Jay Espinal’s childhood revolved around food. As a young boy, he would pass the time in the Latin restaurants his parents owned, minutes ticking away against the hum of Spanish and clattering silverware. Yet as much as he loved the boisterous restaurants of his youth, the ever-elegant Espinal craved a slightly different dining environment.
“I always wanted a bit of a more upscale experience. Even when I was younger, I noticed that there weren’t that many, or hardly any, or —” Espinal paused, trying to remember through a laugh. “Actually, I don’t think there were any more upscale Latin restaurants.”
Such a desire led Espinal to enter the culinary world, along with wife and business partner, Nerissa. Well-acquainted with the world of food, the Espinals, who had owned Don Pedro’s on the Upper East Side, recently opened a new restaurant on the Upper West Side, Tasca. Occupying an expansive space on Columbus Avenue that was formerly home to Greek restaurant Kefi, Tasca opened on November 14, rich in flavor and aesthetic.
Given that Jay and Nerissa Espinal are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico respectively, and that the former’s parents owned Cuban restaurants, the restaurateurs sought to highlight Caribbean flavors. Yet executive chef Rufino Paralta has a strong background in Spanish food, so Tasca’s fare combines the influences of the two regions.
Espinal and Paralta are not interested in making flashy dishes, but rather in considering “how to bring together different places and influences in a cohesive way.” Additionally, they, along with chef de cuisine Giovanni Castilla from the Union Square Hospitality group, are connecting with local upstate farms.
The interior design of Tasca is similarly complex, with coastal themes accentuated by Spanish and Caribbean flora juxtaposed against the exposed brick that is featured in many Spanish taverns. Designed by Nerissa, Tasca features original wallpaper, within which is hidden a coquí, a frog endemic to Puerto Rico. One wall is adorned with sculptures of flying birds, and the entire space is illuminated by warm, low lighting.
“People have really resonated with the design to the point that, as of right now, we have probably gotten — and I’m not used to this — as many compliments about the design as we have about the food.”
Tasca’s food and decor are accompanied by an extensive wine and rum list. As of the week of November 23, Tasca will offer over 200 wines, which span price ranges, and will likely house 300 bottles once they are able to seat at capacity. The rum selection is also varied, featuring some options that one can enjoy for $16 and other samarolis that cost nearly $1000 a bottle. The wide-ranging drinks menu mirrors the Espinals’ ambitions for the restaurant generally, as they hope that Tasca becomes a place of diverse and genuine belonging.
The word “tasca” means tavern in the Iberian Peninsula, Espinal explained, and thus is itself representative of broad community: “The thing about the tavern when you’re in Northern Spain or Portugal is that it brings together all walks of life ... A tasca is a neighborhood restaurant, and that’s what we want Tasca to be. You can come in and grab a tapa and a glass of wine, or you can show visiting guests a more elevated experience.”
Espinal’s ultimate goal with Tasca is to create an environment in which all patrons, regardless of what they order, feel the restaurant was specifically built for their preferred experience. Establishing such an atmosphere is challenging, but the Espinals are undeterred by difficulties, as is demonstrated by their willingness to open a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an era defined by closure, the opening of Tasca serves as a reminder that new ventures can prevail. The pandemic delayed the restaurant’s opening, which was scheduled for March, but the staff used those extra months to continue preparing for the eventual first night.
“Everybody says, ‘Jay, you’re crazy to be opening up in this environment,’ but we’ve gone through other challenging times in the past,” Espinal explained. “I will say that this is probably one of the most challenging environments, but with that being said, we’ve had a ton of people come in from the neighborhood in a short time frame.”
Tasca occupies a 5,500-square-foot space, meaning that the restaurant’s indoor 25% capacity is 65 people with most tables eight feet apart. Outdoor seating is also offered and seats approximately 30 guests. Despite the challenges of serving at limited capacity, the more intimate experience has enabled Tasca to have a fairly seamless opening, as the staff is not overwhelmed. Given the relative ease of the first few nights, Tasca, which is already offering pick-up orders, plans to begin deliveries the week of November 23, though it is not yet on any delivery websites.
At the time of this interview, Tasca had only been open for four days, but Espinal was heartened by the community response to the restaurant.
“I did take a step back on Saturday, and everybody seemed so happy,” he reflected. “There was one moment — it was only our second night — where I looked out on the floor and at people’s body language. I took a notice, and it seemed like the restaurant had been open for years. It was a very gratifying moment for me.”
“I will say that this is probably one of the most challenging environments, but ... we’ve had a ton of people come in from the neighborhood in a short time frame.” Tasca co-owner Jay Espinal