This particular stretch of First Avenue has become extremely precious real estate in the culinary world. Nai Tapas, a quaint Spanish restaurant a few steps down from street level, has been quietly staking its claim to this desirable neighborhood for the last five years. After half of decade under Chef Ruben Rodriguez’s steady hand, Nai owners Chef Ruben Rodriguez and General Manager David Martinez are expanding to a second level that will include an experimental chef’s tasting counter. Inspired by the micro gastronomy movement, Chef Rodriguez hopes this addition will elevate his restaurant to a whole new level by including these challenging and impressive techniques.
Nai means mother in the Galician tongue spoken in this seaside region of Northwestern Spain, and is as important to the success of this restaurant as any item on the menu. Chef Rodriguez grew up in his mother’s restaurant in Galicia, and spent the formative years of his life learning her recipes and techniques. When they moved to the United States, it was never a question for Rodriguez what he wanted to do with his life.
Nai Tapas presents a combination of many elements of Spanish cuisine that Americans find relatable. There are the small plates shared among friends, a mostly Spanish wine list, daily Sangria specials, and an overarching sense of warmth that begins when you walk in the door and spreads to when the first dish hits your table. There are the live flamenco shows that take place in the dining room, free of charge, on Thursdays and Saturdays.
To begin, I received an olive oil spherification where a white plastic spoon serves as a vessel for a deep green bubble of rich goodness. This bubble meant to be eaten in one fell swoop, and bursts in an explosion of flavor in your mouth. I’ve never had anything quite like it.
“Oysters with lemon air” utilized a lemon-flavored foam that allows guests to enjoy their raw oysters without adding any condiments whatsoever. This is especially appealing for the oyster adverse. Inclusive of a mint infused cava cocktail, this dish lists at $14 and could easily be placed on any of the city’s “oyster deals” rundowns.
Chilean Sea Bass as a finger-food tapas plate? Though it sounds confusing, it was by far one of the most impressive dishes of the evening. The bass was cooked perfectly and wrapped in a thin, crunchy torta, reminiscent of a hard shell taco. But wait, there’s more! Atop the torta rests asparagus wrapped in bacon and drizzled with a soy glaze. This is a must.
Aquacates rellenos were one of the most visually appealing dishes we sampled. Plated like long roll of sushi, this dish featured lump crab stuffed inside thinly sliced avocado and topped with tiny crunchy crispy ham. This was absolutely one of the top dishes of the night.
Watermelon soaked Sangria
Reminiscent of the watermelon vodka punch bowls you drank in college, this was a delicious intermezzo + booze. Order it.
Shrimp in garlic sauce is a classic Spanish dish, and this one held nothing back. The shrimp was so juicy and the garlic so fragrant you could smell it before it hit the table. If you like gambas al ajillo, this is a must for you.
Pintxo is a Spanish word that literally means “on toast”, and while toasts are a huge trend these days, I set my expectations low, but was pleasantly surprised at how successful this dish was. Spicy Basque chorizo perches on top of sliced piquillo peppers and is smothered in melted Manchego cheese and topped with a fried quail egg. I could eat it for breakfast every day, and if this is how Spaniards live their lives, we are doing something wrong.
Warm, gooey pork belly is plated over a carrot puree and served alongside caramelized pecans and yucca chips, fully pushing the envelope with an animal product that is pretty much the standard bearer for Spanish protein.
The thing that struck me most about my dinner at Nai was how ashamed I was at not having noticed it before. I’ve had dinner on First Avenue countless times, and must have walked by Nai even more than that. I can’t believe what I was missing.