The cuisine of Spain is largely misunderstood in the United States, where what passes for Spanish food is all too often an anodyne assemblage of yellow rice, green sauce and red peppers.
So it was cause for a fiesta when Sangria 71, whose motto is "Flavors of Spain," opened this summer. The restaurant has good Iberian bona fides: It is owned by Spanish-born brothers José Fernández and Rosendo Fernández Jr. The latter owns two Manhattan restaurants, both called Café Español, where chef Reyes Lopez, a native of Mexico, cooked for eight years. The Fernández brothers' father, Rosendo Fernández Sr., was head chef at El Rincon De España in Greenwich Village for close to four decades.
In the space that used to house Willy Parkers, Sangria 71 is a comfortable, gracious establishment, with a roomy vestibule, two warm dining rooms and a separate bar. Servers are a mix of enthusiastic newbies and seasoned veterans. The wine list is full of Spanish bargains (though the wine is served in stubby little glasses). Chef Lopez's kitchen sends out huge portions of well-priced, colorful food. Much of it is likable; little has soul.
The tapas had a pretty good batting average. Coins of chorizo sausage sauteed with sangria were tasty, as were decorous little croquetas of chicken in béchamel, and patatas bravas, fried cubes of potatoes in a spicy sauce. Grilled octopus, served on a screaming-hot cast-iron skillet was a hit, but the poached octopus, pulpo Gallego, had a flabby texture and lacked both the bracing pep of smoked paprika and the fruity pungency of good olive oil, the sine qua non of Spanish cooking. Pan tumaca, the Spanish take on bruschetta, was defeated by unripe tomatoes, slices of cottony, sesame-seeded bread (seemingly untouched by the grill) and again, a fatal lack of good olive oil. Tortilla Espanola, the potato-onion frittata, is as close to a national dish as Spain has. One night it was juicy and luxuriant; on another night, dry and dull.
The winner among entrees was the arroz con pollo, a big pot of yellow rice, green peas, red peppers and chicken, more than enough for two and a bargain at $16. Less successful was the paella Valenciana. A signature dish at Sangria 71, it was topped with a generous though desultory assortment of seafood, and instead of a crunchy crust of rice adhering to the bottom of the paellera (the pan that gives the dish its name), there was a puddle of unabsorbed broth. Shrimp in green sauce: bland; chicken Villeroy: pasty; veal cutlets with almonds: oddly sweet.
Two of the desserts at Sangria 71 are homemade. The crema Catalana was dramatically torched tableside, but once the flames were extinguished, the custard bore an unignited slick of alcohol. Flan was rigid, not sweet enough, and not helped by its fussy garnish of chocolate and vanilla sauces.
None of this seems to dim Long Island's appetite. Weekends are mobbed and even weeknights are busy. If Sangria 71 is not furthering the cause of Spanish cuisine, it is making a lot of Americans happy.