Pete Wells Stumbles into Huertas, Awards Two Stars
Sometimes, when things don’t go according to plan, what unfolds instead can be a pleasant surprise. This is exactly what happened to Pete Wells while he waited for a table at a hip Lower East Side restaurant that is following the current trend in this city of not accepting reservations (note that Wells withheld the identity of this establishment from his readers).
The place Wells and his companions stumbled into looking to pass the quoted two hour wait was Huertas, a new Basque-inspired eatery that is summed up in the review as “A convivial tavern in front for tapas; an intimate dining room in back for five-course dinners.” On his initial, unplanned visit, Wells enjoyed the pintxos - “a Basque term for snacks smaller than tapas and pinned together with a toothpick.” Many of these are canned Spanish specialties, and in the style of many eateries and wine bars in Northern Spain, this fact isn’t hidden from the diner, as the critic points out “Jonah Miller, Huertas’s chef, has written a concise menu of Basque-inspired tapas, not all of which could be called cooking and a fair amount of which is canned. I am not revealing any secrets here. Some food is still in its can when it comes to the table, like the dense mackerel in olive oil.”
There are some hearty dishes actually prepared by the kitchen on the front room menu as well, and Wells and his party approved of them, too, like when they ordered “something called Huertas rotos, which turned out to be the Basque dish huevos rotos interpreted as a kind of pasta dish. Skinny threads of potato were cooked al dente and tossed with chorizo and its oil, with a soft-cooked egg on top. It was gone in 30 seconds.”
It turns out Huertas houses two different dining experiences under one roof, because when the restaurant critic returned for his second (this time, intentional) visit, he had “made reservations for the small, square back dining room, where Mr. Miller serves a set menu for $55. In the front room, the plates are unconnected episodes, and you supply the narrative yourself. In the back, you settle in while Mr. Miller tells a story in five courses.” He was impressed by the chef’s culinary narrative along with the reasonable price, so much so that he dined in the back room a second time, and declared “This night and a later one made it clear that dinner in Huertas’s back room ranks among the best deals in town...Mr. Miller shapes his menus so skillfully that it’s hard to imagine wanting more.”