“Ernesto’s is a downtown restaurant by way of the Basque Country,” says executive chef and co-founder Ryan Bartlow. After honing his skills in three-Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy such as San Sebastian’s Akelarre and Alinea in Chicago, Bartlow wanted to pare things down for his first solo venture. Though the northern region in Spain is often celebrated for its experimental cuisine, the menu at Ernesto’s is an expression of the more elemental side of its food culture. “The hallmarks of Basque cuisine are amplifying seasonal ingredients in their most essential simplicity. Knowing how to get the most flavor out of an ingredient without taking away anything,” he says. Just don’t call it rustic. “There’s still a lot of layering and composition that goes on here.”
At its heart, Ernesto’s is a neighborhood canteen on the edge of Dimes Square where Bartlow has lived for 16 years. (In a bit of kismet, his first Manhattan apartment was located right behind the restaurant.) It’s a Basque restaurant but it’s also a New York restaurant, which means the bartender will make you a pitch-perfect gin and tonic and a killer martini. Maybe Iggy and the Stooges is on the playlist or Depeche Mode and some ‘90s hip-hop. Designer Michael Groth’s tasteful touch introduces subtle references to San Sebastian’s Art Nouveau architecture, from custom lighting fixtures inspired by Playa de la Concha’s cast-iron lamp posts and the brass bar’s curvy forms to an original Joan Miró lithograph.
If you’re visiting for the first time, Bartlow recommends starting with some pintxos like the classic jamón croquetas and gildas skewers of pickled peppers, olives, and anchovy. The viral dish consisting of a heaping pile of housemade chips topped with slices of paleta Ibérico is a fan favorite. Then maybe an heirloom tomato salad, battered-fried sardines, and whatever grilled piece of fish is on the menu (right now, Rhode Island monkfish). Finish with a creme caramel. “That’s a quintessential dinner whether you’ve been here a million times or it’s your first time,” he says. “Everyone leaves happy.”