cuisine: Contemporary Spanish
entrées: $23 – $30
address: 39 High Street, New Haven
phone: (203) 865-1933
credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express
5 Stars… Extraordinary
Ibiza Restaurant In New Haven—A Personal Favorite
Restaurant critics aren’t supposed to play favorites, but I find it hard not to when it comes to Ibiza Restaurant in New Haven. In fact, I have been so careful not to play favorites that I haven’t reviewed Ibiza—or its earlier incarnation, Pika Tapas—in the more than 14 years that I have been a restaurant critic. But at some point, as every possible critical plaudit or testimonial of adulation is accrued by this wonderful eatery, I don’t feel as if I’m revealing a bias in stating that it’s my favorite Connecticut restaurant; rather, I’m joining the groundswell of approval.
This groundswell of approval is reflected in the 2009-10 Zagat Survey of Connecticut restaurants, where Ibiza finishes second only to Thomas Henkelmann of Greenwich for top food in the state. It’s also first among Spanish restaurants, first in New Haven, first in people watching, second in winning wine lists, eleventh in service, sixteenth in décor and fifteenth in overall popularity. Those are the kinds of numbers for which most restaurateurs would sacrifice their first born.
The critical plaudits have been equally overwhelming. “I have not eaten at a better Spanish restaurant in the United States,” wrote Mark Bittman of the New York Times. “Ibiza isn’t simply the best restaurant ever in New Haven, Connecticut” added John Mariani of Esquire, “it’s the best Spanish restaurant in the country.” In 2003, Mariani tabbed Luis Bollo of Ibiza as “chef of the year.” Not Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa or any other of the usual suspects.
Ibiza has also been a popular stop for celebrities. Steven Spielberg, Bette Midler and Harrison Ford are among the many glitterati who have dined at Ibiza. Denzel Washington, poor fellow, was actually turned away, unrecognized, before returning to plead his case.
Normally, I’m perfectly happy to venture an unpopular opinion, let alone a popular one, confident that I’m onto something and the rest of the world has missed the boat. If one doesn’t have that kind of self-assurance as well as the critical chops to back it up, then one shouldn’t be a critic in the first place. In the case of Ibiza, however, the popular support for my position matters because I count majority owner Ignacio Blanco among my closest friends and have traveled to Spain with him, his gracious wife Sonia and son Julian. I also have real affection for his partner and general manager Juan Carlos Gonzáles, his executive chef Manolo Romero, Romero’s lovely wife Andrea and others upon the staff. But my feelings for these individuals haven’t factored into my opinions of the restaurant, because my admiration for Blanco’s restaurants preceded my friendship. I became close friends with Blanco due to my high regard for his work as a restaurateur, not the other way around, and I’m not shy about voicing my opinions to him.
Ibiza evolved from its earlier incarnation, Pika Tapas, as Blanco made the decision to bring executive chef Bollo from his acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, Meigas, which never reopened after 9/11, and to change the emphasis from tapas to more refined dining. The name change and accompanying moves helped propel Ibiza to the exalted heights it has reached. But eventually, Bollo, who was married to a Rutgers department head, tired of the commute from New Jersey, and chef de cuisine Romero stepped into his shoes.
Food writers aware of the personnel change braced for a possible drop in the quality of food at Ibiza after Bollo’s departure, but it never happened. Blanco is a phenomenal developer of personnel, and Galician chef Romero has proven to be another mega-talent deserving of the limelight. Both chefs are among America’s best, displaying great ingenuity tempered by a reverence for tradition. In my opinion, Bollo’s cooking tends to be the more complicated, while Romero’s tends to send out clearer flavor messages. I like both chefs’ work better than that of Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés, whose food I have sampled around the greater Washington, D.C. area. Some of Bollo’s best work can still be found on Ibiza’s menu, and it would take a forensic food historian to be certain where Bollo leaves off and Romero begins. I’m not going to get caught up in that kind of hair-splitting—all that matters to me for purposes of this review is how Ibiza’s food stacks up today.
Great food requires an appropriate venue to be appreciated properly. Just as a grilled swordfish sandwich might best be enjoyed on a Capitola pier with seagulls drifting by on air currents, or authentic Texas barbecue in a dark smoky blues joint, topnotch contemporary Spanish food deserves a matching setting. A visit to Ibiza reveals a modern Spanish ambiance, the comfortable dining room separated from a sinuous granite bar, its bottles backed by turquoise glass panels. An Emma Marianetti mural on the back wall depicts celebratory diners. What could be more apt?
One’s interaction with a restaurant’s staff also goes a long way in determining one’s enjoyment of a dining experience. Under Gonzáles’ gallant management, the staff is friendly, efficient and professional. Years ago, when the restaurant was still called Pika Tapas, my father admired a tie Gonzáles was wearing; Gonzáles responded by removing it from around his neck and presenting it to my father.
Cleanliness is a factor I don’t usually discuss, because the dining public is forced to assume it and because to comment much upon it is to risk a libel suit. Since the public doesn’t generally get the opportunity to tour restaurant kitchens, it’s forced to depend upon restaurants’ fastidiousness and inspectors’ efficacy. In fact, standards vary greatly from one restaurant to the next, and I have been shocked by what I have seen in some kitchens. Ibiza’s is as clean a kitchen as I have ever visited, with what I call a “soap tidal wave” scouring it after closing every night. As the restaurant winds down toward the end of the evening, one can watch the staff gather to rub any spots off the freshly cleaned glassware and silverware. No detail is overlooked. One won’t find smudged windows or dusty ledges or crumbs wedged in the creases of banquettes or any of the other omissions I frequently spot with my trained eyes.
But the overwhelming reason to visit Ibiza is still its incredible food. To dine at Ibiza is to experience an exotic trip with Romero as one’s tour guide. Like a foreign film, that trip is filtered through someone else’s imagination and sensibilities but still brims with unassailable truths about culture, quality and the commonalities of the human condition. Sign me up for such an excursion any day!
I paid two visits to Ibiza, looking hard for something to criticize. I didn’t find much. Both outings were multi-course extravaganzas. On my first visit, we ordered up a 2006 Itsas Mendi Bizkaiko Txakolina, País Vasco, Spain ($40). Made from the varietal Hondarrabi Zuri, this light, crisp, slightly effervescent wine was built for seafood. Whether from a traditional or modernized vineyard, I enjoy the wines of no country more than Spain’s.
Superior crusty stone-oven-baked Galician bread was brought to our table, accompanied by good green fruity Spanish olive oil. Unless you have the bottomless pit for a stomach that I do, resist the bread. Look away from it. Place it out of easy reach. Don’t request a refill. Otherwise, you’re apt to compromise your appetite before some of America’s finest food ever makes it to your plate.
Our first course was a complimentary sampler of four small tapas, and don’t be surprised if I have plenty to say about each tapa. One tapa was a tiny cup of chilled gazpacho, its surface dotted with extra virgin olive oil and a few scallion rings. A good Spanish gazpacho still seems to be a revelation to most Americans, who most likely have had their expectations set by the chunky, salsa-like gazpachos that vegetarian and Mexican restaurants have been serving since the 1970s. Gazpacho is generally said to have originated in Andalusia, Spain, with possible precursors brought by the Moors or Romans. A proper Spanish gazpacho like Ibiza’s will likely rely less on tomato than on cucumber and bell pepper and will gain a lovely and subtle accent from the use of sherry vinegar.
The second tapa was a single Padrón pepper, a treat that evoked some happy memories. I am passionate about pimientos de Padrón, having eaten them all over Galicia and having even visited the town of Padrón itself. These small green peppers are typically sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with a little coarse salt. I like to describe them as little grenades—most of them are duds but occasionally one will hit a live one. Hence the popular phrase “los pimientos de Padrón, unos pican y otres non,” which loosely translates, “Padrón peppers, some are hot and some are not.” In this country, Padrón peppers are raised in California but, because of differences in soil and climate, they tend to be a little larger with more live grenades and fewer duds among them. The duds are what are really prized, their sweet flavor uniquely alluring. It’s a good thing only one Padrón pepper was served because I’ve been known to eat several dozen at one sitting. Once I get started on them, I can’t stop.
The third tapa featured a boquerón mounted on an olive oil toast covered with an avocado and cilantro purée. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, boquerones are anchovies cured in vinegar. They don’t belong atop Caesar salads or pizzas (fusion cooking at its worst) any more than the salty oily anchovies to which Americans are accustomed belong in this dish. Most Spanish restaurants in these parts use commercial boquerones, which are rather astringent. Ibiza’s are house-marinated in cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, rendering them an incredible treat. I never liked anchovies until I had Ibiza’s boquerones, and now they’re just about my favorite food in the world.
The final tapa was a ham croquette, its crunchy exterior filled with a béchamel of the famous, flavorful Spanish ham called jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Before you think Ibiza has lost its collective mind using the world’s most expensive ham in its croquettes, know that these were fashioned from the meat left on the bone that couldn’t be sliced off presentably. This divine little croquette was plated atop a small pool of garlic aïoli. From time to time, Ibiza also serves croquettes made from house-cured bacalao, from squid ink, from Cabrales blue cheese, and so on.
Our second course featured a small plateful of jamón Ibérico de Bellota ($27), perfectly sliced so it was thin but not too thin. A special slicer should be used on this ham, and I have seen that when it’s not, the ham may not have the same impact on the palate. The marbling, texture and taste of this ham are like no other. When I first bite into it, I get a visceral reaction to its fat on my gums that’s unforgettable and difficult to describe. Unavailable by legal means in the United States prior to 2005, this organic, free-range ham made from black Iberian pigs that feed on acorns before slaughter commands a wholesale price of roughly $1,500 per ham.
The Spanish have always believed in paying for good ingredients, and would cringe at most of the products Americans eat and the bargain mentality that undermines our food culture. Their knowledge, quality and handling of seafood are vastly superior to ours. While most Americans would probably name caviar and truffles as foods that could justify their high price tags, Spaniards would add jamón Ibérico de Bellota, percebes (gooseneck barnacles retrieved from the surf at great risk that sell upwards of 100 Euros per kilo), angulas (linguine-like baby eels sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and garlic that sell upward of $165 per pound), and other delicacies to the list. All of which, of course, have made their appearance at Ibiza on one occasion or another.
My allegiance to (and passion for) Spanish food isn’t blind. It comes from eye-opening visits to Spain exploring everything from simple tapas bars to rustic country inns to fancy hotels to three-star Michelin restaurants. It comes from dining in the homes of people who grill sardines in their backyards and spear their own octopi to top their pizza-like empanadas. And nowhere in the United States can one find a better blend of traditional and modern Spanish cooking than at Ibiza. But it’s the essence of contemporary cooking to borrow from other cuisines, so sometimes Ibiza steps outside the Spanish construct, as with a ceviche. Although contested by some other Latin American countries, Peru is considered the most likely source for this dish in which fish typically is cured in citrus juices (although an argument could probably be made that ceviche derives, linguistically and historically, from Spanish escabeche, a marinating of poached or fried rather than raw fish). Origins aside, Ibiza’s vibrant ceviche ($14) is one of the best you’ll ever encounter, with shrimp and bay scallops that have marinated in lemon, lime and orange juices complemented with tomato, red onion, avocado, cilantro, mango and melon.
Move, as we did, from the familiar to the exotic with Ibiza’s mousse de bacalao ($13), a generous cube of quivery codfish mousse drenched in pil-pil sauce (a flavorful Basque emulsion of salt cod, garlic and olive oil). A chorizo-and-piquillo-pepper sauce was presented in a line of attractive dots of increasing size. Completing this fanciful dish was a judiones de la Granja salad composed of the large, starchy white beans from Asturias with black olive, tomato and scallion.
Even more fanciful were Japanese soup spoons containing lightly poached wild Nutmeg oysters ($13) with cream of celery, capelin roe, julienne radish and a Pedro Ximénez sherry vinegar reduction. Swallowed in one bite, these complementary and contrasting flavors and textures create a small celebration in one’s mouth, one’s awakened taste buds going off like firecrackers.
At this point, we embarked on our second bottle of wine, a gorgeous 2006 Bodegas Alto Moncaya “Veraton,” Campo de Borja, Spain ($55). This full-bodied, ruby-colored Garnacha may only be the winery’s entry level offering but it rated 93 points by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, displaying earthy notes of black cherry, spice and licorice.
Expect your assumptions about food to be challenged at Ibiza. One of Romero’s more intriguing dishes is his sumptuous foie gras croquettes ($13) topped with fried quail eggs and accompanied by California frisée salad, smoked duck breast and candied kumquat. I guess as long as Romero will make croquettes from the world’s most expensive ham, why not foie gras? But asking “why not?” makes his elegant combinations sound random when they are anything but.
“Your husband is a genius and you must be his muse,” I tell Andrea, who is one of Ibiza’s classiest servers, never failing to educate customers or to notice whatever is needed at the table.
From the contemporary, we returned to the traditional with chipirones en su tinta ($12). A round mold of Basque-style Bomba rice topped with little roasted garlic chips was surrounded by a black moat of tender, garlicky squid in its own ink, the sauce slightly sweet and slightly salty. This is one of those dishes that may sound unappealing to some, but everyone whom I have seen try Ibiza’s has gone crazy over it. It pays to have an open mind and a willingness to expand one’s horizons.
From ten-armed to eight-armed cephalopods… Thin, lengthwise slices of grilled octopus tentacle topped Boston lettuce, julienne radish, red onion, potato and yellow pear tomato in a balsamic vinaigrette. The octopus salad ($13) couldn’t have been lighter or lovelier.
Ibiza also offered a temporada salad ($10) featuring Boston lettuce, green grapes, cross sections of green apple, bocconcini Mozzarella balls, Marcona almonds and crushed pistachio in an emulsified pistachio vinaigrette. I requested this salad often while it was on the menu.
At Ibiza, each amazing dish seems to top the previous one—a virtual impossibility. But it’s a sign of an incredible dining experience when each dish is so evocative that it briefly obliterates the memory of what went before it. Later, after one has left, memories of the different dishes surge back into one’s consciousness, no longer impeded by sensory overload.
Crispy baby-lamb-and-wild-mushroom ravioli ($14) were served over cream of cauliflower and garnished with microgreens and chopped chives. The ravioli were actually formed from wonton skins, a clever conceit. Sometimes Ibiza offers this appetizer special with an oxtail stuffing. And once, I was fortunate to visit Ibiza when it was featuring an entrée special of oxtail served on the bone in a red wine sauce, something I had never previously encountered.
Ibiza’s entrées are as amazing as its appetizers. Skate is one of my favorite fish, but it must be sparklingly fresh, so I only try it at restaurants I trust. The French are apt to cook skate in a beurre noisette and Malaysians like to flavor it with curry, but the Spanish tend to give it a lighter treatment. Ibiza’s fabulously fresh and perfectly grilled skate ($26) was served with cockles in their shells, sautéed shrimp, diced potato, chopped tomato, cauliflower, sautéed spinach and green peas in a garlic, white wine and aged sherry vinegar sauce.
Also impressive, roasted rack of New England lamb ($29) in a mint-smoked-rice-vinegar sauce (much better than it sounds) was served with a mélange of sautéed plums, judiones de la Granja white beans, Serrano ham, grape tomato and snow peas. The lamb brought new meaning to the word “succulent.”
Succulent would also be an apt description of Ibiza’s roast suckling pig ($30) with puréed apricot and a rosemary-infused honey sauce. A large section of baby pig balanced atop a square of potato confit. Its skin was beautifully crisp, its flesh tender and young tasting, its smoky flavor almost mysterious to the uninitiated. This tantalizing special is offered on Mondays.
Another dish that was nothing short of amazing was Ibiza’s braised baby back ribs ($24), which were marinated in herbs and honey and then topped with a sherry-vinegar-and-honey glaze. A few stray crystals of sea salt contrasted beautifully with the sweet sauce. The ribs were plated with a BBQ sauce aïoli and a round mold of potato bacon purée.
Even Ibiza’s desserts were a tour de force. Meant to be consumed in one exhilarating gulp, chocolate almond croquettes ($10) were balanced atop conventional soup spoons with lemon gelatin and coconut foam. Paired with dulce de leche ice cream, an individual warm chocolate cake ($10) perched atop a pile of crispy chocolate rice. A warm apple tart ($10) concealed a cream filling inside its puff pastry shell, a spoonful of rosemary-honey ice cream providing a complementary burst of flavor. Their batter squeezed through a star-shaped opening, elongated donut-like churros ($10) were served with a dipping cup of Spanish hot chocolate. And perhaps best of all, leche frita ($10) featured a square of fried milk curd in a mint-infused white chocolate soup with a scoop of passion fruit ice cream.
As incredible as that meal was, I couldn’t resist paying a second visit to Ibiza a few weeks later to see what other tricks Romero might have up his magician’s sleeve. An elegant 2007 Pazo Señoranz Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($67) got us out of the starting gate. A complimentary trio of small tapas included a tiny cup of honeydew melon gazpacho (a lovely variation on the classic), a Cabrales blue cheese croquette with garlic aïoli, and another boquerón mounted on an olive oil toast spread with an avocado and cilantro purée.
Like the house-marinated anchovy, some of the dishes I enjoyed were repeats. When one has the chance to eat one’s favorite foods at one’s favorite restaurant, it’s tough to stay away from them. I revisited the jamón Ibérico de Bellota, because I couldn’t resist that incredible cured ham. I repeated the poached Nutmeg oysters with cream of celery, capelin roe, julienne radish and balsamic vinegar reduction, because it’s such an unusual combination. And I requested the squid in its own ink with Bomba rice because, well, I could. However redundant, each of these items was as devastatingly good as it had been the first time.
But I also ordered numerous dishes that I hadn’t on my previous visit. The temporada salad ($10) was now composed of Boston, mâche and lola rosa lettuces with yellow pear and grape tomatoes, sliced red onion and diced beet finished with a honey-Dijon vinaigrette. Garnished with Spanish paprika and crispy bacon, grilled sea scallops ($13) were set in potato foam over a hidden dice of sautéed green asparagus, butternut squash, grape tomato and purple potato. A thick slab of snow-white grilled halibut ($29) was served in a salsa verde with cockles in their shells, tomato, onion, porcini mushroom, green peas and judiones de la Granja white beans.
Football teams switch ends of the field at halftime; I like to switch from white wine to red. A 2006 Vega Escal, Priorat, Spain ($52) was a lovely example of why wines from this region are so prized. A blend of Shiraz, Garnacha and Carinena grapes, this superb wine was soft but full-bodied, intense and jammy.
A brace of pan-roasted quails ($27) in their natural juices was served with saffron-tinted vegetable couscous and thinly sliced Brussels sprouts. Like a proffered alien handshake, a big lobster claw topped a lobster fideuá ($28) of crispy Catalan noodles, lobster aïoli and lobster brandy sauce.
But the most visually impressive dish was probably the grilled beef tenderloin ($29) in a Port-Rioja-red-wine sauce. A thick flavorful piece of tender beef rested atop delicious sautéed root vegetables (potato, parsnip, sweet potato and yuca), while balanced atop the beef was a potato gaufrette with a big pat of creamy goat cheese. A wide pool of pink beet foam offset the richness of the goat cheese. For me, both goat cheese and beet foam were superfluous and more designed to interact with each other than with the nucleus of the dish, but every other person I have seen try this dish has exclaimed over it.
I repeated two desserts from my last visit—the chocolate almond croquettes and the leche frita—while trying three new ones. A caramel custard ($10), better known as a flan, was complemented with red wine-poached pear and lemon peel ice cream. Even more inventive was a fruit tart ($10) with an interior of Cabrales blue cheesecake, flan foam, fresh berries, passion fruit ice cream and a strawberry reduction. Finally, we received a long platter with five compartments that included a cup of tuiles and scoops of Campari grapefruit sorbet, peach ice cream, dulce de leche ice cream and bittersweet chocolate mint ice cream ($9), all housemade, of course. So ended an astonishing pair of meals.
If you’re not visiting Ibiza on a limitless budget, the best way to sample its incredible range might be to request its tasting menu ($58 per person), which is only available Monday through Thursday and requires the participation of the entire table. Wines can be paired with the courses for an additional $35 per person. (And for terrific affordable tapas in a casual setting, you can visit Ibiza’s new sibling, Ibiza Tapas & Wine Bar in Hamden.)
Arguably, Spain leads the world in contemporary art (Picasso, Gris, Miró, Dali), architecture (Gaudi, Moneo, Bofill, Calatrava), soccer (Euro 2008 soccer championship, second in FIFA rankings after June upset by American team), and contemporary food (Adrià, Berasategui, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak). To experience a representation of contemporary Spanish cuisine unequaled anywhere in the United States, or to throw yourself on the altar of Connecticut’s top temple of gastronomy, you should make the pilgrimage to Ibiza Restaurant in New Haven.