There were once dozens of Spanish restaurants around Chelsea and the Village, and while it was possible to argue over which had the best paella, there was no serious debate over which was the grandest. . It was El Quixotein the Chelsea Hotel.
When El Quijote opened in 1930, the Depression had begun, but the era of nightclubs was still underway. A canopy, stretching from the West 23rd Street sidewalk to the red neon sign above the door, protected felt hats and fur coats from the weather. Inside, captains dressed in scarlet blazers and racers wore black vests over white shirts. Murals and framed paintings inspired by Don Quixote, bullfights or any other idea of old Spain despised everyone.
Over the years, El Quijote’s quirky glamor has struggled with drop ceilings, scuffed checkerboard linoleum and dusty carvings. The paella could have the consistency of yesterday’s oatmeal. The taste of sangria, served from the pitcher under several inches of fruit salad, could be described as purple. But faded splendor is still splendour. Critic Craig Claiborne, not a big fan of kitsch, admitted in a capsule review in The Times in 1967 that El Quijote had “a certain sordid appeal”. No doubt some of his trinkets were swept away in the wake of hotel guests and residents, who could enter through a door in the lobby.
Patti Smith, who lived upstairs, wrote in her memoir “Just Kids” that she walked into the bar at El Quijote one afternoon in 1969 to find “musicians everywhere, seated at tables set with mounds of shrimp in green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria and bottles of tequila. Jefferson Airplane was there. So was Janis Joplin and his band. Jimi Hendrix was sitting by the door.
This particular picture, occasioned by Woodstock, has never been repeated. El Quijote continued, however, to attract musicians, artists, writers, and others who appreciated its combination of surrealism, tradition, and awards that barely changed from decade to decade. El Quijote could almost always turn an evening into an event, a rare quality in a restaurant whose playlist consisted of elevator music arrangements of Beatles and Led Zeppelin songs. It was a dreamy ghost ship numbed by the swirling currents of Manhattan.
Places like this can’t be replaced, and when El Quijote was closed for renovation four years ago by the owners of the hotel, the city’s antique-bohemian axis feared that it would be destroyed or at least cleaned up beyond recognition. Now that the restaurant has been back in business for two months, most of those worries can be forgotten.
The biggest loss is the disappearance of the Dulcinea and Cervantes rooms at the back. These spaces weren’t as dreamlike as the front room and its bar, but they accounted for almost half of the seats and made it easy to get in on the spot or plan a last-minute birthday party. A new private dining room will not serve the same purposes. Tighter shifts become a problem when it’s time to make reservations and the only time slots available are 5 or 10 p.m.
The remaining space, however, has been treated with all the sensitivity any urban nostalgic could ask for. The room-length windmill mural, painted in calligraphic white strokes on a dark caramel-colored background, looks like a museum piece after cleaning. The linoleum has been lifted to reveal tiny ceramic floor tiles that are likely original. The white tablecloths are gone and waiters now wear soft cotton jackets instead of blazers, but the color is still as red as a bullfighter’s cape.
old recipes were retired, as they should have been. Jaime Young, Founder of the Restoration Group Sunday Hospitality and its culinary director, oversees the menu with Byron Hogan, the head chef, whose resume includes three years as executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. Together they have completely renewed the relationship of the kitchen with contemporary Spanish cuisine.
Paella was once steamed in deep aluminum pots; now the rice is mixed in real paellas, shallow and as wide as a hubcap, for a more intense flavor and a much higher crispiness factor. Saffron is used now, a welcome change from annatto which stained the rice without adding much flavor. The current version is sprinkled with all i oli, the garlic-olive oil emulsion, and sprinkled with shellfish and rabbit, a meat much loved by Valencian paella eaters.
The lobster, cooked a la plancha and dripping with smoked chili butter and sherry, is a far cry from the garlic-scented chew toys of yesteryear. Arbequina olive oil, distinctly fruity and savory, softens the garlicky sting of prawns al ajillo, grilled in their pink shells. The tuna is simmered with Espelette pepper in hot olive oil until it reaches the tenderness and richness of braised beef cheeks.
The chefs give simple tapas and pintxos extra layers of flavor. Most of the time, it’s an advantage. Making a tomato confit to spread on a tomato skillet is a smart approach to out-of-season produce. Marinating a mixture of Spanish olives with piparra peppers gives them an appealing shimmer of heat. Stuffing the baby squids with loose, chewy morcilla before covering them with the squid ink sauce results in an intensely intense take on the classic chipirones en su tinta.
The rubbing of North African-influenced spices on pintxos morunos-style chicken skewers is strong enough to take it, but I’m not sure I see the point of brushing them with fish sauce. And whatever umami-goosing concoctions are added to the fideuà (aged Moscatel, for example), they only muddy the flavors.
Luckily, there were no antics with the impressively sized Basque cake, which is flavored with rum and served with a sparkling orange puddle of Cara Cara marmalade.
The genius of traditional Spanish cooking is knowing when to leave well enough on your own. This is a principle that bartenders at El Quijote could study. Cocktails that originally required two or three ingredients get five or six; the kalimotxo, a mix of red wine and cola that is one of the great Spanish party tricks, has wine, rum and two kinds of amaro when it just needs a coke.
The more is more approach works best with sangria; infused with cinnamon and fortified with balsamic vinegar, it goes down something like a chilled mulled wine and is a huge improvement over its predecessor. So I guess it’s the wine list, which is brief but manages to string together a good cross section of modern winemakers like Ramón Jané and more traditional outfits like CVNE.
I miss the sprawling, sheltering atmosphere of old El Quijote, but not much else. Towards the end, even the Ford administration awards of El Quijote weren’t enough to make you forget that a number of restaurants served much better Spanish food. Now it’s one of them, and that’s OK.
What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not rated by stars.