[Pigging by Wilfrid: September 14, 2007]
Eñough with the names. Pamplona is in the Basque Country, where the Basques call it Iruña - not that the Basques call themselves "the Basques".
Alex Ureña is the gifted Dominican chef who has just transformed his attempted upscale eponymous eatery Ureña into a casual bistro, Iruña. I mean, Pamplona.
Damn, poor Ureña, the restaurant not the chef, had a few things working against it. Nobody - nobody - liked the location, an anonymous block of 28th off Park. The room, a long rectangle, was awkwardly shaped, the tables awkwardly disposed, and one was forced to wonder whether there'd been substantial investment in decor. The food was interesting and usually very good, as you'd expect from an alumnus of Blue Hill - and before that Bouley, JoJo, La Caravelle. But, in its early days, the prices - especially for the chef's tasting menu - were pushing four star level, and that was a no sale in this setting.
In a seeming war of attrition, Ureña steadily hauled back menu prices, while paring some of the luxury from the cuisine. Tapas appeared. Ultimately, you it became a bargain way to sample the work of a fine cook, as I described back in . But the room remained depressingly empty.
So, summer 2007, and on the back of the wild success of what I shall call el nuevo tapeo - Tia Pol, Boqueria, the disappointing Mercat, Ureña recast itself as a casual Spanish/Basque bistro with a firm tapas bent, and a name somewhat easier to pronounce.
Here are a couple of tapas. Some croquettes of bacalao in the rear, fronted by delicious pinchos of chorizo and shrimp. The latter are balanced on slices of bread, with some goat cheese action going on. The former, pleasant - although my pick for bunuelos de bacalao in Manhattan is still, Spanish or not, Savoy on Prince Street.
And there's a whisper of authenticity right there. In Spain - in Pamplona, indeed - many tapas will come on bread as a little montadito. I avoided Pamplona during San Fermin, the festival which features the running of bulls through the streets, prior to the big corrida. I have eaten many bulls in my time, and I intend to see to it that none eat me. It's actually not a great tapas city. Or at least, it wasn't in the 1990s. Scant nightlife; the relatively few bars serving food closing up well before midnight. A neat little provincial town, most of it modern; and an old Jewish quarter, where the narrow streets open onto a terrace with a sudden, dramatic view across the valley.
The view inside Pamplona has improved too since the Ureña (the restaurant, not the man days). Simple wooden lines dominate the bright bar area, the end of which has been turned into a short dining section. Opposite the bar, there are some tall tables set for dinner. The back room, still of unpleasing dimensions, is cheered up simply by being full - and this joint was slammed on its first weekend.
I know a Basque name for a dish when I see one, even it can't pronounce it. Here we have milhoja de txangaro. I think I asked for, "er...the cangrejo." A napoleon, I'd say - crab, phyllo, and a crisp vanilla tuile on top. But note: punchy, punchy crab. This is what crab tastes like. This is even what crab tastes like back in Essex, where it's really good. Super little dish.
Sadly, there was an absentee from the truffle-oil poached egg dish; specifically the truffle flavor which, with oil, you'd think might be oppressive rather than undetectable. It left the dish - essentially a soft egg with asparagus and a rosy pepper sauce, a little weak.
The most amazing tapa I recall eating in Pamplona (the town, not the restaurant) - a bulbous deep-fried, weird shaped thing on a stick. I bit in, and while burning my mouth, realised it was a large, freshly deep fried shrimp, wrapped around a still soft egg.
Less unusual, but competently done, here's some octopus braised in red wine with potato. And the second absentee of the meal, as far as I could tell - the chistorra. If the sausage was in there somewhere, I couldn't find it - although octopus and sausage is a great idea. This didn't shout at me like the crab.
The paella, I'm pleased to report, screamed the house down. Excellent. What is it with Manhattan and paella. With the exception of an unorthodox, but thoroughly professional, version served at Bolo years ago, I struggle to remember an attempt at this dish which I found anywhere near palatable. I remember under-cooked rice. I remember dreadful, possibly canned ingredients. I remember paellas in some of the downtown ristorantes with guitarists in the window which seemed to have been microwaved.
Chef Alex's paella: I would be neither surprised nor disappointed to be served this in Spain. And that is high praise around here.
Not arborio rice, but a fairly short grain, cooked to the precise point. At the bottom of the pan, no burning but a little crispiness indicating that the dish had correctly - unlike risotto been left well alone. Rabbit, rather than chicken, and a welcome emphasis on silky, dark leg meat. Clams, decent mussels, shrimp. Saffron, of course. This is one of the dishes "to share" on the menu - and that's $30 for two - but next time I might just sit down to one of these and a bottle of wine and let the world go by.
Among other "to shares", I was knocked out by the look of the 16oz ribeye in a sizzling pan. For a solo hit, consider the burger, a two-hander with not only chorizo but some pig foot worked into the patty. Again, it looks terrific and comes with a heap of fries. I couldn't quite slip it in on top of the paella.
Dessert, why not? Not my main event, but I did like the leche frita, served with a mild, lemony sauce and some gritty ice-cream which had almost turned into a puddle on arrival.
Chocolate bunuelos, for the sweet-toothed.
The wine list is pitched to lean budgets, many bottles in the twenties and thirties, and I don't think you can spend much more than $70 on a single selection. I found a white Rioja, 1996 Lopez de Heredia "Vina Gravonia" Crianza, listed at $48, which is scarcely a 100% mark-up. It's a wine for lovers of traditional white Rioja, crisp and woody, and fine with this food. I wonder how many more bottles they have.
Service at the former Ureña often struggled, like the decor, to keep up with the ambition of the prices and execution of the kitchen. I can't judge it in a packed house on the third day; it's certainly friendly, but hiccups are inevitable. Alex's wife Martine presides over the calculator. One gripe? They kept those cripplingly uncomfortable booth/banquettes, and several parties, including mine, turned them down. And tables are real close together on one side of the room.
The wine, all that food, including tax - around $70 a head. First impressions are that Alex has pitched it just right this time, for an excited crowd of all ages. I can only wish his talent the best - and I have a feeling I'll be back here fast.
They have yet to build a new web-site; this article can be discussed at MouthfulsFood.