238 Deer Park Ave., Babylon
SERVICE: Friendly and accommodating
AMBIENCE: You'll want to hang out in this charming spot long after the meal is finished.
ESSENTIALS: Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; neither entrance nor restroom are wheelchair accessible; street parking
Real Spanish food is a rarity on Long Island, where “tapas” can mean a pastrami egg roll and “paella” usually describes a pot of yellow rice topped with seafood.
The closest I’ve ever come to Spain here is at Babylon’s new NoaMar Market. Owners Heri and Frances Beiro have roots in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern-most region, and have recreated in their hometown here the sort of establishment common back in the old country, a multifunctional, morning-to-evening spot in which people can buy groceries, have a snack or a drink or a meal, accompanied by coffee or imported Spanish beer or wine or soft drinks.
Heri, a contractor and trained cook, gutted the old Off the Track Quick Mart and transformed it into a bright, welcoming establishment. One wall is dominated by an open kitchen, the other by floor-to-ceiling shelves for the groceries. Tables — some high, some low, some that are simply wine barrels topped with marble slabs — accommodate about two dozen people. Working alongside Heri in the kitchen is Pierre Rougey, an old Babylon hand who was executive chef at Barrique and, before that, chef-partner at Emerson’s.
Italy and France get all the glory, but Spain is no slouch when it comes to cheeses and cured meats; NoaMar is a good place to make their acquaintance. Don’t miss the Mahon, a refined, semihard cow’s milk cheese, or the Valdeon, a creamy-crumbly goat’s milk blue. There are a lot of undistinguished Manchegos being imported into the United States these days; NoaMar’s aged version demonstrates how this sheep’s milk cheese from La Mancha should taste.
On the meat front, none of NoaMar’s offerings — jamon serrano (a ham similar to prosciutto), lomo (cured pork loin), salchichon (think soppressata), chorizo (spicy sausage) — packed the same porky punch I’ve come to expect. Brightening every board, however, are suave Manzanilla olives and densely fruity membrillo (quince paste). Because NoaMar is also a market, you can purchase all meat, cheeses and accompaniments for home use — not to mention preserved tuna, piquillo peppers and fine oil and vinegars.
The tapas at NoaMar do not stray far from what you’d find in a bar in Madrid, and all the classics are present and accounted for. Pulpo a la Gallega is grilled octopus simply finished with pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) and olive oil. If the daily croquetas are made with bacalao (reconstituted salt cod), order at least one portion of these golden, golf-ball-sized orbs. Patatas bravas are usually made with cubed potatoes; here tiny new potatoes are halved and fried to a perilous crunch, topped with the great sauce Romesco, a puree of nuts, roasted peppers and tomatoes. My favorite tapa was the pinchos Morunos, grilled “Moorish-style” skewers of pork, onions and peppers.
Skip the garlic shrimp: the night we ordered them the shrimp were overcooked and the sauce was disconcertingly acidic. Even more disappointing was the tortilla Española, a creation that I’d put right up there with the Alhambra in Granada and Velázquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado in Madrid. This thick, potato-filled omelet should have the dense, silken texture of room-temperature butter (due, no doubt, to the ungodly amount of olive oil it should contain) but NoaMar’s version was watery, the scrambled eggs crumbling about the potatoes.
The menu’s other major category is “montaditos,” which in Spain are very small sandwiches but in Babylon are extremely generous. You’ll find most of the cheeses and meats deployed in combination here: chorizo, Mahon and arugula, for example, or lomo with mustard, tomatoes and cornichons. The priciest — and unwieldiest — of the bunch (still a bargain at $16) features jamon serrano, Manchego, pickled shishito peppers, arugula and a fried egg. It’s a crowd-pleasing sandwich, no doubt, but it made me long for the simple bocadillo that I try to eat at least once a day when I am in Spain: lush, salty ham on a crusty roll without so much as a schmear of mayo.
I missed this starkness at NoaMar, along with the depth and oomph that define traditional Spanish cuisine. Among desserts, for example, the flan was pallid and loose, the crema Catalana had a well-brûlée-ed top, but the custard beneath was bland. The almond torte, torta di Santiago, was vague — not thick enough to make a satisfying mouthful and with no defined crust to offset the filling.
But it’s easy enough to avoid such sweet also-rans since no one should leave NoaMar without consuming an order of churros, delicate horseshoes of fried dough served with a perfectly bittersweet chocolate dipping sauce. Close your eyes and pretend you’re at a way station along the Camino de Santiago.