Alex Ureña has worked his way through the best restaurants, beginning as a dishwasher at the River Café. He ran the kitchen at Bouley, opened Blue Hill with Dan Barber, was executive chef at Suba and Marseille, and spent several months frothing sauces with mad scientist Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain. At last he’s opened his own restaurant, serving modern Spanish cuisine in a former pizza parlor near Gramercy Park.
Giant glass doors lead into a long, L-shaped room with an open kitchen in the back. The décor is minimal: a small bar in front, plain, pale yellow stucco walls, brown banquettes and a dun-colored, ripple-patterned carpet. Overhead fluorescent lighting from a recessed ceiling is harsh, pale and flat, making customers look as deathly as the people in Van Gogh’s Night Café. (It could be fixed in an hour with some pink light bulbs, and I imagine it will.) But even though there’s music on the sound system, the dining room isn’t noisy, which counts for a very great deal these days as far as I’m concerned.
At the table next to us, a grizzled man in an open-necked shirt addressed the woman sitting opposite him: “Do you go out on dates?”
Of course she did. She was young and pretty. But he wore a wedding ring. When she left for the bathroom, he took out his cell phone and called home.
A waiter brought the menus to our table. “Any allergies I should know about?”
“Nothing to be concerned about,” replied my companion, adding under his breath, “Unless you’re serving cat.”
Modern Spanish cuisine depends on unexpected juxtapositions: sweet with salty, bitter with spicy, hot with cold. Foams. Confits. Gelées. Purées. Textures.
I began with a superb confit of rabbit leg shredded in strips, topped with sliced shiitake mushrooms and served with cauliflower purée. An equally wonderful Spanish onion–tamarind purée graced two seared, rare scallops on a smoky chorizo sauce, with Avruga (herring) caviar adding a salty note.
I normally like oysters plain in their shells, but I had to try Ureña’s “oysters escabeche with oyster gelée” (I still haven’t gotten over Wylie Dufresne’s at WD-50, flattened into a tile under cling wrap). Six marinated oysters appeared lined up on a long plate—out of their shells, of course—on an oyster-juice gelée sprinkled with a brunoise of crunchy vegetables and dots of an intense green herb sauce. It was wonderful.
One of my friends hadn’t eaten all day, so he opted for a trencherman’s trough of a dinner: the foie gras and the lamb. For his first course, a long white plate arrived with the smallest piece of foie gras ever seen at one end (“Gosling liver!” he complained). The postage-stamp-sized liver came with a sprinkling of candied kumquats. It was accompanied by a small palette-shaped foie gras praline on a fig and balsamic reduction, and a dollop of foie gras yogurt mousse laced with yellow currants. It was interesting, but food more for the mind than the stomach. So until his lamb arrived, my companion returned to the breadbasket, which had some excellent house-made focaccia and rolls served with a spicy purée of red peppers with garlic and olive oil.
I can’t tell you what his lamb tasted like; he ate the entire thing when my head was turned. The dish consisted of one rib lamb chop and a spoonful of roast leg of lamb (or so he claimed) with cashew nut purée, Swiss chard and shiitake mushrooms. He said it was terrific (especially the cashew nut purée), “but not exactly hearty Viking fare.”
I had no quarrel with the halibut I’d ordered, which was crusted with chicharron (duck cracklings and panko) and served with an onion soubise and a colorful, foamy saffron mussel sauce with candied yellow beets—a winning combination.
Mahi-mahi with portobello mushrooms, browned and frothed with a ginger sauce, looked as though it had washed up on the edge of New York harbor: It was a bit of a mush. But tender chunks of steamed lobster on a bed of pickled rhubarb purée with glazed salsify were great, served with a buttery blood-orange sauce that contrasted nicely with the rhubarb. Ureña’s chicken, “en dos texturas,” is a textbook example of modern Spanish cooking: braised, boneless chicken breast and confit thigh with artichoke purée, caramelized leeks, smoked chorizo and foie gras foam.
The witty, deconstructed desserts are by pastry chef Caryn Stabinksy, who has worked at WD-50 and Oceana. “Café y donuts” were delicate beignets with coffee milk foam and espresso gelée. A citrus salad was heaped on a plate spread with a pink lemonade gelée, with grapefruit custard, pearls of blood-orange tapioca and yogurt ice cream. Beet panna cotta (of all things) was strange but compelling, with a squiggle of chocolate sauce, a crunchy chocolate cookie and a sprinkling of powdered, crystallized salted orange.
Afterward, we were served a tiny piece of chocolate that melted in the mouth and had a filling that tasted like seawater. But my companion was still going on about the lamb. He wanted another helping: “After all, the English often have a savory—like Welsh rarebit—at the end of dinner.”
It was that good. So is much of the food at Ureña. But please, before I return, install those pink light bulbs.