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Restaurant Review: Casa Dani in Manhattan West

The Andalusian chef Dani García has come back to establish a Manhattan beachhead nine years after his first attempt, Manzanilla. That was in 2013. A member of the scientific-technical school of Spanish cooking, Mr. García was best known at the time for introducing liquid nitrogen to the kitchen in edible fabrications like the Tomato Garden, three squat orbs that looked like miniature tomatoes but were not. One was fashioned from beets.

Spherification, the process developed at El Bulli for encasing drops of olive juice or other liquids in a fragile little sac that breaks open in the mouth, ostensibly to the delight of the mouth’s owner, was used liberally at Manzanilla. Desserts showed off delightful effects of temperature and weightlessness that would be hard to achieve without gels, powders and canisters filled with gas. The menu was novel enough to fill Manzanilla with curious diners for several months. A year later, with business lagging, the restaurant closed.

Mr. García’s new place, Casa Dani, is in Manhattan West, that eerily citylike development between Hudson Yards and the James A. Farley Post Office. Eating there now, you would never know that encasing liquid in fragile little sacs used to be a thing, or that Mr. García had ever participated in it. Traditional cooking from Spain, particularly Andalusian seafood, is wall to wall. Any innovations are subtle.

One result is a menu that is much, much easier to trust. At Manzanilla, roughly every other dish was worth trying. At Casa Dani, almost everything is.

There are salt-cod fritters, looking and tasting as if they had just come out of the fryer in some beachside bar in Málaga. Battered and fried noodlefish, those long, white creatures identifiable as fish mainly by the two black dots of their eyes, are served here, too, tossed by a server at tableside with two fried eggs and red-pepper pilpil to make a complete, irresistible mess.

Octopus piled over Andalusian potato salad, that tapas-bar mainstay, appears here, too, bright with sherry vinegar and nearly red with smoky pimentón oil.

Golden croquetas topped with a slice of jamón Ibérico may look like dainty finger food apt to be passed at polite cocktail parties. One bite and they gush with hot, delicious béchamel.

If you want a safer way to eat jamón Ibérico, then consider the appetizer of lightly seared artichoke hearts in a creamy ham emulsion that gets more and more flavorful as it mingles with the ribbons of ham in the center of the plate.

The original candidate for spherification, and probably the most common one in the heyday of scientific Spanish cuisine, was olive juice. Ten years ago, Mr. García might have given us olive spheres with Casa Dani’s exceptional anchovies — both the dark, purplish ones cured in oil and the white, vinegar-marinated kind. Now he serves the olive juice as olive juice, a briny green bath for the fish.

If you spend enough time among the appetizers at Casa Dani, sooner or later you are going to encounter fresh Andalusian tuna: a glistening sheet of pinkish belly lying over the thinnest, crispest pan con tomate in New York; lean loin and fatty belly chopped and molded side by side into a chilled, two-toned ring; the fleshy meat from just below the head, liberated at the table from the salt crust in which it was baked. (The menu translates morrillo de atún, the Spanish name for this drippingly rich morsel, as “tuna cut from the forehead.”) Visitors to Madrid have seen at least one location of a ham-focused chain called Museo del Jamón. Casa Dani could easily rebrand itself Museo del Atún.

At first, Casa Dani seems to be in competition with Mercado Little Spain, José Andrés’s food hall in Hudson Yards, which also leans toward traditional cuisine. But Mercado Little Spain doesn’t have anything like the regional depth reflected in those Andalusian tuna recipes. And the place is a bit of a scavenger hunt, where the best things to eat are scattered across a maze of kiosks, counters, bars and takeout cases. Mr. García’s restaurant is also more rewarding, dish for dish, than any part of Mercado Little Spain, including its two more formal dining rooms, Leña and Mar.

In a paella cook-off, Leña’s wood grill probably gives it an edge over Casa Dani’s gas burners. But Mr. García’s rice dishes are excellent, as they were at Manzanilla. The grains are swirled and toasted in a wide, shallow pan. Then they are persuaded to soak up only enough liquid to make them chewy. Toppings — aioli and octopus in the case of the black rice — are there mainly for the contrast they provide. As with any good paella, the point is the rice.

One pan is enough to make a main course for four people. On the other hand, those four people might consider the possibility of a whole fish, an entire Spanish turbot, say, run through with a wooden skewer and grilled.

Desserts are, of course, the ones you see in tavernas and cafes all over Spain: flan, rice pudding, torrijas with berries. Most are comforting pillows of sugar and milk. The exception is the cheesecake, almost as salty as it is sweet, even before a wedge of Zamorano or another aged Spanish cheese is grated over the plate. Those of us who have trouble deciding between dessert and a cheese course can now have both at the same time.

Since closing Manzanilla, Mr. García seems to have figured out how to control a kitchen trans-Atlantically. The service is another story. Dinner might run smoothly one night and become disjointed on another, when nothing and nobody shows up at the table anywhere near on cue.

The service problems seem symptomatic of a larger confusion. It’s unclear whether Casa Dani, owned by Mr. García’s company together with Disruptive Restaurant Group, which owns clubs, restaurants and caviar bars in Doha, Dubai, Seoul and Cancún, wants to be a destination for grown-ups. The prices definitely say yes. But you enter not from the street or even Manhattan West Plaza, but through a food court that has the impersonal, glossy, unreal feeling of a movie set in the near future. The kiosks, which share a single kitchen, are called things like Krispy Rice and Sam’s Crispy Chicken, and the whole enterprise has a name, Citizens, out of “1984.”

Past the entrance to Casa Dani (“Spanish-Mediterranean-Fresh”), the color palette changes from blacks and grays to browns and reds, but it doesn’t feel any more real, especially once the music starts pounding. It turns out that some remixes of “Ray of Light” last for a really long time — long enough that I started to think about all the restaurants that seem to be meant for people who fly from continent to continent, eating only food designed by chefs who think of themselves as global brands. You could leave New York on Tuesday night, and when you show up for dinner in Doha on Wednesday, “Paper Planes” will still be playing in the dining room: “All I want to do is boom boom boom boom and cha-ching! take your money.”

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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