“Cata” means “tasting” or “bit or sample” in Spanish, and so the experience of the so-named Iberian bar and restaurant on the Bowery is best understood less as tapas bar and more as do-it-yourself tasting menu. The tapas are for the most part traditional, with very few modernist touches, simply prepared, the flavors rich and basic.
The wine list I never got to. Gin and tonics are one of the things that Spain does best, and Cata offers no fewer than 24 varieties of the species. The Spanish style of the drink takes great care in pairing the gin with the tonic, and adds a perfect garnish to enhance the spirit’s botanical essence. So it seems best to compose a cata of g&t’s to go along with the degustación of tapas. Each of the 24 g&t’s on the menu is made with a different gin and botanical garnish, and I counted six different tonics. My first was Lemongrass, made with New Amsterdam gin and Fentimans tonic, neither of which I had tried before, which dictated my selection. The combination was refreshing, though falling a little short of the best I have had in Spain itself.
The first g&t went along with pan con tomate, the classic, of perfect consistency and with a sprinkle of sea salt and something that looked like patatas bravas but were actually chickpea – garbanzo – fritters, and astoundingly good, just the flavor one expects yet of startling simplicity. Also, skewers of grilled halloumi cheese, with quince paste – membrillo – and onion., the cheese a heritage of the Islamic south, firm of texture and deliciously mild.
Cuttlefish – sepia – from the grill, was good if a little rubbery. A more interesting was carabinero, drenched in parsley, a tender crustacean is imported from Cadiz. You can eat the crisped, thin shell, almost as you can a soft-shelled crab. Alongside: a skewer of ground lamb, rare and earthy, leavened by the faint sweetness of currant-based. The flavor and crispiness of roast chicken croquetas, another classic, were complemented by just the right amount of potato puree, and, one of the more unusual dishes, a carpaccio of bass with a touch of pepper and pork cracklings, wasn’t a combination I would have thought of, but popped in the mouth.
I chose Kaffir Lime for my second g&t. As before, it was a new gin to me, Boomsma Jonge, a Dutch genever, and a new tonic. White Rock, is a cheap off-the-shelf label, but it could not have been better selected. Add the kaffir and something wonderful happens, like adding milk and sugar to cocoa or salt to an omelette. It is a drink for nose and tongue, taste bud and olfactory gland – they cannot be told apart. It challenged one of my basic beliefs, that I would never find a better g&t than I had a few years ago in the seaside Galician port of Vigo.
It was paired with a glory of green and speckled redness: marrow piled high with parsley and garlic, mixed with clams, bread crisps on the side. The marrow was less pungent than some, but the clams give it a mar y tierra richness. Food is about biology, and where we are in the world. It is dishes like this – ironically, given their upscaleness – that remind us that at the core (dare I say the marrow?) of eating are the cruelties and hard realities of sustenance.
The g&t is not like a wine, and two are enough for a meal. An improvised dessert from the tapas menu, passing on the official selections (remembering that goat cheese and honey is a traditional Catalán postre), caña de cabra, with a bit of lemon thyme, brought the degustación to an end.
For information on Cata, click here.