There is a progression in the development of a great chef that follows three basic steps. First, you work in the kitchens of other chefs, within the parameters of their culinary decisions, to make sure the restaurant you are responsible for follows their vision.
Second, you open your own place. Your vision, experience, and name are available for the public to sample. If your audience appreciates your expression, and you have desires beyond owning a well-received restaurant, you move on to step three.
Third, having made a name for yourself and found a talented chef to run your kitchen according to your established standards, you are free to pursue your heart’s desire (maybe opening a new restaurant with a different cuisine, maybe writing a book, maybe starring in a reality show that tanks).
Obviously it is best to be a customer during the second stage, when a chef is still willing to experiment and grow, and is still very much involved in the execution of the dishes that leave his kitchen.
Alex Ureña is a chef who is obviously ready to show the world his food. So ready, in fact, that eleven days after opening, there is still no sign on the front of his new restaurant at 37 E. 28th St (just west of Park Ave. South). In a sea of restaurants that will only open with a proper machine to support them, Ureña seems to have needed to get cooking so badly that the restaurant feels refreshingly honest, with a certain mom and pop charm.
Ureña is in one of those spaces that can only be described as a ground floor, retail, shot-gun shack. Long, narrow and deep, it feels like either a headshop or a drycleaner went out of business and, while wandering down the street, Alex declared, “here is where I will make a go of it.” The room is sparsely decorated; there are copper accents from the bar top to the color of the menus, otherwise it is the low profile whites of old stucco buildings in Spain. The staff wears deep burgundy shirts that match the charge plates, other than these touches, the room feels designed to stay out of the way of the food.
In New York City these days it is strange to feel a childlike ambition in a restaurant opening. Designers and publicity machines manipulate everything. Ureña seems driven by a precociousness that says, “the food will speak for it self; who cares that the cryovac machine has not yet been delivered, there are other ways to cook than sous vide,” and “the contractors can finish the punch list in the afternoons, at night we will feed our customers and if we do that right, no one will notice that the awning is not up yet.”
The good news for those who care most about food and consider great plates the driving force behind a restaurant’s feel is that Alex is an authentic talent. There is no new ingredient or trendy preparation in his dishes, just confidence, skill, and a unique instinct for pairings and combination of techniques.
The front area of the restaurant is a hammered copper bar that offers a menu of tapas and tapas deserts. When asked if there were any special cocktails, the bartender explained that they had a selection of pretty standard cocktails made more interesting with the addition of fresh fruit-juices and purees. We tasted the blood orange Margarita, which Bubby chose, and the pineapple caipirinha that Wife claimed, leaving me happily sipping a raspberry and coconut martini . Overlooking the very poor branding of these drinks, they were all nicely fruity while remaining cocktails and not getting too sweet.
The wine list is simple and seems to be put together as some form of Gallup poll, to gauge the tastes of their new audience. There are about three sections of white and three of red, broken down into constituent grapes. Each section has about five or six choices with a range of prices and regions. I assume it will be from the choices made by the customers in the first couple months that the direction of the wine list will be chosen. Being in a Spanish place, we chose an Albarino from Riax Baixas by Nora Peitan. Fruity and light, with lemon and melon notes, it was very refreshing. Staying in Spain for our second wine, we chose a Grenache from Navarra by Artazu Artazuri. Light, crisp, acidic and young it was a great, simple table wine. So I guess we cast our votes in the cheap, good, food-friendly, Spanish wines category.
Taking a page from Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh, Alex “establishes his presence with authority,” in the form of a simple amuse bouche composed of black pepper wafers sandwiching cream cheese and a white anchovy filet, on a reduced sherry vinegar and basil oil. The dining room is very intimate and thus it is very easy to be aware that the young lady next to us decided not to even try it, thereby missing the tale of the little snack which seemed to be, either, “I use high quality ingredients,” or “this place is for people with as much conviction as I have.” Either way, my companions and I were delighted.
You have the option of a chef’s tasting menu or ordering a la carte. Usually on a first visit to a restaurant I prefer to let the chef guide us through his fare but the intimacy of the table, added to the fact that each of us wanted to try the same three appetizers as well as three different entrees, encouraged us to order one of each and let the servers place them however they saw fit. We then ate a third of each dish and passed to the right. This worked especially well because there was enough of each component of each dish to allow sharing, not always the case about town these days.
Mar Y Montaña Serrano ham, shrimp, roasted apples, chorizo sauce. A Terrine of shrimp and apples, stacked and wrapped in the Serrano ham, topped with micro greens. The shrimp brings a raw, protein richness to the salty ham, which is played with by the soft sugars of roasted apples.
Dos Crudos House smoked tuna, shrimp marinated in lemon juice, pearl onions and green olives. The green olives are chopped and rolled into the raw, marinated shrimp meat, which has been pounded flat. This is placed on a slice of smoked tuna and topped with micro greens and capers. This is one of the more unique preparations I have seen since the day someone decided every single restaurant in the world needed a raw fish appetizer. The tuna has the lightest layer of smoke to play with its richness, while the lemons and greenness of the olives taper that of the shrimp.
Texturas de Foie Gras Sautéed foie gras with candied kumquats, foie gras praline with fig balsamic, foie gras yogurt with yellow currants. The seared piece of foie, paired with the preserved kumquats, is not a huge stray from tradition and is as good as any traditional pairing of the richness of foie to a bitter sweetness. The foie gras praline, however is a creamy spread dotted with a fig balsamic reduction and roasted hazelnuts, causing us to dream of sandwiches of this on the black pepper crisp from the amuse in the lunch bags of our halcyon days. The genius of this dish though is the dried currants in the foie yogurt: the tanginess of the yogurt tempering the richness of the foie, with the currants lending it body and sweetness.
Bogavante Steamed lobster, pickled rhubarb, salsify and vanilla puree. Lobster is at its sweetest in the dead of winter, but pairs very well with the tangy sweetness of summer. The solution of how to bring these two contradictory realities together is to pickle the fruit. The dish seemed even more wonderful considering the strangely temperate 50+ degree weather on this February eve.
Pollo en dos Texturas braised chicken breast, confit thigh, artichoke purée, carmalized leeks, smoked chorizo, foie gras foam. What is it about these strange Spanish chefs and their obsession with texture and foam? Who cares as long as it keeps producing results like this? The confit of thigh with its seared skin was the nicest thing someone has done to a chicken since the free-range movement. The breast was resilient, firm, and moist and became an efficient way to eat the artichoke purée, yet another familiar flavor in a new form.
Pechuga de Pato Seared duck breast, Savoy cabbage, bacon, dry apricots, star anise scented sauce. Hinting at a Moorish influence without going too far East, this duck was perfectly rare, savory and deeply flavored.
Selecion de Quesos Ibores, le Peral, Pau, and Roncal served with quince paste and walnuts. I would have toasted the walnuts, other than that it was a selection of Spanish cheeses that made a good run from mild to pungent.
Desayuno wheat toast cake, Bulgarian feta, maple caramel, Rosemary ice cream Attractive because it obviously wasn’t based on sweetness, this ended up becoming about the rawness of the flavor of rosemary in the ice cream. The cake was chewy, the feta nicely salty and the ice cream added richness and moisture. I was left wondering if it would have been more harmonious had the rosemary been cooked before steeping the milk with it.
Remolacha con Chocolate Beet panna cotta, chocolate sauce, chocolate cookie, orange salt, sour cram ice cream. The chocolate was salty, the salt was orangey, the panna cotta was only as sweet as a beet, and the chocolate sauce was dark. This was an amazingly deeply flavored desert all about natural sweetness without going to the boring sugar place.
Every industry has confidence and talent within it, but not always in the same place. When a person comes along who possesses both, some notice is usually taken. Alex has put himself on a side street in a quiet part of town and started serving before numbers were even painted on the entrance. Rash and daring maybe, but his culinary voice is based in authentic Spanish tradition and he is teasing out nuance seldom seen these days. The staff is competent and talented and I’m sure one day soon a buzz will follow, but right now it is all about the food, and the food is good. I recommend going sooner rather than later.