Entries in Alex Ureña (5)


Pamplona Closes

The Times reports that Alex Ureña has closed Pamplona.

The space has been home to two upscale Spanish restaurants over the last four years, both helmed by Chef Ureña. The eponymous Ureña, won two stars from Frank Bruni in early 2006, but the dowdy-looking space was at war with the three-star food the chef was trying to serve.

In 2007, after a brief makeover, it re-opened as Pamplona, slightly downscale in terms of both price and culinary ambition. It once again won two stars from Frank Bruni.

We loved the food at Ureña, but like most people, found the atmosphere lacking. We found the less-ambitious Pamplona still very good, though slightly undermined by the service. Perhaps like many diners, we never felt the need to return.

Despite two fairly positive Times reviews, the restaurant never gained traction in either of its incarnations. It wasn’t in a lively neighborhood, nor could it get much residential traffic on the dull commercial block it occupied.



The Payoff: Pamplona

Today, Frank Bruni awards two stars to Pamplona:

The publicity pitch and chatter that attended the transformation of the not-so-old restaurant Ureña into the not-exactly-new restaurant Pamplona boiled down to something like this: the chef Alex Ureña gets real…

Pamplona is Ureña with an attitude adjustment, and I emphasize the word adjustment. Mr. Ureña hasn’t wholly reinvented the restaurant or himself. He’s still interpreting Spanish cuisine, and — lucky for us — still indulging his fanciful impulses.

Bruni has never been a fan of fine dining, so I’m not surprised that chef Alex Ureña managed to hold onto two stars, despite dialing down the ambitions of the restaurant. Bruni’s two stars are consistent with my own impression, when I visited a couple of weeks ago.

The Eater oddsmakers are seldom off by much, but today’s review was an exception, with Eater actually offering better odds on zero stars than two. On our hypothetical $1 bets, New York Journal wins $5 at 5–1 odds, while Eater loses a dollar. And for the first time in quite a while, NYJ’s won–lost record has caught up with Eater’s.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $60.50   $63.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   +5.00
Total $59.50   $68.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 24–7   24–7

Rolling the Dice: Pamplona

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Pamplona, the downmarket follow-up to the wonderful, but alas unsuccessful, Ureña. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 2-1
Two Stars: 5-1
Three Stars: 50-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: Bruni loved the food at Pamplona’s predecessor, Ureña, awarding two stars. Like almost everyone else, he hated the ambiance. I don’t have a photographic memory for décor, but when I visited it certainly seemed like the space had been spruced up a bit. Against that, the food is no longer as ambitious as it was, though it is still a cut above your run-of-the-mill tapas bar.

This situation will leave Señor Bruni in a quandary. If he awards two stars again, it implies that the dumbing down of the food doesn’t matter. But if he awards one star, he condemns Pamplona to the ratings never-never-land, for despite the nominal definition, one star never truly means good. This is one of those days when Bruni probably wishes he could award half-stars.

The Eater oddsmakers have concluded that a review at the low end of one star is a virtual certainty, offering just 2–1 odds on that outcome, and rating the chance of zero stars higher than two. I think Bruni will be truly torn between one and two stars here. He adored Ureña’s cooking the last time, and he is always rooting for earnest family-owned restaurants to succeed.

The Bet: We’re on the fence here, and wouldn’t mind if we were pulled away from blogging by an emergency phone call, which would spare us from having to place a bet. But place one we will, on two stars.



Note: Pamplona closed in October 2009.


When the restaurant Ureña opened last year, it quickly earned a place in the hearts of adoring foodies, but not, alas, their pocketbooks. Stuck on a drab block without much foot traffic, chef Alex Ureña closed earlier this year, re-opening after a brief makeover as the more downmarket Pamplona. Gone are the foams, the foie gras, and the degustation menu. A tapas menu and hearty comfort food replace them.

pamplona01a.jpg pamplona01b.jpg
Salt Cod Croquettes and Dates wrapped in Bacon (left); Confit Suckling Pig (right)

I started with a couple of tapas. Salt Cod Croquettes ($5) were were delicate and not at all heavy. Dates wrapped in Bacon ($4) offered a well judged mixture of sweet and savory. None of the tapas were over $6, and on a list of appetizers none were over $12.

pamplona02.jpgAmong the entrées ($18–24), I was intrigued by the “Hamburguesa,” evidently a hamburger made with beef and suckling pig.  However, there are several entrées for two, and we were drawn to the Cochinillo, or config suckling pig, a tender brick of braised pig at $35 for two—Ureña had offered a similar dish at $25 for one.

Like the rest of the menu, the wine list at Pamplona is fairly priced. I forgot what we paid for the wine pictured at right, but it was reasonable, and as it went well with our food, I thought I’d show the label. 

The restaurant was full on a Saturday night. Everything we tried was prepared to a high standard, but it is hearty, uncomplicated, and not likely to challenge diners very much. That just might be what Alex Ureña’s customers want right now. We’d rather see him succeed at something—even if it’s not the ambitious restaurant he had before.

Service was competent, but it felt a bit rushed. 

The décor at Ureña was much scoffed at. Even after the makeover, no one would call it a romantic spot, but the hard edges of the lighting seem to have been smoothed, and it is now a perfectly pleasant inexpensive restaurant.

Pamplona (37 E. 28th Street between Park & Madison Avenues, Gramercy)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **




Note: Ureña closed in 2007, re-opening (with the same chef, and in the same space) as Pamplona, offering more casual and traditional Spanish fare. That too has since closed.


The restaurants on Alex Ureña’s resume read like a Who’s Who of the dining industry, from the River Café in Brooklyn, to Bouley, Blue Hill, and Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain. Earlier this year, he finally opened his own place, the aptly named Ureña, which we visited on Saturday evening.

The appetizers seemed to show the influence of the El Bulli apprenticeship. Texturas De Foie Gras ($17) had three treatments of foie gras, described on the menu as “foie gras buffuelo with spice scented red plum puree, foiegras terrine with cocoa rib garache and chocolate tuile, foie gras yogurt with yellow current.” A bit less wacky, but still unusual, was my friend’s foie gras terrine ($17), in which foie gras was interleaved with braised beef cheeks.

The entrees, on the other hand, seemed to be out of the Blue Hill playbook. Cochinillo Confitado ($25), or suckling pig confit, came with a granny smith apple puree, shitake mushrooms, and wilted green leaf lettuce. My friend’s slow-cooked chicken ($25) was another example of unfussed ingredients skillfully prepared. The amuse bouche was also in this category, a delicious warm parsnip soup. The petits-fours showed Ureña’s wilder side again, with delicately sculpted chocolate lollipops.

After it opened, the critics lambasted Ureña’s décor, truly a charmless performance. If the designer was paid, the restaurant deserves a refund. They have made the corrections they could. Harsh white lighting mentioned in early reviews seems to be dimmer now, and I didn’t hear any of the “cheesy recorded music” Frank Bruni complained about. But the place still screams for a makeover, as do the staff, who don’t seem to be held to any kind of dress code. A flat screen TV in the bar area looks new; the only thing it plays is a video of a roaring fireplace.

On the plus side, service was fairly good for a restaurant in Ureña’s class. Most tables were occupied, but the staff didn’t lose track of us, which isn’t a given at mid-priced restaurants these days. The noise level was modest, and tables were more generously spaced than at many comparable establishments.

We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at Ureña. We weren’t in the mood for a long tasting menu, but a $125 chef’s degustation caught our eye, and we made a mental note to come back and try it. Aside from the tasting menu, prices are quite modest for a restaurant of this caliber, with no entrees priced higher than $29. The wine list, too, is unusually generous, with several fine choices under $40.

Ureña (37 East 28th Street between Park & Madison Avenues, Gramercy)

Food: ***
Service: *½
Ambiance: *
Overall: **