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Tapas – Wine – Bar – Lounge

By Andy Clurfeld, Photos by Daryl Stone

The patatas bravas at Mompou are billed to come with an aioli-guindilla sauce, and creamy and heat-licked all at once that sauce is. But what strikes me as most important about these potatoes is the pure smokiness of the pimenton.

Once novel, then approaching ubiquitous, pimenton is a Spanish paprika that bears only a physical resemblance to Hungarian paprika, that perfunctory seasoning cooks of a generation past believed brightened main courses such as roasted chicken and, frighteningly, fish fillets.

Pimenton, either in its mild or hot incarnations, is all about smoky. Good, authentic pimenton has been joined on store shelves by nasty imitations that taste more like red dust than multifaceted Spanish paprika. The pimenton used at Mompou is of superior quality – and it’s expertly applied.

Mompou’s patatas bravas drew me in, the combination of potatoes with a deep buttery soul and a taut crust fragrant with that warming smoky sensation beckoning throughout our recent dinner. I want to replicate it at home, again and again, a true sign that a restaurant has hit its mark with a dish.

Mompou, born in 2005 in the Ironbound as the dream of Steve Yglesias, hits the mark with pretty much everything on its new menu. That menu, executed by new chef Reginaldo Rocha, a Brazilian who is a veteran of top-flight restaurant in New York, continues Mompou’s mission of fitting in the Ironbound’s Iberian culinary scene even as it trends toward modernized takes on the genre’s classics.

Tapas, the small plates of Spain, are the way to start here – and very possibly the way to go all the way through dinner. Portions, while undeniably generous, aren’t of the gargantuan you-getta-lot sort that has, for decades, defined the Iberian dining palaces of the Ironbound. Mompou isn’t afraid to be judged on the merits of taste, and taste alone.

The taste of those perfect patatas bravas primes me to bite into the piquillo rellenos, super-sweet, beak-shaped red peppers roasted and stuffed with a mince of shrimp and chicken and finished with a rousing Rioja glaze. Bacalao, the Iberian name for salt cod, is pulverized with a sultry béchamel, shaped into cakes, then crusted with panko and flash-fried. Served with a dollop of aioli, they’re lighter than the norm and serve as classic comfort fare.

A plate of prawns skewered and grilled, then served with nibs of roasted garlic and a feisty wine-based sauce made from Spain’s albarino, makes me look up from our table in the modern-meets-classic dining room into the kitchen to see if I can watch someone else’s flame-seared food being prepared. As if the copper ceiling, brick-walled space with the long, lively bar don’t provide warmth enough, spires of fire shoot up in the kitchen in front of chefs getting just the right char on everything from hangar steak to octopus.

Eventually, I find myself distracted by the albondigas, little meatballs plumped by ground chicken and simmered in a wild mushroom sauce framed by the underlying sweetness of the Spanish bubbly cava. Smart, so smart. Check off another one for a try at home.

If you are going the small plates route for the evening, snag a couple of simple salads elevated by high-quality ingredients and careful assembly. Balance is the thing with the meiga, a layering of oozing-fresh mozzarella, avocado and cherry tomatoes over a haystack of peppery baby arugula. Roasted beets and sensuously creamy burgos cheese also benefit from that good arugula the kitchen sourced. These salads pair well with a platter Mompou dubs “The Trio,” the irreplaceable triumvirate of Spanish cured pork called jamon, sharp cheeses and fruit. While I could’ve done without the out-of-season strawberries on this winter night, I can’t fault the intense flavors of the slices of ham, particularly the hot-smoky pimenton-flecked rounds.

I had the best lamb chops of my life at a festival northeast of Barcelona celebrating the harvest of calcots – a skinny allium thicker than a scallion, thinner than a leek and infused with a flavor not unlike roasted garlic. I ate four dozen calcots (seriously) that evening and wasn’t sure I should move onto the baby lamb chops, but one bite led me to another and another. Here at Mompou, the open grill flame ignites both the deep gaminess of the meat and the salt-pepper-herb mix that crusts each little chop. I felt transported back to Spain, as my polite companions watched me hog the lamb as well as the tangle of broccoli rabe on the side.

We all made quick work of the hangar steak, drizzled with the kind of brazen horseradish sauce that flavorful cut of beef demands. A few tavern-style potatoes and a mound of sautéed spinach on the side, and the most devout steakhouse fan would be both impressed and satisfied. Mompou’s signature chicken dish, cubes of chicken briskly sautéed with shrimp and Basque pork sausage, is a stew for the ages, its ingredients united by a basic done right – roasted garlic, in just the right proportion.

Many believe you can judge a restaurant by its roasted chicken and that’s not a bad rule of dining out. When it comes to Iberian, I go with octopus. Mompou’s is charred, bringing contrast between the surface and the tender interior, a test and a triumph. But what makes this dish blissful is the salad of favas, potatoes and olives that supports the sea creature: It’s right in every way, each ingredient in tune with each other, the whole in synch with the octopus.

Mompou’s desserts aren’t flashy, so have a spot of port or sherry, if you’re so inclined. But I’d reprise a round with both the Prada cake, a concise layering of chocolate and coffee mousses in a relatively light cake base cut into a circle and prettily iced, and the coconut flan, richer than most and rather decadent.

A friend who works in Newark said, as we assessed our new Mompou favorites, that she’s always looking for places in the Ironbound to take visitors. “It’s exactly the kind of place you want to take people,” she added, especially since “the food is really great and it’s so easy to share.”

I listened to my kind pal’s words and agreed. Almost. Those patatas bravas, not to mention ’most everything else on Mompou’s menu, are too darn terrific for me to share again.

Who goes there?

Mompou is always hopping. That atmospheric bar, where folks sip beers, mixed drinks and wines from the well-edited, Spanish-centric wine list, is filled with men loosening their ties after a day at the office, women thinking about kicking off their heels, students on dates and suburbanites looking for food and a scene their hometowns don’t offer. A brisk walk from the NJPAC/Prudential hub, Mompou also gets a nod from show-goers.

Next: Noteworthy Events – Winter 2014

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