Born, to Be Better: El Born

03/12/2014 4:00 AM |

El Born
651 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint

This small-plates spot imitates its namesake, a hip and pretty neighborhood in Barcelona, with chic environs and a young, stylish, Spanish-speaking clientele. On the midweek night of our visit, Rs rolled over the marble bar as regulars ordered vermuts—that is, woodsy, floral Spanish vermouths with an herbaceous bite, garnished with an orange wedge and green olive. The bar menu also included a kalimotxo, a favorite in Spain’s Basque country, which combines red wine and Mexican Coke for a refreshing sangria-like drink. And a selection of four gintonics, as the Spanish call their G&Ts, paired Seagrams with citrus peel; Bulldog gin with licorice; Brooklyn gin with mint and lime; and Hendricks with cucumber and black pepper.

In El Born’s long and narrow space, snug, bar-height two-tops press tightly against the exposed-brick wall opposite the bar, leaving a slim walkway to a few larger tables in back. A U-shaped banquette, tucked into an alcove and strewn with bright, geometric-patterned pillows, offered seating for six; a squiggle of pink neon glowed on the back wall; and the bathroom doors were marked in Catalan: homes for men, dames for ladies.

Our meal started with some complimentary pan con tomate, a pair of toast points served with a garlic clove, which you rub on the bread before smearing on grated tomato. It’s a simple traditional dish that will likely burst with sweet juiciness when tomatoes are back in season. During our wintertime visit, the rosemary-mushroom spread had a lot more flavor, but it was served as an appetizer alongside a cracker-like sheet of crispy bread that was shiny with olive oil. The same olive oil glaze coated the cod fish collars, buttery pieces of white meat taken from right behind the gills, which were served over a thick squid-ink aioli—richness upon richness, with a few green peas sprinkled on for color. The server-recommended caneló d’ ànec i bolets, two mini-enchiladas of fresh pasta wrapped around duck confit swimming in a thick pool of béchamel and Manchego cheese (which was even heavier than the cod collars). The huge portion of octopus—a long, curling paprika-dusted tentacle—made another big serving for a small plate.

All of the dishes were piled onto our table around the same time, and better pacing would have made the meal feel less overwhelming. Our favorite dishes were the lighter ones. Delicately grilled baby vegetables were drizzled with romesco sauce; a pleasingly mellow salad paired fennel, red endive and blood orange supremes with a sweet date dressing, though it may have benefited from a bit of acidic zip. The fine vegetable preparations suggest that the menu will unfold with brighter offerings—perfect for pairing with all those gintonics—in the warmer months to come.