With Wine and Food, ‘There Are No Rules’ at Tertulia

On first glance, Tertulia is a Spanish restaurant. There’s plenty of them in New York City, but if you talk with Service Director, Gil Avital,  it quickly becomes clear that such a statement sells the award-winning hotspot short. With Chef Seamus Mullen’s emphasis on cocina de producto – sourcing the best products at the best time for his kitchen and menu – they are decidedly a local, oh-so-New-York restaurant built on a Spanish tradition.

Let’s go one step further: The Tertulia team is adamant that they are not trying to be or replicate a Spanish tapas restaurant, but rather use it as a guide for crafting a particular style of dining. Sure, they serve patatas bravas, but they do so with a twist – Tertulia’s has a kick, packing a spicy fuerte punch than you would find in Spain.

Plus, you’ll find things on their menu that one would never come across in Spain, such as their signature Arroz a La Plancha – a chef-y riff on paella. They start with bomba rice (the same type used in the production of paella), but cook it using the technique you’d employ for risotto, followed by time on the plancha – or flattop grill — where it becomes caramelized and crunchy. Then they add mushroom stock, wild mushrooms, snails and a light salad of celery and fennel, along with Ibérico ham. Gil says that they like to think of it as “the evolution of Spanish cuisine in New York.”

GilAvitalTertulia is all about bringing friends and family together to talk politics, art and music, using food as the excuse to do the former. As Gil explains, “In Spain, it is such a strong culture to get together with food and beverages. We want to create that here in New York.”

And, they don’t take this mission lightly. Located toward the back of the restaurant, the casual and comfortable space inspires guests to share their food with fellow diners, despite the fact that they have never met. “That’s Tertulia!” he says. Most people heartily embrace this idea and only rarely do patrons opt out of this seating arrangement.

Being a part of the community is equally essential to them. While they now take reservations (they didn’t when they first opened in 2011), they make sure to leave one-third of the seating for walk-ins, hoping that locals and passerbys alike will drop in, be it for a quick snack or a full-on feast.

“There are no rules – you don’t have to come in and have a full meal,” Gil says. “It can be just a glass of wine and a tapa or even just wine or just dessert, depending if they are joining us after dining elsewhere. We want people to be able to pop in at any given time of the day.”

Speaking of wine, Tertulia has a robust wine program and, although it is primarily Spanish, they are big fans of wine in general. “We don’t limit our list to just Spain; just like a restaurant in Spain, we also have local wines.” That being said, “We are focusing on Spain,” Gil notes, “and it is important to us to show people the range of Spanish beverages – not only Rioja and Sangria. We also have a nice program of ciders on tap and by the bottle.”

Among the varied selection on his menu, he is particularly keen about smaller production, site-specific wines. A perfect example is the Torremoron 2013 Ribera del Duero, which, “is made by a whole village in Quintanamanvirgo. There are only 95 people in the village and they all cultivate vineyards, making the wine together from 180 year-old vines to express the history and culture. They produce only one label and one wine despite being pressed to make other cuvées. But, they are persistent and continue to refuse. It shows the expression of the Tempranillo grape and what is can do with little intervention.”

Among his other Ribero del Duero options, Gil also carries the Alejandro Fernández “Tinto Pesquera” Reserva 2011, Emilio Moro “Malleolus” 2010, Vega Sicilia “Valbuena 5º,” and the Viña Sastre Crianza 2010.

The infamous Tertulia paella.

The infamous Tertulia paella.

Turning his attention to white wines, Gil advises that “Rueda, for me, is the great, classic story how Spanish wine is evolving. It used to be about mass production and co-operatives; only two things grew in the region: grapevines and wheat. They were boring; there was no terroir. But now, you see winemakers breaking out and looking for individual expression. They are not copying or doing what everyone else is doing, but rather, they are looking at what’s unique about their site. Now the flavor profiles are different from one another.”

By way of illustration, he describes three different Ruedas that he has on his list. “The Tertulia_ESP5572neyards; it is the most mineral of the three.”

Among some pairing suggestions he does recommend: “Obviously, the light, fresh [Rueda] wines go well with seafood. They also go well with asparagus, which is generally hard to pair, but Rueda works. Plus, the wine is acidic so it cuts through grilled food really well; it’s a great choice [for these types of dishes].”

For Ribera del Duero wines he draws on the old saw: What grows together goes together. “These wines go well with lamb dishes – that’s what they eat there. We have a leg of lamb dish with lamb, mushrooms and Cipollini mushrooms that matches with these wines. Ham is another good choice for pairing with these wines, whether it is Ibérico or not.”

Regardless of the pairing possibilities, Gil is always on the lookout for new wines. “I am constantly tasting,” he says. Most recently, he added the Cuatro Rayas Rueda by the glass. “I’d never heard of it before, but I was introduced to it by the salesperson. It is really different – it combines more extraction, and ripeness, but maintains its freshness and acidity. It is very important to me how balanced the wine is and that it is not going in a wacky or crazy direction.”

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