It’s not every day that you want to drop $30 or $40 on lunch. But if you have the time to pamper yourself with a nice relaxed meal, check out the new Socarrat Paella Bar.
It looks, feels and tastes more New York than Valencia, but Socarrat, located on Second Avenue just above 50th Street, is a very comfortable and attractive place with a first-rate kitchen, serving an updated version of the classic Spanish dish.
The long, narrow dining room, adorned mostly in black and white, has a manageable noise level that encourages diplomatic conversation. It can seat about 40 people if you include the bar. A second-floor dining room appears to be standing by in anticipation of larger crowds.
This is Manhattan’s third Socarrat, with earlier versions in Chelsea and Nolita, so the new East Side branch is, in a sense, part of a mini-chain. But there’s nothing cookie cutter about the food or the decor, and the service is notably friendly and attentive.
Why not start with a few tapas? The menu offers eight of these small plates at lunch and 18 at dinner. Try one or two to hone your appetite — I particularly liked the grilled squid. But since serving sizes are modest and prices mostly in the $9 to $12 range, watch your pocketbook: you want to leave room for the main dish.
The star is, of course, the paella, served in a traditional piping hot iron pan. Servings are generous, if not huge, but during my visits I never saw any leftover rice go back to the kitchen. If you’re lucky, the waiter will even stop by your table to help you scrape the very last crunchy bits off the bottom of the pan, the socarrat, so you can make a clean getaway.
Eight house paellas are available at both lunch and dinner ($22 to $24 a person), but they require a two-person minimum. If you’re the only one at your table who wants to order the house specialty, you have just one choice, the daily special.
Fortunately, the daily specials are excellent and even a bit cheaper, $19, than the regular paellas. Ingredients can be eclectic: the special paella one recent day featured chorizo, chunks of pork rib, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. Another day it was rabbit, fava beans, tomato, green beans, snails and scallions. That’s a lot of ingredients for the staff to memorize and repeat on command. The waiter said the rabbit paella would feature a sofrito sauce — of garlic, onion and tomato simmered in olive oil — but my plate suggested otherwise.
Among the regular menu paellas, there’s the lovely Socarrat (chicken, beef, squid, shrimp, white fish, cuttlefish, mussels, clams and green beans), an all-veggie version, several recipes featuring different combinations of seafood and a meat-lovers’ model starring pork, duck, chicken and chorizo,
Not ready to tuck into a big main course? There are several attractive salads ($12 to $14), including ones with salmon, goat cheese or chicken. Sandwich choices ($12 to $15) include my favorite, steak and sautéed vegetables, and ones piled with fried calamari or shrimp. In fact, one good way to proceed if you’re ordering lunch for two: pick a sandwich or a salad and the paella special and share.
The sandwiches rest on crunchy ciabatta-like rolls and are seasoned with nicely spiced condiments. They come with generous servings of potato chips and perfectly dressed green salad.
After your meal, order a cup of the house coffee, which is freshly made and full of flavor — a fairly rare occurrence in Midtown. A full bar includes an intriguing wine list featuring only Spanish selections. Most bottles range in the $40 to $70 realm.
Don’t overlook the possibility of a leisurely weekend meal. The Spanish-accented brunch served on Saturdays and Sundays is a welcome break from the usual waffles and eggs Benedict. You can even order paella.
Socarrat Paella Bar is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner is served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. It is at 953 Second Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. (212) 759-0101.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.