Pamp and Circumstance

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.

Now that the tide of foams and molecular cooking has receded—perhaps to be lumped in with other earlier 21stcentury excesses—we are witnessing a return to hearty, traditional meals with stick-to-yourribs appeal. It’s one reason why comfort food from the Iberian Peninsula should be embraced; they offer simple, bountiful sustenance without falling into the gastronomic no-go zone of processed and preserved.

I lived a couple of years in Spain, and I miss the meals I had more than anything. It’s not only the paellas and pintxos, Serrano and pa amb tomaquet that I long for, it’s the relaxed culinary attitude and pleasure taken in enjoying simple food prepared well.Whereas the modern gastro cuisine required special utensils and snobby exuberance, most Iberian dishes are easily scooped with a spoon or handled from plate to mouth. Unfortunately we have not had enough time for Spanish cooking to seep into our culture so that it can be treated as a casual meal; instead it remains a rarefied (and often overpriced) experience. The new take at La Fonda del Sol in Grand Central is a Catalan-inspired menu by chef Josh DeChellis. Over in Chelsea there’s the no-nonsense Basque pintxos (northern Spain’s version of tapas) at Txikito as well as the raves for the paella at Socarrat. All good new places, but most of us are still pining for a place that can serve up great food for under $10. Too much to ask?

Now that the culinary traffic is picking up along East 28th Street (let’s drop the “bleak” moniker already), I decided to return to Pamplona to see how things were going since it often appears deserted (full disclosure: the New York Press offices are around the corner). When Pamplona opened in the fall of 2007, it seemed to be chef Alex Ureña’s declaration that he would return to simpler northern Spanish cuisine. He’d spent time in the shadow of others—translating Ferran Adria’s creations for top U.S. chefs—as well as honing his skills at top restaurants in Spain and France. I never dined at his short-lived, eponymous Ureña restaurant, but I made it a point to frequent his re-invention after it opened. Ureña (who is actually from the Dominican Republic) appears to understand the casual Spanish dining atmosphere, while also providing an upscale environment for noshing.

On a Wednesday evening, we sat near a few other diners who didn’t seem to mind that the cozy restaurant was mostly empty and started with a couple glasses of excellent red wine (all are reasonable priced between $10- $14 by the glass).The tapas menu remains a blend of Spanish standards such as patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy aioli, $7), bacalao croquetas (fried cod croquettes, $7) and tortilla de patatas (potato frittata, $6), but I don’t recommend wasting time or money on these standards that don’t do much more than tempt without truly satisfying taste buds or curiosity.The main dishes are much more rewarding; but despite being in the “affordable” range, they still seem to be at a price point that causes them to stick in your throat. Ureña takes traditional dishes like braised rabbit, poached hake or cochinillo and gives them nouvelle plating. But does that mean we must pay $25 for suckling pig? The pulpo ($16) is quite nice: the octopus is served over potato, an unusual counterpart to the seafood, along with a horseradish cream. It’s formed into a fussy cylindrical shape, however, and would be welcomed as a nice appetizer rather than a skimpy main dish. Forget about the $23 seafood paella (with mussels, shrimp and clams). It failed to impress, and you could prepare it just as well at home and for much less.

But I hope Pamplona sticks around and that more people discover it for lunch.That’s when there’s a $24.07 prix fixe that currently includes wild mushroom soup, a choice of a green salad with manchego or a suckling pig tartine and a difficult decision between three mains: a chicken with a butternut squash spatzle and morcilla; a duck confit with white beans and bacon with an apricot puree or the hake with a salsa verde and salsify, along with a dessert. I’ve also had a killer burger for lunch here.

I didn’t know about the lunch takeout menu until recently, and I’ve been coaxing people to try the sandwiches since they cost less than many delis and are a gourmet solution that may be Ureña’s next reinvention.You can pick up yummy baguettes filled with choices of manchego and sliced ham (not Serrano unfortunately); chicken and avocado with tomato; roasted
piquillo peppers and eggplant; or (hopefully coming soon as it’s been
unavailable lately) grilled hanger steak and onion Vizcaina, for only
$6.95. A $6 soup and half-sandwich option pairs one of these with a
mushroom soup with goat cheese toast or a leek and fennel soup with
Serrano.That’s unbeatable and the sort of thing we hope to see more of
in this sucky economy. Now if only we could get Pamplona to offer a
baguette filled with a tortilla de patatas, like the way they do it everywhere in Spain, we’d be satisfied.

37 E. 28th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.), 212-213-2328