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Posts from the ‘Union Square/Flatiron’ Category

International Intrigue: Tsurutontan

tsurutontan udon

Tsurutontan rode in on the wave of imports late last year that included Ichiran, Tim Ho Wan, and the promised Inkinari Steak that didn’t get off the ground until 2017. (I’m so mad they are going to add chairs in the US.) I meant to check one out when I was in Tokyo but put it off until my last night and I couldn’t get it together for the 9pm last order (I kind of appreciate the anal-ness of publishing last calls for food in Japan) but was dying for udon and couldn’t deal with the 10 person line outside of Shin Udon. I did end up getting a bowl of cold udon, which was maybe weird in December but it was on offer, at a restaurant up a flight of stairs with no English name. I finally was tough enough after two weeks to handle an all-Japanese language menu.

Tsurutontan, off Union Square, is no noodle hole-in-the-wall, with prices that are more akin to Ipuddo and beyond. Also, without the wait and counter seating. I liked the row-facing-row with a partition separating the sides for solo diners. Plus, the Japanese thing where you can order regular or large amount of noodles for the same price, thick and thin.

I chose thin for my summer special of cold dashi broth with uni. The broth was light but the sea urchin added creaminess, and a slight bitterness, plus shredded shiso that gave the dish more bite and held it just back from being too rich. This doesn’t look like a big portion (regular noodle fyi) but it was oddly filling. I let the little batter nuggets turn to sog and scooped them out with the giant metal spoon at the end, then slurped all of the remaining sesame-studded cloudy broth like fishy cereal milk.

Tsurutontan * 21 E. 16th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: Yo! Sushi

yo sushi beltI don’t generally get excited about U.K. imports that interpret Asian cuisine. I still haven’t been to Wagamama, though I do frequent Wasabi at least once a week because it’s a block from my office and they have passable ready-made poke bowls–and just added bizarrely flavored popcorn to their repertoire. (This routine made me recently think about lifestyle creep. When I started my job–jesus, ten years ago–I wouldn’t spend more than $5 on lunch and now don’t blink at $12. I’m still too cheap to spend that daily, though. I only go to the office two to three times per week so it’s justifiable.)

yo sushi menu

But Yo! Sushi? I can stand a little novelty. Conveyor belt sushi has never really thrived in NYC and, sure, it’s not the highest quality or the best value in the city. You could do worse, though, for entertainment while dining, and you’re not restricted to what whizzes past you. You can order both sushi and non-sushi items from the menu.

yo sushi collage

When I first showed up at 6pm, there were only a few plates passing by but by 6:30pm the rotating display was much fuller. Seven plate colors dictate prices: from a $3.50 green to an $8 yellow. I think I spent around $35 with a cup sake and a few beers but I by no means consumed a lot of food. There were some shrimp tempura rolls in there, off-belt scallop nigiri, tuna carpaccio, all shared.

yo sushi fruit salad


You could pay $4.50 for fruit salad, if you’re that kind of monster.

Despite this branch being touted as the first US location, that’s completely untrue. Just like Uniqlo when it first came to America, Yo! Sushi originally tested the waters in a few New Jersey malls and then shuttered so quietly no one seemed to notice it coming or going. There are now also locations in Boston, Sarasota, Florida, and at Westbury Commons. 

Yo! Sushi * 23 W. 23rd St., New York, NY


Hill Country Chicken

Hill Country Chicken really wasn’t what I had expected. The cute, ‘50s farmhouse décor, plenty of open seats and an abundance of choice, not a single item sold-out, were all pluses. My restaurant pessimism over newish restaurants was squashed flat.

Hill country chicken drumstick & thigh

I wouldn’t say that the heat lamp setup is kind to the fried chicken, though. Pre-Willie Mae’s Scotch House visit, I would’ve been fine with this dark, denser, paprika-heavy approach (the Mama El’s style with a crushed cracker crust is actually pretty tasty, but for me the skin is the whole point of frying poultry) but now I’ve been spoiled by a lacier, golden version that will satisfy after only one thigh. Of course, Hill Country would certainly fix a Manhattan fried chicken craving if New Orleans isn’t in your immediate future.

Hill country chicken selection

Sides are perfunctory. I’d rather fill up on the fried pimento cheese sandwich, shown wrapped in red-and-white gingham paper in the back. The crisped treat is salty, gooey and not greasy in the least.

Hill country chicken pimento cheese sandwich

Cut into quarters for sharing.

Hill country chicken pies

I think I liked the pies more than my tablemates, as it came out that they are cake people. I like pies of all sizes; shrunken ones with more crust to filling ratio don’t even bother me the way it does others. Then again, I also like more cupcake than frosting and more bagel than cream cheese. My choice, the bourbon pecan, didn’t have much whisky flavor or sick corn syrup sweetness that I want in my southern-style desserts. The peanut butter chocolate and special of the day, a mash-up of chocolate and butterscotch chips, walnuts, coconut and condensed milk like an Eagle magic cookie bar in a pie shell, more than made up for the pecan pie’s relative austerity.

The only true downer was the lack of a liquor license. One-third of my group was very interested in the watermelon wheat beer listed on the menu, the other third doesn’t drink and me, I loathe melons but could’ve stood a beer or two. I will admit that the Boylan fountain drinks with unlimited refills (at least no one was monitoring return visits) was pretty cool even though I don’t drink soda. Never having developed a taste for pop, it’s the only food (is it a food?) I can be self-righteous about (please don’t take away my fat or alcohol) and probably why I don’t get the uproar over proposing no soda purchases with food stamps. Is fizzy fructose a want or a need? When I got food stamps decades ago, I bought crazy shit like smoked salmon and hot cross buns, so who am I to say?

Hill Country Chicken * 1123 Broadway, New York, NY

T.G.I. Friday’s Union Square

Friday's exterior I broke my no-new-restaurants-during-opening-week rule because world-famous chains are above the law. And the controversial without cause Union Square T.G.I. Friday’s (nothing new–NYC is already home to eight and the poor restaurant is a native New Yorker) was the perfect birthday setting for a fellow aging chain-lover. Luckily, I am blessed with a few (just a few, mind you) friends who can appreciate a Jack Daniel's steak and Electric Lemonade as much as a dry-aged rib eye and limoncello.

Community activists, take note. Try as they might, the gay pride promotions and DJ playing Bel Biv DeVoe and New Edition, weren’t exactly wooing the crowds. I’ve never seen a major chain so empty in the city or the suburbs, though most of the seats at the bar were taken. My theory has always been that more locals than tourists patronize these NYC chains, but I might have to rethink that.

Friday's tea

While I’ve knocked back a few wine coolers in my day, the ultimate underage elixir, Long Island iced tea, has eluded me thus far. This was my chance, and oddly, I was carded despite being very much over-age. T.G.I. Friday’s not only claims to have invented the everything-in-the-liquor-cabinet-cocktail that doesn’t actually contain any tea, they also had a disproportionate amount of drinks revolving around tea and sugar: SoCo (that would be Southern Comfort) Peach Tea, Ruby Mo-Tea-To and Sun-Spiced Tea, for example. I hate sweet tea, Snapple, Arizona and anything resembling these beverages, so one Long Island iced tea was sufficient. It's off my bucket list.

Friday's burgers

Mini-burgers, no, not sliders, were inoffensive. Meat, bacon, melted cheese with a bbq dipping sauce are not the harbinger of Manhattan's demise.

Friday's nachos

Nachos done daintily, and traditionally, each chip a standalone hors d'oeuvres slathered in refried beans and fused with a thick layer of cheese. I kind of prefer a big gooey mess to pick through.

While it's not obvious at first glance, the menu at T.G.I. Friday's  isn't terribly diverse.  Most of the dishes revolve around chicken, shrimp and/or steak, and melted cheese is rampant. Applebee’s is more creative. Yeah, I just typed that. Oh, an Applebee's executive chef just won an award—the coveted 2010 Chefs of Grey Poupon—so you know it's true.

Friday's combo

This is one of the classic Jack Daniel's combos: ribs and shrimp, and a two big scoops of mashed potatoes like starchy ice cream. The sweetish sauce and mildly spiced rub are a notch up from Dallas BBQ, and let's leave it at that. No one saunters into a T.G.I. Friday's thinking it's Hill Country.

Friday's bamboo

A built-in wall shelf was completely bare minus a little reminder of the previous tenant. The bamboo didn't prove so lucky for Zen Palate.

T.G.I. Friday's * 34 Union Square E., New York, NY

The Breslin

Monday night I might've been unwittingly eating stoner food at The Breslin, however, I was merely tipsy on scarlet-hued drinks (I'll try cocktail called The Fashionista if it's free, ok?). Inebriation does help temper a wait—30 minutes around 9:30—but I appreciated that half-an-hour meant exactly that (sometimes it means nothing). At the precise moment when I started wondering if the hostess would remember my friend and I and if she'd find us in the fray (I am paranoid because relaxing has resulted in being passed over on the list more than once. My inner suburbanite understands why some need the security of those clunky plastic chain restaurant beepers), there she was, table ready.

Scrumpets I will return another evening for a full-on meal since these were really no more than shared snacks with a glass of Tempranillo. I need that pigs foot! I hadn’t expected going out to eat on this particular night so I didn’t have my SLR on me (I’m not so crazed that I lug one around daily). iPhone pics, not taken by me because I don’t have one, sufficed.

Scrumpets, a.k.a. breaded, fried lamb planks, almost made me wish you could find these boxed in the freezer case like chicken tenders. The mint dipping sauce was vinegary, not sweet or goopy like a traditional jelly, which helped balance the richness of the meat and coating.

Terrine-board The small (there's also a large) terrine board was filled headcheese, liverwurst, all sorts of spreadable, chunky meat products. I do recall that one was rabbit and prune, but didn't realize until after looking at a menu later that another was composed of guinea hen and morels. The mushrooms eluded me. Piccalilli, pickles and grainy mustard were the condiments.

Bibb-salad Those earlier Fashionistas (can't believe I typed that twice) were downed with the help of fried pickles and buffalo wing lollipops, so we needed at least one low-meat, un-fried item. I wouldn't look to The Breslin for salads, but they did have three on the menu. The Bibb lettuce with bottarga and fennel sounded like the least traditional compared to a Caesar and a blue cheese walnut thing. It was crunchy and refreshing with a dusting of salty roe.

The Breslin * 16 W. 29th St., New York, NY


Portuguese isn’t a cuisine I’ve eaten countless times but I know enough to realize that wasabi and coconut milk aren’t standard Iberian ingredients. Modern is definitely the keyword at Aldea, from the sleek, blond wood and white leather bi-level space to the flavor combinations that appear on the plate.

Aldea may not be an impenetrable scene but it there was a full house at 9pm on a Friday, for sure. Even with reservations we had a bit of a wait, which I don’t mind when the staff is gracious and affable. I think they’ve hit the right note of professionalism and casualness in both service and food. The cooking is high caliber—chef, George Mendes was visible in the open kitchen—but never feels uptight.

Aldea presunto

Presunto, cured Portuguese ham was offered alongside serrano and Benton’s country ham. It was the obvious choice since I’d never tried it before. The thin slices weren’t markedly different from Spanish jamon, maybe a touch lighter and less fatty.

Aldea sea urchin toast, cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, lime

Sea urchin toast, cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, lime. Sure, I had a few glasses of vino verdhe in me but you wouldn’t think my palate would be so out of whack that I tasted phantom wasabi in this. James didn’t detect it and I’m not seeing it listed on the current online menu. I swear that off-white smudge wasn’t pure cauliflower, which is kind of like the anti-wasabi in its blandness. My only complaint was that the snack was gone in seconds. I guess that’s why it’s called a petisco, a.k.a. little bite.

Aldea baby cuttlefish, caramelized lychee, mentaiko, squid ink

Baby cuttlefish, caramelized lychee, mentaiko, squid ink. This appetizer also rambled well beyond European borders; more liberties were taken with the smaller dishes. The coconut foam worked with the sweetness of the lychee and mild curls of seafood. I wish I had concentrated more on the cod roe.

Aldea arroz de pato, duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings

Arroz de pato, duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings. Every mention ever of Aldea notes the duck rice so I played along. If the only meat included was the rosy, sliced duck breast, I might be disappointed. Sous-vide cooking certainly makes the dark poultry tender—and it wasn’t close to mushy—but there’s no point to duck unless it’s accompanied by some of that glistening, fatty skin, all the better if it has been crisped up. The duck cracklings made this dish and the browned coins of chorizo added pleasantly to the oily richness. The little blobs of apricot sauce weren’t out place; they provided a sweet-tart lift to this otherwise hefty bowl of rice. Fruity touches appeared to be a theme.

Aldea sea-salted chatham cod, market cranberry and fava beans, lemon-basil

Sea-salted Chatham cod, market cranberry and fava beans, lemon-basil. Ok, you knew cod had to be on the menu. Not bacalao, though.

Aldea sonhos, spiced chocolate, smoked paprika apricot, hazelenut praline

Sonhos, spiced chocolate, smoked paprika apricot, hazelnut praline. I feel like I’ve had this dessert before, obviously not with all three of these dips, I just can’t remember where. And I’m not confusing it with churros and chocolate. I love having choice, but when it came down to it the dark chocolate had the most impact.

Aldea sweets

Parting sweets.

Aldea kitchen

Aldea * 31 W. 17th St., New York, NY

Hill Country

With the obvious exception of vegetarians (of whom I know quite a few), barbecue seems like a style of food anyone could agree on. What’s not to like about slow smoked meat? That’s why Hill Country seemed like the perfect post-holiday meet-up with a friend who will beat me with a bland buttered noodle if I mention her baby palate once again (maybe the Olive Garden gift card James gave me to give her will temper her ire if she reads this).

I needed someplace that wouldn’t be a killer from Brooklyn (that nixed Dinosaur, and besides I was just there a few months ago) or too painful from Morningside Washington Heights (no Smoke Joint or Fette Sau). Daisy May’s has those kooky commercials, but Wildwood has lamb ribs (lamb is the new pork, right? Or is that goat?). In the end I picked Hill Country, top tier as any. Even though the original pitmaster left year, it’s not like I would detect any difference since I had never been anyway. And you could also tell me all sorts of tales about Texas barbecue and I would be none the wiser, having never set foot in the Lone Star state either.

Hill country interior

The cavernous, woody restaurant was quiet on a Sunday afternoon. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is great that way, a dead zone. I’ve been entertaining moving to Red Hook just to experience that soothing desolation on a daily basis, never mind the nuisance of bussing to the subway. (I finally convinced James to call about this seemingly awesome house for sale near the Ikea but it had already gone into contract. Even in this supposed down economy, properties are selling quickly in third-rate NYC neighborhoods.)

Hill country brisket and ribs

I liked the by the pound approach so you could get just what you wanted. And I didn’t mind carrying around the little check off card to individual stations for meat, sides and beverages and ordering from the chalkboard menus. I did lame out and got the lean brisket, half a pound, when normally I’m one for the moist, i.e. fatty cuts. With the addition of a quarter pound of pork equaling two hefty ribs, all was well. I know our citified ‘cue is overpriced by Southern standards, but $12 plus change for the meat above wasn’t wildly outrageous.

The brisket is definitely the star and that was no surprise being a Texas-style joint, complete with imported Blue Bell ice cream, Kruez sausages and Big Red soda. Even the lean slices encased in char with pink substrata were juicy. The ribs weren’t necessary and they were a bit tough and dry, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I talk too much when I eat and was futzing around with a new camera (I still have kinks to work out, clearly, but I’m getting there) so they were cold by the time I got around to gnawing on  them.

Hill country spread

Even though it was still 2008 at the time and I said I wasn’t making resolutions anyway, eating more beans has been a vague plan I’ve been meaning to adopt (I’m making a white bean chorizo soup tonight, well, the same idea but with tepary beans and chicken sausage). Unfortunately, I think the addition of rubber eraser-sized “burnt ends” to the baked beans might’ve mitigated any nutrients potentially gleaned.

I shared pickles and corn pudding that Heather picked out because I’m a beast who doesn’t like mac and cheese. Starchy and creamy corn is more desirable than starchy and creamy pasta.
Next time I’ll ignore the ribs, opt for a little of the Kruez jalapeno cheese sausage instead, and try one of the mini, though not two-bite mini, pecan pies.

Hill Country * 30 W. 26th St., New York, NY

Irving Mill

I like to pretend that I’m not susceptible to suggestion but after reading a blurb about Irving Mill’s charcroute platter on Food & Wine’s blog earlier this month, I knew I’d have to seek it out.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this restaurant initially because I only have room in my mind for so many urban farmhouses. But after Ryan Skeen moved there from Resto, bringing my favorite salad of 2008 (so far) with him, I figured this meaty Alsatian hodgepodge would not suck.

And it didn’t. The only difficulty was in trying to determine how much food to order. Irving Mill has one of those menus scattered with bites, small plates, full on entrees and randomly placed boxes advertising things like a burger and this charcroute plate. How much does one get for $22 versus the $38 version?

I decided the smaller size could be an appetizer for two, and this was true, everything came in pairs. Perfect. If there had been three of us, it would’ve been all wrong and insufficient. Shared bites just aren’t enough sometimes.

Irving mill choucroute

Head cheese or terrine tete de cochon if you want it to sound nicer, ribs, boudin noir in slices, boudin blanc whole and breaded, fried pig’s feet are on the plate clockwise from the top. Though, I wouldn’t have predicted so, the crispy-tender ribs were the star. None of these items were boiled together as tradition dictates, so everything from the delicate weisswurst to the schnitzel-like feet kept their individual textures.

Irving mill potatoes Accompaniments included grilled bread, violet mustard, grainy mustard and potato wedges with horseradish-spiked crème fraiche. I closed my eyes, pretended I had an astute palate and tried to detect floweriness in the burgundy-hued mustard. I liked the color, but nothing violet jumped out flavor-wise.

A few minutes after we took in the whole affair, a separate small bowl of pork bellies were hurried to our table. I think they initially forgot them and in the charcuterie frenzy, I hadn’t even noticed. Now that I look at the menu, the missing component is described as glazed pork shoulder but we definitely were given two, fat-striped squares of belly.

This is perfect restaurant food because cooking miniature versions of six meaty items is impractical from both financial and time standpoints. And I was able justify the gluttony because each porky treat is small and manageable.

So, my palate was useless for flavored mustard, but boy did the sauerkraut get into my system. James didn’t think it was particularly strong, but I wondered if the fermentation might’ve gone wild. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what tasted odd, not bad, but pungent. It was clearly the shredded cabbage, which was tart, salty, with undercurrents of mustiness. I initially thought urine, then changed my mind to festering genitals (not that I know that smell, first hand, of course). This wasn’t an unfamiliar odor, and I finally placed it: stinky tofu.

On the cheapy bus from Beijing to the Great Wall (hey, I was there this week last year) I started getting whiffs of what I thought was the stench of an unwashed human (once a similar smell assaulted me on the 5 to the Bronx Zoo and it was clearly attributable to a kid sitting next to me) or maybe a dead and decaying human. I was convinced it was human in some form, not animal. I finally realized that it was food, which made me feel a little better, and I totally got why they call it stinky tofu.

I just ate kim chee for lunch so I have no problem with fermented cabbage. I liked Irving Mill’s sauerkraut too. But I wonder if I was just having a supertaster moment and the dish wasn’t as strong as I perceived it to be because I don’t imagine the average diner goes for that sort of thing. Or maybe the average diner steers clear of charcroute, altogether.

Irving mill lobster salad

Yes, there was other food. I ordered a lobster salad hoping for lightness to balance the starter. I do appreciate salads that go easy on the lettuce; the romaine is really only there to support the salinity of the sweet shellfish and mouth-popping caviar (which type, I have no idea). I could’ve done with an extra chunk of lobster, though. And just to make sure that pig parts appear in every possible place, there are thin rectangles of bacon tossed on top that I initially thought were some kind of vegetable chip. I’m glad it wasn’t crispy grilled eggplant.

Irving mill macaroni and cheese

I never eat macaroni and cheese because it just tastes like cheese and noodles. I totally don’t get the appeal. And yes, this tasted like cheese and noodles, but drier and sharper than usual. Oh, and those cracklings kind of changed my mind a bit.

Irving mill lamb cassoulet

The lamb cassoulet was not light and was not my pick. I did eat a slice of gamey, lightly spiced sausage, though.

Irving mill brownie sundae

The sundae was completely unnecessary. I got sucked in by the idea of ice cream slathered in gooey sauce, but really the confection was ordinary. The caramel drizzles were nearly imperceptible and the blondie was kind of hard. The cinnamon walnuts were the standout.

I like getting dismayed over ‘80s music wherever it plays. I guess because it means that I’m old. In a Paramus Outback Steakhouse, hearing The Cure tickles me a little. It somehow makes sense paired with a 22-ounce mug of Foster’s, but I’m weirded out by the same music when sipping a $14 organic apple cider from Normandy because it’s a bizarre melding of highbrow with ancient pop culture.

But no matter the setting, I always love it when "Age of Consent," my favorite New Order song, comes on (a live Arcade Fire version had popped onto my iPod the same day I dined at Irving Mill so it was a daily double). No, it’s not the most obscure tune yet it never fails to put me into a good state of mind. I would gladly eat headcheese to synth-pop again.

Irving Mill * 116 E. 16th Street, New York, NY


As much as a complain about Manhattan, I do appreciate that it’s business as usual on Sunday nights. The last time I attempted going out after 9pm on a three-day weekend Sunday was in Toronto, and it was a complete ghost town. Boqueria (as well as Olive Garden) was almost at capacity the night before Martin Luther King Day.

I was determined to have creative Spanish food after getting hopped on Tapas: a Taste of Spain in America, but deciding where to go was no easy task. Spending more than you’d expect on small dishes was a given; value wasn’t my concern as much as agreeable food and atmosphere. I’d already been to Tia Pol (too far) Ostia (too average) and Pamplona (good but I wanted something new). Everything I read about Mercat said it was loud and oversalted, Casa Mono seemed tiny and irritating, ditto for Quinto Pino but probably not so irritating. I’d been to the old Suba a few times and wasn’t inspired to try the newest incarnation. Boqueria was all that was left.


I hate to admit that my photos are even more off than usual. I was playing around with the white balance trying to counteract the dreaded candlelight and not only made everything washed out and fuzzy but somehow changed the height/width ratio. I don’t even know if I should be allowed to have a camera.


This was regular jamon Serrano, not the fabled Iberico ham. Nonetheless, it was still handsome and meaty. I hadn’t expected the jamon to come atop pa amb tomaquet, pan con tomate, Catalan, Spanish…however you like. I’m always surprised how tomato guts on toast can be so appealing.


“Why are there so many eggs on the menu?” asked the girl half of the couple next to us. I honestly hadn’t noticed the overabundance but yes, there is a soft-boiled one in this dish. She ordered it too. I love anything with chickpeas and morcilla. Garbanzos al Pinotxo are in the style of Barcelona’s Bar Pinotxo. I was very bummed that all the food biggies, including this stand in the Boqueria market, were closed the week I was there last summer.


Any iteration of dates, bacon and cheese (and sometimes almond) are a must. In this instance the cheese was valdeon, a blue. I’ve made these with manchego and think they would be perfect for a Super Bowl snack even though they seem kind of froufrou. I couldn't even snap this shot before one date went missing from the skewer.


Brandade is kind of like shrimp toast. Maybe the whipped salt cod and potatoes on bread were grilled not fried; they still had that oily unctuousness that goes down well but might cause trouble later.


As Americans we would’ve eaten cheese with everything else, but we obeyed its place on the desert menu. Idizabal came cubed and tossed with olives and the rosemary manchego was surrounded a few tiny squares of membrillo and filberts (wow, I tried to not say hazelnut but filbert just sounds backwoods even though that’s what I grew up with and oddly what I saw used in Toronto. Did you know that Oregon is the nation’s largest hazelnut producer?). Our two choices were enjoyed with a rose cava that James thought was like a wine cooler.

Boqueria * 53 W. 19th St., New York, NY


Sadly, I knew this day would eventually come. (10/23/09)

I don’t take on restaurants as causes and I rarely visit places more than once, even in my own neighborhood (er, maybe especially in my own neighborhood). As it is, there are a gazillion worthy restaurants that I’ll never get around to. But for some inexplicable reason I took a shining to Ureña. I guess it’s the appeal of the underdog; it wanted to be something it couldn’t.

Pamplona_exteriorSo, I was a little bummed to hear of the inevitable closing. But I was also curious how Pamplona might mix things up and finally had the chance to pay a visit after a semi-nearby wine class. You’d think after tasting eighteen wines (in addition to a full glass of pinot noir at lunch) my judgment might be impaired, and maybe it was. However, I’d like to believe that the two albariños with dinner only heightened my senses.

I’d been to Ureña twice, and still, I couldn’t tell you what’s changed with the décor, though a cartoony painting of a pig with acorns definitely is an addition. The palette and furniture seemed muted and neutral before and still seems so. I hesitate to say that they lack patronage because our dining like freaks at 6pm on a Saturday didn’t exactly help us observe the reincarnation under ideal circumstances.

Pamplona_interiorWe were originally told by the hostess that we could only sit at the bar or the new tables set up in the bar area since we didn’t have reservations. I acquiesce, rarely pipe up, but the dining room was completely empty and thankfully another staff member said we were welcome to sit at a table as long as we finished by 8pm. Not a problem, and the gesture was appreciated.

Pamplona_pulpo_braseado_a_la_riojaI decided to try a few things from different sections of the now abbreviated menu. Gone are $30+ entrees, the tasting menu and anything foamy. I was interested in the $10 pulpo braseado a la rioja, essentially wine-braised octopus. I can’t find this dish listed anywhere in the iteration I had. Others mention sausage and smoked lima beans, but this rendition consisted of a purple tangle of octopus legs atop swirls of cream-colored horseradish sauce flanked by disks that resembled carrots but made themselves known as potatoes once bitten into. I don’t know what the wispy sprouts were.

Pamplona_cured_meats_2It was too tough to decide which cured meats to sample, so we went the whole $19 and had a plate of Serrano ham, chorizo and two others that are slipping my mind. I’m not afraid of bread, and I always like to have plenty on hand when eating straight up meats or cheeses. Same with oily, saucy dishes like the octopus. Our original serving was replenished. I only mention this because the couple who later sat next to us rejected a second batch of bread, which made me ponder our gluttony. It’s not 2004, carbs are ok again, right?

Pamplona_paella_mar_y_montanaI would’ve chosen a couple more small dishes instead of the paella if it had been totally up to me. But I’m frequently wrong. The paella, made with bomba rice, was spot on (not that I’ve eaten my way across Valencia, but I have sampled a few versions in Spain). I don’t tend to get excited over non-Asian dishes centering on rice (what’s the big deal with risotto? And chicken soup with rice is foul), paella included. It either tends to be mushy or dull. This saffron-enhanced beauty dotted with mussels, squid and generous hunks of rabbit, was neither. All the grains stayed separate without being chalky or dry.

I make mention of prices (a practice that always feels too servicey for my purposes) only to illustrate part of the Pamplona re-vamp. Emphasis is on smaller dishes, tapas and sharing. The $30 paella was one of the priciest items but wasn’t unreasonable split between two diners.

Pamplona_churrosSheesh, I almost forgot dessert. Churros with Valrhona chocolate were light and only barely sweetened. I can’t say that they were the most exciting thing in the world.

It’s hard to predict if the new formula will catch on with diners who go for the flash of Boqueria, Mercat or Suba. Not that Pamplona necessarily needs to capture that audience to succeed; there’s plenty of room for creative Spanish food in the city.

Pamplona * 37 E. 28th St., New York