In San Sebastián, pintxos are bar snacks pinned to a slice of bread with a toothpick, usually served en masse on a buffet — you eat your fill and count up the toothpicks when it's time to pay. At Txoko, Ian Begg and Ryan Maxey's new restaurant on the strip-club stretch of Broadway, a pintxo is a minuscule course in itself: a ricotta-stuffed squash blossom ($3) coated in frilly, crisp tempura batter, exactly the size of the baguette cross-section below it and topped with “micro-chives” resembling blades of grass. It is good. So is the pintxo capped with mussels ($4), the custard-dense bivalves glazed with romesco sauce, and a pile of shoestring fries.
Txoko (pronounced “Choh-koh”) is the unexpected evolution of Naked Lunch, Begg and Maxey's popup sandwich shop. The pair, who were chef and GM at Cafe Majestic, had plans to open a restaurant, but while scouting spaces they ran Naked Lunch out of the takeout cafe at Enrico's for two years. This spring, Enrico's tanked. Naked Lunch didn't. Begg and Maxey soon announced that they'd expand into the abandoned restaurant, turning it into a late-night, cocktail-friendly joint with Basque influences and small plates. (Do note, devotees of the foie gras and duck prosciutto sandwich: Naked Lunch is still open during the day.) The restaurant opened over the Memorial Day weekend, thrumming with ideas and good cooking, though less overthinking is in order.
It takes a few minutes for your pupils to adjust to dusk-in-the-forest lighting. Soon, though, the filament lights on the wrought-iron chandeliers seem to grow golder, the bottles behind the half-moon-shaped bar glitter more brightly, and the dark specters occupying the wood tables manifest into fork-wielding humans. The writing on the chalkboard— sea urchin, lamb chops, mushroom arroz — grows legible.
Each tiny pintxo on the left column of the menu is a fully formed dish. So are the more elaborate small plates listed at the center. There are around eight of them, plus another four cheese plates. The rare, simple dish is a wild mushroom arroz ($10), a risotto with the salt and cheese cranked up to the limit of intensity, and a garnish of three crisp curls of fiddlehead fern. More complicated: An overcooked lamb chop ($12) comes with a cool tomato topped with an OCD spiral of paper-thin coins of summer squash, a dollop of goat cheese, and black-olive tapenade on the top. There are also crispy sweetbreads ($10), cloud-dense chunks of meat served with a ragout of mushrooms, green garbanzos, and chorizo on a creamy potato purée. The sweetbreads take six bites to finish, and there's a basket of bread to polish off all the sauce on the plate.
After each round, the servers clear away the plates and silverware. Then it's a half-hour wait for the next batch. You occupy your time by sipping your peppered-up tequila sunrise or glass of amontillado and reaching into the mason jar of silverware to grab another set of forks and knives. When the silverware runs out — and it will, since the waiters keep clearing the plates and forks — they bring another jarful.
For all the solid technique in dishes like the sweetbreads and squash-blossom pintxo, much about Txoko strikes me as overthought: the Basque name, which requires inside information to pronounce, but isn't reflected in the flavors of most dishes; the elaborate pintxos doled out in single servings; the swaggering, $65 ribeye tacked onto a menu of teensy plates. (Not to mention the fact that the sole vegetable dish on the menu, asparagus ($9), is smothered in a soft-cooked egg and green-garlic hollandaise.)
My two visits there left me feeling Begg has spent more time thinking up dishes than considering what it is like to eat a meal at his restaurant. Take the fussy uni pintxo ($8), a piece of bread with a few sweet sea-urchin lobes perched on top and a raw quail egg presented in a mottled eggshell nestled into a bed of salt flecked with piment d'espelette, a sort of lightly smoked paprika. Once assembled, the two-bite pintxo is cool, fresh, and drippy. Then there's a date-studded bread pudding ($8) served with a spike of almond brittle flavored with chorizo — actually, quite delicious — and a smear of chocolate ganache infused with pungent black olives and a grassy olive oil, which KOs everything it touches. His foie gras ice cream ($8) is edible, which comes as a relief.
The difference between the overthought dishes and the marvelous, complex ones seems to be a matter of the cooks imposing their own ideas on the ingredients as opposed to listening to them. Every element in the pan-roasted halibut ($12) — the ragout of summer beans, corn, and sea beans (a salty marsh grass), as well as the creamy, sweet onion sauce — speaks in the same mild, rounded tones as the fish. The feat doesn't just work with delicate flavors. The flash that illuminates the thyme-scented gateau basque, a buttery cake with a spoonful of peach jam at the center, is an edgy, precisely tart sorbet of sheep's-milk yogurt.
For that reason, the best part of the menu at Txoko may be Begg's cheese plates. Surrounding a slab of chalky-creamy Humboldt Fog ($7) with sweet baby beets, shaved fennel, and tiny drops of balsamic reduction might seem a tad classic, but it works. And I'd love to see more of the subtle, intuitive intelligence behind the pairing of txiki ($7), a Basque-style sheep's milk cheese from Marin, with roasted baby carrots. Some earthy, barely sweet note in the carrots magics up a similar note in the cheese, one that can't be detected until the two are tasted together. The dish isn't just provocative, it's haunting. And I'd rather be haunted than provoked.