El Quijote rises again | the new yorker
In Patti Smith’s dream memoir “Just Kids” from 2010, she devotes a chapter to the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived from 1969 to 1972: “like a dollhouse in the twilight zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. . . . I loved this place, its shabby elegance and the history it held so possessively.” Before her, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe and Bob Dylan had all found creative expression there, and the young Smith and her roommate Robert Mapplethorpe strove fervently to manifest the same for themselves, even if they barely mustered enough money to make rent. (To their dismay, the hotel manager, known for accepting art as payment, did not accept the wallets they offered as a bid.) They spent hours at El Quijote – the hotel canteen, accessible from the lobby – which had been open since 1930 and reliably sold prawns in green sauce, Pollo Villaroy (chicken breast coated in bechamel, then breaded and fried), all kinds of steaks and seafood and washed down sangria.
El Quijote has been popular for decades as a cool spot for a decadent night out, where you could eat and drink plenty and no one would care. In 2018 the restaurant closed for renovations, and now El Quijote has reopened, spruce up and whimsical, under new management. (The hotel, closed since 2011, is now partially open, with plans to fully open in late summer.)
The iconic neon-red marquee remains, as do a series of intriguing, mediocre vintage paintings and a brown and white mural depicting Don Quixote and his windmills. The space has been reduced to less than half its previous size, with only two rows of tables. They are adjacent to the beautiful original bar, glowing and again attracting barflies, but with more sophisticated cocktails: a G+T Quijote in a giant tumbler, with pear, aloe and celery; a fruity Kalimotxo, with rum, amaro and glazed grapes.
The old menu had dozens of dishes; the new one, curated by chefs Jaime Young and Byron Hogan, is a relatively concise list of Spanish hits. Pan con tomato, for which the toast is rubbed with tomato, included, on a recent evening, unwieldy tomato skins mixed with the pulp of the fruit. The cod croquettes were ideal, however, packed with the right ratio of bacalaoor reconstituted salt cod, with potato (more cod, less potato), fried until a pleasantly smashing crisp, and served piping hot with a hearty aioli, arguing that every bite should include a generous kick .
If only all salads were as fresh and spry as El Quijote’s ensalada mixta: crunchy leaves of Little Gem, radicchio, curly and dark green spigarello, piled in a pyramid and sprinkled with pine nuts and garlic crisps. The tuna crudo, bathed in refreshing Cara Cara orange juice and topped with pickled Fresno peppers, was surprisingly delicious. Patatas bravas– mandatory when offered – looked like steak frites, overworked but acceptable thanks to more aioli and a tomato and choricero-pepper sauce.
Gambas al ajillo arrived as four frontal jumbo shrimp in the shell – more work than they were worth unless you used your hands, a Catch-22 with no wipes in sight. A delicious, earthy bowl of pork sausage, white beans and toast in a tomato-pepper sauce was supposed to be undetectable (unnecessarily) laced with truffles, but it didn’t miss a beat. The paella, enriched with mussels, cockles, prawns and rabbit, benefited from even more aioli. The highlight, a smoked and tender lobster special – which the genial waitress, in a formal red waiter’s coat, said had been considered “a religious experience” by one diner – was halved, grilled and spread with roasted garlic, accompanied by pulled butter with a kick of pimentón.
There’s more sangria, red or white, but only by the pitcher, for fifty-four dollars. It would have cost nearly four in Smith’s day, when she and Mapplethorpe were salvaging abandoned lobster claws from El Quijote to make necklaces. Mapplethorpe chained them together and Smith, she wrote, “said a little prayer to thank the lobster.” (Dishes $9-$58.) ♦