Two Saturdays ago, the incessantly rainy one, I finally made it to Laiola, though it took a bus from Union Square and a splashy mad dash in the rain down five puddle-ridden blocks to get there. Owner Joe Hargrave greeted my dripping pate inside the door, pulling a clean napkin off the shelf so I could dry off. The restaurant was packed and filled with a warm, convivial hum. The napkin gesture alone might have been enough to at least place this joint on my good side. But there was more.
No sooner do I join my table than did Laiola’s owner, Joe Hargrave, come up with a little copita of wine. It’s sherry. Hargrave cradles the bottle in his hands, and gets a beatific expression on his face as he proclaims undying affection for this particular wine. “La Gitana, this is my new love,” he says, which instantly endears himself to me, as I’m partial to anyone who evangelizes about sherry, and more particularly, to like-minded souls who have discovered the singular pleasures of the manzanilla sherry from Bodegas Hidalgo, which is called La Gitana. There is no wine in the world like it: dry, light and airy, it carries the brine of the ocean and the refreshing breath of winds right off the Mediterranean Sea.
So we were off to a good start, and the food kept us on course. Stars of the evening were the Jersusalem artichoke and apple soup, the exquisite grilled octopus, and the “esquiexada” (wild striped bass crudo with radish and egg). I would be remiss also not to mention two highlights. First, the charcuterie: the chorizo pirineo is magical--delicately textured to melt on the tongue, its wonderfully complex with lifted notes of spice, pepper, and clove. Second, the pan con chocolate dessert was awesome--just as it sounds its toasted, buttered crusts of bread with a rich chocolate spread and a few strategic grains of sea salt—there’s nothing more delicious in the world.
Beyond the sherry, the wine list is fine, though not yet great. We drank the Marquez di Riscal verdejo by the glass, which was good, and then the Peique mencia, a light, perky red that worked with the food. Right now, however, the list is a bit short and lacking a bit of identity, perhaps. Hargrave assures that the wine list is a work in progress, though, so I will expect to see it expand in breadth as well as depth. The all-Spanish theme is a good one, though, and its surprising that no one has really made this the noteworthy foundation of their restaurant. There are a few good Spanish lists in town—B44 comes to mind—but no one has yet to own the concept in the way that Shelley Lindgren (of A16 and SPQR) owns southern Italian wine. And no one has made a great Spanish list to go with great food. Laiola has a chance to do this.
There was no cocktail list the night I went in, as Hargrave told me that it was being completely overhauled. That will be another good excuse to go in again, as if I really needed one.