At first glance, Suba looks like just another trendy restaurant that has invaded the Lower East Side. The doors of the tenement building in which it’s housed are opened onto the street, and the bar is crowded with people eating tapas and drinking sangria and other exotic cocktails. But Suba’s main dining room is underground, built on an island surrounded by rippling water. When the restaurant first opened three years ago, I found the modern Spanish cuisine served there as intriguing as the décor.
Since then, Suba has had a couple of changes of chef, and last fall the kitchen was taken over by Alex Ureña. The other day, I received a press release announcing that Suba’s tapas menu had been expanded (there are now more than three dozen to choose from), and as I read further, I was fascinated to learn that Mr. Ureña had worked at El Bulli in Spain. It’s the world’s most talked-about restaurant, and top chefs try to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime to taste the food of Ferran Adria. He’s been called a crazed genius, the Salvador Dalí of cuisine, and he’s responsible for starting the craze for foamed sauces, for deconstructing classic dishes, and for creating far-out food that plays tricks with your reason, like chicken-curry ice cream or rose-petal tempura. I wondered if Mr. Ureña (who was seven years at Bouley, opened Blue Hill and served wonderful Mediterranean food at Marseille) was doing anything like that at Suba.
I arrived for dinner at the unfashionably early hour (for Spain) of 8 p.m., and the host led us through the bar down a clanging industrial staircase suspended over the shimmering water. There are two dining rooms: The red room on the right is dug out of the building’s backyard and has a skylight and a balcony for the disc jockey. Flamenco is performed here on Sunday night. The main dining room, across a bridge, has bare red-brick walls under a vaulted ceiling and is set on a rectangular concrete block surrounded by a moat flickering with underwater lights. Its designer, Andre Kikokski, was inspired by the “serenity of the Alhambra Palace and the romance of Fellini’s Rome.” He’s right about Rome-if he’s referring to the city of Fellini’s Satyricon-but “serene” is not the word I would choose to describe this room, which is quite noisy.
We began with two outstanding first courses. One was a deconstructed napoleon. It was made with tiny rolls of Serrano ham arranged on black-pepper tuiles layered with goat cheese and silvers of quince paste-wonderful. The other consisted of two roasted sea scallops topped with a sunchoke purée, tomato and olive salpicon. A tart grapefruit sauce was a lovely foil for the richness of the scallops.
But other dishes didn’t have a great deal of character; they read better than they tasted. The green gazpacho was too refined for my palate. It’s a soup that I normally think of as a sort of finely chopped summer salad, made with the freshest of vegetables and a bracing jolt of onions and vinegar. Mr. Ureña’s version is perfectly pleasant: a smooth green pool of sieved, puréed green peppers, cucumbers, tomatillos and zucchini, flavored with cilantro and an avocado relish-but it’s too genteel. Crudos-slices of raw tuna with lemon, olive oil and marinated pearl onions alternating with slivers of raw scallop with horseradish cream and pickled radishes-were overwhelmed by their garnishes.
Perhaps the pulpo a la gallega, octopus chopped and marinated with citrus and paprika, had been marinated or cooked too long. It was lemony and soft, served warm, with oven-dried tomatoes, potato confit and Pimiento de padron sauce. But the ingredients were all mushed together and nothing stood out. Large, juicy poached shrimp came with overcooked Manchego rice, brightened up with a peppery chorizo sauce and crisped Serrano ham.
The main courses are imaginative, but they don’t dazzle. Tender rounds of pork loin arrived on a bed of chopped-up snow peas, with plum purée and a confit of Portobello mushrooms. Why chop the snow peas? Seared rare duck breast with wilted watercress came with a white peach coulis that looked like fine mashed potatoes and a delicate orange-blossom sauce. It was very good, but not as interesting as it sounded. Grilled hanger steak with pickled ramps was a fine piece of meat; it was served with white sweet-potato purée and a bland succotash of sweet corn, fava beans and peas.
Soft-shell crabs came with a lovely ginger sauce, but the crabs weren’t hot enough. The cod, however-a thick, snowy filet under a crust of chicharrones (pork cracklings)-was excellent, with caramelized leeks, purple potatoes and salsa verde.
The waiter brought over a “pre-dessert”: celery root and apple sorbet drizzled with olive oil and served on a cylinder of ice. It sent mixed messages to the brain, sort of nice and weird at the same time. Very Adria. Crema catalana was not the usual flan, but had been made into a foam that was accompanied by lemon ice cream, blood orange and tangerine segments. I would have preferred a normal flan. But I liked the warm spice cake, with ginger ice cream and three milk-toffee bits, and the wine dessert soup with berries, topped with a dollop of fromage blanc sorbert. Buñuelos, filled with chocolate and served with coconut sorbet, were terrific.
Suba’s wine list is almost entirely Spanish, along with some bottles from Argentina, Chile and Portugal. Of the three albariños I tried, we scored one out of three. The Nora ($38) and the Petian ($35) tasted like fruit juice. The Laxas 2004 albariño served by the glass is the best. Guelbenzu, a Navarra wine at $40 (a Cabernet-Merlot blend), is unusual, with a pleasant, flinty taste.
After dinner, we walked through the bar upstairs on the way out. It had been nearly empty when we arrived and was now packed with tapas eaters, dining at the normal Spanish hour of 11 o’clock. Suba is fun and the food interesting-but don’t expect fireworks.