN, housed in a 1920s mansion in the city’s Montrose section, has been doing since its 2014 opening.

Entree at BCN / Photo by Felix Sanchez
Photo by Felix Sanchez

Barcelona-born Luis Roger (above) cooks Catalan classics like fideua, arroz negro (rice blackened with squid ink) and langosta caldereta (a saffron-infused lobster dish akin to bouillabaisse). Francisco “Paco” Calza, the restaurant’s co-owner and wine buyer, offers about 60 Spanish wines along with a lengthy selection of Spanish-inspired gin-and-tonics.

Calza, who was born in Galicia and reared in Venezuela, moved to Houston 40 years ago. He  says BCN, the code for Barcelona’s international airport, is filling a niche in the land of Tex-Mex and BBQ.

“I believe we’re the most authentic Spanish restaurant in Texas,” says Calza, noting that even the staff dresses in suits from the Spanish fashion brand, Zara. “Luis is a great chef who is cooking old family recipes, and even though I’m originally from La Coruña in Galicia, I love Catalonian wines like Cava and Priorat.”

BCN pours its share of big reds.

“California is the public’s main reference point for wines, so Ribera del Duero does well,” says Calza. “What we’re seeing more of is people moving away from Champagne, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, and exploring Cava, Albariño, Viura, Verdejo, even Txakoli. One good Albariño, and they’re blown away.”

Casa Mono/Bar Jamón
Casa Mono/Bar Jamón / Photo by Meg Baggott

The Place: Casa Mono/Bar Jamón

Where: New York City

Wine focus: 500 selections

When it comes to Casa Mono and its next-door vinoteca, Bar Jamón, less is more. Although barely bigger than a shoebox, this Michelin-starred, tile-adorned spot in Gramercy Park offers the largest all-Spanish wine list in the U.S.

“All Spain, all regions is what we are dedicated to,” says Nancy Selzer, a co-owner of the 13-year-old eatery, along with Executive Chef Andy Nusser and Italian-leaning restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich.

Nancy Selzer stands by her food / Photo by Meg Baggott
Nancy Selzer stands by her food / Photo by Meg Baggott

As Casa Mono’s original wine director, Selzer works closely with sommelier Rachel Merriam. The pair has constructed a wine list that complements Head Chef Anthony Sasso’s modern culinary interpretations of Spanish favorites.

For dyed-in-the-wool Spanish wine lovers, there’s a huge choice of Sherries, something Selzer equates to her “personal art project.” There is also a number of Txakolis poured, evidence that this high-acid, spritzy Basque white is in the process of becoming a modern favorite.

“Even in 2016, most people don’t have a full grasp of all that Spain offers,” says Selzer. “We’re fortunate to have explorative customers. Something that helps is having a Coravin program where we can sample customers on three or four tastes of something special.” Examples include Artadi’s Pagos Viejos or Contino’s white blend, both from Rioja.

Published on November 29, 2016
Topics: Restaurants and Bars
About the Author
Michael Schachner
Spanish and South American Editor

Reviews wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Michael Schachner is a New York-based journalist specializing in wine, food and travel. His articles appear regularly in Wine Enthusiast, where he is a longstanding contributing editor responsible for South America and Spain. Schachner reviews more than 2,000 wines annually for WE and regularly travels to Chile, Argentina and Spain to keep abreast of the constantly changing global wine map. Email: mschachner@wineenthusiast.net.



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