It has been 28 months since anyone could stop in to Txikito — the small Chelsea restaurant run by chefs Eder Montero and Alex Raij — for whole turbot served side-eye-up, tripe with bizkaína sauce, or salt cod with pil-pil. Pandemic or otherwise, a closure of more than two years would be the demise of most businesses (just think of all that rent). Not so for Txikito, which is gearing up to reopen later this month.
Montero and Raij still operate their Brooklyn restaurants, mere feet from each other in Cobble Hill. La Vara is focused on the Moorish and Jewish crosscurrents in southern Spanish cooking, while Saint Julivert culls coastal cuisines from around the world for its wide-ranging seafood menu. And with Txikito, the couple now want to dive even further into the Basque traditions that have informed this restaurant since its statement-making debut in 2008 at a time when Spanish food in New York was largely defined by croquettes, paella, and flan.
Back then, the duo was in the process of divorcing their business partners in their first two spots: Tia Pol, a cozy cubbyhole that tours Spain through its tapas, and El Quinto Pino, a bar that furthered New York’s understanding of tapas culture by bringing its sense of easygoing, elbow-rubbing conviviality to the city. (A justifiably famous uni panino further cemented its appeal.) So with Txikito, located just around the corner from the other restaurants, the chef couple felt the pressure to prove their chops yet again. “We definitely needed to justify ourselves,” Montero says. “Everybody was expecting that we would copy what we did before, and everybody probably didn’t understand why we wouldn’t have the same things.”
According to Raij, at the beginning, it was a project meant for Montero, a native of Basque Country, “to follow through on that idea of bringing a proper Basque restaurant” to the city.
Now, they’ve taken a similar approach in rethinking the restaurant for its reopening. “I’ve always wanted to respect the Basque repertoire, just how rich and subtle it is,” Raij says, “but I also feel that the way the Basque people perceive themselves has changed in the last 15 years. I want to reflect on that.”
That means evolving dishes in ways that may at first feel imperceptible to regulars: Raij cites the menu’s Russian salad, a layered-potato preparation. “I think it will still be the best Russian salad ever, but we’ve changed it significantly without changing it at all.” The cogollos — little gem lettuce — will also be back, and though she’s “changed it up a lot,” it will still be “lettuce hearts with really good anchovies on it.”
Whole fish — a Txikito staple — isn’t going anywhere, and Raij is excited to reintroduce a vegetarian dish she auditioned right before the pandemic that features mushrooms sliced into thin rounds. There’s an array of pil pils on board, too, because, Raij says, “We’re sauce-makers” and love turning ingredients other than cod into that one.
To match the updated menu, they’ve brightened the dining room as well, with Montero serving as the head contractor, adding surfaces that pick up natural light from outside, such as brass on the bar top and warm maple panels that replace the rustic shingles originally chosen as a reference to the cider houses of Spain.
The goal is to solidify Txikito’s place not as a neighborhood “Basque” restaurant but as a neighborhood “restaurant,” no additional qualifying required, and more important, a New York City institution. “Like a Bar Pitti, Barbuto, or the Odeon,” Raij says. “Fresh but still soulful. Classic yet current.”