When you sit down at Nai Tapas in the East Village, you’ll open up a handwritten menu with cartoon sketches and notes that read “Marinated for 2 days” or “Must try!!” jotted down by Ruben Rodriguez, the restaurant’s executive chef and owner. Before even placing an order, the menu feels as though you’re in conversation with the chef himself. You’ll find dishes like Crujiente de Rabo y Trucha, an oxtail shredded and pressed with pancetta, blanketed with a golden-crisp toast and topped with hickory-smoked trout and black ink aioli, as well as the Pulpo a la Gallega, a succulent boiled Galician-style octopus.
With these traditional tapas offerings, Rodriguez, who grew up in Galicia, Spain, is taking diners on a sentimental journey into his childhood, where he spent most of his time at his mother’s restaurant, Merendero Cave. “Nai,” which means “mother” in Gallego, the language of Galicia, is the driving spirit behind the restaurant.
While classic tapas are well celebrated on the menu with Rodriguez’s mother’s recipes of Bacalao de mi Casa, salted cod over green cabbage and potato in garlic tomato sauce, his modern flair and love for molecular gastronomy is just as notable. Take for instance, Muchos Huevos!!, a modern take on Huevos Estrellados, a rustic egg dish, here transformed into an eye-catching arrangement of confit, sous-vide potatoes with egg yolk in chorizo oil emulsion, dotted with salmon and flying fish roe.
Moving from Spain to the U.S., Rodriguez opened Nai Tapas in 2010. Eight years later, he found a new, larger two-story location on the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street, where there’s more freedom and space for flamenco, of course!
“Everything about Nai stems from tradition. And watching a flamenco performance nods to our culture tremendously,” Rodriguez says. “It is the utmost humbling atmosphere being able to have a fine-dining experience by participating in our tasting menu, while also tapping your feet along to the beat of the flamenco dancers.”
The familial-rooted love and pride is evident in the thoughtful hospitality and caliber of food that’s coming out of the kitchen. With the expertise of Raul Oleaga and David Martinez, the restaurant’s operations and wine directors, service is intricate and seamless.
I especially love the tableside service. Skilled servers will blowtorch your salmon to a perfect rare with finesse or artfully plate the Pollo al la Brasa, sweet mustard marinated broiled chicken thighs with tobiko, seaweed and Champagne-pickled shallots.
“Our staff goes through an intricate process of training, and we ask a lot from our team,” Rodriguez says. “Almost all of our servers and runners who are plating these dishes, have spent a great amount of time with me in the kitchen. Within time, my staff has honed the ability to finish these interactive dishes at the table as if I were personally there.”
Whether it’s for a date night, brunch with the family (they are very kid-friendly!) or lunch with friends, Nai Tapas is an ideal place to start meaningful traditions with your loved ones.
Photographs courtesy of Nai Tapas