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Picture this: tapas between galleries in Chelsea

By Nina Roberts
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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The Chelsea neighborhood is dense with over 200 galleries, from small artist-run cooperatives to powerhouses such as Pace, Gagosian, and Mathew Marks. A day of gallery hopping here can leave an art lover depleted. The perfect way to bolster one’s stamina is to dip into several of the local tapas bars throughout the day.

Since most galleries open at 10 a.m., try a Spanish breakfast at El Quinto Pino, which opens at 8, Monday through Friday. This is a tiny space with a circular marble bar, Spanish tiles, and about 20 stools for seating. Offerings include a handful of savory and sweet breakfast items. Among them are a classic potato tortilla, bread with tomato and garlic, and churros with dulce de leche.

During the day the centrally located Tía Pol, one of the pioneering tapas places here, is the best choice for a quick bite. A perch at the bar, especially on a nice day when the front is open onto 10th Avenue, is an ideal spot for people watching.

The long, narrow restaurant has been a neighborhood staple for six years. Besides numerous daily specials, the menu has over 30 tapas items, from razor clams to lamb skewers to octopus terrine. “Croquetas de jamón,’’ ham croquettes, a basic tapas item, are divine here, with a perfectly crispy outside and a warm, creamy center. A recent croquette of the day was an outstanding Swiss chard and leek combination; previously, a beer and Manchego cheese.

If you plan to make a meal out of several tapas, ask your waiter about portion size. Some establishments have family-style ordering, others don’t, and most menus don’t give the number of items in an order. All tapas bars have “raciones,’’ a more substantial meal for one person, such as paella, steak, or suckling pig.

El Quinto Pino is also open for lunch and dinner, when it turns into a ruckus affair with music and 30-somethings socializing. If your eardrums can handle it, try the outstanding “fideua,’’ noodle paella with pieces of baby octopus and shrimp and a smear of aioli, and the sea urchin panini, which has become legendary in the city’s foodie circles.

Going out for tapas at night is supposed to be a little chaotic, but if being squished into cramped bar spaces is spilling wine on your new art catalogs, try Txikito. It’s a soothing, modern space with wooden walls and red tables and chairs — stools only at the bar. Txikito specializes in food from the Basque region of Spain where tapas are called “pintxos’’ and traditionally served on a piece of bread with a toothpick through the center.

“Txikito takes the best from the Basque country,’’ says Alexandra Raij, who does not strictly adhere to every Basque tradition, such as serving every item on bread. She has traveled all over Spain, taking in the regional differences, with her co-chef-owner-husband, Eder Montero, who is from Bilbao. “If this were really Basque,’’ says Raij, “the pintxos would be out on the bar all day, flies buzzing around. We make everything fresh.’’

In addition to the classics, try the delicious “marijuli,’’ an unlikely trio of anchovy and ham atop succulent strips of sweet pepper, which mixes beautifully in your mouth. Be sure to order “piperrak,’’ a plate of seared, smoky peppers, topped with sea salt. The wine list is Basque and includes the diaspora, such as the Chilean winery Errazuriz.

A little farther from the center of Chelsea’s galleries, and ideal for pre- or post-gallery visits, are Boqueria and La Nacional, which are diametric opposites. Boqueria is named after the marketplace in Barcelona although it doesn’t specialize in Catalan cuisine and is a beautifully designed space of blond wood. The front has a marble bar with several tables. Hams hang in the window, hoofs intact. The back dining room has about 60 seats, all stools, and one wall is decorated with multiple rows of Vichy Catalan, the bottled water from Catalunya. It usually gets mobbed here around 6 or 7 p.m.

Boqueria’s “gambas al ajillo,’’ shrimp with garlic, is outstanding. It is served sizzling hot with shrimps bathing in a buttery, garlic broth with bits of parsley, paper-thin slivers of garlic, and of couple of tiny red peppers floating about. It’s served with a hunk of bread. One of the most traditional tapas, tortilla Española, is served with Arbiqiño olives and a squiggle of citrus aioli. If you’re a purist, ask for the regular aioli. The “albóndigas,’’ lamb meatballs, will convert anyone who is lukewarm about lamb. They come in a dish with a spicy tomato sauce and a dollop of sheep’s milk cheese. Dainty cucumber slices top each ball, adding a wonderful, cool crunch.

Chelsea used to be dotted with Spanish restaurants run by Spaniards in black pants and white shirts, many having left Spain during the Franco regime. One of the few places that remains from this time is La Nacional, the cantina for the Spanish Benevolent Society, housed in a brownstone with a Spanish flag outside.

La Nacional is a no frills restaurant, slightly below street level, with a checkered linoleum floor. It attracts a mixed crowd, from Latin American families, to hipsters, to coworkers out for snacks and sangria. The front room has 10 rugged wooden tables and chairs and the more casual back room is where the semi-open kitchen is. You can smell and hear sizzles from the stove, and two TVs play news in Spanish.

La Nacional is run by Lolo Manso, from just outside Madrid. He serves the classic tapas, such as croquettes, tortillas, calamari, artichoke hearts. But many people come for the paella, as Manso also owns Socarrat Paella Bar, five blocks away. After eating at La Nacional, you can catch a Flamenco performance upstairs every Saturday night. The first performance starts at 8:30, a second at 11.

Nina Roberts can be reached at nina@ninaroberts.net.

If You Go

Tía Pol 205 10th Ave (between 22d and 23d streets)
212-675-8805
www.tiapol.com
Two croquettes $4.50.
El Quinto Pino 401 West 24th St. (at Ninth Avenue)
212-206-6900
www.elquintopinonyc.com
Breakfast items $3-$7, sea urchin panini $15.
Txikito 240 Ninth Ave. (between 24th and 25th streets)
212-242-4730
www.txikitonyc.com
“Marijuli’’ and “piperrak,’’ each $8.
Boqueria 53 West 19th St. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues)
212-255-4160
www.boquerianyc.com
“Gambas al ajillo’’ $13, tortilla Española $7.
La Nacional 239 West 14th St. (between Seventh and Eighth avenues)
212-243-9308
www.lanacionaltapas.com
Classic tapas $6-$9. Vegetarian paella and “arroz negro,’’ each $18 per person.
Flamenco Alegrias en la Nacional
www.alegrias.com
nina@ninaroberts.net
Cash only, $20.