This past November, we welcomed our friends from London’s Barrafina #HomeAwayFromHome to Casa Mono here in NYC for a transatlantic tapas collaboration. So many people contributed to the great success of that dinner series, but we owe a special hat tip to Yamil Melendez — general manager of Casa Mono and Bar Jamón — for making it run so smoothly. Recently, we sat down with Yamil to hear how he steers this iconic restaurant/bar duo forward, while simultaneously tackling a new challenge in curating both of their wine lists.
Back when we did your Spotlight on Instagram, you mentioned that, in 2019, you began taking on the responsibility of creating the wine lists for both Casa Mono and Bar Jamon. I feel like that’s the opposite of the trajectory I see many wine professionals take, where managerial responsibilities are piled upon sommeliers as they become beverage directors, for instance. What made you approach your own path in this way?
I started from the bottom, like everybody does. I’m just always trying to do more with what I have. It’s the idea of getting as much out of your employer as they’re getting out of you; and that’s not just about money. Of course you gain skills as you keep cruising in this industry. But for me, it’s about continuing to challenge myself, asking “Can I do this? Can I take this on?”
So you started studying wine more intensely, or…?
Actually someone left so I ended up doing inventory and ordering. (Not creating the list, at first.) From there I tried to keep up with the education part. I feel like many people tend to start by learning French wine, then Italian, American, and eventually Spanish. My path was totally different. Before this, I was working in a Thai restaurant for nearly a decade, where we served a lot of wines from Germany, New Zealand, all over, really.
What has it been like learning — and now educating staff and guests — about Spanish wine?
It’s fascinating. It’s almost like the more you learn, the less you know. Everybody thinks they know French wine, swears they know Italian. They’re at least honest about not knowing Spain. [laughs] That means we have an advantage in making people drink what we want them to drink.
Do you mean that you tend to see both industry and non-industry guests being more open-minded because the general knowledge level of Spanish wine might be a bit lower?
Absolutely, and the dynamic between Casa Mono and Bar Jamón reinforces that adventurousness even more. We are running a very similar wine list in both, which strengthens the connection between them even though the physical spaces aren’t connected. But to me, there’s a difference between going to a restaurant and a bar, and it is that people are more open to trying new things at a bar. They’re not having their one dinner a month, they’re having their drink after work, or their nightcap. It’s a different mentality.
How do you strategize with both of those crowds in mind?
We try to respect the classics, but keep it fun. And we’ll pick some things (say, a funky, oxidative white) that might work in one but not the other. This works great for our industry peers. They know they can go to Bar Jamón at midnight or 1am with their coworkers, taste something interesting by the glass or Coravin. Maybe the next time they’ll come back to Casa Mono and drink a bottle of it, or put something like that on their own lists at work.
What about staffing for the two spaces? Can the same FOH crew work in either one?
Bartenders/sommeliers from Bar Jamón can work at Casa Mono, but the other way around is a different story. But I’d say people tend to gravitate naturally towards one or the other. If you look at Juan Pablo, for instance, he’s been at Bar Jamón for 15 years. The guy is an NYC legend! If you want to profile someone interesting, it’s him. [smiles]
Odd question maybe, but how has working here changed what you know or how you feel about Spain itself?
I would say it has taught me a lot about Spanish food from a different point of view, and given me a better understanding of why certain dishes are from certain regions. At the end of the day, wine is food. It really explains so much about a culture, which I’ve been lucky enough to see first-hand. For instance, one year during wine harvest in Catalonia, I attended some local festivals and there was someone in a devil costume in each of the parades. Well, one of these devils was phylloxera! [A tiny insect that nearly nearly wiped out vineyards all around Europe in the mid-19th century.] It’s so cool how stories and traditions like that are woven into everyday life there.
Back at the literal and figurative Casa, what’s next for you?
Who knows! All I can say is that getting involved in the wine side of things has opened up a whole other element of this industry for me, and I feel like I can express myself more completely. For right now, I’ll keep trying new stuff, keep tasting. I go to The Ten Bells a lot. Miguel [de Leon] at Pinch is doing great things. I don’t like spending a lot of money on wine, but I really believe that’s when you find some diamonds in the rough. I’m lucky that I get to share these discoveries with our guests at Casa Mono — and all of the inHouse members that you guys send our way.